Friday, May 29, 2009

Pick-your-own Strawberries Make Delicious Memories

This morning I had my first strawberry. I picked it freshly washed by the rain and savored its amazing flavor. Eat a fresh picked strawberry and you’ll never be happy with the chemically laden, yellow sided ones you find stacked in your grocery store. Around here strawberry season has officially begun. Look for local strawberries wherever you shop, but if you really want to experience strawberries, find a pick-your-own patch. Nothing like setting your kid down in the strawberry patch and letting them have at it, while you pick bucketfuls yourself. Sure, they might ingest a little dirt and maybe a few bugs, but I’ve never had one get sick and all three have stuffed their bellies every summer since they were born. Even strawberries grown on a non-organic farm are going to be better for you than the ones you buy at the grocery store. Most likely the rain has washed off any of the fruit sprays that were applied and since they haven’t been washed, preserved, and packaged for the market, they are still relatively “organic”. Strawberries don’t keep well. You probably already know this from finding the moldy ones in your fruit drawer. Imagine what has been done to them to enable them to remain ‘strawberry like’ since a few weeks ago when they were picked in California. No, opt for local and pick-your-own if possible if you really love strawberries.

We are blessed with an abundance of strawberry farms around here and an article in this morning’s paper had plenty to choose from. They also listed some tips for picking your own from the site It’s a great site where you can find pick-your-own farms near you. It also has directions for canning and freezing the produce you pick. Here’s what they said about strawberries:
Tips on How to Pick Strawberries
1. Grasp the stem just above the berry between the forefinger and the thumbnail and pull with a slight twisting motion.
2. With the stem broken about one-half inch from the berry, allow it to roll into the palm of your hand.
3. Repeat these operations using both hands until each holds 3 or 4 berries.
4. Carefully place - don't throw - the fruit into your containers. Repeat the picking process with both hands.
5. Don't overfill your containers or try to pack the berries down.

General Picking Tips
Whether you pick strawberries from your garden or at a Pick-Your-Own farm, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1. Be careful that your feet and knees do not damage plants or fruit in or along the edge of the row.
2. Pick only the berries that are fully red. Part the leaves with your hands to look for hidden berries ready for harvest.
3. To help the farmers, also remove from the plants berries showing rot, sunburn, insect injury or other defects and place them between the rows behind you. If they are left in the plants, the rot will quickly spread to other berries.
4. Berries to be used immediately may be picked any time, but if you plan to hold the fruit for a few days, try to pick in the early morning or on cool, cloudy days. Berries picked during the heat of the day become soft, are easily bruised and will not keep well.
5. Avoid placing the picked berries in the sunshine any longer than necessary. It is better to put them in the shade of a tree or shed than in the car trunk or on the car seat. Cool them as soon as possible after picking. Strawberries may be kept fresh in the refrigerator for two or three, depending upon the initial quality of the berry. After a few days in storage, however, the fruit loses its bright color and fresh flavor and tends to shrivel.

And then what do you do with the strawberries once you get your haul home? Well, if you can’t eat them all fresh, you can freeze them. There are two ways I like to freeze them, but they both start off the same way.

First, wash the strawberries and hull them. Hulling means popping off the green top and the “hull” (the white tasteless center stalk that connects the green top to the berry). You can just cut off the tops, as lots of people do. This sometimes leaves part of the hull in the strawberry but, like I said, it’s tasteless and very small. You can also use a strawberry huller which is a small tool with a round, jagged edge end that pulls the hull out of a strawberry. I prefer to use a strawberry huller because you waste less strawberry and I love strawberries too much to waste any.

After you’ve washed and hulled them if you want to freeze them as whole berries you need to remove as much water as possible. I have a salad spinner that has a berry basket in it and it works great as long as it isn’t overloaded. I think a standard salad spinner might also do the trick. Another option is to just leave your berries in a colander to strain for 10 minutes.

Once they are as dry as possible, spread them out on a cookie sheet or tray and put them in the freezer overnight. In the morning you can fill freezer bags with them, being sure to remove as much air as possible.

The other way to freeze strawberries is to prepare them as a topping for ice cream or a starter for strawberry pie or jam. To do this, cut them in to quarters, toss them with a little sugar and freeze them. When they are thawed out later they are delicious over ice cream or turned in to a strawberry pie or strawberry jam.

Whatever you decide to do with your berries, pick your own strawberries make a delicious childhood memory.

And what about growing your own? I’m sure you’ve seen the newspaper glossy ad that shows berries spilling out of a tall urn-like planter full of holes. Great concept, but not very realistic. You won’t get many berries from one pot, but it’s a nice thought and probably looks nice on your porch. If you want to really grow your own strawberries, it’s very simple. But I will caution you that weeds can easily take over a strawberry patch and get out of hand. I lost the battle to the weeds in my first strawberry patch years ago and had to till the whole thing under.

Pick a site that gets full sun. Strawberries love sun. I would advise that you make a raised bed if possible. Strawberries spread much like mint does, by sending out runners. A raised bed keeps them contained and hopefully gives you a head start on the weeds.

Strawberry plants are relatively inexpensive. I would start with about 25 plants, knowing that they will multiply on their own. Plant them in early spring after any danger of a hard frost. I think you can also plant them in the fall, but you’ll want to look it up for your area. Now comes the hard part. The first year you will get lots of beautiful little white strawberry flowers and you will think yes! Those flowers will become my strawberries! Sorry to be the one to tell you, but if you want a good strong perennial crop of strawberries for years to come, you will have to sacrifice this year’s crop by pinching off all those flowers. Yes, you have to. I promise it will be worth it. Next year you will have twice as many flowers and twice as many strawberries and you’ll forget about this year’s pain.

It is highly recommended that you mulch your strawberries with straw to help keep down the weeds (thistle especially like to grow with strawberries) and to keep your strawberries off the ground where they can easily rot before ripening. We haven’t managed to mulch our strawberries yet. There just seems to be too many other things on our priority list that time of year. Someday I hope to though. The wet ground and the mice get too many of my berries.

Strawberries are very rewarding to grow. If you’ve got the space and the sun – go for it. Your kids will be thrilled. I tried to keep our strawberries a secret from my kids so that I could have a few myself, but they’ve all discovered them. Luckily I get up before they do!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Whatever Happened with all the Free Stuff?

It’s time to write the review for all my free stuff! In case you’re new to the storyline, I received some free products to review from the company Ecostore. Ecostore is a New Zealand based company that recently began offering their products in the US. Check them out at

When I was first invited to pick out some products to review I spent some time on the site. It’s relatively sparse and simple, which I appreciate because I’m overwhelmed by too many bells, whistles, and details. That said, I would love for them to give just a little more description on their products. It was hard to figure out which shampoo and conditioner to review because none of the descriptions seemed to fit my hair. I have very fine, straight hair that is relatively normal. The selection included products for “fine, oily hair”, “limp, greasy hair” (who admits to hair like this?), “dry damaged hair” or “dandruff control”. I opted for the aloe vera shampoo because it seemed the most appropriate for a wide range of hair. It was a good call because when the products arrived the bottle itself said it was good for “normal” hair. Note to Ecostore: You might want to expand your product descriptions.

