Category Archives: Your Personal Health

Your personal health refers to both your mental and physical health. In this section we explore ideas to maximize both.

The Great Food Foraging Feast

Something kind of wonderful happens when you open your mind to finding food outside of the grocery store (or farmer’s market or even local farm stand). You realize that food is all around you. All over the place. And it’s free.  Sometimes it in a neighbor’s or relative’s yard and you just have to bring your good manners and patience to pick and harvest–and likely the courtesy of sharing the bounty. Sometimes it’s in your own backyard and you just have to learn to recognize it and let it grow. Often times, though, it’s in the great “beyond” –that other space that is on some property you don’t know to whom it belongs. Yes, you have to be careful. I don’t advocate trespassing–well, not when you know its trespassing.  I also don’t advocate harvesting in places where it is illegal to do so–such as the forest preserves in my area. However, there are a couple of places you can start. Check out http://www.fallingfruit.org. There might be lots of forageable fruit around you just waiting for your clever little hands. Often times these trees, vines, and bushes are found on public or private lands and the poster will let you know whether the activity is condoned.  Also, join groups of people that advocate local food, slow food, foraging and green topics.  What you will often find is people that are willing to share information and, also, their goodies and secrets, be it garden grown vegetables or tree fruit. Finally, just talk about this with friends and family.  They will know a guy who knows a guy… and before you know it, they’ll put you in contact with peach tree ready for picking.

Things I have recently harvested: Sumac berries, wild grapes, apples, pears, purslane, lemons, linden flowers, crabapples and mint.

The sumac bushes were on a vacant piece of property that I walk by multiple times a week. I dried the berries and ground them to be used as a citrusy spice. I also gave some to my friend to experiment with his beer making.

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Apples! I found a lonely apple tree with giant yellow-green apples in front of my local park district office. The apples were just a little higher than I could reach. I found a fruit-picker close by less than a mile from my house on Craigslist (seriously, it was like I was supposed to pick apples from that tree) and went back and picked lots of large, beautiful sweet green apples. I also foraged pears on a vacant lot and made my husband stand by being just a little embarrassed to be seen with me. I made an apple pear sauce that my husband was not embarrassed to eat. However, the crabapples I grabbed off a neighbor’s tree proved too tart for him.  I thought it was pretty tasty, though I did need to add A LOT of sugar.  I made a pretty crabapple, apple crisp.

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I picked peaches from a tree hanging over a fence in the alley behind my husband’s office and I found grapes growing along fences and trees in a trail nearby.  I put the peaches in our morning smoothies and made grape jelly with the wild grapes.

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And purslane is just purslane…once you recognize it it is everywhere just waiting to be added to your salads.  Linden trees are planted in abundance as parkway (street) trees in our subdivisions.  I picked some of the fragrant flowers this year to experiment with making my own tea blends.   It is pleasantly sweet and I need to pick a lot more next year!

Also, earlier this spring, I picked mulberries, sour cherries, black raspberries. All of it was FREE.  I found a wild foods class through a local organization and found out how to identify wild parsnips and learned that I could eat (and enjoy) violets, stinging nettles, garlic mustard and curly dock.

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I wrote very generally about foraging a couple of years ago in my post Picky Eaters (yes, yes, it is a very clever title, thank you) and have since made it a goal to expand my horizons in my “wild” food knowledge.  Not only have I done so, but I have slowly brought my friends and family along for the ride.  When you start to open your eyes to this, you will see food all around you. And when you start talking about it, you make it normal and you allow the people that make the decisions about whether to-pick-or-not-to-pick see how foraging can be incorporated into public green spaces.  You can start conversations about creating local food forests, increasing community garden space, encouraging back yard gardening and supporting plant and food education.  Yes… all of that does happen.  It may not happen quickly, but it has to start somewhere.

In Picky Eaters, I pointed out that Illinois State Park regulations allow people to collect “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3).

Illinois appears to be a bit ahead of the curve on this one.  A quick search did not yield a lot of results for being allowed to forage on State Park property of other states, though I am sure they are out there.  However, it does appear that much of the National Forest system allows it.  This appears under Region 2’s (Colorado/Rocky Mountains) Frequently asked questions:

Can I pick berries in the National Forest? Do I need a permit? Yes, you may pick berries for personal use without a permit. Strawberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, serviceberries and chokecherries are all popular berries to pick. You may need to get to them before the bears do though!

Though some specific national forest sites within region 2 limit that to what you can eat that day/night.  Many areas of the National Forest allow you forage more than your “daily allowance” with a permit.  For example, in the Mt. Hood National Forest, you can pick up to 3 gallons a year of berries with a free permit, and for more than 3 gallons, you just need to pay $20.00.  You can also pick mushrooms! See this link for more information.  It looks like you just have to explore your region and the rules.

When knowledge about the food around us becomes normalized, great things start to happen.  It is kind of surprising that the National park is on the forefront of this.  In a research paper funded in part by the US Forest Service, researchers reported that in cities like Seattle, which has a vibrant local food culture, the movement has encouraged the city’s park district to not only maintain old, neglected apple orchards, but also to establish a food forest open to all and to change overall regulations to allow foraging in small quantities.  And Philadelphia “has followed a similar path and is supporting efforts by the non-profit organisation, Philadelphia Orchard Project, to establish public orchards in sites throughout the city, including revitalisation of the Woodford Orchard in East Fairmont Park. The re-establishment of fruit picking in Fairmont Park brings the city back full circle to the late 1800s, when the park’s commissioners welcomed thousands of school children every Nutting Day, a local holiday at the time, to the park to harvest chestnuts, walnuts, and hazelnuts.”

In my own little world, I decided to just start talking about it and learning more about the food around me. I was compelled by this  TED talk by Pam Warhurst.  In the video, she talks about how they just did it.  They didn’t wait around for the city or a local board to do it.  They just started doing it.  So I ripped out a lot more grass and started planting edible landscaping right near the side walk where people can see it and ask about it if I am outside.  When I told some acquaintances I was converting my landscaping to edible landscaping, I got three free raspberry bushes! And my husband told me about the peach tree behind behind his office (in ten years he has never noticed it).   I inspired friends to pick mulberries and wild raspberries and even got the fruits of their labor when they made some wild berry jam.  I appealed to my local library to include more education on gardening and encouraged them to think about putting in edible landscaping.  They recently replaced a dead Ash tree with a nut tree and are putting in a permaculture food garden (Food Forest). I helped plant this Bartlett Pear tree yesterday along with ten other fruit and nut trees!  Next spring we will plant raspberry bushes, perennial vegetables and annual root crops!

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The library also hosted a Produce Swap and Gardener’s social.   Now, it’s not without its challenges.  My community is not intrinsically about green living and local food. In fact, there is no farmers’ market, no garden club, no restaurants that focus on local foods.  It is an odd mix of large cookie-cutter subdivisions, rental properties and apartments.  We have a high amount of poverty and a large Spanish-speaking population. The first produce swap was a failure.  The second one was also a failure–though an interested person other than me walked through the door and a community partner stopped by and chatted with us. We discussed a local school that had planted a garden and talked about making the event more accessible. So, the third event was expanded to include a social hour and garden discussion as well as a swap of plants and seeds.  We had three swappers and one interested person stop by and even though she didn’t have anything to share, she walked away with fennel seeds to plant for next spring.  I gave away a lot of produce and came home with moss for my flagstone mini-patio and lavender.  We discussed a lot of ideas for next year and started an email list. It is definitely a slow process, but I am exited about the possibilities.

