1.24.2018

Greening Our Kitchens

Greening Our Kitchens Title Image
In my kitchen (left to right): compost bucket, silicone bowl covers, drying washed zip-top bags, cloth towels, reusable stainless steal straw

Here are three things we can do to make our kitchens more earth friendly by reducing waste, specifically plastic.  Our kitchens are the rooms in our houses that have the biggest trash can because we produce the most waste there.  Let's look at how we can throw away fewer things by composting, buying wisely, and actively recycle.

Composting

Hands down the biggest difference you can make towards greening your kitchen is to compost your organics.  Even folks in high-rise apartments can compost.   Hear me out if you are skeptical.  One of the biggest problems with our modern kitchens is we buy food, then we prepare and eat it (or not) and the peels, scraps and spoiled food gets thrown out with the garbage.  This linear progression has long term consequences.  As much as possible, we should be looking for a circle.  Composting takes the organic portion of trash and gives it back to the earth where it can be used by soil microbes and then by plants  (aka carbon sequestering!).  Instead of sitting in a landfill where food scraps barely break down because dumps have almost no life in them.

Composting bucket
I use a wooden ice-bucket I picked up thrifting as a compost bowl.  We keep it next to the sink, along with the kids' reusable drink bottles and the brewing kombucha.  

If you live in an apartment, find your local community garden, and ask if you can contribute to their compost.  Or find a friend with a compost pile.  Or get a worm box.  When we lived in an apartment, I took our food scraps to the chickens at a local farm.  The kids loved watching the hens greet us and excitedly start pecking the bits. And after feeding the chickens we'd stop in the farm store and buy their eggs. What a nice circle.

It does take some mindfulness to compost, but it's not labor intensive.  You don't even have to empty your compost that often.  Put a container in the freezer and add your food scraps as they accumulate.   Conveniently the freezing will reduce any odor and burst plant cells which will jump-start decomposition so your container won't fill up so fast.  If you don't have enough freezer space you can keep your container under the sink or where ever and empty as needed.

If you have land, start a compost pile.  It doesn't have to be fancy.  Ours is a pile on the grass behind the garage.  It is amazing how little is left after a couple of weeks of warm weather.  It would take five years or more for the pile to get too big.  Then start a second pile and when the first has finished breaking down move the finished compost soil to your garden or spread long the house or under a bush or tree.  And there are many bin composters you can find on the market if you want something more contained. 

Reducing Your Food's Footprint

Buying groceries with less packaging, that has traveled fewer miles, and grown without industrial fertilizers and pesticides will go a long way towards reducing your food's ecological effects.  This is a admittedly a lot of asks.  Sometimes I can't find a food that meets all these requirements.  An easy way to set your priorities is to first grow your own food.  What you can't grow, buy from your local farmer's market or farm stores.  Here's a handy link to find farmers and markets near you.  This is how we get all our greens, most of our veggies, and some of our fruit.  CSAs are another option. Bonus - the farm stores and CSAs, will often take back the egg crates, berry boxes/produce baskets and grocery bags (both their own and from other vendors to reuse).

When I go to the grocery store, I look for organic produce that is package free.  This also means I don't use the produce bags offered at the grocery.  I bring my own canvas bag of bags, which includes the totes to carry my groceries home, as well as, some simple bulk bags and produce bags.  If I buy ten apples, I either let them be loose in the cart or put them in my cloth produce bag.

I also prioritize the store's bulk options if I can bring my own bag.  Our Kroger/Owens stores offer some bulk nuts, beans and dried fruit.  Check out this online locator to find out if there is a store with bulk store near you.  If there is no bulk option, buying the bigger package also reduces the amount of trash generated.  For example, buying yogurt in the big tub instead of individual serving cups.

For dry-goods I can't find in bulk, I research the brand options and chose the product with best practices.  For pasta, I buy Einkorn wheat spaghetti and fusilli from the company Jovial by the case.  I like that their plastic-free packaging is compostable, and the pasta is made from organic whole wheat.  Plus buying by the case cuts down on the energy used for shipping.