Ecostore’s tagline “No nasty chemicals” is reassuring but somewhat vague, so I asked a Phd Chemical Engineer I know (thanks Dad!) to look over their claims and list of ingredients. He found some of the claims a bit confusing (some of the “nasty chemicals” they omit are not necessarily bad for you and one can be found in drinking water), but overall they seemed on the up and up. A few of the ingredients are listed as potential risks in the book “Cosmetics Unmasked” by Dr. Stephen & Gina Antczak. My take is that this company’s products are WAY better for me than the average product. Many of the organic body products I’ve investigated contain just a few organic ingredients and then lots of “nasty chemicals”, so it’s nice to see a company that is attempting to produce a truly good-for-you product.

I also checked with some folks I know in New Zealand to be sure this was a real company and not some mom& pop operation in someone’s garage (nothing against mom&pop operations, though). The general consensus I got from my extensive contacts (all four of them) in NZ was that the company is well-known and well-respected, makes a nice product, but is pricey. Hmmm.

But what you really want to know is whether it works or not, right? My experience has been a mostly good one. I loved the scent of the shampoo and conditioner – clean with a kind of cilantro-like scent. The shampoo lathered up pretty well for an “organic” product. It did a great job and I like the feel of my hair after using the shampoo and conditioner, but as I’ve said, I have very fine hair. A detangling conditioner this is not. It was really tough to get a comb through my hair and I had to resort to a spray-in detangler that my kids use (lovely artificial strawberry scent that totally killed my nice cilantro-scent, the combination was not good). So I guess I can say they make a nice product, but maybe not for my particular hair.

The other product that I tried out was the automatic dishwashing detergent. This I did really like. It worked much better than the 7th generation and Ecover products that I’ve used in the past. I purposely tried to mess with it by leaving things like encrusted oatmeal on the kids’ bowls and peanut butter on the knives, but I couldn’t trip it up. The most amazing thing was that it could clean my tiny yogurt jars. None of my other detergents have been able to do that and I’ve had to wash them by hand, which is annoying because it hurts to get my hands down in to them to get the stuff on the bottom. I would buy this product based on this fact alone (we eat a lot of yogurt). There were times I wasn’t completely happy with how clean the outside of my glasses were. This must have something to do with the rinse cycle. Sometimes there were little specks of unidentifiable objects on the outsides. The insides were squeaky clean though.

All that said, I have to come to my bottom line. This stuff is pricey. I don’t generally pay $11 for a small bottle (6.8oz) of shampoo. I do buy a bottle of expensive shampoo to keep for special occasions, but not for every day use. I run almost every day, so I have to wash my hair almost every day. I can’t afford to do that at $11 a bottle. But maybe you can and I’m jealous. I think the dishwasher detergent is equally pricey, but you use such a concentrated amount, it seems to last forever. I might go in for that. I love that the company offers free shipping on orders of $25 or more. Paying a fortune in shipping is a deal breaker for me when it comes to ordering online.

I’ve really enjoyed my first foray in to evaluating FREE products and hope a few more companies stumble across my blog. I’m glad Ecostore has come to the US. We need more companies like this that are serious about making a safe, effective, earth-conscious, healthy product. So many companies are jumping on the green band wagon these days and producing products that look green and make grand claims, but in reality are simply the same old product with a few changes. Many times they’ve only added a few organic ingredients or removed a couple toxic substances, changed their packaging and raised their prices. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad companies are hearing us and moving in the direction of what’s better for all of us and the earth. The thing is we need complete change and it doesn’t happen overnight. You can’t change your manufacturing process instantly; that takes time. We need more companies, like Ecostore, who understand the dangers and have been doing the right thing all along.

Just a reminder – Ecostore has given me a $25 e-gift certificate to award to one of my readers. We’re going to do the drawing this weekend. It’s not too late to get your name in the drawing. All you have to do is send me an idea for my blog and I’ll enter your name once for every idea you send me. You can enter by commenting on this post or sending your idea to me directly at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

One More Time With Gusto

If you are an organized gardener you know about succession planting. It’s something I aspire too but somehow can’t seem to master. My gardening style is a bit free form and-what-am-I-in-the-mood-to-do-today. But this weekend I actually managed to plant another couple batches of lettuce in some old flower boxes that have taken the dive from our deck one too many times. I’m not sure if a careless cat or a careless Frisbee sent them sailing, but at any rate they are cracked and missing their edges enough so as to not be presentable. But they’re just fine for extra garden space and make an excellent lettuce box. I’m loving my current crop of lettuce – prizehead especially – tastes like a butter lettuce. Fresh salads for lunch and dinner from here until the first frost if I’m successful with succession planting.

Succession planting simply means planting another crop of something you’ve already planted. Ideally (and here’s where the organized gardener has the advantage) you space out your planting so that you have a constant ripe crop of said vegetable. This doesn’t work with everything, especially vegetables that have a short growing period. And some successions have to be spaced out to avoid the worst heat of the summer. You can plant a second crop of peas again in late July/early August to get a fall crop. There is some faith and chance involved in second crops. There are years the early frosts kill your efforts. There are many summers when I put in my second crop of peas as soon as my first start climbing the trellis. I love sugar snap peas enough to chance a few seeds for a July crop of peas. And it has worked out some years, but most years the heat kills my peas before I get a true crop. Still, to me it’s worth a try – it’s only seeds.

Beans are a natural successionist (new word – I just coined it). You can plant a new crop as soon as your first looks like it will make it. Depending on how much you like to eat/freeze beans there is no end to your summer bean crop since they can tolerate the heat and they grow quick.

My advice when it comes to vegetable gardens is grow what you like and grow LOTS of what you love. Just because beans are easy to grow doesn’t mean you have to plant them. I only like one type – an heirloom seed called Montpelier French filet bean. Yum. So that’s all I grow. The rest of the family isn’t big in to green beans either, so there are no complaints. Tomatoes, peppers, asparagus, strawberries, and lettuce are my first loves so they take up the largest patch of real estate. Anyone can figure out your tastes by a quick glance at your garden.

Weather, varmints, and seeds can all surprise you, so it’s not too late to plant something. There’s always something to do besides weed. Experiment and see what you can grow. It’ll just cost you a few seeds. Besides putting in that next crop of lettuce or beans, here’s a few other things that need to be done this week:

1. Prune the lilacs. If you have lilacs don’t forget that they need to be pruned after they bloom (not in the winter like so many trees and shrubs).

2. Plant more lettuce. You can never have enough. Plant them in boxes or find a shaded spot in your garden (under the peppers or broccoli?).

3. If you’re planting corn, nows the time. Watermelon too. I’d hold off another week or two on pumpkins and guords if you want them timed out to be ready for Halloween.

4. Watch your farmer’s market – it’s just about time for strawberries! I’ve already spotted a couple red ones in our patch! And find somewhere you can “pick your own” with the kids.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Food Hangovers

Have you ever had a food hangover? I’m convinced they are much worse than an alcohol induced hangover. For one thing there’s all the guilt, never mind the physical pain. My birthday was yesterday and I celebrated it thoroughly, which is good – wine, cheese, shrimp, pesto, fruit, and homemade delectable chocolate peanut butter cupcakes eaten in the sunshine at a winery with girlfriends (thanks Lisa and Amy). I should have stopped with that because it only got worse from there. My husband arrived home early from work with a Key Lime Cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory (my absolute favorite non-organic, not-good-for-you-possibly-artery-clogging dessert). We went out to dinner at a fabulous Italian restaurant and besides sharing a mussels and marinara appetizer, I managed to eat a big salad, way too much bread (had to try each kind!) and even a few bites of the seafood fettuccini I ordered. It must have been the wonderful Italian wine that convinced me I could eat that too. The fettuccini sits in my refrigerator today mocking me. This hangover I’m struggling with has me re-thinking all of it. And the thought of any of it, at least the things I ate, makes my stomach reel.

