Wednesday, April 26, 2017

You Don't Have To

You don’t have to be cranky before morning coffee.

You don’t have to replace a pair of jeans when they rip.

You don’t have to wear make-up.

You don’t have to show your anger when you feel it.

You don’t have to own a set of matching dishes.

You don’t have to post everything on social media.

You don’t have to be available to your friends 24/7.

You don’t have to let other people’s opinions affect you.

You don’t have to buy that thing you’ve been wanting to buy for ages.

You don’t have to feel bad about things you did that are forgiven.

You don’t have to say yes to commitments.

You don’t have to have a great phone.

You don’t have to follow traditions.

You don’t have to be responsible for other people’s feelings.

You don’t have to binge on Netflix.

You don’t have to keep accumulating possessions.

You don’t have to be ambitious.

You don’t have to compare yourself to others.

You don’t have to be busy.

You don’t have to have to brag about how sleep-deprived you are.

You don’t have to do something just because “everyone does it.”

You don’t have to do or feel anything that is pushed onto you by culture, by other people, and most of all by yourself. If you want to, that’s fine. But don’t fool yourself into believing you have to do something if you really don’t.

I tell this to myself every day.


Sunday, April 23, 2017

How to Make Ricotta Cheese

Whey and curds!

Last week, I tried making whole-milk ricotta for the first time, after several times of glancing over articles that raved about how easy it was. Was it really that easy? Yes it was. 

I followed these instructions from The Kitchn, using bottled lemon juice. The cheese tasted lemony, which isn’t a bad thing, but you if you want a more neutral taste, using vinegar or citric acid would probably be a better choice.

I won’t plagiarize The Kitchn’s excellent instructions, but here are some photos from my adventure:

Heating the milk took some time, but I just washed dishes while I was waiting.

I didn't have cheesecloth, so I just used a cloth napkin. Worked like a charm.

Spooning the curds into the napkin to drain the whey through the colander into the bowl.

Although the instructions didn't call for it, I hung the curds to drain. They turned out pretty dry, so if I had wanted a moister cheese, I should've let the curds gently drain for 10 minutes rather than 20.

Again, these curds could've been less dry, but I wanted a firmer cheese.

The finished cheese.

I added ricotta and spinach from my garden to make a chunky tomato sauce. Yummy!

This is probably the easiest kind of cheese to make (after kefir cheese, of course), and doesn’t require any special equipment or weird ingredients. The texture was nice, and it was fun to make pure homemade ricotta without any additives.

Now all I need to figure out is what to do with the quart of leftover whey! Any suggestions?


Thursday, April 20, 2017

What I've Been Reading: A Round-Up (Part Two)

(Read Part One here.)

In the past few months, I’ve been devouring any book on permaculture that I can find (I’m working my way through The Permaculture Handbook right now— review to follow when I finish the tome). Here are some of the gems I’ve discovered.

You guys already know that I’m a Toby Hemenway fangirl, and this book just strengthened that conviction. I expected a book about urban gardening, but what I got was that and so much more: it’s essentially a field guide to leveraging our place in the city to create ecological sustainability. Unlike many back-to-nature types, Hemenway loved cities and saw their incredible potential for creativity and cooperation. 

The book discusses both nuts-and-bolts logistics, such as growing in contaminated soil or harvesting greywater, and permaculture theory, explaining what makes city dwellers uniquely suited to caring for the earth. He begins by discussing permaculture’s tenets in detail, then shows how these principles apply to food, water, energy, livelihood, community empowerment, and resilience.

The book is a lot to absorb, and builds considerably on Gaia’s Garden, which I would recommend reading first. I’m certain I’ll return in a year or two and read through The Permaculture City again, hoping to internalize more of the concepts and work through how to put them into practice. In the meantime, this book is thought-provoking and empowering, encouraging me to embrace my place in the city and see the patterns, edges, and opportunities all around me.

I loved this book! Toensmeier, who helped pioneer the permaculture idea of a “food forest,” talks about his and his friend’s experience growing one in their suburban yard. From choosing plants to designing guilds to dealing with legal regulations, the authors walk us through their process of putting their concepts into practice.

As someone who wants to create my own version of a food forest, this book was wonderfully helpful. I enjoyed seeing the permaculture concepts in action: Toensmeier is honest about his failures as well as his successes, and talks about their techniques in a down-to-earth way. The writing might be a bit technical for someone who is just dipping their toe into the permaculture world, but this is an excellent follow-up to Gaia’s Garden. I like having a clear picture in my head of what abstract theories look like in practice, and this book was exactly what I was looking for.