Kitchen Trash
This is my kitchen trash.  

Reduce Disposable/Single-use Things

Let's take a moment together and decide to purchase less disposable stuff.  Avoid plastic silverware, water bottles, solo cups, individually packaged convenience food, and takeout/fast food.  Plastic takes 500-1000 years to decompose.  Why use a plastic straw for three minutes that won't degrade for twenty generations?  We can do better.   It takes a little planning to bring our bags and our reusable coffee cups from home. And a little more time to make food from scratch.  We can do that.

When we do eat out and buy convenience foods, look for the no plastic, less waste options.  For instance, order an ice-cream cone that comes with a small, paper wrapper verses an ice-cream Sunday that comes with a plastic spoon in a plastic bowl.  Choose places that use real dishes or paper/cardboard containers over plastic and Styrofoam.  It's an easy upgrade.  If your favorite place is an offender, encourage them to consider more sustainable options or bring your own reusable containers.

We also need to talk about freezer baggies and plastic wrap.  My relationship with zip-top bags is complicated.  We buy from a local farm that sells their greens in zip-top bags so I have a steady stream coming into the house.   They are useful for freezing garden produce and for when my kindergartner wants to take crackers in her bento box for lunch and not have them get soggy from her apple slices.  I have made peace with baggies by washing and reusing them until they aren't functional.  When they are beyond use, they go in the film plastic recycling bag.

Plastic wrap however, can be all but eliminated by using containers with lids.  If you have bowls without lids you can place a plate on top or there are reusable lid covers that you can invest in.  I use silicone lid cover and baking mats, but after reading this article I hesitate to recommend them.

Recycling Food Packaging 

Recycling bin
Here's our single-stream, curb-side recycling bin. 

If you can't find the kind of food you want package free, look for something with recyclable containers.  Then make sure to clean them out and get them to the recycling bins.   I prefer glass bottles for things like mayonnaise, mustard and juices.  Some of those jars can be reused for buying bulk too. Many co-op grocery stores have bulk honey, syrup, oils and even soaps that you can bring your own jar or bottle to refill.

Here it is also important to know what you can recycle.  With single-stream curbside recycling being more common, a list of what the company actually sorts and recycles is important.  Check with your recycling company to make sure you are only putting in the things they recycle, otherwise those non-recyclables gets thrown away at their sorting facility.  You may have to save somethings and take them to be recycled separately.  In my house hold, the thing we have the most of, that the curbside recycling doesn't take, are plastic bags like what cereal, bread, newspapers come in as well as ziptop bags.  We save that plastic separately and take it to a grocery store that has a recycling bin when we are in the area.  Here's how to find a place to recycle film plastic near you: www.plasticfilmrecycling.org. Look in your trash can, how can you reduce or recycle what's in there?

A friend on my FaceBook Page, shared a website called Terra Cycle that has some free programs for recycling packaging from specific companies: such as Tom's of Maine, Britta, and Bear Naked.  However, after making an account, I tried to sign up for several of the programs and got a message that I had been added to a wait list.  Terra Cycle does have options where we can pay between $80-$150 to get a box to fill and send back to them for specific things like plastic bottle caps.   Anyone have leads on other ways to recycle those difficult things?

Maybe we won't get it right 100% of the time, but if we stick with it, and are aware of the trash we generate, we can put less trash out into the world.  Let's lead by example and encourage our friends and children to take up the cause.

What other suggestions do you have?  I'm always looking for ways to create closed loop systems in my kitchen.  Less waste, less worries!

