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Flea Update

I’ve been going over old posts and comments (trying to catch up at long last!  I apologize if I have not replied to your comment – I do read each and every one of them and greatly appreciate your thoughts!) and was just reminded of my fall flea problem.  I thought I should post the results of my struggle to rid my home of these pests.

I really did struggle with these uninvited guests and got to the point of deciding to simply use chemicals to get rid of them.  I mean, the dogs were all scratching constantly and their coats were becoming dull and dry.  Clearly they were uncomfortable and I had to do something to put an end to it.  So I went to my new vet and asked for a package of some kind of topical flea killing toxin (other than Revolution, which in my opinion is simply too dangerous to put on my animals).  Well, the vet wouldn’t sell me anything without seeing all my pets first!  I simply did not have the time or money at the time, so I booked an appointment a few weeks into the future and went home, frustrated, to comb the internet for other options.

Surprisingly, I came across something that I had not yet read: a short article explaining that you can vacuum up as many as 95% of fleas & eggs if you vacuum regularly!  The trick is that you then have to dispose of the contents of the vacuum.  Otherwise they just re-emerge and re-infest.  Duh!  How simple is that?

I also went to a local feed store and bought a (40lb) bag of Diametaceous Earth, that turned out to be mixed with clay so it made quite a dusty mess. Nevertheless, I sprinkled it all over my floors, couch and bare mattress.  I stripped all bedding and took all dog beds etc. and put them in the shed.  Then I left for two weeks over Christmas.  When I got home I vacuumed the entire house, brought in and washed the bedding, and voila!  So far, no more fleas.

I do expect to see more of the little critters come spring, but I am now prepared with an action plan.  Basically I will simply vacuum regularly and then immediately remove the bag.  As these bags are expensive (and I am trying very hard to reduce my consumption and waste), I put them into my dog meat freezer and re-use them until they are full.  Only then do I throw them out.  But storing them in the freezer (or you can put them outside) kills any adult fleas and prevents eggs from hatching in your house.

This really is a simple way of controlling fleas and I really hope that it continues to work come spring and summer.  I will certainly post on any new developments.

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Sustainability* in the Bathroom

(*I recognize that using this word without defining it is problematic.  I am writing an entire dissertation on this, and recognize that I am guilty as charged.  This is simply a catchier title for my entry than “How to reduce the disposable, non-biodegradable plastic consumption in your bathroom habits”)

In an effort to prepare for my friend Renata’s visit tomorrow (as well as to be procrastinating productively), this morning I took down my shower curtains and put both the inner plastic liner and the outer cloth curtain through the wash.  This reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post about the changes I’ve made in the bathroom this year.

As you may recall, when I left my house in town and moved out to the country, I purged my home of as much plastic as I could possible eliminate.  Most of this was found in the kitchen – tupperware containers, plastic wrap, plastic utensils, plastic dishes and so on.  Kitchens are typically chock full of plastic products.  I now cringe when I visit homes with small children and see all the plastic dishes they are given to eat from, day in and day out.  Regardless of claims now of ‘BPA-free’ plastic, I firmly believe that it is all toxic and want as little interaction with it as possible, especially around food!

Of course avoiding plastic is completely impossible, but we can certainly reduce it in our daily practice.  My food is now only stored in glass, be it Mason jars or Pyrex dishes.  I bring my lunch to work in variously sized Mason jars.   Cooking is done in glass or stainless steel bowls, and stainless or cast iron pots.  I stir things with wooden spoons, and flip pancakes with a metal spatula.

While it took a fair bit of time to identify, and subsequently replace, the plastic in my kitchen, that project is mostly complete now.  It wasn’t long into this purge, however, that I realized that my bathroom was another plastic haven. And surprisingly, getting rid of plastic in the bathroom has posed far more of challenge than doing so in the kitchen!

Why is that, you ask? Well, mostly it’s because the products we (I) use in the bathroom almost all come in plastic packaging, and or are made of plastic: toothbrush, toothpaste, dental floss, hair brush, hair clips, deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, skin lotion, make-up, tampons, razor blades, liquid soap, shower curtain, face puff.  The list goes on and on.  I’m a minimalist in the bathroom, but I’ve seen some that could rival a drugstore for how much plastic they contain.

The first thing I did was eliminate everything I felt really wasn’t necessary.  This left me with the list I just mentioned.  But that is still far too much plastic in my house.  So I started to search for alternatives.  And you know what?  There aren’t many out there.  Food has definitely come farther along this path than cosmetics, let me tell you.  Yet the more I learned about what I was exposing myself to (watch, for example, The Story of Cosmetics), the more urgently I wanted to get rid of this stuff.  It’s been a frustrating struggle.

