Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Price of Oil

The price of oil dictates many of our decisions from the cars we purchase to vacations to the budget we (and our country) live on. Since many of us have very few options when it comes to fuel oil for our vehicles or houses, let’s talk about our options when it comes to the oils that fuel our bodies. I seem to remember a time when the grocery store simply stocked big plastic bottles of golden cooking oil. It was cheap and we used it for everything. As I’ve grown up and learned more about health and cooking and appreciating the taste of warm bread dipped in fresh cold pressed olive oil, things have gotten much more confusing, at least for me.

This past month’s Cooking Light had an excellent article summing up oils, how they’re made, what they’re used for and highlighting some of the oils we never knew existed – like truffle oil or pumpkinseed oil. It inspired me to go back to some of the original information I gathered when I first set off on my organic path.

By now we’ve all had it beaten in to our heads that transfats are bad. But do you know why? Or for that matter, do you know what a transfat is? Manufacturers are motivated to create and add transfats to foods because they make it possible for oil to be solid at room temperature. A good thing when what you’re creating is a cheese curl that can live for centuries in any climate. Transfats are created by heating the oil to extremely high temperatures and infusing it with hydrogen gas. This causes the chemical makeup of the oil to be changed, or hydrogenated. First of all, this isn’t anything that would naturally occur so I’m guessing that in the original design for our bodies, processing partially hydrogenated anything wasn’t in the plan. In fact, several scientific journals point out that “altered partially hydrogenated fats made from vegetable oils actually block utilization of essential fatty acids, causing many deleterious effects including sexual dysfunction, increased blood cholesterol and paralysis of the immune system”. These findings were first published in the 40’s and 50’s as the process of hydrogenation was just getting big. One wonders if the rise in fertility problems, heart disease, and immune disorders is any coincidence. Transfats are now listed on food labels for all to see.

So transfats and hydrogenated anything isn’t good, but what about heart healthy canola or olive oils? It’s important to read the label and determine how the oil was extracted from its original source. Back in the day, say when horses were still important to our daily existence, oils were extracted by something like a stone press. Basically you squeezed the heck out of the seed or nut, or what have you, and the result was oil.

But who can stand in the way of progress and scientific advancement? Soon manufacturers discovered that by adding refiners like hexane (a petroleum by-product used to make plastics, glue, and solvents) they could extract even more of the oil, very quickly. More oil from less raw materials creates a bigger profit. Never mind that workers in shoe factories utilizing hexane in their processes developed nervous system and respiratory system failures. Never mind that teenagers in the US and Europe looking for a quick high sniffed hexane and ended up paralyzed. 90% of the hexane evaporates once it does its job, and the rest is removed by boiling the oil, causing much of the remaining hexane to leave in the form of steam. The US government allows a tiny percentage of hexane in oils as acceptable and doesn’t require companies to note it as an ingredient.

And how to get that gorgeous clear, clean color? All you need to do now is refine the oil some more by degumming, bleaching, and then deodorizing the oil. Now it’s beautiful. But is it safe? Hard to say, since laboratory mice don’t process oil the same way we do. Studies have been few and far between.

I’ve only glossed over the details, if you’re interested; you know how to use Google. Here’s my take on oils. Look for oils that are cold and expeller-pressed. It will say so on the label. Although the US does not yet regulate cold and expeller pressing, it’s got to be better for you than mass marketed oils. If you buy expeller pressed oils produced in Europe their standards are strict. These oils are more expensive than a big bottle of Wesson, but since we aren’t supposed to be using too much of any oil, I think the splurge is not just justified, but necessary.

Look for dark or green glass bottles when buying oils. Oil can be damaged by light if it is unrefined. Another boon for the mass manufacturers – they can bottle their highly processed oil in clear plastic because not much more damage can be done to it. Besides, after you’ve worked so hard to make it look pretty you just have to show it off.

It’s a good idea to buy your oils in small amounts since they only taste fresh for a few months after opening. Vegetable oils will last longer, but olive and nut oils should be used within 3-6 months.

I use mostly canola, coconut, and olive oils for everything I cook. Occasionally I’ll use sesame or peanut for Asian dishes. These oils and a little butter get me through just about any recipe. Canola or butter are better oils if you are cooking at high temperatures. You lose the flavor and much of the nutrient value when you heat olive oil too high.

Making healthy food choices for you and your family, requires reading labels. Like so much involved in living a healthy life, we need to slow down and act consciously. It is dangerous to assume that just because the broader culture accepts a food or an activity or an attitude as the norm, does not mean it’s safe or sane for any of us.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Got Any Thyme?