References:

Compost
https://www.thoughtco.com/do-biodegradable-items-really-break-down-1204144
http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/A-sprinkle-of-compost-helps-rangeland-lock-up-5832244.php

Reducing Your Food's Foot Print
https://zerowastehome.com/app/
http://www.coopdirectory.org/directory.htm
https://www.localharvest.org/
https://www.thebalance.com/how-long-does-it-take-garbage-to-decompose-2878033

Reduce Disposable/Single-use Things
https://www.lifewithoutplastic.com/store/is_silicone_a_plastic

Recycling Food Packaging
https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/recycle-one-thing1.htm
http://indianapublicmedia.org/eartheats/5-important-items-recycle/
https://www.terracycle.com

1.17.2018

Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies - Recipe




I found this recipe when I went looking for the most pinned cookie recipe on Pinterest. This walnut cream cheese cookie came up in several different lists.  It's a Martha Stewart recipe - surprising - I tend to think of her recipes on par with Betty Crocker.  They are easy and straightforward, but not special.  Well, this one is special. Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies are going in the permanent rotation.

These shortbread cookies have a simple classic appearance and elegant flavor.  They are an icebox type where the dough is frozen in a log and then sliced into rounds.  The cream cheese lends a nice tang to the dough, and the sugar becomes crisp and caramelized on the bottom without being too sweet, which complements the crunchy, slightly bitter flavor of the walnuts.  These are an excellent served with tea or coffee.

Every December I make cookies to give to friends and neighbors.  There are several recipes that always make an appearance: Grandma Jone's sugar cookies, and the best ever chocolate chip cookies, then there is a rotating recipe or two that I try out for the year.  This December, I had one dud recipe,  a mint chocolate cookie.  I was hoping would resemble a Girl Scout Thin Mint, but did not.  The real winner this year was Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread!  I have been complimented and ask for the recipe enough times I decided to write it up for the blog.

The ingredients are straight forward.

I have tried this recipe both with English walnuts (Juglans regia), the kind you'll find at the grocery store and black walnuts (Juglans nigra) which are the kind we can forage and are native to the United States.  The black walnuts have a richer, earthier flavor and I prefer them in this recipe and for baking in general.



I found silicone baking mats useful for both shaping the dough logs and freezing them.  They are much more functional than parchment paper, because the baking mats have more structure and the dough easily releases from the silicone after freezing.  I also used the mats for baking the cookies because short breads are easy to burn and silicone mats do a nice job of distributing and dissipating heat.  Plus silicone baking mats are reusable!  In my journey to reducing my family's garbage this felt like a real win.




Walnut Cream Cheese Shortbread Cookies
                               via Martha Stewart Living, December 2004 issue


4 cups unbleached flour
1 1/4 teaspoons course salt
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks), room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups walnut halves (1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped, 1 cup finely crushed)

Whisk the flour and salt together and set aside.  In a stand mixer with beater attachment, cream the butter and cream cheese until lightened and fluffy - approximately 2 min on medium-high.  Beat in sugar and vanilla.  On a slow speed mix in the flour/salt mixture until just combined - do not over mix.  Remove the bowl and stir in 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped walnuts by hand.

Divide the dough in half and make two logs of dough about 2" in diameter.    Then freeze the logs for 30 minutes or up to 2 weeks.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Remove the dough log and roll it in half of crushed walnut pieces.  If you have trouble getting the walnut pieces to stick, either crush them smaller or wait for the dough to soften slightly and the bits will stick better.  Slice the log into cookie rounds 1/4 inch thick.  Place them on a baking sheet with silicone mat leaving one inch between each cookie.  Bake for 18-20 minutes, rotating half way through until the bottom and edges are browned.


1.11.2018

How I Plan My Vegetable Garden

How I Plan My Vegetable Garden


In the winter I sit down with my box of seeds, the garden plan from the year before, and a notebook to get ready for the growing season ahead.  Here are the steps I take to make sure we have a full pantry next year.