Very fortunately, Taina – anti-plastic activist and author of the outstanding and inspiring blog Plastic Manners – has done a lot of research on the subject, and generously shares her findings herean extremely helpful list of bathroom (and household) alternatives to plastic.  She uses a bone and boar bristle toothbrush.  I haven’t quite been that brave (the assurance that the ‘wet pig taste’ eventually goes away has not inspired me to rush out and buy one…yet) and instead purchased a Preserve Toothbrush at London Homeopathy in Covent Garden.  This toothbrush is still made of plastic, but it is 100% recycled plastic.  And, when you are done, you can mail it back to them to be recycled again.  I have just worn out my first one and am getting ready to send it back. I am undecided if I want to go the wet pig route for my next toothbrush, or buy another Preserve one.  The last time I went to London Homeopathy, they were sold out. I’m tempted to order the boar brush as surely natural bristles are gentler on tooth enamel than plastic, and of course hopefully less toxic! So maybe I’ll muster up the courage and give it a try.

I decided to stick with my current hairbrush – it’s mostly ceramic, with plastic bristles.  I also have a wooden one with natural bristles.  Both were expensive and are lasting well, and I see no need to replace them as I’m not ingesting any plastic by using them.  That said, I have seen some nice wooden and rubber brushes that I’d be tempted to try if I was more flush.  Not a priority, however.  And buying a new brush would just generate more waste.

One of the biggest plastic items in my bathroom is my nasty, plastic shower curtain.  I fully intend on replacing it just as soon as I can afford a $100 hemp curtain.  Not likely to happen today, but it’s on my wish list.  Now why replace the curtain if I already have it?  Isn’t that just wasteful?  Well, yes, it is, as there’s no way to recycle it.  I will try to find some other use for it rather than throw it out, such as keeping my kindling dry or covering something in my shed.  But the bottom line is that every time I take a hot shower, the heat causes the curtain to release toxic chemicals.  That nasty plastic odor of a freshly purchased shower curtain?  Toxic fumes!  And just because I can’t smell them anymore doesn’t mean that they still aren’t being released, albeit at a lesser intensity now.  So the curtain must go.  Soon.

What I had the biggest trouble replacing is the consumables: toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, tampons, deodorant.  Potentially toxic in and of themselves, these products also come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.  Thanks to Plastic Manners, I learned that Lush sells (relatively) natural products without packaging, and I recently ventured into their store in White Oaks Mall.  Initially knocked off my feet by the intense perfumes, I spent a good half hour with one of their clerks discussing solid bars of deodorant, shampoo and conditioner.  I settled on a chunk of each and brought them home.  It took a good couple of weeks before I could walk past my bathroom without be assaulted by the perfumes from these products, but that eventually went away.  Now that I no longer use any scented products, items that have been infused with scent I find really obnoxious.

So far, I am quite happy with the deodorant.  It works well, and doesn’t leave me smelling like artificial vanilla or strawberries.  But the shampoo and conditioner were disappointing.  The shampoo bar worked well, but left my hair too dry.  I have found this to be the case with every single ‘eco’ shampoo I have ever tried.  The others all came in plastic bottles, which immediately rules them out now, but I had hoped for something different with the Lush bar.  No luck.  The conditioner, on the other hand, conditioned my hair but left a significant residue.  My hair dresser was very concerned about how my hair felt when I saw her after just using the conditioner twice.  So both bar and conditioner now sit unused in my window sill.  What a disappointment.

Having used the last of my shampoo, needing to go out in public, and deeply reticent to purchase another plastic bottle of questionably safe hair cleaner, I finally decided to take the plunge and try going ‘no poo.’  Not the prettiest of terms for a cleaning process, ‘no poo’ in fact cleans my hair and leaves it feeling better than even my $30 bottle of salon shampoo!  Not only that, it is non-toxic,  extremely cheap, and can be purchased everywhere.  So what is ‘no poo’?  Simple: wash with baking soda, condition with vinegar.

I now keep two mason jars in my bathroom and when I want to wash my hair, I put one table spoon of baking soda (which I buy in bulk, alumnium free, from Eco-Pioneer, but I expect any brand will work just as well) into one jar, and a tablespoon or two of white vinegar into the other.  In the shower, I then fill each jar  with a cup or so of hot water from the shower head.  I start with the baking soda, pour it through my hair and massage it in.  Rinse.  Then rinse again with the vinegar and water.

I have been doing this for over a month now and my hair has never felt better.  It stays clean, feels soft, has no residue build up and looks great.  I will never go back to shampoo with its plastic bottles and unknown toxic chemicals.  Thanks but no thanks!

Regarding the other consumables I use, I now use bar soap instead of soft-soap.  There are many places where you can find bars of soap for sale in paper wrapping, or better yet, no wrapping at all.  Hand made soaps abound at markets and in local gift shops.  Likely you can find someone local making soap, or even learn to make it yourself!