This is more of a memoir than a how-to book (although it contains some how-to sections) about Ableman’s work with the nonprofit urban farm, Sole Food, in Vancouver, BC. He describes their journey through a maze of government regulations, site contamination, unstable drug-addicted workers, theft, and a host of other problems, without attempting to sanitize the process or make us think that the farm is a solution to the myriad problems that plague the inner city. I appreciate his honesty as he shows both the joys and burdens of his journey.

The book is arranged oddly, categorizing some pieces of the story by sequence and some by topic. In the end it felt more like a series of vignettes than a cohesive story, and eventually these somewhat unconnected pieces began to drag. I still read the whole book because of my desire to see models of urban agriculture, and for anyone with an interest in social justice, it’s still definitely worth a read. However, if someone is looking to understand the nuts and bolts of growing food in a small space, Paradise Lot is a better bet.

What have you been reading? 


Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What I've Been Reading: A Round-Up (Part One)

In looking back through my “What I’ve Been Reading” posts, I realized that there are several books that got left out. I’m a naturally fast reader, and have also made an effort to blade through more books in the past year, so I’ve kept my library account busy! Here’s a sampling of the books that I’ve read over the past several months but forgot to mention.

This is a sort of sequel or epilogue to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a manifesto about basic, commonsense rules for healthy eating: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I almost felt like I had already read the book, since so many whole-foods bloggers recite his rules with religious fervor. I appreciate his premise: that Americans are obsessed with nutrients and care little about actual food, thinking that “healthy” food is disgusting and the only way to be healthy is to deprive yourself. This book encourages helpful attitudes about eating, such as enjoying meals, avoiding mindless snacking, sharing food with other people, and taking time to make things from scratch.

I’ve read some pretty scathing rebuttals to this book which point out that Pollan has a starry-eyed view of growing food/cooking and that one of the triumphs of the modern world is having the luxury not to cook. While I agree with that on some level, I think Pollan, as a journalist, is simply sharing his passion for gardening and cooking, and arguing that Americans could devote the energy they spend on counting calories in their fast-food meal to making simple homemade food instead. And I can definitely get behind that. 

In the end, this is a good quick read, but The Omnivore’s Dilemma is much better.

This memoir, about the author’s long journey from cattle ranching to bison ranching, is a captivating read. O’Brien loves South Dakota, and makes you love it too as you read the story, which he narrates in a spellbinding way. It’s part autobiography, part history, part travelogue, and part agricultural commentary. Highly recommended!

I’ve written about this book before, and I just reread it. The concepts she presents were so new to me the first time I read this, so it’s nice to come back with a little more experience and think about how plastic ties to other areas of ecology and social responsibility. As before, this book is encouraging and practical, motivating me to continue my journey toward a life of less plastic and more sustainability.

Tomorrow... Part Two!


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

How to Bring Something New into Your Life without Shopping

Lettuce and celery: cut off the bottoms, place in water until sprouted, then plant in soil. Not very edible, but pretty!

Although I’ve never considered myself a shopping addict, I do enjoy purchasing new-to-me items. Shopping, especially thrift-shopping, has the thrill of the hunt, the excitement of finding a good bargain, and the inclusion of something new in your life. However, the fun is usually short-lived, and spending money, even a few dollars here and there, adds up over time. Our desire to fill our life with things can be an unhealthy addiction, one that masks insecurity, fear, boredom, or other emotional issues that we need to address. 

That said, though, I think the human instinct for newness is perfectly natural; it’s just a matter of knowing how to channel that instinct in a productive way. So the next time you feel the impulse to go shopping, try one of these ideas instead!

Check out a new book/movie/CD/video game from the library. I get a thrill every time I find a good book at the library! I love being able to absorb new ideas and challenge my mind in new ways— but I can do that without actually owning the book. (See these other ideas for using the library to its fullest potential.)

Host a swap meet. Decide on an item, invite some friends, and swap what you own! Clothing swaps are common among my friends, but the possibilities for this are endless: household goods, tea, nail polish, plants or seeds, cookies, accessories, freezer meals, homemade cards, board games, books, etc. This is a great chance to give away stuff you don’t need as well, so ideally you end up with some new-to-you items and a lot fewer items in general. Everyone wins!