Please, please share your experiences with finding the hidden food around you. Share local projects and your personal knowledge! Also, if you know of a place that allow you to pick from an old apple tree or if you know of a trail with grape vines… add it to http://www.fallingfruit.org!

Oh– and as a precaution, never eat something you don’t recognize and know with 100% certainty is edible.

 

 

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In the Whey

I have been making my own yogurt now for several weeks.  I heat up the milk, cool down the milk, add a cup of yogurt from the prior batch and stick it in the turned-off oven. And, to my continuous shock and awe, the next morning it is yogurt. I am still amazed that this is such an easy process and that it works–even in those instances that I think I have screwed it up. But alas, I make yogurt. Really delicious, healthy yogurt with good ingredients. However, I also make whey. Quite a lot of it.  Especially since I strain and strain the yogurt for about 8 hours after I remove the freshly made yogurt from its little incubator.

The first week, I just threw out the whey because I didn’t know anything about it.  I didn’t know how long it would last in the fridge, how to store it, what to do with it, etc.  I figured, though, that more industrious people out there probably used the whey for stuff, so I hit the search engines and found a lot of really great, useful tips to using whey. Mostly the recommendation is to sneak it in as a liquid to things. So the second week of making yogurt, I kept the whey and added it to my chicken soup stock, spaghetti sauce, to deglaze pans…lots of things that would not be hurt by a bit of liquid. I just figured it was healthy and it did not affect the taste of anything.  Added protein and all that. I mean, my husband spends a lot of money on whey protein, so I thought win-win.

Then I boasted to my husband about all the little ways I had been sneaking the whey into our meals.  I realized, though that while I thought it was good for us, I couldn’t really explain in what way it was good for us.

Once again, I did some research.  I came across some disturbing information. It seems that there are two different types of whey out there–sweet whey (SW) that you get from making hard cheeses, and acid or sour whey (AW) that you get from making yogurt or cottage cheese. An oft mentioned and quoted article I came across entitled “Whey Too Much: Greek Yogurt’s Dark Side “ made it seem that the AW was a useless and dangerous by-product. Apparently, greek yogurt production has sky-rocketed and produced a large amount of AW. However, whereas the dairy industry has long since found buyers for SW, there has not been the same enthusiasm for AW as a source for extracting much of anything.  Article after article claimed that AW doesn’t have that much protein at all and that the AW was typically cast off as fertilizer, feed, or as enzymes for waste product.

The information that AW was really low in protein was pretty readily available in scores of publications and articles. But the information about what AW did have was more complicated to discover.  I found a lot of articles on whey–most of it from homesteading and food blogs with very clever titles with cute whey puns (how could you not, really? The puns practically write themselves).  These are great resources with a lot of great ideas, but, not surprisingly, not a lot of scientific information. I eventually came across the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, which is part of the University of Wisconsin, and this led me to some great information that I felt was trustworthy.

Generally speaking, AW and SW  are similar in that they are about 95% water. However, as the name would imply, AW is much more acidic, with AW in general having a pH of 5.5 or less with Greek Yogurt  AW coming in at a pH of 4.2.  SW has a pH of around 6.0. Some of the articles I came across were quick to point out that AW is as acidic as orange juice… and I almost parroted that information right back to you. But then it occurred to me that I now know how acidic the AW is, but just how acidic was orange juice?  This chart shows that the above claim is a bit of a stretch.  Orange juice has a pH range of 3.3-4.19.  So as a reach, the most acidic greek yogurt whey it is as acidic as the least acidic orange juice.  The acidity of greek yogurt AW is much more in line with garden tomatoes and nectarines, and AW overall is much more in line with the acidity of pumpkins and bananas.  So while the acid is definitely a component of my AW, it is probably only an issue in a practical, functional sense if I have a sensitivity to acid in general.

But, what else is in my AW? Well, according to the below chart, it has protein, lactose, calcium and other assorted minerals. AW, in fact, has anywhere from .3% to .5% of protein in its makeup.  Far less than one percent! This, indeed, does not sound like a lot. But then you look at SW, and it only has .8% protein. Yet, SW is lauded for its protein.  There is not that much of it in there! It appears that the getting protein out of AW is not so much an issue of the amount of protein, but that the whey is not easy to extract from the AW.

Below is a chart to what is a practical break-down of using one cup of whey, since .05% protein did not translate easily to grams in my little brain.  As you can see, the one cup of AW give you an added 1.87 grams of protein.  In comparison, one cup of SW give you right around 2 grams.  (Ahem–not much of a difference, is there?!)

Also evident from the first chart, AW has less lactose than SW.  Is that good or bad, you ask if –like me– you have no idea what lactose is other than that some people are intolerant of it?  This is a good thing since lactose is essentially sugar. Lactose is what feeds the bacteria and that feeding produces lactic acid, which is what makes the AW acid.  As a commodity, lactose seems to be used as a filler and preservative, so there really does not seem to be any advantage to having more of it, though our food scientists are currently hard at work to attempt to extract lactose from AW to use as a food additive.  Shame on you, food system.  Here is probably the biggest draw back to using whey: lactose is sugar.  One cup of AW give you almost half of your 25 gram maximum for daily sugar intake– if you use World Health Organization guidelines (and you should!). (And, of course, if you are lactose intolerant, it is important to note that any type of whey will likely bother you.)

But it is not as easy as looking at something and isolating its sugar content. Whey has a lot going for it in terms of the added benefits it brings to the table.  For example, another by-product of the lactose feeding frenzy described above is calcium.  AW has 2-3 times more calcium than SW and one cup has about 25% of your daily requirements.  That’s pretty great for someone who does not like or drink milk. AW also has phosphorus, zinc, iron, potassium, magnesium, riboflavins, vitamin b-12, and a whole lot of other stuff.

So in summary, is whey a super food? This article seems to think so.  Though I have some reservations.  My original concerns after reading over and over again how little protein AW had was that I was adding nothing more than sugars and empty calories to everything.  But it is not at all empty.  There is a decent amount of protein (and it is particularly good protein) and a great amount of calcium, in addition to many other vitamins and minerals.  To something that already is low in sugar, such as my chicken noodle soup, I wouldn’t hesitate to add it.  It adds a nice amount of substance making a heartier more fortifying meal out of a bowl of soup.  But perhaps I may stop adding it to tomato sauce since that already has a high amount of natural and added sugars.  To a smoothie, I might add it to mine for some interesting tang and a tough of sweetness, but not to my husband’s if the acid content is already high.   And I think I am confident in pronouncing that AW is better for you than SW (less sugar, roughly the same amount of protein, less fat, more vitamins and minerals!). So if you are already a SW devotee, then AW is even better and you can feel confident that articles expressing how good for you SW apply equally (if not more so) to AW.

This article was a bit longer than I intended since every answer led to more questions.   But, more and more, I want to know exactly what I am eating and I hope you enjoyed the ride!

If you use whey, please share how you like to use it.