For toothpaste, there’s baking soda (you can brush your teeth and wash your hair at the same time!).  For skin lotion: olive oil.  Coffee grounds make a good exfoliant.  I still haven’t resolved razor blades, and try to console myself with the fact that they are tiny, and at least in part metal.  And unlike a man’s course beard, my legs don’t beat up a razor blade so I can use it over, and over.  Finally, make-up.  This is a very problematic on so many levels.  Do I even need to wear make-up?  Why do I conform to social pressures and do so when I went without for years and years?  The bottom line is that I am getting older, work with perpetual 20-year olds, and, at least in winter, feel I need a little added colour.  There are some really wonderful (and expensive) non-toxic, all-natural make-up lines out there.  I personally use MAC.  Not the company it used to be since being bought out, but it still avoids animal testing and takes back 100% of its packaging.  Lately they have started making eye shadows without plastic containers that you can just insert into a re-usable holding case (sadly, made of plastic).  It’s a lesser of many evils.

This leaves the taboo subject of ‘feminine hygiene.’  Surprisingly, there are more options here than with many of the products I discussed above.  For straight substitution of conventional sanitary products (liners, pads, tampons) I buy Natracare organic products (available at London Homeopathy, LynDys and also in the organic departments of Loblaws and the Superstore).  It makes no sense to be careful to avoid putting toxic chemicals in my mouth, and then use a bleached, toxic tampon.  And so for years I have spent more and purchased the organic version.  These products, however, still have some plastic in their packaging (although this is much, much less than in most conventional brands – or at least it was the last time I bought those other brands).  Regardless, there is still packaging, and the product itself is disposable and ends up flushed down the drain with what otherwise would be drinking water.  It really doesn’t make a lot of sense.

An alternative to using disposable sanitary products is to try something like the Diva Cup.  This a reusable, latex cup that works a little like a reverse diaphragm.  It’s a little awkward to use at first, and unfortunately doesn’t work for about 20% of women (there are only two sizes).  The company will reimburse you if you try it and it doesn’t work out, so it’s worth giving it a shot.  You can also try LunaPads – washable, reusable pads.  And I expect more products will come to the fore as demand increases.

I have not come up with an alternative to toilet paper – quite frankly I can’t even imagine what that could be – and as such just use recycled paper products you can buy at Loblaws and the like.  It is one of the few things I still occasionally venture into a grocery store to buy!

Finally there’s water use.  Last, but most certainly not least.  Reducing water consumption is a very big part of being more environmentally friendly, but it’s not always easy.  You can purchase a low-volume shower head and toilet, or just focus on taking shorter showers and flushing less often.  I’m afraid I tend to use a fair bit of water – hot showers are one of my guilty pleasures and an area I need to cut back on.  Check this little video out on ‘the Bathroom Reconstructed‘ for ideas around where we might be able to go with a little political well.

Well the washer is done, my soup pots need checking (making a 48 hour beef stock) and  those essays are not grading themselves.  Time to make a pot of tea and get back to work.

Aack! Fleas!!

How embarrassing – my dogs have fleas!  Now it’s not anything particularly out of the ordinary for dogs to pick up fleas, but seeing as I am a very big advocate of natural rearing and avoiding all chemicals, this is a particularly touchy issue for several reasons.  First, there is considerable room for finger wagging and ‘I told you so’ing’, or just a ‘knowing’ silence from my many dog-owning friends who have debated with me about whether or not to use neurotoxins on their dogs to avoid pests.  I have for years boasted that I use nothing, and have no problems.  Silly, utopian hippee!  Thinks she can just ignore nature and nothing will happen.  Second, I am fully aware of how hard it is to get rid of these nasty little invaders once they have set up camp, unless you do resort to pesticides.  They may end up forcing me to make some very uncomfortable decisions.

The reality is that I have not had an outbreak of fleas since the mid-1990s.  And I have not used any chemicals on my dogs since at least 1998, which is the same time that I switched to feeding a home prepared and eventually raw diet.  Certainly I have never used – or needed to use – any insecticides on any of the dogs currently living in my home, the oldest one having been here nearly 7 years.  So until now, my aversion to chemicals has been working out just fine!

I am not sure where these fleas came from.  I suspect we may have picked them up when we traveled south of the border at the end of September.  The climate is different there, and perhaps so are the fleas.  Or maybe they are just more abundant.  I know the person I was visiting was having a flea problem, and it’s quite possible that I brought some of that back with me.

It really doesn’t matter, however, how they got here.  What matters is that they are in my house.  And on my dogs.  Who are itching and itching and itching.  Poor things.  Ross is by far the most sensitive to them, which is not surprising given his weakened constitution.  Fleas are parasites and are attracted to the weak, and also an off-balance life force is more likely to develop allergies.  So poor Ross both attracts more fleas, and reacts more strongly to them.