I try to eat “clean” as much as possible. To me eating clean is no processed food, lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, real dairy, grass-fed meats and all of it as organic as possible. So yesterday I really fell off my wagon. You might even say it was more of a swan dive off the wagon. At any rate, I’m paying for it today.

Just in case you’ve never experienced a food hangover for yourself, I’ll describe the symptoms. Any or all of the following: bloated belly, uncomfortable guts (I don’t know which are the anatomically correct organs to pinpoint, I just know everything inside me feels out of place), dry mouth, exhaustion, guilt, headache, sleepiness, upset stomach, loss of appetite, and way too many trips to the bathroom. Have I mentioned them all? I’m sure I missed something.

Here’s how I handle food hangovers:
1) Drink water constantly. I’ve never had a “cleanse”, but I’ve read about them. I can’t imagine going without food and drinking some of the awful things required, but by drinking glass after glass of water I do feel like I’m flushing things out of my system faster. Adding large amounts of real lemon juice to the water is supposed to be really good for flushing your system also. I just try to keep a water bottle at my side all day and drink whenever my body reminds me how much pain it’s in, which is often.
2) Exercise. And I’m not talking about a quiet little walk for your poor, bloated body. I’m talking about working up a real sweat. I go for a long, long run if possible. I think sweat is the best way to cleanse your body of a food hangover, oncoming cold, or even allergies. I know I feel better after my run. Today was no different.
3) Eat really, really, really healthy. Even though you feel guilty and miserable, now is not the time to stop eating. Eat lots of fruit. Eat the things your body knows. I got up and ate my regular breakfast even though I wasn’t the least bit hungry. I knew I wouldn’t want to eat lunch because I felt so bad so I picked a beautiful baby greens salad by thinning my lettuce and added my favorite dressing and cashews. I feel better.

I looked up food hangovers online and the advice for dealing with them was pretty similar to mine except they wanted you to be gentler with yourself. As nice as that sounds, I’ve found that doesn’t make me feel better. Laying around just makes me sleepy and the guilt grows as more things get left undone. Best to get back at it. It’s a bump in the road but it’s my own fault so there’s no sense dwelling on it.

I think anyone can get a food hangover whenever they force their body to eat too much of anything or too much of a food they are not accustomed to. If you are used to eating Big Macs and fries for lunch every day, you’re body has adapted to it. (You’re body is not happy about it though, I guarantee it).

The inverse of a food hangover is also possible. I know that when I decided to change some harmful habits I was struck by how much better I felt instantly. When I gave up caffeine, after the initial withdrawal went away, I felt calmer, less moody, I had more energy, and needed less sleep. The best effect was that I stopped yelling at my kids so much. When I gave up processed foods I could think clearer, was incredibly more productive, and I felt happier. I don’t get stomach aches or indigestion. I have more energy, can run further, and sleep better. I think these changes could be due to the fact that my body is not under the physical stress of trying to process food it was not meant to process.

It’s the afternoon and I’m still pretty uncomfortable thanks to what I put my body through yesterday, but I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t do it again. (Of course I said the same thing after my first kid and now I’ve got three, so maybe I don’t learn my lessons so well!)

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Laundry Day

Monday is laundry day in our house. It’s taken me years to get the issue of laundry under control. In the beginning, especially when I was working at a job outside of my home, I did laundry willy-nilly, throwing in a load whenever there was a spare moment and waiting until the mound was taller than me before folding anything. This resulted in a near constant stream of laundry and some very wrinkly looks (I don’t iron). It hung over me all the time – I need to do the laundry, I need to do the laundry. It was never “done”. And once we were up to three kids the laundry threatened to overtake my life.

When I began working from home full-time, I decided that I needed to get laundry under control or it would make me nuts. I also decided that the kids needed to be aware that the laundry was being done, even if they weren’t quite old enough to do it themselves yet. And so Laundry Day was born. All the children know that if they want their clothes washed for the coming week, their laundry hamper better be in the laundry room first thing Monday morning. For awhile, my oldest solved the problem of getting his laundry in each week by just leaving the hamper in the laundry room and undressing there each night. Now I build a barricade of empty laundry hampers in front of the bathroom and they usually get the hint to put them back in their room. I know it seems like a minimal effort on their part (and it is), but it is a beginning.

Having a designated laundry day and holding the kids responsible for at least gathering and delivering their dirty laundry to the laundress took a little convincing in the beginning. There were weeks when my daughter was forced to wear every article in every drawer and on every hanger to make it through because she stubbornly refused to gather her dirty laundry. I take some responsibility for that erroneous belief. After all, for the better part of her life I dug the dirty clothes out from under the toys, books, craft projects and stuffed animals that litter her room. My youngest has the habit of pulling something out of a drawer, deciding it won’t do for that particular day and then depositing the unchosen clothing on the floor, later to be placed in the hamper, never to actually be worn.

Which brings me to another point about laundry. You don’t need to wash everything each time you wear it (or toss it on your floor unworn). When I sort the clothing coming from the offending child’s room, I take the things that have not been on his body (he makes this very easy for me since anything he has worn could easily be used on a Tide commercial) and folding it in to his clean pile. As far as my own clothes, I don’t wash them every time I wear them either. Unless I’ve been running, gardening, or messing with animals, they are most likely pretty clean. At least clean enough to save the detergent, water, and energy that it would take to wash them. And clothes break down with washing no matter how gently you wash them. Where do you think all that lint comes from? They’ll last longer if you wash them less. I give them a quick look-over and if I don’t find any food remnants, children’s finger prints, ink stains, or puppy tracks, I hang them back up. I don’t know where we learned that we needed to wash clothes so frequently. I know I didn’t have this same compulsion when I lived in college and the laundry was four floors down and required quarters. We tend to be a nation of clean freaks which isn’t good for any of us and certainly isn’t good for our environment.

Hotels are figuring this out too. Have you noticed the little signs in most hotel bathrooms these days? They say something about saving the planet by not washing towels if it’s not necessary. The drill is you leave it on the floor (just like my kids) if it needs to be washed and you hang it up if you’re willing to use it again. What a boon for the hotel industry this green trend is! Not only does it save them money in detergent, electricity, and worn out towels, but it makes their customer think well of them because they are so earth conscious. Still, I’m not complaining about their motivation, just so long as they are pitching in like the rest of us to preserve our earth.

Here’s a few other laundry trips that might make save you time or brain cells:

1) Keep a lost sock basket. Don’t try to track down the missing partner for every pair of socks. When the laundry is finished put the leftover socks in the sock basket. I assign my daughter the task of periodically going through the sock basket and pairing up socks. She loves this job. And don’t forget that leftover socks are great for cleaning mitts.

2) Keep a box or other container for clothing that needs to be repaired in your laundry room. I have an old Winnie-the-Pooh hamper from the baby nursery tucked in to my laundry room. When Grammy visits, it’s ready for her and her sewing skills (Alas, I have none).

3) Keep a box for unwearable clothing near your laundry area. Anything that is stained beyond recognition, too small, too inappropriate (my nearly 10-year-old daughter can still fit in to size 4T shorts, but that doesn’t make them appropriate!), or the wrong season, goes in this box. When it is full I take the time to divide things up between Goodwill, next sibling, next season, rag bag or compost. By waiting until I have an entire box (or two) to sort, I save time. It also means less clothing ends up piled on the dryer or the rocker in my room until I have time to put it where it belongs.