Sources:

http://www.usdairy.com/~/media/usd/public/technicalreportsensorypropertiesofwheyingredients.pdf.pdf

http://www.news.wisc.edu/23557

http://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-topics/digestive-diseases/lactose-intolerance/Pages/facts.aspx

http://modernfarmer.com/2013/05/whey-too-much-greek-yogurts-dark-side/

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/16/health/nutrition/16run.html?_r=0

http://www.dairyforall.com/whey.php

http://www.cheesemaking.com/Whey1.html

http://www.livestrong.com/article/533194-nutritional-value-of-milk-whey-liquid/

Seed me, Seymour!

I just put in a big seed order at seedsavers.org. Big enough to wonder how long it will take to actually get ahead in the whole I-grow-my-own-food-and-save-money thing. But I have so many plans! So many. Not only are we seriously expanding our “production” this year but idea is to invest in plants that I grow and eat now, and also cultivate and save seeds for next year. (Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas!)

That’s one of the reasons I ordered pricier seeds from seedsavers.org–you can’t save hybrid seeds. Well, you can save them, they will just break your heart over and over again. So I’ve heard. To be honest, I didn’t completely understand why this was. I just drank the kool-aid and repeated that little nugget as if I knew what I was talking about. So I did some scholarly-type research on the Google.  I came across a couple of articles, coincidentally on the Seed Saver site, and thought they were a good starting point.  If interested, check out this article that was useful and straightforward and this other article that was a bit more complex but a pretty good and short read.

The gist of it is that hybrids are really controlled inbred plants. In the lab or field, two plants with a very narrow gene pool are crossed to produce a seed with the chosen, desired characteristics of the two parents.  The key word is controlled. Very smart scientist-type people who understand a lot of stuff about genes know which traits are dominant and which traits are recessive.  The parents will be selected for desired traits that will come through, either because one parent has the desired dominant characteristic or because both parents have the desired recessive characteristic.  The child of that coupling gets planted and grows, resulting in a plant that has the desired, controlled traits of mama and papa plant.  BUT… now that little hybrid plant has been let loose like a college girl on spring break.  There are untold numbers of influences out there–some good, some bad, some that are very nice, but just not that exciting.  That innocent little hybrid plant is vulnerable to any local yahoo indiscriminately spreading his dirty pollen wherever it will land.  This is called Open Pollination (OP)–which is actually a good thing in the plant world–and on Melrose Place.  So when that hybrid plant makes it seeds, those seeds carry who-knows-what genetic traits.  The site www.victoryseeds.com explains that if you want to  “save [corn] seeds for future planting, considerations must be made to prevent cross-pollination…. [Corn] uses the wind to distribute its pollen from the tassels of one plant to the developing ears of another.” In order to “maintain the genetic purity of a cultivar, that is, keeping the variety true-to-type, great isolation distances are required.  Depending on climate and geographical features in your area, separating varieties by up to one mile is required.”

Okay, so why does this work with OP seeds and not seeds from hybrid plants. The oversimplified answer is that you allow natural selection for your area to win out.  The seeds that you share likely already have some genetic markers that will make it dominant and vigorous over whatever else is out there.  Whereas Hybrid plant seeds have very narrow genetic traits and there is nothing about them designed to thrive in your environment.  Hybrid seeds are bred for certain characteristics–i.e, fruit size and yield– that are not conducive to environmental factors, meaning that they require a lot of help in the form of pesticides and water to survive. They are not tough because they have not had to survive season after season fighting the course of natural selection. They are delicate little lab creations that often require substantial assistance.  The off-spring of those hybrids, tend to be weaker and less adaptive, since their gene pool has been severely reduced.  There is a lot less diversity and, as a consequence, if you plant the seeds from hybrid plants you might get a few good plants over the course of hundreds of seeds.

Planting the seeds of hybrid plants essentially sets you back to the beginning of time.  Okay, slight exaggeration.  But, this is kind of the first step for farmers who have historically cultivated seeds going back hundreds of years. Dr. John Navazio in the above-referenced article tells a story about tomatoes that explains this process.  The tomatoes that were brought over to Europe several hundred years ago from the Americas were all cherry-tomato sized.  Somewhere between 200 and 300 years ago–after Europeans got over the idea that tomatoes were poisonous–farmers began selecting their desired traits.  The tomatoes “disseminated across the landscape in very diverse climates and were selected for new varieties by the humans who decided to give them the extra effort and domesticate them, the climatic influence that is natural selection, and then good old recombination in genetic terms. … How did they go from cherry tomatoes to these big beefsteaks in just 200-300 years? ….Every farmer, every eater, was a seed grower and they were totally tuned in to watching for variation and picking the best. It was plant breeding at its best by people who were in tune.”

This, of course, is what plant breeders try and speed up and control–with much success.  It would not now take 200 years to develop a beefsteak tomato from cherry tomatoes.  However, what you can’t get from hybrid is the genetic diversity to be resilient to your area.  So getting to the point where you have seeds that produce a general specific plant is just the first step.  The next is to plant it in your yard/garden/farm. Locally sourced, open pollinated seeds are genetically resilient. They are “adapted to the challenges of the specific geographic regions where they came from because there was always … strong natural selection on the material. People were not pampering it, people were not watering it with sophisticated irrigation, and so when you put plants under stress … you really start to see the variation. Then you have an opportunity to work in concert with natural selection if you care to improve your crops just like our ancestors did.”

I know…this topic is a bit mind-boggling.  My husband said it was too technical.  I think he lost interest pretty early on.  Though to be fair to me–and plants–he loses interest pretty quickly in most things early on.  However, I really wanted to understand why hybrids were not good source material for seeds.  And I wanted to try and explain it in a way that made sense.  I hope you stuck with me.

A company like Seed Savers sells seeds of plants that you can in turn collect seeds from or otherwise propagate with a high rate of success. They also sell non-gmo, untreated seeds with a huge collection of organic seeds. They promote and encourage heirloom varieties and encourage communities to exchange their own seeds. I’m in! I hope you are, too, and that we can start trading seeds.  Now… we have all learned that your seeds might not be the perfect seeds for my area, but that if they are open pollinated, they should at least produce enough diversity to result in some plants that are vigorous for my geographic region.   And then I can collect the seeds from those vigorous plants the next year–and so on and so on.  As Dr. Navazio explains, “Genetic resources need to be preserved and carefully managed. But they do constantly co-evolve with the humans who select them and who use them. If you have vital varieties that really work for people, that really feed people, then there is a constant interplay of the farmer, the variety, and selection, both natural and farmer selection, as well as adapting to all of these changes.”

What are you growing this year?

Culture Club

Holy cow … I made yogurt. Like, without a machine. You may not think it a big deal–though, really, when was the last time you made yogurt– but I was pretty daunted. I really enjoy cooking. But yogurt was … like, actual chemistry. It was scary to think that we would be consuming milk after we left it in the oven all night. However, we finally decided that paying $7.00 for the really good large container of Fage Greek yogurt was just too much. Sadly, the $6.00 price the prior several weeks was not too much. I don’t know why that one dollar broke the dam, but we had developed pretty high standards for yogurt. We wanted a really thick, high protein, creamy yogurt made without pectin. By the way, have you ever noticed that yogurt has pectin? Not that it’s bad for you, but it makes you feel like you’re eating milk jello. That’s why we eventually started getting the Fage Greek yogurt. It was thick without pectin. It’s delicious but expensive– and it isn’t even organic. So when it was no longer “on sale” we decided to explore other options. Or, rather, my husband looked at me and said, “I thought you said you can make yogurt at home?” I responded that, “well, sure, some people make yogurt at home.” I then immediately avoided eye contact. The truth is I had googled making yogurt at home several times. I had just never felt confident enough to make it. I finally just looked at him and asked if he was willing to experiment and possibly waste $4.29– the cost of a half-gallon of Kalona milk.