So this morning I declared war on the fleas.  I set up a dog wash and soaped up and soaked down all four dogs in a row, using a lovely lavender pet shampoo made locally by Lavender Blue.  Lavender is a natural insect repellant and so the shampoo worked well as a flea shampoo, as well as making them clean and soft.  Certainly there were a number of dead fleas in the bathwater when we were all done.

Next I put my wet dogs outside so the fleas could vacate out of the house.  While they were drying off in the sun, I vacuumed the house top to bottom.  I stripped all linens – from my bed, the dogs crates, the dog beds and so on – and put them through a hot, soapy washer, and hot dryer.  I sprinkled Diamataceous Earth (DE) on my mattress, the bare dog beds, the floor around where they sleep and hang out, and on the carpets.  I then washed all my floors with lavender castille soap and hot water.  My house has never been so clean!  You’d think I had relatives coming for a visit, rather than a flea problem.  One upside to all this at least!

Tonight the dogs are all relaxed and lounging comfortably.  No one is scratching, no one is chewing.

While I may have won the battle today, I am concerned that I may lose the war in the longer term. I certainly will have missed a few adults, and there will be eggs hatching regularly over the next weeks.  I think the flea cycle (I need to look this up again) is about one month long, so I will need to do what I did today roughly once a week for the next four weeks.  And even then it might not work if I miss any adults.  Which is highly likely to happen, given the size of my house and the number of animals in it.  It is really, really hard to get rid of fleas without resorting to pesticides.

I have already given myself permission to apply an insecticide if absolutely necessary.  I am not going to leave Ross to suffer – my homeopathic vet already advised me that this would be more harmful than a dose of something to kill the fleas, and I agree.  Furthermore, I am visiting other homes over the holidays and don’t want to pass on the problem!  But I am still not  going to resort to toxins without trying other options first.  So I’ll be cleaning and scrubbing regularly, and the dogs will be dipped in lavender shampoo as often as necessary for the next couple of weeks.  Oh, and I’ll be adding raw garlic to their diets, which I am told is an excellent deterrent for fleas.

Wish me luck, and I’ll keep you posted on our progress!

Reclaiming Balance – Part II

I thought I had set my last entry as ‘private’ but for some reason it still got published.  I struggle over how much to ‘put out there’ so to speak, in terms of revealing what’s going on with me personally.  Writing is one of my main ways of figuring things out.  A dialogue with myself, so to speak, that helps me sort out what’s going on in my head.  I can re-read it later and reassess.  I do hold back a fair bit from this public forum – but I also deliberately put some things out for public viewing.  I’ve had readers react negatively to this, but I actually have a reason for doing this.

Life is a struggle, and trying to live life even somewhat outside of the mainstream is really tough at times.  I have read many blogs that provide all sorts of fabulous information on how to live more lightly with our Mother Earth, but this info is often presented in a way that suggests that these efforts are easy.  That anyone can do it.  And while it’s true that the changes I’ve made in my life are simple – each one on its own that is.  The sum-total shift in living has been extremely hard.  Indeed, impossible at times.  And so I share this struggle because I don’t want people to read my blog and feel badly, or offended, or – worst of all – give up what efforts they are making, because they cannot find time in their life to cook everything from scratch, or they still use plastic bags or whatever.

What I am doing is an experiment in social change, and I put myself through a lot of strife in the name of ‘research.’  I have come to believe deeply in what I am doing, but I have also become quite clear on how the changes I’ve made in my life are not something that can be implemented on a wide-scale within the current neoliberal (i.e. free market) capitalist model of our economic system.  This system, as I alluded to in my last post, drives people to have to work more and more and more, while earning less and less.  I read an article yesterday that pointed out that the average American now works one whole month more per year than they did 25 years ago, while real wages have declined since 1972.  It’s no wonder we’re all at the ends of our ropes most of the time!  How on earth are we supposed to be also cooking from scratch, growing some of our own food, and avoiding toxic plastics and chemicals?  Furthermore, 70% of the American economy, again according to this article, is driven by consumption.  In short, we are in a vicious cycle of shopping and working (as beautifully depicted in the Story of Stuff video).  Indeed, when I lived and worked in the US, this was exactly my experience and my observation of those around me.  Things are less stressful in Canada, but we are heading in this direction in a big hurry.

So now that I’ve returned full-time to the working world, all of this is hitting me at once.  I’m tired and have been spending little time focused on what is most important to me.  The result is that those elements of my life that I cherish most deeply are slipping through my fingers like sand.  My relationship failed, my pantry is almost empty, my dogs are untrained and bored.  My house is a catastrophe.  My life has become solitary.  And all this after just two months of full-time work! Of course much of the trouble I am sure is readjusting to such a crazy pace of life, but it’s also making it very clear to me just how stressful life is for most people.  It’s the ‘stewed frog syndrome’ so to speak.  When it happens gradually, we don’t  notice the constant  ratcheting up of pressure that is cooking us.  When it happens all of a sudden, we are scaled!