4) Keep a small container for all the items left by the laundry fairy. I don’t take the time to check pockets anymore, at least since my kids got old enough not to leave crayons or playdoh in them. So I have a large oatmeal container on a shelf above the washer where I deposit all the treasures that turn up in the washer or dryer. Each summer we take down the oatmeal canister and sort it out. We divide the spare change between the kids for our annual trip to Hershey Park. They count on it for spending money.

5) Hang shelving above your washing machine and dryer if possible. You always need more laundry space and usually this is dead space that could be utilized to hold your detergent, vinegar, measuring cups, and all the other garbage that collects on the top of the dryer.

6) Hang something educational or at least interesting in your laundry room. I fold clothes in my laundry and consequently I spend a lot of time in that room. The walls are gray (don’t know what I was thinking), so that’s depressing enough. On one wall are the marks where we measure the kids heights periodically which is nice to consider, but on the other wall I hung a huge map of the world. While I fold laundry, I study it and try to learn the names of more countries and places. This is personal effort on my part because I am incredibly bad at geography (so I can never win at Trivial Pursuit). Think of something you’d like to learn or meditate on or whatever. It makes laundry just a teeny, tiny bit more interesting.

7) Install a phone in your laundry room. You don’t need a phone jack to plug in an extension for most cordless phones. I finally thought of this after I missed phone call after phone call because I couldn’t hear it over the din of the washer and dryer. Plus, now I can pass the time along by catching up on a few phone calls while I fold. Multitasking at its best.

8) Now, I am not one to encourage you to buy things, but…buy extra laundry baskets. Their cheap and they can really simplify the putting everything away part of laundry. I dread carting everything to the different rooms and sorting it in to drawers. One day I realized that I didn’t need to be doing this for my older children. They are surely capable of putting away their own clothes. So I bought two extra baskets and now I put their clean clothes in the baskets and put the baskets on their beds (they’d never notice them if I put them on the floor amongst the mess). I’m sure you can guess what my oldest son did. He just dressed out of the basket all week. So I had to make a new rule – no basket, no laundry lady. If you don’t empty and return your basket, your clothes will remain unwashed. You wouldn’t think clean clothes would be such a motivator, but they are.

9) Keep a small container for lost buttons or other important items (like boy scout pins or school IDs) nearby for things that you can’t bring yourself to drop in to the laundry fairy stash. That way when they come up missing you know where to look.

10) Keep a pair of scissors in your laundry room for cutting off tags on new clothes and lose threads on old ones.

I’m sure you have some great laundry ideas of your own. Please pass them along. It takes a village to get the laundry done each week.

Monday, May 18, 2009

When You Pick a Pepper

Growing a garden takes a lot of imagination. That’s the best part, really - imagining what you will grow. This weekend as I studied the hot pepper seedlings for sale and read their descriptions, I imagined the food I would cook and the hot pepper jelly I could put up. I imagined the sleek red shapes of the habanero peppers and the tiny round shape of the cherry pepper. I considered the Thai Hot and decided it could be dangerous. The plants I was looking at were no more than six inches tall and had just a smattering of leaves, but deep inside them are the beginnings of some fierce enchiladas. I picked out two hot and one sweet pepper that were new to me.

For the record it is much more economical to grow your own seedlings from seeds unless you’re letting your imagination lead and you’re taking a chance on something like a hot pepper. Here’s why: First of all, who needs more than one hot pepper plant? If you’ve never grown hot peppers, let me be the first to tell you that they are pretty prolific. And if you’ve ever cooked with hot peppers you know it only takes a tiny amount to add some serious heat. One well grown hot pepper plant will easily supply me and any unsuspecting friends who stop by all summer.

The way I figure it is this – A packet of heirloom or organic seeds (that could grow me 40-50 hot pepper plants) costs $3.00. This healthy, already-grown-with-someone-else’s-time-and-trouble plant is $3.00. And after I buy this one all future peppers of this variety will be free. Truly. That’s because I’m a seed saver as I’ve said before. There was a time that I was more of a purist and would have insisted on growing the new pepper myself. These days I have drawerfulls of seed packets from years and ideas gone by. Now it’s much simpler, and more economical, to buy a seedling. If I love it, I’ll save the seeds. If I don’t, it just cost me $3.00 and I won’t have another seed packet hanging around making me feel guilty.

If you haven’t had the time or the inclination this year to start your tomatoes or peppers from seeds, you’re out of time. But choose your seedlings carefully because they could become the grandparents of tomatoes to come. Be sure to buy heirloom plants if possible and avoid hybrids (you can’t save their seeds because they have two different parents so you’ll get one or the other, but not the tomato you’ve come to know and love). The seeds and seedlings you buy at Walmart that cost just $1.25 are not a good deal because more than likely they are sterile seeds. Many of the big seed companies sterilize their seeds. That way you have to buy them again and again. So like so many other things that seem so inexpensive at first blush they will cost you more in the end.

I won’t tell you how to save seeds now, you’ll just forget, but watch for a post later in the summer when seed saving time is in full bloom. Just know that it’s easy and takes nearly no work. And while you should be picky about what you bring home for your garden (just like relatives, they could be with you for a long while), now is the time to let your imagination run wild. Take a chance on something new. It won’t cost you much.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Abundant Asparagus

They really should call it May Madness not March Madness. I don’t know if May is as crazy for you as it is for us, but let me tell you between baseball (x2), band practices & concerts, end of year activities, sixth grade graduation, birthdays, memorial day, out-of-town guests, and a traveling hubby things can get out of hand. Still there is so much to savor about this month – asparagus, the first fresh lettuce, lilacs blooming, warmer weather, and of course, Mother’s Day. So as I get ready to head in to school for Field Day and contemplate who-has-to-be-where-at-what-time to work their booths for the Family Fun Fest tonight, I thought I’d share some great recipes for asparagus since we are in the thick of asparagus season and it will be over before you know it.

We had this last night and wow- it was good. It was breakfast this morning too and it’ll probably be lunch!

Asparagus Quiche

2 teaspoons butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
5 eggs
1 ½ cups milk (I used whole milk– decadent!)
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper (more if you like it)
Pinch of nutmeg (or less because nutmeg can get out of hand)
¾ cup shredded cheese (gruyere if you’re splurging, cheddar if you prefer)

1/2 to 1 cup asparagus, steamed and chopped in to 1/2 inch pieces (use more if you want)
1 pre-baked pie crust (easy, easy, easy to make from scratch so it’s not full of preservatives and stabilizers, see recipe below)

1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Melt butter in large skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion, stirring until golden.
3. Whisk eggs, milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and ½ cup cheese until blended. Fold in asparagus.
4. Spoon onion into bottom of baked pie shell. Pour the egg mixture on top and sprinkle with remaining ¼ cup of cheese.
5. Bake until the top is golden and a knife inserted in to the center comes out clean (about 35 – 40 minutes).

I was reading a new cookbook this morning that said if you put a layer of cheese on top of your pie crust before you put in the filling it will help the crust stay crisp and flaky. So next time I’m going to try putting the cheese in first instead of mixing it in the filling.