Decorate your home and yourself with what you already have. Most of us have more than enough decorations, accessories, furnishings, and clothes— it’s just a matter of being creative. Last week I was upset that we still had our TV sitting on two plastic bins since we haven’t been able to find a table the right size. So I grabbed our DVD/game bookshelf, flipped it on its side, and put the TV on top of it. This kind of repurposing works for all kinds of things: hang up necklaces and scarves as window treatments, put potted plants in chipped bowls and coffee mugs, toss some pine cones from the backyard into a glass bowl as a centerpiece, cover the ugly chair with a throw blanket, wear the skirt as a dress, hang all your rings on a necklace, and wear patterns and styles that aren’t “supposed” to go together, just to shake things up. The mantra I often repeat to myself is, “Everything you need, you already have.”

Learn a new skill. There’s no sense in buying things when what you really need is just a change of pace. The rule for this step is that you can’t spend any money on learning the skill! Again, the library is a great resource: ours lends out cake pans, telescopes, and yoga equipment, as well as language learning tapes and books on every hobby and skill you can imagine. Learning to make a soufflĂ©, sketch a landscape, or build a garden bed out of scrap wood are great ways to bring something new and interesting into your life.

Walk somewhere. Sometimes, the restlessness for new stuff is just your body crying out for a change of scenery. So put on those shoes, walk out your door, and get lost! Pay attention to the details around you and try to find beauty in what you see. When you get home, hopefully you’ll be able to see what you already have in a new light— and that’s the most important step of all.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Putting the "Travel" in "Traveling Mandolin"

This was awesome. (2011)

This was also awesome. (2013)

Most of you know that I used to travel... a lot. I used to be constantly planning for the next trip, beginning at age 20 with a solo month-long trip to Bellingham, Washington, and ending at 25 with the Pacific Crest Trail. When Zach and I returned from that six-month phase of life, we were returning to settle down for real.

We bought a house. We joined the Historic Frenchtown Association, and I became the secretary. We planted fruit trees and got Internet service. I raged and wept through a lot of existential angst, and came out the other side smiling and settled. I had been a bird, I said, but now I’m a tree.

Several weeks ago when we were visiting Zach’s grandparents in Sacramento, we were talking about work or change or routine or something like that, I don’t really remember. I just remember bursting out, “We should take an epic road trip!”

Zach balked at the suggestion, out of practicality. We talked through it. We sat down and did the calculations— there’s no way we could afford this, right? Oh wait, I think we can, if we just have this budget. Twenty dollars a day for two people? Pfft, yeah, I could do that! I have done that! We can totally do this!

So in mid-May, we are throwing three months’ worth of possessions into our backpacks, leaving our house in the care of Zach’s brother, and hitting the road! The trip begins with driving my brother to his job in Yellowstone, but from there we’re ditching the rental car and hopping the Greyhound. We’re sending in applications to HelpXing hosts right now, and hoping to meet up with Zach’s dad later in the summer to travel for a while. If all goes well, we’ll be home by the eclipse in late August.

Planning for the trip— reactivating my HelpX profile after several years, figuring out free camping spots, plotting Greyhound stations, looking for volunteer opportunities— has been so much fun. I had forgotten how fun trip-planning is. I had forgotten how much I missed this.

And yet, along with that excitement, I realize that if we had decided to stay home over the summer, I would’ve been just as happy. This is somewhat of a surprise to me, but I’m okay with it. There’s so much I want to do in St. Charles— gardening, neighborhood projects, urban homesteading skills, chicken-keeping, community building— and I can’t wait to do it. 

I feel like I should feel torn between these two halves of me, this longing for travel and longing for home that have been part of me for so many years.

But I don’t. In fact, I feel more whole than I’ve felt for a very long time. I love the idea of traveling, and I love the idea of staying home— but where I expect conflict between these extremes, I find harmony instead. 

Apparently I’m a tree and a bird at the same time. I don’t question this. I simply embrace it.

In the meantime, if any of you has suggestions for places to visit or things to do in the western United States, please send me your ideas! This is an open-ended trip, and we’re keeping all the possibilities in mind. Thanks!


Thursday, April 13, 2017

What Zach's Been Reading: "Flour Water Salt Yeast" by Ken Forkish

A while back, Zach stumbled upon Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza at— you guessed it— our good ol’ local library. He’s been interested in baking for years, and had treated me to some loaves that I adored but he didn’t because they fell short of the Platonic ideal he was looking for. However, inspired by this book, he started up a sourdough “pet” and soon began making the most delicious artisan loaves I have ever tasted. Even he thinks they’re great! After several months of using the recipes and checking and re-checking the book out from the library, we finally bought it on Amazon and added it to our collection.