I have been scalded.

So what to do about this?  This is my new challenge.  I am determined to figure this out.

This weekend I didn’t work.  Instead I spent my time focusing on getting what I can back into balance.  I slept.  A lot.  I did yoga.  I hiked my dogs.  And I cleaned my house.  Actually, I didn’t just clean my house, I attacked it!  I tackled my long ‘to-do’ list and got on top of a lot of things that were constantly nagging at me. I purged things I don’t need, or that left me feeling cluttered.  I even dragged my landlord’s ugly couch out of the living room, put up shelves along the windows and placed all my plants and books around the room to make it cozy and inviting.

I’ve decided to adopt an ‘if you build it they will come’ approach to my home and life.  By this I mean I need to live the life I want to be living, not just think about it.  This is what I did this summer – I fixed up  my house so that it could simply but comfortably welcome guests.  I cooked up a storm so that I had plenty of food for any visitors.  I kept good bottles of wine in case the mood struck us.  In short, I made my home inviting and lived in it as if I expected it to be full of love, and that’s exactly what happened!

And then this fall things got busy.  I let my guard down, I let things slide.  I took on too much.  And before I knew it, the space in my life for what made me happy quickly closed.  I justified this based ideas that I could put this on hold for a few weeks or months, and on the conclusion that no one would come visit me out in the middle of no-where in winter, so why bother?  Well of course no-one will come if there’s no space for them here!

And as for putting things on hold, this was a big mistake.  With the intense pressures of today’s society for us to put all that is important on the back burner in the name of earning an income, constant vigilance is in order.  We must guard that space, defend that balance.  We must work on it constantly, even if we only have a few minutes a day to do so.  How to accomplish this?  Well, that is now my challenge.  I need to figure out how to keep a roof over my head while simultaneously keeping room in my life and heart for friends, family, love, food, community, nature and of course, myself.

This is not going to be easy.  But even after two days of taking some time to focus on balance, I am feeling like a new person.  Rested and in a peaceful surrounding, my heart is on the mend and I am once again feeling energetic and happy.  I have created some space in which to find my centre, just as in the dream I had a few nights ago where I walked into the zen-like room and felt good.  Now I must defend it, nurture it, help it grow.

And Another Month Flies By…

Goodness, I can’t believe it’s been a whole month since I last wrote.  Again!  I haven’t even logged in to check my comments in so long that WordPress has significantly overhauled some of its major features and I hardly recognize the place!

So, what have I been up you ask?  What has kept me from tending to my poor, neglected blog?  The short answer is: Life.  Life of a working person, that is.  The big change from being just a grad student, with a nicely flexible schedule and an ability to work to the beat of my own drum.  Now that I’m teaching (more than) full-time, and also in a relationship, I find myself scrambling desperately to keep on top of the domestic side of my life.

In other words, the reality that most people live is now staring me directly in the face.  Or rather, it’s pulling the rug out from under my feet.  The reality that our society is structured around fast food and harsh cleaners and cars and power tools and purchasing and lack of exercise, all to make time for work and some semblance of a social life.

Not that this comes as any surprise.  I knew this, and expected this, and braced myself for this.  It’s what I have been talking about, reading about, writing about for the last three+ years: the (near?)impossibility of working full-time and eating locally and ecologically.

Yes, I have been sticking to my guns – to the best of my ability – and still buying and eating local food and preparing everything from scratch.  But twice out of the last three days I drove into campus for work I ended up having to buy my lunch.  It was gross and I hated it.  And I felt disgusting afterwards.  I have now eaten every scrap of food I cooked and froze over the summer and have nothing left in the pantry other than basic stores and ingredients waiting to be turned into meals.  In fact lunch on Wednesday was tomato sauce poured over rice I steamed while getting dressed for work.  That was all I could come up with!  (but just reminded myself that I can make tomato soup from this sauce in the blink of an eye – lunch for next week!)

So this weekend – Thanksgiving Weekend – I am staying home, alone, and trying to resolve this dilemma.  I had a couple of very tempting invitations for the weekend: spending it with my wonderful man – who I miss constantly due to the 8+ hour drive that separates us – or going home to visit my family and enjoy my mother’s fabulous cooking.  Instead I am here, doing my best to get on top of my house and pantry while simultaneously trying to catch up with the never-ending, constantly growing pile of academic and teaching work inundating my desk.

I started by doing some basic cleaning and taking stock of my fridge, which was full-to-bursting with produce waiting to be turned into something tasty.  Last week was the last day of my CSA so the constant flow of fresh, organic veggies into my home is going to stop.  Good thing too, as I have done nothing with the last three pick-ups and am sadly having to compost way too much of it.