Broiled Asparagus
This is one of my favorite ways to prepare asparagus – it’s easy, quick, and tastes divine.

fresh asparagus
olive oil spray
fresh grated lemon rind
fresh grated parmesan cheese

1. Lay asparagus out on a baking pan safe for broiling (I like to use my baking stone)
2. Spray with olive oil (or drizzle if you haven’t got a sprayer)
3. Sprinkle with sea salt and fresh ground pepper (to taste).
4. Sprinkle with grated fresh lemon rind and grated fresh parmesan cheese.
5. Broil for about 5 minutes (keep an eye on this, you don’t want to over cook).

These next two asparagus recipes come from Cooking Light Magazine. The first one I’ve made for several years and love and the second I’m planning on trying this week. (I know you could go find the recipe online but since I have dial-up, I always appreciate people who can cut and paste rather than just give the link!)

Creamy Rice with Asparagus

3 cups water
½ teaspoon salt, divided
3 cups (1 inch) sliced asparagus
1 ½ cup uncooked rice
1 tablespoon butter
2 large eggs
1 cup parmesan, divided
¼ cup chopped chives, divided
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
¼ teaspoon black pepper

1. Bring water and ¼ teaspoon salt to boil. Add asparagus; cook 5 minutes. Remove asparagus with slotted spoon. Rinse under cold water; set aside.
2. Add rice and butter to cooking liquid, cover and simmer 15-20 minutes, until done. Set aside
3. Combine ¼ teaspoon salt and eggs in small bowl, stirring with whisk. Add ¾ cups cheese, 3 Tablespoons chives, basil, lemon rind, and pepper; stir well.
4. Stir egg mixture into hot rice. Stir in asparagus; cook rice mixture over low heat for one minute or until mixture is thoroughly heated.
5. Top with one tablespoon each of cheese and chives.

Yield: 4 servings
1 cup serving = 472 calories, 14.7 g fat, 3.1g fiber, 9 points

It’s very important to use fresh basil and actual lemon rind (not dried). I’ve left out the chives when I don’t have them and it doesn’t miss them too much.

Truffled Asparagus Crostini

24 slices French bread baguette
1 pound asparagus spears
2 ½ teaspoons truffle oil (or extra virgin olive oil)
¼ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ Cup (2 ounces) grated Manchego cheese (the recipe says that if you don’t have Manchego – which I don’t and have never heard of – you can use parmigiano-reggiano cheese instead)

1. Preheat broiler.
2. Arrange baguette slices in a single layer on a large baking sheet; broil 1 minute or until lightly browned. Remove from oven; turn over and broil 1 minute or until lightly browned. Remove from oven; cool on pan,.
3. Fill a large skillet with water to a depth of 1 inch; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add asparagus; cook 2 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain and plunge into ice water; drain. Chop asparagus to measure 2 cups. Place chopped asparagus in a bowl. Add oil, salt, and pepper; toss well to coat.
4. Top each bread slice with 1 rounded tablespoon asparagus mixture; place on baking sheet. Sprinkle cheese evenly over crostini. Broil 1 minute or until cheese begins to melt. Serve warm.

What to do with leftover asparagus?? If I have leftover asparagus I would never dream of putting in my compost. It’s delicious in scrambled eggs or tossed in to a stir fry. Never waste asparagus!

Basic Pie Crust
This recipe is from the Better Homes and Garden Cookbook that my mom used. I think all mothers had this black and red plaid cookbook; it must have been a requirement. I think she used Crisco, but since I’m suspicious of Crisco, I use butter. Remember that the key to a light flaky crust is not to work the dough too much. To that end, I don’t roll out my dough. I put the pile of dough in the center of my pie plate and use my fingers to work the dough out to the edges. If you prefer to roll, no biggie, just don’t over do.

Single Crust
1 ½ Cup flour
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup shortening
4 to 5 tablespoons cold water

Sift flour and salt together; cut in shortening with pastry blender till pieces are the size of small peas. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon water over part of mixture. Gently toss with fork; push to side of bowl. Repeat till all is moistened. Form in to a ball. After your crust is set in the pan (by pushing or rolling), prick the sides and bottom well with fork (unless you are baking pie crust and filling together).

For the quiche recipe you need to bake your crust first. I put a layer of aluminum foil over my crust and then pile on dried beans and bake. The weight of the beans help the crust keep its shape so it won’t puff up and deform. I’ve never seen this, but I’ve been told. As I look at the original recipe now, it doesn’t instruct you to do the bean trick, so maybe just pricking with the fork works too. I’ll have to try that and get back to you.

Bake at 450 for 10-12 minutes.

Happy Asparagus Eating! Hey, if you've got a stellar asparagus recipe - pass it along please!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Nature Deficit Disorder

I’m reading the most fascinating book. Although nothing that is being brought to light by the studies cited surprises me. In fact, as I read I find myself muttering, “duh” on a regular basis. The book is called Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. The author, Richard Louv, expounds on the growing body of evidence linking the lack of nature in children’s lives and the rise of obesity, attention disorders, and depression.

It makes sense. How much time does the average child spend outdoors? My childhood home was in the woods. I could walk out my back door and have access to miles of woodlands. I remember building dams with my brothers, catching crayfish, and stomping on skunk cabbage. Once we even dug an underground doghouse for a stray dog we planned to keep a secret from our parents. My best friend lived across the street and we used to “cook” strawberry soup” from the wild strawberries that grew in her yard and chew on green clover cringing to keep from spitting out the sour leaves. Can you imagine what a parent would do if their child picked up a clover leaf and popped it in her mouth today? Most moms would fish it out, me included since so many lawns and playgrounds are treated with chemical weed killers and fertilizers.

Our children know all about the world. They know about global warming and the deforestation of the rainforest. They have a hyper-intellectualized perception of animals thanks to Pixar. They are pros on recycling to save our resources. But can they tell an oak tree from a maple? Have they ever picked up a Gardner snake or discovered a bluebird’s nest? Do they know what moss feels like or have they seen a bat hunting mosquitoes at dusk? They know all about the world in their minds, but they may not have discovered it with their hearts. Kids are open to learning all kinds of things, but as Louv points out we are in danger of raising a generation of kids indoors. I can’t begin to imagine the implications of that.

Being in nature is good for everyone. A recent study at the University of Glasgow concluded that access to green spaces helps people live longer, healthier lives. Getting your kids outside can present a challenge for some of us. The computer and TV beckon. Sometimes its fear that keeps our children inside and I’m not talking about a child’s fear. The media has hyped up our worry over the dangers to be found for unsupervised children outside. I hear myself saying, “It’s not like when I was a kid. You can’t just let them run wild.” But maybe we need to. And that might just mean getting yourself outside. Children will follow. I know this for a fact.

When things get a little to hairy in my house and I find myself doing and saying things I never want to do or say as a parent, I head outside. I’ll walk up to the barn and brush a horse or watch the chickens fuss at each other or I’ll go study our fruit trees to see if any awful bug is assailing them. Sometimes I’ll go for a walk in the woods. I do these things to calm down and get away from my kids, but not five minutes after I’ve made my escape I will hear footsteps behind me. My daughter is sure to become my shadow. And next I’ll hear the kitchen door slam as my oldest heads for his fort in the woods or the swing set. The last one out will be the youngest who will trudge to the sandbox to stir up a new adventure (from which it will be nearly impossible to remove him from an hour later). And peace will reign again. Nature can do that.

Getting your kids outside is good for them for a multitude of reasons. The latest research is just confirming what I already know. That open space, fresh air, dirt, plants, and animals are healing.