Forkish, who owns a bread/pizza kitchen in Portland, is passionate about teaching home bakers to make bread that is just as good as a professional’s loaf. This attitude appeals to Zach’s sensibilities: making bread requires care, precision, and good technique. (I prefer to slop through things, which is why I’m glad Zach enjoys baking and brewing.) There is some special equipment involved because bread only forms a perfect crust under a very specific set of circumstances, in this case a cast iron Dutch oven that evens out the heat and maintains high humidity. 

The book begins with some general instructions that apply to all kinds of bread-making, then moves on to chapters that each discuss a specific method— such as “straight doughs” or “levain [sourdough] doughs”— including several recipes to illustrate each style. Zach’s favorite go-to recipe is the “Overnight Country Blonde,” a sourdough loaf that encapsulates everything wonderful about bread: chewy crust, airy crumb, superb flavor. He’s also tried a 75% whole wheat recipe from the book, which was surprisingly light and had a delicious nutty flavor, as well as a pizza crust that considerably elevated the quality of that meal. I’m excited to see what other recipes he tries!

In short, if you’re interested in baking as a hobby/art, rather than just a day-to-day cooking task, I highly recommend this book. The methods are foolproof, and being able to offer someone a steaming boule of homemade artisan bread is one of the great joys of life.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

This Week (Spring Cleaning, Memoir Notes, and a Garden of Weeds)

It’s been a busy week and a half! I’m at the beginning of my spring break right now, which means I’ve had time to devote to some fun projects, which makes me very happy. For instance...

Two Saturdays ago, Frenchtown hosted a “Neighborhood Spring Cleaning,” where we amassed some dumpsters and invited people to bring their bulky garbage, recycling, and yard waste. A bunch of neighbors gathered together to drive around with trailers to gather curbside trash, a local church set up a grill and made hot dogs for the volunteers, and the rest of us sorted garbage, heaved mildewed couches and shards of old siding into dumpsters, and scavenged all sorts of treasures for ourselves. I walked away from that day with aching muscles, some great neighborhood bonding time, and a stepladder, some paving stones, a flower planter, and some old windows to use for making cold frames. Next time, I’m going to plan ahead and use all the windows I find to make a greenhouse. 

The clean-up was a great time, and it also made me more mindful of the amount of waste in my life. Throwing away broken cheap items, or nicer items that had been neglected, reaffirmed my desire to buy the nicest things I can, and take good care of them. Some people genuinely can’t afford high-quality items, but those of us who can should focus on purchasing fewer nicer items instead of a bunch of cheap ones.

After the neighborhood spring cleaning I got to relax, but Zach spent the rest of the weekend helping my brother build a retaining wall in my parents’ yard. Digging ditches in clay is no easy task, but they did a great job!

My next project of the week involved my memoir— I took copious notes of the scenes that I have in my newly-butchered version, and wrote notes to myself trying to identify the overarching themes. I think I’m closer to figuring out how to make the story feel more cohesive, and how to frame the story through the lens of dealing with insecurity. We’ll see how it goes.

Last Saturday, I took advantage of the nice weather to work on a garden project I’ve been wanting to do for some time: adding paving stones and creeping plants to the pea gravel around one of our square foot gardens. Originally I wanted to use thyme, but when I observed the site I noticed that a beautiful creeping weed was already going there. Why mess with that? This inspired me, and I transplanted several “weeds” from the backyard into my little rock garden, including a clump of violets, my favorite flower. I was pleased with the results!

At that point I was on a roll, so I divided and transplanted some hostas, sheet-mulched our dormant square foot garden, then tore up a wider circle of turf around our apple trees and filled it in with mulch. (I’m going to transplant some helpful plants into the apple bed, but the sun was too hot by the time I finished to do that.) By this time it was mid-afternoon and I was sweating like a hog, but I felt like I earned my shower that day. I’ve been achy ever since, but it feels good.

Hostas with two planters of thyme

What have you been up to this week?


Sheet mulch step 1: Cardboard

Step 2: Straw

Step 3: Leaves

Step 4: Planter with nasturtium seeds and a trellis so the bed looks somewhat intentional

Monday, April 10, 2017

In Defense of Weeds

Purple deadnettle in my backyard

This year, I’ve noticed that my lawn has considerably improved its biodiversity.