Evaluating Last Year's Garden

This is our fifth year with this garden plot.  Each year has been different.  Sometimes I try new crops, like last year we grew sweet potatoes for the first time.  We've loved having them in the basement and they have kept even better than the potatoes.  This is probably because our cold storage isn't as cold as potatoes would like.  However, the sweet potatoes and winter squash love it.  I also, had an onion crop failure last year which I'm still frustrated by.    I wrote up an Annual Report on the Vegetable Garden for this blog and at the end there is a list of notes for the coming season.  I read through them to remind myself and then moved on to the next step.

Additions or Changes

I decided to grow sweet potatoes again, we don't have room for more or I would consider expanding.  This coming year I am buying both onion seed and sets to make sure we have a successful harvest.  I also decided to move some of the more water thirsty crops like basil, tomatoes and zucchini to the north end of the garden where they will be nearest the rain barrel and at the front of the soaker hoses.  Other than that, 2018 will be similar to 2017.

List of Seeds, Starts and Sets

This is the step I need to get to sooner rather than later.  I am often slack in ordering and am disappointed when exactly what I wanted is sold out or I have to order from multiple companies.  January is the month to get ordering done.  (Or even earlier - Although, I like to save my garden planning for after Christmas.)

This is an old tissue box (back from before we switched to handkerchiefs) that I cut the top off of and repurposed. 
It is just right for holding seed packets.  

I get out my box of seeds I have saved and the leftover bought seeds (I rarely use a whole packet in a season).  I pull out the packets of seeds for the veggies and herbs I want to grow and make sure there are enough seeds left.  I usually plan for twice as many seeds as I want plants, since not all of the seedlings will make it.  There are certain plants that I have trouble germinating with saved over seed packets, the most notable is basil.  I reorder fresh seeds every year.

I also go check the seed potatoes I have saved in the basement to make sure they are holding on.  So far so good - no rot!

I make a list of what I need to order.  This year that is:

Squash
Basil
Cucumber
Onion sets
Sweet Potato

Crop Rotation


My Crop Rotation Card

Now that I know what vegetables are going to be in the garden, it's time to figure our where they will be planted.  I have four beds, each thirty by four feet which makes crop rotation easy.  I have a four year plan.  I do grow a lot of nightshades, namely potatoes and tomatoes.  They are roughly half my garden; I make sure they don't get planted in the same place two years in a row.  Allium (onions/garlic) and squash are my other two big crops and they are on a four year rotation.   I have a note card to keep track of crop rotation.  It has a small map of the garden and a grid with the bed number across the top and the year in the left column.  Then I can see which crops are in which beds on any given year.  Looking back over the last four years, I decide the veggies that will go in each bed this year.  Since what I grow changes a little each year, it doesn't work out perfectly.  I just do the best I can.

Draft the Garden Plan

Garden Map


With my crop rotation note card at hand, I print out a map of my garden for the year.  I have a map showing the garden by square feet.  With a pencil and ruler I block out each crop's allotment.  Once that is settled, I go through and make a circle where each plant will go and an X where a hill of multiple seeds will be planted.  This information helps me remember spacing when I go to plant in the spring.  It also helps me know how much to order.  Using pencil in important.  Nothing ever quite goes as planned in a garden.

Place Seed and Plant Order

Now I have all the information, I place my seed and plant order.  I don't have a lot to buy this year.  I will only be ordering from one company to save on shipping and fuss in general.  I don't even look at seed catalogs anymore, they just make me question my plans and want things I don't have space for and aren't suited for my climate.  I get most of my advice on which varieties to try from our local market farmers. My favorite seed companies are Johnny's Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and Fedco Seeds.  Don't forget to do a quick search online to see if you can find any money saving coupon codes.

This year I am ordering:

1 'Sunshine' kombocha squash seed packet
1 'Genovese' basil seed packet
1 'Harmonie' cucumber seed packet
25 'Mahon Yam' sweet potato slips
2 'Redwing' onion sets (50 per bunch)
4 'Patterson' onion sets (50 per bunch)

Order completed!

And now I'm ready for April when the onions and potatoes will be ready to put in the ground.