There’s an herb factory in my basement. Valuable herbs. I’ve often wondered why spices and herbs at the market cost so much. Growing and drying your own is truly simple, requires no special equipment and nothing but time. When I see my herbs all lined up hanging on my basement clothesline, I feel like I just stepped off the set of Little House on the Prairie. Very content in my ability to survive off the land. Maybe you have a little pot of basil growing in your window sill or a patch of mint gone out of control in your garden. Either way, you can easily dry those herbs and save them to use all fall and winter.

The best time to cut down your herbs for drying is just before the flowers bloom. That said, you can actually harvest them anytime. Doing it just before the flowers only ensure you get the strongest oils, but those oils are there all the time. You can cut as much as two-thirds of your plant back. It won’t mind at all and will probably come back even bigger. Enlist your kids in this endeavor. Show them how if you run your hands over an herb plant you can smell it’s scent on your hands. Teach them to identify the spices they know on the plants they see growing. If you don’t have your own, stop by a garden center and have a little touch and smell lesson. My daughter loves to identify herbs wherever we go. She now grows a few of her own herbs, like catnip and chocolate mint.

There’s nothing to drying herbs, really. After you’ve cut back all the plant you want, wash them, shake out as much water as you can and gather them up in a bunch with a rubber band or some string and hang them to dry. There are lots of ways to do this. Hanging them is good because all the oil runs down and concentrates in the leaves. I hang mine from a clothesline I rigged up in my basement near the dehumidifier (speeds the process). When I’m organized and thinking ahead, I save up enough paper bags to cover the plants as they hang so that any leaves that fall off are not lost. But sometimes I just hang them the way they are because they look so cool and I’m too lazy to track down more bags. I dry so much that I can afford to lose a few leaves.

When the herbs are dry (I wait about a week or so or whenever I remember, but they may be ready much sooner), I strip the leaves and crumble them over a large bowl or bag and then fill recycled spice jars and odd little jars I’ve picked up at the Goodwill. You can buy pretty glass jars and fill them to give away as gifts too. A jar of “thyme” is a clever gift for a busy friend. Be sure to check your jars frequently for the first few weeks after you have filled them in case some moisture gathers on the lids. If moisture appears, they aren’t dry enough and you’ll need to the herbs out and dry them on a screen. Any moisture left in your herbs will cause them to mold.

Dried herbs are stronger and more concentrated than fresh herbs, so you never need as much as you think. I use my herbs in all my cooking. This year I’m hoping to make some tea. So I’m growing chamomile, sweet marjoram, mint, and stevia for that endeavor. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Here’s a list of some of the herbs we grow and dry:
Basil (several varieties – my favorite is thai basil)

You can also freeze herbs. This seems pretty soggy and messy to me, but I know people who do it. One clever way to do it is to chop up your herbs with some water and fill ice cube trays. When they are frozen, drop them in to Ziploc bags and store in your freezer. Then when you need a particular herb, you can just pull out a cube and pop it in to your sauce or soup. Clever idea. Never tried it. Maybe this year I will.

A word about growing herbs. Most prefer lots of sun, but aren’t too picky about soil. Many are perennial, so you only have to plant them once. If you grow from seed, it’s a good idea to start them inside so that you can recognize them when they are growing. Many look a little like weeds, especially when they are first starting out. Good perennial herbs in our area include: oregano, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, and mint. Others grow easily as annuals – parsley, cilantro, basil, and dill. If you plant mint – contain it in a pot or barrel. It will take over your entire garden and you will fight it for years to come. I know of what I speak and fight the constant battle with my patch of mint. My husband would happily Round-up the entire mess, but I persist. Oregano is another that can get big and out of hand, so keep after it. Parsley sometimes grows well into the winter if it is protected. Cilantro goes quickly to seed, so use it as soon as you can and plant succession plantings of it so it’s fresh when it’s time to make salsa. Tarragon can become hugely tall – plant it in the back of your garden.

Growing herbs is easy, huh? A sunny window is all you need to get started. Save small jars and paper bags. Find some clothesline and some clothes pins. Plant a few herbs and hook your self up. There’s no need to pay top dollar for a jar of spices again.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Organic Life Snob?

It is easy to become a lifestyle snob. When you are happy with the life you are choosing to lead and the way you are leading it, it is possible to convey judgment without meaning to. As I learn more and more about living a healthy, organic, whole life I want to share it with others. It’s in my nature. I want them to be as happy and to feel as good as I do. But that can be dangerous. Because when you tell someone about something that you do differently than they do, they may perceive your enthusiasm as criticism of their way. If yours is so much better, than theirs must be wrong, right? No, just different, but that’s not always easy to convey.