Last night, too tired to cook, I plopped myself down in front of  The Price of Milk, a quirky, fun love story from New Zealand (funny how I suddenly have a thing for romances…), opened a bottle of wine, and peeled 7lbs of beets that have been collecting and waiting patiently in my fridge for weeks.  This morning I grated them (with my food processor), salted and sprinkled them with caraway seeds, and packed the whole red mass into my new 1 gallon ceramic crock.  The idea is to make sour beets a-la Wild Fermentation.  From what the book says, using fermented beets is how borscht was traditionally made.  Seeing as I love borscht, and that I had a ton of beets, I thought this would be an interesting experiment.  By the time I finished shredding and packing them, enough juice had been expressed to cover the beets.  So no brine was necessary.  I just put a plate on top of them and weighted it down with a large jar of water, then covered the whole crock with a cloth.  Now I just sit back and wait.

Emptying my fridge revealed another 10 large beets so I need to find other things to do with these wonderful root veggies.  I will likely just boil some and eat them with butter.  And I’ll chop some into a fresh batch of fermented veggie ‘kraut.  And the rest I’ll roast with garlic and eat with a balsamic & olive oil dressing.  Simple, but delicious!  I think I have the recipe on here already somewhere.  I’ll put up the link under my recipe tab if I find it.

My fridge also contained two rutabagas, which I am going to shred and ferment as well, just to experiment.  Perhaps I’ll steam a cup or two to enjoy with butter.  I also have half a bushel of tomatoes waiting to be turned into sauce, about 25 pears waiting to be canned, two baskets of plumbs withering away waiting to be turned into sauce, and half a bushel of red peppers waiting to be made into jelly.  Oh, and four egg plants that are starting to droop.  Likely I’ll turn one or two into ratatouille, and the rest I’ll roast and freeze to use later.

I really don’t know when I’ll get all this done, but I’m hoping it will be this weekend.  I tried to also do academic work (and still may do some reading this evening.  Then again, maybe I won’t!), but I have a huge list of things that need doing around the house.  So instead I chipped away at that as well: laundry, cleaning, sorting the shed so there’s room for the patio furniture and boxes of kindling, putting away the patio furniture, boxing up the kindling, cutting the lawn and moving several car loads of wood.  Amazingly I got most of it done today.  Not surprisingly, I’m beat and ready for bed by 9pm.

I knew the food-centered lifestyle I have chosen would be tough to maintain once I went back to working and having a life beyond my writing.  But I am determined to make it work. I have the advantage of having had three years to learn many of the skills I now possess, making cooking and preserving much easier now.  Most of it is so routine that I can whip off a batch of cheese or butter or soup without much thought.  Still, I am finding it tough to keep up.  And it’s going to get tougher.

If I don’t write for a while, don’t worry.  I have not given up.  I’m just setting this aside, along with a few other things, in order to make food first.  But I’ll be back.  Perhaps even tomorrow.  Or maybe in a month.  Until then!

Say Cheese!

How do I love my CSA? Let me count the ways this week: green onions, broccoli, cauliflower, kolrabi, red and golden beets, cabbage, carrots, three kinds of summer squash, kale, spinach, lettuce, swiss chard, garlic, almost a dozen kinds of herbs, free range eggs (cost extra) and of course best of all, an armful of fresh cut flowers.

I however now have quite a mountain of produce to deal with!  With last week’s heat wave and my push to work on both my academics and my house I have done virtually no cooking this week.  I have guests arriving this coming weekend (my father, brother and the family dog), followed a few days later by more guests (my mother and maternal grandparents).  They will all be leaving the following Sunday, at which point a friend of mine and her two daughters and their dog will be arriving for roughly 10 days.  Right now I don’t even have a guest bed!  I am so not ready for all this company.

I have been working at getting my house prepared.  I have now emptied, cleaned and sorted just about every cupboard and closet (why this was a priority I don’t know!).  My kitchen is completely set up now with second fridge clean and ready to plug in as I fill one fridge all by myself!  The yard was looking fairly decent (about as decent as this poor house is going to look without a major investment of time and money) until the lawn mower broke 10 days ago.  Now it’s looking pretty shaggy again.  My little gardens are doing well, however, although chock full of tomato and squash seedlings despite my sifting of the compost.

I still have to finish planting some of the herbs, but that means finishing building my planters and finding some soil.  I went to buy soil the other day but couldn’t find any place that sold it in bulk.  The thought of buying soil in the first place makes me uneasy, let alone to buy it in plastic bags.  So far I’ve built up my own soil but short of digging up the gardens I’m all out.