This isn’t an article where I regurgitate someone else’s recipe as if I made it. And, really, it’s not even a recipe because you are just applying heat to milk. It’s more like directions. The ones I followed I found on the site The Kitchn. It didn’t require anything fancy– and it worked! It wasn’t completely smooth sailing. After the four hours the author recommends you check on it, my yogurt had not actually become yogurt. When I stirred it, I encouraged my self that it was thicker that the whole milk I had started with, but if that was true it was just barely thicker. I totally thought I had ruined it and wasted a half-gallon of really good milk. I immediately googled “trouble shooting ruined yogurt” and came across sage advice like “whatever you do, don’t stir it.” Well crap. Stirring it was the first thing I did. However, the instructions on The Kitchn reassured me that I could have left the milk soup in the oven overnight, so I decided to see what happened. It was like Christmas when I ran down first thing the next morning to open up my pot. And by golly, I made yogurt!!!

Alas, that was not the end of it. I wanted really thick yogurt and what I had made was regular yogurt,even a bit runnier than regular yogurt. I then had to improvise a method to let the whey drain from the yogurt. I won’t even post a picture of my ridiculous set-up which consisted of a clean, thin tank top to strain the yogurt and several pony-tail holders chained together to wrap the shirt around a bowl. But it worked. It took another day but my end-product is thick, creamy, organic, and, I believe, high in protein.

In the end, I saved money and made a better product. It was easy, though rather tedious, if I am going to be honest. That being said, I didn’t have to do much to it. It just took a while. Nonetheless, my husband keeps telling me it is the best yogurt he’s ever had and that he can’t believe I made it. So, yeah, I will probably add this to my homestead Sunday repertoire. This will have to go on the list of things that are surprisingly easy to make at home. Please, share your list of things that you found surprisingly easy to make at home.

Egg-cellent Hack

I am taking this dip into food blogging not so much by giving you a delicious recipe, but by inspiring you with a shortcut that not only produces something delicious but also cuts down on dishes and time! Behold the egg-sandwich– or, rather, the eggy part you can put in a sandwich. Normally, this would take quite a few steps necessitating several dirty dishes. You would break the eggs into a bowl to make them fluffy, stir with fork, pour into a pan and perhaps use a mold to get that perfect round shape, and use a spatula to remove. In this hack, you get dirty one ramekin and a fork.

Step one: grab and oil a microwave-safe ramekin or glass dish that is approximately the size of the bread you plan to use. You can even use plastic if you are not wary of its notoriety and as long as it is microwave safe.

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Step two: break the eggs directly into the dish and lightly beat. Do not add anything yet to the egg mixture or it will all end up in the middle.

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Step three: Place dish in microwave and start with cooking for 1 minute but keep an eye on the eggs. They will expand and it is a fine line between just enough and a mess in your microwave. However, only you know your microwave. One minute may not be enough. Cook until there is very little to no runniness. Start at a minute and continue in 30 second intervals.

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Step four: When you check after a minute or so and the eggs are mostly stiff, this would be the time to add herbs, salt, and cheese.
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Continue to cook until eggs are firm. The entire amount of cooking will let be between 1-2 minutes depending on the amount of eggs you use, the shallowness of your dish and the strength of your microwave.

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It’s pretty easy to know when you have overcooked eggs in the microwave– they explode. As long as you are careful not to have them blow up, you should be able to produce a great product!

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I added sage and salt in the delightful sandwich above. But the egg is essentially a blank palette just waiting for your creativity. And now you can eggs-periment all the time since making egg sandwiches are soooo easy!

Extra, Extra, Eat all about it!

Every year I tend to my gardens–some years better than others. I have beds of annual and perennial herbs and flowers, and two raised vegetable garden beds–with plans to add more! There are just two of us and we and we haven’t quite mastered the art of preserving food. Oh sure, I dry some herbs and freeze some fruits and veggies, but mostly we pick as we need to use it. And I find myself wondering “What the heck am I going to do with all of those beets!” And “does anyone need bunches and bunches of sage. Since my compost bin has not actually yielded any compost, I am still at the stage that I feel wasteful sending my edible garden waste to their unproductive demise. So it was with glee that I saw this flyer.
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What a great idea! I am so excited about this and can’t wait to see what I come home with. Why don’t all communities do this? In fact, this isn’t quite my community and I am going to see who I need to talk to about this to get one in my own park district. I’ll make sure to post after I go the first time and let you know if there is any progress with getting one established in my own community.

Please share if your community has creative and economical ways to get not only people to eat better, but like-minded people to get together.

Pop Star

I am reclaiming popcorn as a healthy and natural snack– not some over-salted, mushy-with-butter, expensive mess in a bucket or bag. Let’s look at the facts on this. That little trifold of leading name brand microwave popcorn in the “movie theater” flavor has 42.5 calories per cup and over sixty percent of those calories are from fat (27.5). “Oh, that’s not too, bad,” you say? Well, nobody eats one cup. In fact, the serving size is 4 cups and they estimate that a bag has about 2.5 servings. But, if you eat the whole bag–and who hasn’t–you are consuming 425 calories, with 275 from fat, 30 total grams of fat, and 750 mg of sodium.

On the other hand, good old kernels yield about 20 calories, a quarter of one gram of fat, and zero sodium per cup. Eating the equivelent of a bag full of popcorn would result in the not-so-shameful results of 200 calories and 2.5 grams of fat. Can you believe that? Ten cups of popcorn for 200 calories!

So, if popcorn kernels naturally have no sodium and very little fat, where does it all come from? Probably things like partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and artificial colorings and flavors… and maybe some real butter. Let’s leave the analysis at this example and not terrify each other with the facts surrounding actual movie theater popcorn, but if you’re curious, go to this article.

Okay, so now we are all on the bandwagon. But in case I haven’t sold this idea enough, making popcorn the right way is not only healthy, but cheap! Just don’t buy it in your snack section of the grocery store. That’s where they put all the junk food and over-priced jar of Orville Whathisname kernels. That is not where you buy popcorn kernels. My grocery stores carry popcorn kernels in the Mexican/Latino food aisle, where a pound of kernels runs about $1.00. The jar of kernels in the snack aisle is about $5-$6 a pound. In other grocery stores, I might find it with the whole rice and beans. I also find that farmers markets in Illinois carry popcorn kernels cheaply–and usually some neat varieties.

Armed with knowledge and your bag of popcorn kernels, there are three easy methods to get them to fun and fluffy and full of health, not fat.