Research cited by Louv says that kids who spend more time outside are more creative. They engage in imaginative, open-ended play. Nature can help relieve stress. A Cornell study found that “life’s stressful events appear not to cause as much psychological distress in children who live in high-nature conditions compared with children who live in low-nature conditions.”

In 2001, Terry A. Hartig at Uppsala University in Gavle Sweden, demonstrated that nature can help people recover from “normal psychological wear and tear” – but nature also improves the capacity to pay attention, increases positive emotions, and reduces anger. I don’t know about you, but I could use children who pay more attention, are happier ,and yell at me less. I was reading Louv’s book yesterday while listening to my children argue about who had already used up their computer time and who hadn’t. When the dispute was resolved and the offending party was retreating for the swing set, I announced that tomorrow will be a “computer free day”. The computer is what keeps my kids inside. What keeps yours inside? I’m already working out my plan of attack for the summer. We’re going outside. All of us.

So what do you do if you don’t live on a farm or in a rural community? You seek out nature. It can be found anywhere. My dad can find birds in any setting just by listening quietly. Salamanders and really cool spiders hide under rocks even if there are a lot of tall buildings around. Find nature. It’s still here underneath it all. And if you are blessed to live near it – get out of the house. You only have 18 years (at least that’s the plan) to grow these little people and their brains – take advantage of the cheapest medication around for attention issues, depression, anger, and whatever else ails you. Get them outdoors. Get yourself outdoors.

Here’s a few more ideas:

1. Check your newspaper. There are always naturalist programs available through the national, state, and local parks. They are almost always inexpensive and sometimes free.

2. Find out where the parks are in your area. Make it your mission to visit all of them this summer.

3. Go fishing. At least in Pennsylvania, kids don’t need a license (dad’s do).

4. Take a walk and pick up the trash on your street. You’re doing a good thing for your community and it is an excuse to get closer to nature. I promise you’ll encounter some kind of wildlife (I’m not saying it won’t have eight legs of more).

5. Send your kids to camp. Find a camp that will get your kids outdoors for the day. Some kids need the encouragement of other kids and a structured environment to encounter nature on their terms.

6. Go geocaching or letter boxing. (Don’t know what that is? Look it up online. We love to geocache so I’ll post about it soon)

7. Have a picnic.

8. Go camping.

9. Plan a vacation to a state park. Many state parks have “camping cabins” that are relatively inexpensive. Sometimes they have lodges that are still cheaper than a resort.

10. Take the dog for a walk. A dog is great excuse to get outside every day. If you haven’t got one, check with your local shelter, many will let you walk theirs!

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Babies Are Moving Out

It’s time to move the babies outdoors. It’s kind of like sending the preschooler off to kindergarten. You can no longer control their surroundings and protect them from the elements. You have to hope you’ve done a good job raising strong healthy seedlings and then pray for good weather. There are a few things you can do to make the transition easier.

I firmly believe in “hardening off” my baby plants. This means moving them outdoors in a gradual way to get them used to the wind, temperature, and the strong sun which is so different from the fluorescent lights they have been raised under. Even store bought seedlings can use a little hardening off. If I had a sunny window I would start by letting them spend some time there. Alas, the only really sunny window is in my six year old’s room and that might not be the safest of surroundings. So I move them outside in to the shade on my porch on a warm day for an afternoon. From there I increase their time outside and their exposure to real sunlight a little each day. Eventually graduating them to sitting in their bin together over the very spot I plan to plant them. If the temperature threatens to dip low, I bring them in for the night. This takes about a week.

At this point I watch the weather. The last frost is supposed to be somewhere around tax day (April 15) for us, but we always seem to still get a few frosts after that down in the hollow where we live. I shoot for Mother’s Day for tomatoes and peppers and other warm weather plants. I want to be certain the temperature won’t go below 45 at night. I’ve got too much invested in my tomatoes (all 24 of them) to risk a cold night ruining my hard work. Ideal conditions would be daytime temps around 70 and not too sunny with some light rain. But life is not ideal now is it?

Planting seedlings is careful work. Water your seedlings thoroughly so that when you lift them out of their pots they soil will stick to the roots and not crumple away. Lay out where you are planning on putting them and prepare clear markers so that other folks who traverse your garden won’t trample on them. Like so many other things that look great at home, once you get them out of their element they seem incredibly small and fragile. Surround them with a string fence or deliberately mark them with large stakes.

Dig the hole larger than the seedling pot and be sure the soil you are planting in to is moist. If it isn’t, water the hole before planting the seedling. If you have compost to add, work the compost in to the hole also.

Getting the seedling out of its pot and in to the soil seems simple, but that isn’t always the case. If you use plastic containers (like the used yogurt cups I use), it is helpful to tap the bottom to loosen the plant. I actually invert the plant (holding my hand over the top so the plant won’t fall out) and tap it really hard. If there are roots growing out of the bottom of the cup I tear them off. Then I carefully shake the entire plant out for the container and set the plant in the hole, firming soil around it and up its neck. I bury it deeper in the ground than it was in the pot, especially with tomato plants.

Many of the books I’ve consulted have said to lift the plant out by the leaves, but that has never worked for me. Inevitably I end up lifting off the leaves without the plant. So gently shaking the plant out of the pot works is my method. And if that doesn’t work, I run my finger around the edge of the pot and scoop the plant out that way. If you have used the “plantable” peat pots, you are supposed to be able to plant the seedling pot and all. The one year I tried that it didn’t work for me. The plants were root bound and didn’t do well. At the end of the summer when we turned over the dirt, the peat pots were still completely intact. So if you use them, be sure to tear off the bottom and maybe tear the the sides back a bit too before you plant them. Lovely idea though, those peat pots.

My favorite plant store (Landreth Seeds) is having their annual sale this weekend. I will get up early to be one of their first customers on Saturday. As much as I enjoy saving lots of money raising my own seedlings, it’s still at thrill to buy a few “foreigners” to plant. This week I’m also going to harvest some of my “volunteer” lettuce that grew from the lettuce I planted last year and let go to seed. That’s the beauty of heirloom seeds, you get lots of volunteers. I’ll let you know how that works out. I’ve never thought of lettuce as a perennial, but this year it is for us. Gardening is such an adventure. You learn something new all the time.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Chai Tea Cures Flatulence? What?

It’s Friday and the sun is shining! It’s been over a week since the sun has shone down in our little hollow and the last thing I want to do is hang out in here with my computer. The gardens are calling. So I’m going to cheat today and just regurgitate something someone else wrote. This info comes from Body and Soul Magazine, one of my favorites. The author is Hillari Dowdle (what a name). The original article has 25 remedies in it, but I’m only going to highlight the ones I think might be most useful. These are all natural treatments for common ailments. Most of the ingredients you probably have in your kitchen. But first, here’s my own experience with using a inexpensive, natural treatment.

A week or so ago when I was planting my 200 hostas I was stung by a bee. It hurt but I was ankle deep in mud from the springs in the hillside we had just unearthed and the hillside is at the bottom of our property. Having already hiked up the hill three or four times to get tools I forgot or to negotiate a peace treaty between siblings, I just didn’t have it in me to run up one more time for the bendryl cream. I looked around and realized I had the perfect treatment surrounding me – mud! I slapped some mud on the offending sting and the swelling and pain dissipated in minutes. Somewhere in my travels I’d heard you could put mud on swellings and stings, but this was the first time an opportunity presented itself. My kids get stung multiple times all summer long. Next time it happens I’m going to whip up some always available mud and slap it on.