I’ve also had to spent quite a bit of time working on my course outlines, putting in book orders, and of course writing the dissertation.  I’m happy to report good progress on all fronts!  I put in a very big push during the heat wave, when it was too hot to move around.  That kept me rooted to my seat in front of my computer or stack of books.

Now that I’ve moved the house, work and dissertation fronts forward a few solid steps, it’s time to refocus on food (and getting back to training my dogs!).

The one thing I did manage to make this past week, other than a lot of salad, is cheese.  Yes, I finally attempted to make cheese!  I just made a batch of white cheese, or what is called paneer in Indian cuisine.  It was surprisingly easy.  All I had to do was heat the milk to about 180F (using my handy dandy floating dairy thermometer to monitor the temperature).  Then I very slowly added freshly squeezed (organic) lemon juice.  I of course made this with raw milk, but apparently it works fine with pasteurized milk as long as it’s not ‘ultra-pasteurized.’  The milk I used had the cream skimmed off and turned into butter, but it was far from being ‘skim’ milk.  It was probably close to the whole milk you buy in the store as Jersey milk has pretty high fat content.

For 4 liters of milk I ended up putting in the juice of about 2.5 lemons.  I added slowly, stirring constantly, until the milk finally separated.  I left it sit for a bit to fully precipitate (this is very much like being in a chemistry lab!), then strained the mixture through some cheese cloth.  I ended up with 4 liters of whey and a nice blob of cheese curds.  I’m at a bit of a loss as to what to do with all this whey, but Nourishing Traditions calls for it in many recipes.  I may either turn this batch into soup stock, or freeze it in small portions for future use.

I tied up the corners of the cheese cloth and hung it over a bowl for about half an hour.  By then most of the whey had drained and the curd had formed a solid mass.  I pressed it into a flattened disk and put it in a glass container with a little water, like one would keep fresh mozzarella.  In fact it tastes a lot like fresh mozza, or perhaps solid tofu.  Very mild but pleasant.

For the next few days I put this cheese in salads, an omelet, or just sliced it onto toasted sourdough bread with tomato, fresh basil, a grain or two of sea salt and a little olive oil.  I can see that I will quickly get used to having this around and will be very sad as my milk supply runs low or dry as the year progresses!  A single milking a week is not enough milk to make cheese to both eat and store for winter.  Making larger quantities of cheese will have to wait for when I have my own source, likely a little dairy goat or two once I get my farm, after I get my job, after I finish my dissertation…

Today I am going to try making cottage cheese.  There are two ways to make it.  One requires rennet, which I have purchased but not yet used.  Buying rennet – as well as buying lemons – is not really in a locavore’s repertoire, although this is the sort of thing I tend to make exception for.  However, if there is a more local way to do it, this is what I wish to try first.  So that is my plan.

To make cottage cheese without store bought ingredients requires cultured buttermilk.  And to get that without buying in the store (which I actually tried to do to make a starter, but I could not find it for sale anywhere) you have to culture your own starter.  It’s kind of like making a sourdough starter!  My fridge is slowly filling up with these various cultures for fermented foods.  It’s almost like a little zoo now: sourdough starter, yogurt starter, keffir, sauerkraut, and now buttermilk starter!

The buttermilk starter is very simple to make but I had some trouble getting it going.  It is very difficult to learn these skills through books or webpages and I regret not having a mentor for a lot of these experiments.

All sources told me to just put raw milk out on the counter for 1-4 days and it will “clabber.”  Clabber milk should be thick like pudding, and then you add some of this to fresh milk to make buttermilk.  Clabber milk lasts very well and doesn’t even need to be refrigerated.  The key ingredient is raw milk.  I now understand that when pasteurized milk goes sour, it turns into something toxic.  But when raw milk sours, it become healthier and more useful!  Who knew?  Certainly not I.

My first few attempts at clabber milk ended up with curds and whey.  I was not sure if this was right nor not.  I threw each attempt into the composter, not realizing that this was still a good product for other things!  Finally, after several attempts, I tried just putting some of the soured curd into fresh milk.  The next day the milk in the jar was thick like pudding but hadn’t separated!  Yippee!  My milk had clabbered!  I’m not sure why the first few attempts separated.  Perhaps it was the heat, or maybe this is normal when it is very acid, and then when you add more milk the dilution leaves it less acid so you end up with a different culture.  Or perhaps it’s because the cows had been changed to a different pasture and had access to different foods.  I’ve read that some plants (like butterwort) make milk clabber better.  There is so, so, so much to learn about all these traditional techniques.

It’s shocking and disturbing to realize that I know so little.  Even more disturbing is the fact that I am not alone.  I joined a raw milk discussion group and even the members there weren’t able to help me with figuring out my non-clabbering milk.  Most of these old-fashioned ways of eating I am going to have to figure out by trial and error based on a few helpful books and some great websites.  Fortunately I enjoy experimenting, and I also don’t have to worry about starving when things don’t work out.