1) Pull out your good, ol’ air popper. If you don’t have one, your mom probably has one that has been stuck in a cabinet for twenty years. This is not really new technology here. It is just heat added to a spinning metal tray. This method of popping corn adds no oils or butters and is pretty much fool proof. At least, it shouldn’t add butter or oils. My little cheap-o one will burn if you try to add butter or oils, but I’ve seen the ones that have a little tray on top for melted butter. Don’t use it. Not only will it defeat the health benefits, but you will probably make your popcorn soggy and your machine greasy. Then you’ll never want to pop the kernels.

2) You can also make popcorn kernels in the microwave. And I am not talking about the little trifold pouches you can buy at the grocery store. I am talking about taking your thrifty bag of loose kernels, sticking some kernels in a paper bag lunch bag and hitting a button. All microwaves are different so I am not going to give you a fail-safe amount of time to pop your kernels. Start with a couple of minutes BUT keep an ear out for the slowing down of the popping. Now, until you get pretty good at this, err on the side of caution and stop the time when there is consistently about one second between pops. But take heart. Even if you stop the clock too early and end up with a handful of kernels on the bottom, you can stick the bag back in the microwave and pop them again.

3) Finally, if you don’t have an air popper or microwave, you can resort to a classic low-tech method: a pot. Making stove top popcorn is not as difficult as it seems. And despite using a little bit of oil to start off with, it’s not unhealthy and the oil provides a nice smoky quality to the popcorn. Most recipes on-line that I saw recommended at least a tablespoon of oil, but I think this is way more than you need. I like to use just enough to give the single layer of kernels on the bottom of the pan a sheen. Cook over medium heat, and allow a little space for condensation to escape so that the popped kernels do not get mushy and remove the lid as soon as the popping has stopped.

Okay, so now you have a great, low calorie snack–though, unfortunately, many people haven’t learned to appreciate the taste of naked popped corn. I have a solution for this, too and it is not a batch of unnaturally yellow powdered cheese to sprinkle over the popped corn. My solution involves dried herbs and/or spices and a dash of either salt or sugar. I say this a lot, but I truly believe it– the variations and recipes are only limited by your imagination. But just in case your imagination needs a little jump start, below are a few ideas. The only trick is that you need to grind the mixtures really, really finely– preferably in a mortar and pestle. The measurement of each ingredient is about a pinch. We’re not creating a huge amount of mixture here. It will be just enough to put inside a small paper lunch bag and lightly cover the kernels.

Rosemary-Oregano-Salt

Cinnamon-Ginger-Sugar

Mustard Powder-Garlic-Salt

smoky paprika-salt-chili powder (a teeny amount of chili powder until you get accustomed to this.)

lemon zest-fennel-salt

Just start thinking of things that sound delicious together and try your hand at making a coating. Remember, the trick is that all ingredients have to be dried and ground very finely. Place in a brown paper bag and shake, shake, shake.

I like popcorn just the way it is… though now that I am re-reading this last part… I kind of can’t wait to go home and try a bag with brown sugar and a teeny pinch of salt. Go out there and experiment! But please share your results with me.

As always, I love to hear your ideas! Let me know what you think or tell all your friends how wonderful you think lifeimproved.org is.

Keep Improving

For whatever reason, I not only didn’t make any new year’s resolutions but I purposefully avoided even thinking about them. It seemed that to make resolutions was almost to admit that there was dissatisfaction in my life. I felt like I couldn’t (or shouldn’t) really complain. I had my health, a job I was (still) enjoying, financial security and the promise of true financial independence on the horizon. Heck– as I am sitting here writing this inside my cozy home after a nice meal, with my husband lighting a fire in the fireplace and my fat cat peacefully snoring on the couch, it occurs to me that life is good. Making new year’s resolutions seems almost greedy.

But what hubris! As if resolutions can only be about making more money, buying stuff, or losing weight. And the truth is that I did actually have goals for the year. There are certain ideas percolating in my head that have been recurring themes. It is time to put them all in one place, though, and broadcast. For how else can I judge the level of gain if I never admit to having a goal in the first place. Blogs are, after all, great big accountability machines.

Life Improvement Goals for 2014.

1) I want to learn more about recycling. How it works, where my stuff goes, where my stuff and garbage might be better utilized. A few months back I was agonizing over paper waste. It soon became very obvious, though, that I did not actually have any knowledge of what happened to my paper if I put it in the recycling bin. And it turned out that recycling it may have been the best solution for it. My goals this year are to tour my local recycling facility and really research what can and can’t be recycled. I will also continue to reduce my household’s consumption of things that will be discarded as waste. Plastic is my new nemesis.

2) I will continue to reduce my sugar intake. I’ve done a pretty good job almost completely eliminating refined white sugar–and sweetener. But… This year, I would like to focus on reducing sugar intake in food I buy such as buns, pasta sauce, and yogurt. Did you know that we are only supposed to consume 6 teaspoons of sugar a day, but, on average, we consume around 22 teaspoons? It’s something I’ve known about for some time, but was struck by again after reading this blog article. Unfortunately, in this fat/calorie obsessed food market, it’s sometime difficult to figure out how much sugar is actually in something. The first step of this process is awareness. Only then can I systematically eliminate and reduce.

3) I want to take more advantage of the nature around me. This includes exploring new areas, helping in conservation efforts, taking tours with experienced guides and learning a lot more about plants. I complain a lot about not living in a place with mountains or beaches, but there is plenty of beauty in Midwestern plains, woods, streams and lakes. There are so many conservation areas, parks, trails, etc that I haven’t explored. I have resolved that I am not allowed to complain until I actually experience it. Plus, now that I know you can legally forage in Illinois State Parks, I am keeping my eyes open!

4) I need to do better at work. I don’t mean in my job performance, but in not behaving in the office the same as I behave at home with paper and other waste because it is not convenient or easy. Even if I cannot change the habits of my co-workers, I need to take responsibility for myself.

My list sounds pretty ordinary, but these are truly the ways I would like to improve this year. By writing them down–and now posting them for the world to see–I am making myself accountable. These are no longer secret half-formed intentions that are easily discarded, but solid goals. I hope that by this time next year, or even during the year, I can report true and meaningful improvement. If I am really being honest, this list is more for me than for you. I have been wanting to your my local recycling facility for a long time. Maybe now that I have a goal, I will make the effort to actually set it up!

I would love to hear about your goals for improving yourself, your household, or your environment. More than likely, if you find yourself saying it out loud, you will find that you conscientiously make more of an effort to meet that goal!

Upcycled Sweater Project

Right about now, in the depths of a cold winter, you are probably wishing for something to keep your head and ears warm but that looks stylish and fun. Boy are you lucky you are reading this post because I have an easy project that will meet all these objectives. What you need: the sleeve of a sweater, needle and thread. What you will end up with:20140122-211225.jpg

1) Cut off the sleeve making sure that it will go around your head comfortably. Do not stretch it (much) to fit. When you sew the ends together you will lose some length but you want it to be snug on your head so it stays on. Fold the sleeve into a circle and tuck the cut end into the finished hem end.

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2) Sew it closed.