Blemishes, rashes, and burns: Tumeric
Use it topically to bring pimples to a head quickly and soothe acne, scapes, and sunburns. It stains, so be sure to wash your hands after use. Add several drops of water to ½ teaspoon of powdered turmeric to make a thin paste. With your fingers, spread the mixture on blemishes, sunburns, or acne. Leave on for up to an hour, rinse.

Headache: Peppermint
Fill a small bowl with ice water and add 5-7 drops of peppermint oil. Dip a washcloth into the bowl, wring it out, and apply the compress to your forehead for 10-15 minutes. Alternatively, add several drops of the oil to a washcloth, throw it into the corner of a shower, and climb into the minty steam. (I’m wondering if peppermint tea will help too. I use peppermint tea for tummy aches.)

Bug Bites: Banana (this might be a bit more cleanly than mud!)
Apply the banana peel, fruit-side down, directly on the bite and hold it there until the itching or burning subsides. (I’m packing bananas on our next camping trip.)

Stuffy head: Salsa (my kind of medicine!)
Hot peppers thin the mucus in the nasal passages so that it’s easier to expel and they do the same thing for the lungs – making it easier to expectorate. Plus they’re one of the top sources of vitamin C. So pick some spicy salsa with hot chilies like jalapeños, serranos, or habeneros and snack until your sniffles subside.

Flatulence (Do you think there is any way to get a puppy to drink this?) – Chai
Add 1/3 teaspoon each of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, and ginger to 8 ounces of hot water and steep for several minutes. Strain, sweeten with a bit of raw sugar or honey, and enjoy before or after a meal.

Colds: Garlic
Raw garlic’s strong antimicrobial properties make it effective for fending off and treating the common cold. Peel one or two garlic cloves, dip in honey, and chew. (Ew! No way my kids would do this!) Or simply mince a few cloves, add warm water and a little honey, stir, and swallow without chewing. Repeat every 2-3 hours from the first sign of sickness. (I can’t imagine doing either of these, but them I’m skweamish. My favorite salad dressing has raw garlic in it. I might be tempted to make an extra potent batch and eat it with carrot sticks or drench my salad with it. I’m sure you can think of a way to get some raw garlic down. I don’t know if garlic really works or not, but –knock on wood- I never seem to get colds and I eat a lot of garlic.)

Fatigue: Blackstrap Molasses
Ongoing fatigue can have many causes, so it needs a physician’s diagnosis and care. But for run-of-the-mill fatigue, blackstrap molasses – a good source of iron, calcium, and other minerals – can work wonders. It’s a pick-me-up from the pioneer days and a great restorative remedy for women suffering from what used to be known as “tired blood.” Dissolve 1-2 teaspoons of blackstrap molasses in ½ cup of warm water or milk, such as almond, rice, or soy, and drink daily. (I don’t know if cooked blackstrap molasses has the same effect, but the wheat bread recipe I posted a few months ago calls for 2 tablespoons of molasses. Anadama bread also uses a hefty amount of molasses and is delicious. I’ll post that recipe below.)

Sadness: Cinnamon
It’s safe, it contains no sugar, and clinical research has shown it even helps stabilize blood sugar levels. Pour 1 cup of boiling water over a stick of cinnamon and steep for 10 minutes. Drink. (I’m going to start sprinkling cinnamon on everything I can think of!)

If you’d like to see the whole article “Secret Kitchen Cures”, check out Most of the article seems to have come from the book Herbs for the Home Medicine Chest by Rosemary Gladstar (again, with the name!).

Anadama Bread (from Family Fun Magazine)
2 Cups boiling water
2 Tablespoons butter
½ Cup yellow cornmeal
1 pkg yeast
½ Cup warm water
¾ Cup molasses (use Blackstrap Molasses)
1 ½ teaspoon salt
4 2/3 cups flour

Carefully pour boiling water into a big bowl. Add butter and sprinkle in the cornmeal, whisking to mix. Let the mixture stand until lukewarm.
In a small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Stir the yeast, molasses, and salt in to the cornmeal, then beat in the flour.
Spoon the batter into 2 buttered loaf pans, cover, and let rise 1 hour (until doubled).
Preheat Oven to 350 and bake 45-50 minutes.

I haven’t made this in years, but I’m going to try it with wheat and spelt flour this week. I remember it to be a delicious sweet bread with no refined sugar.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Free Stuff!

Guess what? My blog’s famous! Well maybe not famous, but at least one company has sought me out for an evaluation and review of their products. I’m excited – I love free stuff. For awhile, I thought the e-mail that turned up in my inbox asking if I’d be interested in evaluating products was just spam. When you live with dial-up you learn that you just can’t click on every link. There isn’t the time. But finally I caved because, you know, it offered free stuff. Well, not exactly free. I have to write a review. And since I’m not used to being offered any compensation for my writing, this seemed like a good deal. Of course it didn’t say that I had to write a good review and there weren’t even any prompts like, “here’s your free stuff in exchange for your glowing endorsement”. I even got to pick which products I wanted to review. Fun!

So the box from Ecostore USA arrived yesterday. Ecostore is a New Zealand based company that has just begun marketing in the US. I’ve contacted a friend in New Zealand for some official verification on their existence there, but so far they seem to be legit. They make environmentally friendly cleaning products for the home and body. The phrase “no nasty chemicals” is plastered all over their pages. I’m assuming that “no nasty chemicals” means that they only use nice chemicals and that some of those nice chemicals might even be organic. Since the box just arrived, I haven’t had time to study the items yet, but I’ll have the chemical engineer in the family give them a lookover. The Ecostore products were delivered by Fed-Ex and true to their word, the bill already said “paid.” Gotta love it. I was immediately impressed with all the environmentally friendly assurances about recycled packaging and paper. It doesn’t take much (especially when you’re giving me free stuff) to impress me.

OK, OK, enough about me and my free stuff, what’s in it for you dear reader? Free stuff! Really! Along with the products, I was also given a $25 gift certificate for products from the Ecostore USA website to award to one of my lucky readers! This trusting company didn’t even specify what you have to do to win – they left that up to me. I like the whole trust element. (There was no clause that said that Nick couldn’t win!). So since I’m hoping that I can get even more out of this promo, I came up with a great way to decide who gets the free stuff.

If you’d like to win $25 in free products from Ecostore USA, all you have to do is give me a good idea for a post. Some days my mind is scattered and it's difficult to gather up my thoughts and figure out what to write. This is my way of getting some more free stuff in the form of good ideas. So you send me an idea for something you think I should write about on this blog and I’ll enter your name in my drawing. If you send me more than one idea, I’ll enter you again for each idea you send. So that we don’t get any duplicate ideas, you’ll need to send your idea in the form of a comment to this post. That way you can see if someone already stole your great idea. When I write my review, I’ll post the name of the winner. Don’t worry, it’s all very official. I’ll let my kids oversee the drawing so that it’s all done fair and square. They’re the experts on what is fair and what is not and dividing things up evenly and what have you. Trust me.

If you’d like to check out all the products you could win, see the Ecostore website at I’ll be evaluating the aloe vera shampoo and conditioner and the automatic dishwashing powder. There are lots of other products to choose from so bring on the ideas!