Putting Plastic to Some Use

I just finished organizing all the wonderful produce I picked up from my CSA.  Today’s haul included pod peas, spinach, broccoli, fennel, kolrabi, summer squash, lettuce and beets, green onions, an assortment of herbs (mints, chamomile, oregano, thyme, chives, basil, dill, cilantro, edible flowers and lovage) and fresh cut flowers.  I just made myself a huge salad with two different kinds of lettuce, beet tops, and a little bit of just about everything I mentioned in that list.  For dressing I chopped up a green onion into some olive oil and balsamic vinegar (ok, neither is local but both are organic and the olive oil is fair trade from Zatoun), and sea salt (bought by my mother while in the south of France).  Simple but tasty.  I have been eating a big bowl of greens like this at least once a day since the season really got going.  It’s a great way to get a lot of raw veggies into me.

While I tend to eat a lot of raw in the summer, I did do a little cooking the other day.  I made a pea and tarragon cold soup from a recipe I found on-line, but I can’t say that it swept me off my feet.  I am eating it, but I won’t be making it again.  On a more successful note, I made a very delicious potato salad recipe I found on Piecurious.  I modified it slightly as I didn’t have all the same ingredients.  It was so yummy that I’m going to make it again today.  I’ll post my slightly altered version of this salad below.

One of the first things I do after getting my veggies is prep them for eating, and also for staying fresh in the fridge.  I am slowly figuring out how to keep veggies fresh longer, which makes a very big difference in how well I use up my CSA share.  Lettuce I immediately chop, wash and spin, then put into large zip-lock bags with a bit of air to allow the leaves to breath and move about.  This makes for ready-to-use salad fixings that will last at least a week if not longer.

Carrots must have their tops removed immediately, and then I put them in a plastic bag with a little water in the bottom.  This will even revive limp carrots if you didn’t get them prepped soon enough.  I cut beet tops off, chop and wash the greens and put the greens into one bag, the beets into another. Beet tops will wilt within a day if left on the beets, but this way they stay perky for days, giving you time to find a use for them (such as steamed with butter, or in a stirfry).

As much as I hate plastic bags, putting veggies in them considerably extends their life span (of both the veggies and the usefulness of the bags).  I’m able to keep herbs fresh for well over a week that would normally be limp in a couple of days.  Some herbs I put in glasses of water either in the fridge or on the window sill.  These include basil, mint, thyme & oregano, chives and lovage.  But dill and cilantro, and other finely cut herbs, go into zip-lock bags with a spritz of water and stay quite fresh.  I use milk bags – washed and dried with their tops cut open – for long items like green onions.Green onions actually continue to grow if you put a little water in the bottom of their bag!

My fridge and crisper are now filled with plastic bags containing various fresh veggies.  Other than lettuce, all salad items are in clear bags in the crisper.  I can just pull the whole drawer out and rifle through it to make my salad.  I am a very visual person and need to see what I have in order to remember that it’s there, although my chalk board system is helping with the larger items wrapped in opaque grocery bags.  Having everything wrapped also helps contain the mess should something spoil, although this happens a lot less often now that I use this system.

Because I refuse to buy plastic bags, and refuse to accept them at stores, I have a finite number of plastic bags in my house.  I treat them as a valuable resource and take good care of them.  Upon emptying, each one is washed and hung to dry.  I have to admit that I hate washing plastic bags, and if I don’t clean them immediately, I tend to leave them until they get moldy, at which point I end up throwing them out.  That leaves me feeling pretty guilty, which has motivated me to stay on top of my bag washing.

My former roommate had a good system for washing plastic bags that I have adopted.  Very simply, after washing you clip the bags to a hanger with clothes pegs, then hook the hanger over a cupboard knobs or other hooks around the kitchen.  I’ll post a photo when I find batteries that work for my camera.  The only reason I would throw out a plastic bag is if it’s ripped or if it has held meat or oil.  Oil is all but impossible to clean out of a bag, and I simply don’t trust that I can get it clean enough once it’s held meat.  I do try to put both of these items into glass containers for easy cleaning, and to save the bags.  But it can’t always be avoided (and yes, I do feel mighty guilty any time I throw one out).

Well I’m finished my daily greens and am now ready to make that potato salad.  The original recipe can be found here.  My slightly modified version (based on what items I had in my kitchen) is as follows:

1lb new potatoes (or chopped adult potatoes), steamed

Combine:
1 tbsp capers, drained
1 green onion or baby leek, chopped finely
1/2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp mustard powder
fresh dill, finely chopped (or other fresh herbs)
1/4 tsp sea salt

Toss the above with potatoes and grated cheddar cheese, to taste (I probably put in about half a cup).  Voila!  Super simple, super delicious.  I found that it tasted even better the second day, not that there was much left.