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3) Now for the flare! The sweater I used was a cashmere that I accidentally shrunk and then decided to heck with it and tries to felt it by boiling and boiling it. It didn’t quite work. But the end product was a material that didn’t fray that much. So I decided to make a large, simple, layered flower to cover the seam. I cut several rounds of sweater and then cut some wavy edges. 20140122-212320.jpg
Then I simply attached the flower to the head band. If my sweater had frayed a lot, I would probably have made a complementing flower out of different materials. Or I would have sewed a long “ribbon” by folding the sweater pieces in half and sewing along one edge to make a large rosette. So many options. So few sweaters that I am willing to chop up.

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Twelve Posts of Christmas–In Review

In 2012 I probably should have died. I was in a major car accident and honestly feel that if I had been an inch taller, my spine would have snapped. Instead, I merely broke my neck and had to have emergency surgery. Sure, the aftermath and recuperation was difficult for me, but I know that it was a lot more difficult on my family, who immediately rushed to be by my side from all over the country. They after all, had to look at the mess of me, with all the bruises and cuts–oh, and the holes they drilled in my head to place the halo. I didn’t have an opportunity to even look at myself until about five or six days after the accident. And maybe because of how close I came to dying, no one really talked about it last Christmas (2012), though we all made a huge effort to be together. Since the accident, I’ve been and thought so many cliches that I probably don’t need to spell them all out here, except to say that I am glad to be alive and ready for a fresh new year. So as 2013 comes to an end, I look back on a year of healing and growth and look forward to making the most of and improving upon this life I have been given. Thank you for allowing me to make that journey with you. May everyone out there have a wonderful new year.

Twelve Posts of Christmas Reinvented

The inspiration for these posts, quite obviously, is the traditional holiday song “Twelve days of Christmas”. It is a little tune that most readers are probably familiar with and that just may be getting stuck in your head right now. Sorry about that. The song is kind of annoying. But I guess it is interesting and mysterious enough to be a constant source of speculation around this time of year. Indeed, I am not original in repurposing this classic song.

For example, every year PNC posts the Christmas Index. This is an index using the items discussed in the song, adjusted for inflation. In other words, the Christmas Index comes out every year telling you how much you would have to spend today to get your true love each item on the “Twelve days of Christmas.” For a great read on the Christmas index, read this article. The index includes the birds and stuff as well as hiring the dancers and milking maids, etc. Not surprisingly, it is the cost of labor that makes the Twelve Days of Christmas so expensive for your true love.

Many out there have probably heard of the Christmas Index before, and it’s an interesting thing to run across every now and then. However, I recently discovered another take on the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” Author and researcher Olga Kazan has just come out with an article titled “Health Consequences of Actually Living the Twelve Days of Christmas.” This is a fascinating read that starts off with a scintillating history of the song and then launches into the effects of eating the Twelve Days of Christmas, which are surprisingly healthy if you remember to milk, dance, leap, pipe and drum as well.

This article also references another Twelve Days hanger-on… Heal Farm, out of England makes a stuffed bird (inside a stuffed bird inside another stuffed bird and so on…) using birds referenced in the song. Click on the link above to read more about the “12 Bird True Love Roast.” It’s a bit pricy, but it “[w]ill feed around 125 people, takes 10 hours to cook and yields around 4 litres of flavoursome stock.” Even at it’s steep cost, it is still cheaper than the Christmas price index. If you ever get one, please don’t forget to invite me!

Can’t Touch Dish

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I have been experimenting quite a bit with making my own products, mostly for cleaning, though I have ventured into beauty products. Some projects have been a huge success, some have been failures (big ones), and others… I can’t figure out and have no scientific proof that it’s working or not working–though everyone on the internet seems to say it is. In a previous post,  I went through my odyssey to create a safe, cheap, green alternative to expensive and chemicall-y all-purpose surface cleaner.  That was one of my huge successes, by the way. I absolutely love the solution I have created.  If you missed that article…well I just linked to it like five times, so go read it!  As noted above, though, other experiments have been a little less successful, as you will see below. 

In this post I want to talk about the dishwasher and my quest for the right detergent. Let me begin by explaining that while I am sometimes motivated by avoiding harsh chemicals, in this product that was not my primary motivation. I mean, you don’t ever really handle dishwashing detergent, so it is hard to get a sense for its harshness.  It was different with the all-purpose surface cleaner where I was concerned about what was remaining on surfaces, what I was inhaling, and what might unintentionally get on food.  Also, I don’t have allergies, and quite frankly, have never even heard of an allergy to dishwashing detergent like you would for laundry detergent.  It wasn’t so much the chemicals in my dishwashing detergent, it was the cost. The stuff is expensive!  When my husband and I finally committed to our weekly grocery budget, I decided staying out of the household cleaners aisle completely would go a long way towards staying under budget. 

However, I put off trying to make the detergent for a while because my sister-in-law assurred me it wouldn’t work.  Shaking her head in her been-there, done-that wisdom, she said, “no, it leaves stuff all over your dishes.” In the end, it’s not that I didn’t believe her. It’s just that I had decided my situation was different. Maybe it was her hard water, I thought. (honestly, I don’t even know if they had hard water… that just seems to be the go-to excuse with things being washed or rinsed.) Or… maybe she had a different recipe. Plus, I had already purchased Borax and Super Washing Soda for Laundry Detergent, so I pretty much already had all of the ingredients.  And all these people on the internet said it was soooo easy and perfect. So, why not!?

Like always, I hit the internet and found a recipe for the kind of detergent I could mold into shapes.  These recipes were essentially the same as the powder detergents, but added a bit more of a wet ingredient to allow it to clump together.  Recipes on-line were all very similar. They all pretty much used borax and super washing soda and some thing for an acid–vinegar, lemon juice, kool-aid (yes, kool-aid). 20131101-130614.jpgSometimes recipes also used regular baking soda, essential oils, and castille soap. I went with borax and super washing soda, vinegar, and a dash of Sal’s suds–not castille soap because we all learned from my eco-heroine, Lisa Bronner,  in this amazing post that vinegar and castille soap do not mix. I mixed everything up until it clumped like sand for a sand castle and then pressed it into my little molds.

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I have these nice silicone cupcake cups that I used, though I have also used plastic candy molds. Both work well, because the little guys can be popped out when fully dry.  Depending how wet the mixture was, it would take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to dry. Like usual, my science wasn’t exact, so it varied a lot. Sometimes I had a sloppy mess from trying to remove the wet detergent from a mold too soon, or when I put in too much Sal’s Suds. More often than not, though, the stuff hardened up and I could place them individually in a re-used jar. And voila! I had loads and loads of detergent for mere pennies.  

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I was so proud of my self.  I felt like I was single-handedly saving the planet and our budget.  But I was pre-maturely smug.  And this is where I feel the internet and many blogs often lead us astray.  They don’t really honestly explore the question about how well something works after someone brilliantly, cheaply, and easily makes something with their very own hands in their very own kitchen for the first time.  You can often get a better sense of how something actually works from the comments to post than from the post itself.  

In my different batches, I would make little changes here and there…more vinegar, less vinegar, added vinegar to the wash cycle, or sometimes vingear soaked in citrus peels for some additional essential oils. I also added sometimes added essential oils, reduced the borax, etc. It really didn‘t matter what I did, my dishwasher left most of my dishes clean, but also left a white deposit on many dishes. It wasn’t necessarily a film (thought sometimes it was) it was more like these white Rorschach-test splotches on some of my dishes that I would have to scrub off before the next cycle or it would get caked on. Was I putting in too much detergent? Or was I putting in too much of one ingredient into the detergent, Borax or Super Washing Soda? I put in less… made adjustments to all of it. I still had the same problem. I don’t have hard water or soft-water, so I couldn’t figure it out.