Monday, May 4, 2009

Waste Not Want Not

This weekend my refrigerator went on the fritz and froze everything in my fruit drawer (or maybe some kid, I’m not naming names here, messed with the temperature control). What to do, what to do. Never one to let anything go to waste, especially any expensive, organic, edible thing, I got busy. Luckily there wasn’t much in my fruit drawer this time of year. Not much is available if you’re particular about fruit that is local and organic. There were about 12 apples – the last of the local crop still available at the farm market. There was a bag of organic lemons that had been reduced for quick sale, and some grapes that I was talked in to buying when I broke my own rule and took a kid to the grocery store with me. So the damage wasn’t too bad. Still, I would never throw out good food so….

I thawed out the apples, peeled them and made some fresh apple sauce for dinner that night. The kids were so excited to have warm fresh applesauce, they ate the whole pot. If you’ve never had warm applesauce – try it some time. It’s one of my favorite tastes of fall, but you can make applesauce anytime. A friend stopped by to pick up her daughter while I was in the midst of making the applesauce and was amazed at how easy it is to make. She kept saying, “That’s all there is to it?” the entire time I was making it. She was so impressed that I worry there are others out there who don’t know how simple it is to make applesauce, so here’s the lowdown:

1. Peel and core apples and cut them in to slices (if you don’t like chunky applesauce, you can always pureed the sauce in a food processor after it’s cooked).
Put them in a big pot and add some water – just enough until you can see water amongst your apples, but not so much that it’s covering your apples.
2. Sprinkle a little lemon juice over the apples. You only need a splash, this is to keep it from browning too much and it acts as a preservative if you’re planning to store the applesauce for any length of time. Trust me, if you’ve got kids and you let them have some right after it’s made, there will be no need for storage.
3. Bring the apples to a simmer on med-high and cook until the water mostly evaporates and the apples turn to sauce and break apart easily. Stir the apples frequently so they don’t stick to the bottom, add more water if necessary. This can take some time, especially if you use too much water.
4. When it looks like applesauce, add as much sugar as you like. You won’t need much.
You can also add cinnamon if that’s your thing. I skip it.
Done. See? So easy.
Sweet-tart apples make the best sauce. I don’t recommend red delicious, but mixed with another kind they would be alright. You never need to toss apples – next time they get mealy, bruised, old, wrinkled, or frozen – make applesauce!

Next came the lemons. Not much to do with frozen lemons other than to thaw them out and make lemonade. Which is what my husband did. It was a rainy, miserable weekend so hot applesauce and cold lemonade were both pleasant surprises for all of us. I wasn’t as keen to save the grapes but my kids discovered that frozen grapes are fun to eat, so they didn’t go to waste after all.

Our adventures with the fruit drawer brought home an important part of living an affordable kid-friendly organic life – waste nothing! As much as I love composting, I would never throw something in there for later that I can use now. When the organic free trade bananas get too brown I peel them, break them in to sections and freeze them. Then anytime I want to make banana bread or banana milk shakes, I’ve got the perfect overripe bananas at the ready. I paid a small fortune for those bananas, heck if I’m gonna toss them out over a few brown spots.

When we come down to the ends of our bread or there’s just a couple slices left on the French bread loaf, I make croutons out of what’s left. Croutons are simple to make. Just cut the bread in to crouton size chunks. Spread them out on a cooking sheet. Spray them with olive oil and sprinkle with garlic powder. Bake at 200 for one hour and 30 minutes, then turn the oven off and let them cool inside the oven. Done. You can also make bread crumbs from the croutons if you need bread crumbs.

Nothing needs to go to waste. You don’t have to grow up in the Depression to know that, although I do think of my mom whenever I’m tucking another plastic container of bananas in to my freezer. She is never one to let anything go to waste and always leaves our house after Thanksgiving with the turkey carcass in the trunk. We let her have it because we know it will come back in the form of her famous homemade turkey noodle soup. Waste not, want not. So true.

Friday, May 1, 2009

The High Cost of Eating

Do you know how much you spend on food? Details are not generally my thing when it comes to just about anything except our budget. Early in our marriage, paying the bills and managing the piles of money (ha) became my job. It stressed Nick out to know what we spent on pets or clothing or food or other unnecessary items (unnecessary in his mind at least. He never had an issue with what we spent on beer.). So I claimed this task and began tracking it on my computer. I got a strange thrill from categorizing each expense and generating reports with just a click of the mouse. The pie charts were kind of fun. So I can tell you exactly what we spent on food (or anything else for that matter) for the last 13 years.

For the purpose of comparing our food budget before and after we “went organic”, I am only looking at the last four years. In 2005, organic meant only a term in chemistry class to us. In 2006, our youngest son developed Alopecia Areata and we began our quest to cleanse our diet and our life. In 2007 we were a bit militant about organics and in 2008 we finally hit our happy medium of local, organic, whole foods. We were gardening throughout all these years, but the serious canning began in 2007 and in 2008 consumed our summer.

A little more background – we have three kids. Kid #1 is not a big eater except for Cheezits (he requires at least one box a week). Kid #2 eats less than the birds that wait patiently at my bird feeder that I rarely fill (except when my dad visits because he’s the “birder”). Kid #3 eats anything, all the time, preferably something with lots of meat and fat. All three of these kids have only gotten bigger during my comparison period, so you would expect that they are eating more (except maybe Kid #2, I think she eats less if that’s possible. Her food preferences become more restrictive each week. We’re down to macaroni, cheese sticks, and strawberries.).

The price of groceries has gone up dramatically. A fact that is not lost on you, I am sure.

So bearing all of these factors in mind, I’m now going to share with you our food expenditure for the last four years……drum roll please…….

Has remained just about the same each year, give or take $100 either way. Bizarre, I know. Even as we have transitioned to organic, local, whole foods we have managed to keep our food expenditures the same. Considering the growth of our family and the state of our economy, you might even say we lowered our food bill. Proof positive that you do not need to spend more to eat organic. You do have to be creative and resourceful and you can’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. I know I’ve said much of this before, but here’s how we do it:

1. We stock up on staples, especially if they are on sale, reducing the number of trips to the store.
2. We buy in bulk – mostly loose bulk from a natural food grocery store we are blessed to live reasonably close to.
3. We buy our beef and pork by the cow and pig.
4. We raise our own eggs.
5. We garden like lunatics and can, freeze, or dry everything that’s not moving.
6. We avoid buying processed food and make our own bread, yogurt, cookies, etc.
7. We pack lunches.
8. We buy directly from farmers and love to “pick and pay” all summer long.
9. We cook and eat at home almost every day, eating out only on rare occasions (we’d rather splurge on seafood and cook it at home where the wine is cheaper and better and the bread is fresh).
10. We eat “planned overs” (never call them “leftovers”).

And we eat well. No way this would work if that wasn’t the case. I love to eat. Last night we had pulled pork sandwiches, baked beans, and fresh local asparagus. Tonight we’ll have homemade pizza with caramelized onions and roasted red peppers with a fresh salad and homemade ice cream for dessert. So if your excuse for not eating organic and healthy is that you can’t afford to, take a look at your budget. It’s a matter of priorities.

I’m not one to preach (most of the time), but what you put in your body and your kids’ bodies should be the very best. Nobody gets a second chance to be healthy today. It’s an investment, like any other. Maybe you can’t raise chickens in your backyard (although you’d be surprised….), but you can find ways to cut your budget and eat healthier. Little changes add up to big ones. Just don’t say it can’t be done.