(That’s code for, “There are a lot of weeds in my yard.”)

But I’m okay with the weeds’ presence— more than okay, I’m happy about it! Although I try to keep the front yard looking as tidy as I can for the sake of the neighbors, I’ve been actively encouraging the deadnettle, dandelions, violets, and clumps of clover in my backyard, mowing around them whenever I can. Why? I’m so glad you asked...

Weeds feed the bees. There aren’t too many flowers blooming yet, so honey and bumble bees in my neighborhood rely on dandelions, violets, and deadnettle for their early-spring feeding. The more different kinds of flowers there are for bees, the better!

Weeds have practical uses. Dandelions, plantain, and chicory are “nutrient accumulators,” which means they dredge nutrients from the subsoil and make it available to surrounding plants. Their leaves make great mulch for this reason. Clover in is the legume family, which means it fixes nitrogen in the soil. And of course, you can also eat a lot of “weeds,” too— although I’d rather mulch with my dandelion leaves than eat them.

Weeds are great at covering bare soil. Nature hates uncovered ground, and weeds jump in to the rescue, sprouting up where nothing else will to prevent erosion and build healthy soil. For instance, there was a bare patch on the ground where I had a planter last year, but a crop of deadnettle popped up to cover the hole with beautiful foliage and tiny purple flowers. It’s a little flower garden that I don’t have to plant or tend.

Regardless or whether or not you choose to keep weeds on your lawn, it’s time we started appreciating weeds for the hard work they do. Long live the dandelion!


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

How to Make Cheap Food Taste Good

Sweet potato shreds and frozen kale: drown in curry powder, fry in butter with eggs, and enjoy the awesomeness.

For most of my life, I’ve eaten cheap food. Beans, pasta, rice, old bread, bulk-discount chicken breast, ground beef, sub-par vegetables, bruised fruit— all have been staple parts of my diet for as long as I can remember. Over the years, as I’ve refined my diet, I’ve learned a lot of tricks for helping make cheap food tasty as well as nourishing. For instance:

1. Stir-fries, smoothies, salads, soups, burritos, and other combination-heavy foods are your friend. Sure, a simple “American-style” dish of separate ingredients is nice, but if the green beans are freezer-burned and the potatoes were mushy even before you cooked them, they’re not going to stand alone very well on their own. You’ll do much better if they’re smothered in a sauce (see point #4) and mixed with a bunch of other elements, rather than the star of their own dish.

2. Learn to understand how food can be incorporated into a new dish. The most famous example is using stale bread to make French toast or bread pudding, but the concept applies to veggies as well. During the summer, my mom passes on damaged produce from a local stand to me and several other people, so I’m often rooting through boxes of mushy tomatoes, browning kale, or wilted carrots, all of which can be saved with proper treatment. The tomatoes, for instance, are not destined for a nice Caprese salad, but a heavily-seasoned pasta sauce. Instead of making a salad with the kale, I trim off the brown spots and freeze for smoothies, where you can’t taste it anyway. The carrots aren’t suitable for raw snacking, but I can use them to make broth or soup.

3. Invest in spices. Let’s face it: beans and rice are bland, and cheap veggies usually are too, so having a good stash of spices helps you stretch your dollars. I use ground chile, cumin, garlic, onion, paprika, and crushed red pepper (and salt and freshly-ground pepper) a lot. Spice blends like curry powder and chili powder are nice, too.

4. Learn how to make sauces. This is related to the previous point— if you have some discount veggies or a plain bowl of pasta, a sauce can make all the difference. (Right now I’m addicted to this Kung Pao sauce, which made even Zach willing to eat Brussels sprouts.) It’s also nice to have some pre-made sauces around, such as nice jarred pasta sauce, homemade vinaigrette, or Sriracha. 

5. Use aromatics and garnishes. A little garlic, onion, ginger, or crushed red pepper can go a long way in making food taste better, and garnishes such as olives, capers, and jarred roasted red peppers make anything taste classier.

6. Cook with fat. Fat is tasty. Fat keeps you full. Don’t be afraid of fat! Investing in real butter and olive oil will make your food taste a lot better. If you eat meat, you can save the lard/tallow and use it for frying or sautĂ©ing.

Do you have any tips to add to this? How do you make your cheap food taste delicious?