Still, I was stubborn. I convinced myself, and my husband, that it was not my beautiful, little, pressed pods that were a problem, but our dingy 15 year-old dishwasher. I felt sure that once we got a new dishwasher, everything would be spotless. So, we bought a new dishwasher (Aside–this was not as flippant a decision as it sounds. The dishwasher had not been performing well, was staring to leak, the nozzles were not nozzling and every cycle was leaving behind a lot of dried food particles. Plus we gave it away for free, so it lessened the guilt a bit about replacing an appliance.) We did not buy a top-of-the-line dishwasher, but solid, inexpensive one. I remained in denial for four cycles. And then had to admit that my dishwashing detergent was still leaving white stuff all over everything–though all the other problems were solved. We received two little Sample liquid pods of a name brand detergent that clearly did not leave the same residue behind.

I admitted defeat… except, that I still have some thoughts about this. Perhaps the trick is to make my detergent liquid–or buy a Bosch, which we did not do, by the way. Sadly, I will not buy a Bosch but I will continue to try to experiment with the detergent…partially out of stubborness, but also because the stuff I am now using isn’t perfect, either. I actually switched to store-bought dry detergent (previously I used a name-brand or store-brand gel detergent). The store-brand I now have is fairly inexpensive per wash. However, I have noticed that while it does not leave large white splotches like my home made cleaner did, it does leave a white, cloudy layer on certain items. Especially over time and on plastic.

So I am going to keep experimenting with making dishwashing detergent. I am not defeated.  I am going to look for a liquid recipe. I even bought some citric acid because it was super cheap and is apparently the magic solution to crystal clear glasses. Meanwhile, the little pods I made are actually great for an all-natural scrubbing agent, kind of like a substitute for Comet. In fact, I just used it today to clean the shower.  It worked beautifully.  I also use some as an abrasive to get the tea and coffee stains out of our mugs–because no matter how good the dish washer or the detergent, those do not come off unless scrubbed!

If anyone has any suggestions or comments, I would be happy to hear them! And I will keep you posted on my future experimentation. 

Picky Eaters

I know little bit about plants.  Okay, okay–I know quite a bit about plants, probably more than the average person. Nonetheless, I am still surprised that many people don’t know how to recognize wild raspberry brambles. I always kind of thought that picking wild berries was a rite of passage of any midwestern kid (I am from Illinois). Yet, I get strange, if not horrified, looks from people when I eat berries straight from the bush, or pick mulberries from the tree. It’s almost as if because the fruit is not presented in a plastic clamshell, there must be something wrong with it. I admit, this is sometimes true. Foraged fruit tends to be less pretty than store bought, and sometimes more…I don’t know…insect-y. But this is good! It means the stuff has not been doused with chemicals. And do we really have to talk about what the FDA considers acceptable for insect parts in the processed foods you consume… we can, if you stubbornly insist you never consume insects. But if you are that much in denial, I don’t want to ruin chocolate for you. Back to the subject. Once you get past the fact that food does not all come from the grocery store, you realize that there is a world out there of stuff you can eat!

Since I am not homesteading or living off the grid, I am not going to eat things that I have to boil a couple of times to get the toxins or tannins out, or that I have to douse with butter and and garlic to overcome the bitterness.  I mean, I don’t have to eat this stuff. The point is, I want to eat delicious, healthy things. If they are free and found in nature, then it’s even better.

Some of my favorite things to forage are black raspberries, mulberries, and apples. Remember, I live in the midwest, and these types of fruits abound in the spring and summer.  However, most areas have lots of food that can be foraged. If you have no idea where to start, go to your library and get a book. Or look on-line. You will find a lot of options and the only trick is to decide how adventurous you would like to be. For example, I keep reading cat tails are edible…but I don’t see myself plucking them anytime soon.

Now, I happen to live in an area that has rural areas, conserved areas, and state and county parks and preserves. I have a few go-to places with wide, open fields that I know I have permission to pick and explore.  But beware, you can’t just pick fruit, flowers and seeds from just anywhere.  It may, in fact, be illegal, if not just rude and tresspass-y.  I recently found out, however, that State parks in Illinois allow people in the collect edible “fungi, nuts and berries on Department owned, leased or managed lands where such collection would not be incompatible with resource management activities…and where such collection is for personal use only and not for re-sale.”17 IAC 1/10(a) (3). From what I understand, though, you can’t go off trail to collect it.

Perhaps this is where I should add the disclaimer that there are a lot of poisonous and toxic plants out there. And many plants that are diuretics. And some plants that give you that woo-woo feeling. Please do your research. Do not pick something you do not recognize.  If looking through a book or website does not give you the knowledge you need, attend a program put on by your local university extension office, conservation district, forest preserve, or state park. Or go with a friend that knows a thing or two about plants, and has a few favorite spots for picking!

Herbs: Thrice as Nice

I love planting herbs in my flower beds. They are fragrant AND functional AND beautiful (see there, three things herbs do). Many in my zone (zone 5) such as sage, chives, greek oregano, mint and thyme are also perennial, which means they will give you years of joy and use. Herbs such as basil, rosemary, parsley don’t quite make it over the winter here in Illinois, but they thrive in the summer outside. And if I am responsible enough, I remember to bring them inside in the winter.

In the summer, I prefer to use fresh herbs, because, well, I can and all I have to do is walk outside and snip some fragrant sprigs. However, early summer is also the time to start drying for year-round use as this is when many herb leaves are most pungent. Last year, I dried Rosemary, Sage, Greek Oregano, Thyme and Cilantro. I dried a lot of plant material. So much, that I gave a chunk of it away for Christmas. I thought I kept enough for myself. Sadly, I ran out of oregano in March. I was kicking myself when I broke down and bought it at the store (twice) because I could have harvested it for free from my garden.

So this year, I am going to dry a lot more. Starting today. Below is my tutorial for drying garden herbs. To be honest, I haven’t dried basil because I prefer it fresh. Also, I can’t get chives to turn out right (though that’s okay because these suckers grow until the snow covers them). But this method has worked for rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, tarragon, dill, fennel leaf, and mint.
1) Gather bunches of your herbs. It’s okay if you cut the plant back significantly, up to 75%. It’ll grow back. If the herbs are dirty, wash your bunches and shake off excess water. If the herbs are clean, adding water only encourages mold. Don’t worry about the bugs… you already consume them in all the other food you eat, as allowed by the FDA. (Here’s a fun link to make you never want to eat again!) On the bright side, whatever you pull out from your garden is likely cleaner and less buggy than store bought stuff.

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2) If you did not wash your herbs, skip to step three. Otherwise, lay your herbs on a clean dish towel in more or less a single layer to dry off excess water. If you have a lot of herbs, you may need more than one towel. The idea here is to just dry them off as much as possible. You can use paper towels for this, but you’ll go through a lot of them to get your herbs dry.

3) When your herbs are free of water, strip the leaves from the stem. Many people hang their herbs by the stem. That method works fine…except that your herbs accumulate dust (and in my house, cat dander) in the several days it takes to dry them. Plus, you’re supposed to keep them out of the sun, in an airy location, in small bunches, etc. If you’re drying a large quantity, this is not practical. Really, they’ll just be a challenge my cat has to meet if I start hanging things all willy nilly. And I have found that herbs left on the stem take longer to actually dry (you know, because the stem is a food supply). For those reasons, I immediately strip the leaves from clean and dry herbs. You don’t have to be that precise about removing every stem at this point because you will continue to clean up the leaves at every stage. Lay your leaves in a single layer on the clean and dry towels and cover with a clean dry dish towel.

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4) Up to now, you really have been working on getting your herbs clean and dry. You have stripped the stems to get them ready to dry. Depending on the quantity of herbs I am drying I use 2 different methods. For small quantities, I stick them directly into these tea pouches that I always have on hand for loose leaf tea.

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The herbs stay in there, protected from dust until they are nice and crinkly.

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I then transfer the herbs to a glass container and keep in my spice drawer away from the stove.

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These tea bags are perfect for low-fuss, small quantity drying.   If I wanted to have 30 of these little pouches all over the place, I could dry larger quantities, but for me, that’s not practical. However, for large quantities, you need to lay the herbs in a single layer across a larger surface.

My preferred method is using paper towels.  I know! This is wasteful BUT paper towels work beautifully for herb drying because they are very light, wick moisture and allow air to pass through multiple layers).  You can re-use them when you are done drying the herbs, so it is not all bad.  You can also use coffee filters and cheesecloth. Or, if you are super ambitious, can make a framed screen to use over and over. Dish towels don’t work well for multiple days of drying because they are heavy and tend to enclose the layer of herbs and retain moisture underneath.

Depending on the herbs, they will take anywhere from a couple days to several days to dry.  When they crumble between your fingers, then are done.  Keep them as whole as possible to retain as much flavor as possible.  I don’t really think it matters if you store them in a cool, cabinet or the refrigerator as long as they are in a sealed container.

I also just came across this method from Martha Stewart and think it has excellent potential:

Preserve Herbs in Tulle
1. Make sure herbs are rinsed and dried.
2. Cut tulle in 18-by-24-inch pieces.
3. Arrange herbs on the tulle, and roll into tubes.
4. Tie the ends with raffia or twine.
5. Store in refrigerator for two weeks.
6. Once herbs are dry, crumble into storage tins until you are ready to use them.

 

The Urge to Purge–Second Act

Previously, in  The Urge to Purge-Shake Your Money Tree, I talked about where to sell your stuff to make money. But there are probably many items in your home that you probably just want to unload. However, I have often questioned what happens to something when I “unload” it. I mean, if I bring a mountain of things to Goodwill or Salvation Army, does it actually help anyone? Does it sell?Do they just end up tossing it if it doesn’t sell? If it does sell, how much actually goes to help people?

So, while my first goal is to get rid of stuff, keeping that stuff out of the landfill is a very close second, and putting it in the hands of someone who will value it, is not far behind. Unfortunately, oftentimes items you want to unload are considered trash, things your may think no one has a use for. I’d like to think, though, that everything in our homes has life beyond our single use of it.

Support your local Businesses…give them their crap back

Items that fall in this category are things like those annoying wire hangers from the dry cleaners. These normally go straight into the garbage. Break the cycle and see if your dry cleaner would take the hangers back. It makes their business more profitable and makes your house less cluttered.

Also consider what you might normally do with vases. You know, the cheap ones your anniversary flowers come in. In offices and homes across America, empty flower vases left over from thoughtful gestures end up jammed and forgotten in cabinets and closets. It takes very little effort to find a local flower shop that would love to have these back. It’s easy enough for them to sanitize them and re-use them. They may even offer you a small discount for your generosity.

Please think twice about tossing your packing materials in the trash. You probably know someone that does an online business that would be very appreciative of your supplies. Or even a small business somewhere that could gladly take them off your hands.

There are probably even items that you would normally toss that vendors in your Farmer’s Market would love to have. For example, my Farmer’s Market has a lovely young lady that sells flowers by the bunch. You can gather your own bunch for $5 or have her make you an arrangement. When she makes them, she uses small vases, jars and glasses for that chic country look. All my old jelly and pickle jars can have a useful second home.

Also at every farmer’s market, not to mention in every farm community across America, are egg farmers. Saving your egg cartons and giving them to the local vendors could mean getting a nice discount every once in a while on fresh eggs, or … it could just make you feel real good about yourself.

Every year at the office, other people’s kids try to sell me stuff.  Every once in a while I give in and get a magazine subscription.  Inevitable, they come along too quickly to keep up with, which makes it difficult to get rid of.  You’ll read it someday, right, or come back to it for that recipe or great idea.  Many offices, however, pay a lot of money to have a variety of magazines available for their patrons.  If you know someone that has a small business with a waiting area for clients, ask them if they would like to have your magazine.  Also, offices within your local government might have an active need for them. For example, my local jury commission has an open request for magazines to help alleviate boredom of potential jurors waiting to do their duty. And trust me, those magazines live on in that room for years.

Consider Purposeful Giving

Donations to non-profits are not limited to money. Let’s not kid ourselves, they would rather have your money. But, in lieu of your money, there may be items that they would like to have, since it probably means increasing services or reducing costs. However, like I mentioned above, I don’t like giving a load of stuff to Goodwill or Salvation Army. This is mostly because I have no idea how much of my contribution ends up helping the needy.  I like the idea of targeted donations to help fill the needs of local non-profits. I will make an admission, mostly because my husband called me out on it.  While I have contributed in all the ways I listed above, I have not done all of the things below.  This is because some of these suggestions came about from reviewing my local Green Guide published by my local paper and simply spoke to me.  These contributions can make a real difference, even if you can’t afford to make a monetary donation.  

  • You can give your old Camping equipment to local homeless shelter
  • Habitat for Humanity will take excess construction materials and appliances.
  • Your local animal shelter or animal control will take blankets and towels.
  • United Cerebral Palsy Association through their assistive technology exchange network (www.ucpnet.org) will accept computers, printers, monitors, disk drives, cell phones, ink jet cartridges, CD-ROM drives, software, server equipment, communication devices, and accessories to refurbish and donate to schools throughout Illinois for children with disabilities.
  • There are probably many organizations that will be thankful for your art supplies (including all those over-priced scrap-booking supplies that you finally admitted you will never use) such as daycares, community programs, non-profits focused on children or the disabled, or even the elderly. And don’t worry, even a box of stubby crayons can have a second home, see these two resources: www.crazycrayons.com. www.scarceecoed.com.

And hey, just throwing it out there, did you know you can recycle cork? It doesn’t really help a local business or non-profit, but it’s pretty cool.  Admit you’re never actually going to build a bulletin board or coaster and see where you can drop them off.  www.corkharvest.org.

If you have any creative ideas about our local businesses and non-profits using stuff we no longer need, share, share, share! Heck, I’ll even take ordinary ideas.  I just want to start a conversation.  Just in the research I did for this article, I found out that I can take that pile of old stained and bleached towels I have in my laundry room to the animal shelter.  That wasn’t even on my radar before now.