It is a fine line to walk. Recently I overreacted to a comment a dear friend made about eggs. I believe they are the perfect food. I rejoiced in reports that the bad wrap they’ve always gotten about cholesterol and calories was mostly hype. I don’t consider them a dangerous food to be rationed. My husband’s high cholesterol went down this year and we eat a lot of eggs. So when my friend mentioned that her family doesn’t eat them very often for health reasons – I overreacted with an insensitive comment in defense of egg eating. Not only was it hurtful and unnecessary, it is truly just my opinion – worth not so much to anyone but me. Sometimes I start barreling down my path and forget that there are thoughtful, purposeful people who are on their own path and doing just fine. We are both headed towards the same place – a healthy, happy life – our paths may look very different but neither is completely right or wrong. I need to let some things go. Every day is a lesson.

So today, I share that lesson with you. It’s wonderful and exciting to learn new ways of doing things. It feels great when you discover healthier ways of eating and it’s satisfying to make more healthful life choices for yourself, your children and the earth. But remember you are choosing for yourself and your choices have no reflection on your neighbors. None of us have all the answers. Indeed scientists who seem to have it all figured out are contradicted every day by new studies, new discoveries, new opinions. We must be careful and judge only what works for us. If it makes you feel better, calmer, and healthier, than it’s a good thing for you. Count your blessings. But don’t force those blessings on anyone else.

I know as well as anyone that it’s hard to keep a good thing to yourself. So seek out likeminded souls you can share your discoveries with. I love talking with people who find it amazing that you can add flax seed to all kinds of recipes without children suspecting. People who want all the gory details about my latest efforts at packing healthy lunches or making my own breakfast cereal are a wonderful audience. We are organic-nerds and we can talk for hours about chicken-keeping or making homemade yogurt. I call them kindred spirits and cherish my time with them. But my life would be pretty shallow if I only spent time with those who agree with me.

My life is made richer by the people I encounter who don’t walk my path. They challenge me – forcing me to examine my own life and hold it up against other possibilities. That keeps me fresh, committed to who I am and what I’m about. Everyone has something to teach us. No one has all the answers. One person doesn’t have to be wrong for another to be right. That’s the beautiful part. So I’ll keep exploring what it means to live a kid-friendly organic life, some ideas will work and some will fall flat. Take what works for you and leave the rest. But please don’t ever think I consider you any less of a person, mother, father, friend if you don’t live the way I do. We are all doing the best we can with what we know. And that should be honored.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Camping We Will Go

It was pouring rain when we set off for the campground just south of Carlisle on the Appalachian Trail last Friday. I’ve always been a look-on-the-bright-side kinda gal and my husband had a cooler full of his favorite beverages, so we loaded the kids up and waved goodbye to the farmstead for a weekend away. Kids don’t mind rain, so when we arrived we turned them loose to explore their new digs, rigged up a shelter with our clothesline, some tarps and the plentiful trees, and opened the cooler. Later when the rain had stopped and the kids had successfully laid claim to the bamboo patch, rock pile, and poison ivy that festooned our site, we set up our tents. Tent camping is definitely an affordable kid-friendly organic activity. We make an annual event out of our camping trip with several other families. We get better at it each year, forgetting fewer things and discovering more ways to entertain ourselves. I’ll pass along some of the things that work for us, but as I said, our annual camping adventure is a work in progress.

Finding other families to camp with is definitely worth it. We split the grocery list, cooking duties, and clean up and there are always plenty of parents available to ride herd on the herd of kids we always have. This year we brought a few extra kids and were easily out-numbered. One of the things I love best about camping is watching the kids create their fun. Set a bunch of kids loose in the woods and they will be entertained for days. I didn’t hear an “I’m bored” once and no one begged me for screen time.

We learned one lesson about dividing the grocery list this year. A few days before departure, the other moms and I got together and created the menu and divvied up the grocery list. We didn’t feel the need for a master list of who was bringing what and didn’t worry about it until Friday night’s dinner. Several families were not so keen on setting up in the rain, so there were only a few of us there at Friday’s campfire when we discovered that we did have the hot dogs, but we didn’t have the buns or the ketchup. We had the pasta salad, but nary a utensil to eat it with. Not to worry, we ate our dogs naked, our pasta salad with a couple communal spoons or fingers and feasted on the s’mores. Note to selves: next year only the die-hards can bring Friday’s meal.

When you camp with a bunch of families, it’s pretty critical that these families be relatively like-minded. We never have an agenda, just a vague idea of what we might do. That usually includes some geocaching (a fabulous kid friendly organic idea I need to blog about soon) and a wiffle ball game. Throw in some hiking and swimming and lots of sitting around the campfire chilling out and our weekend is full. We are blessed with friends who think this is a great way to spend a weekend. So we look for campgrounds that are a little out of the way and quiet. If you camp with other families, I’d suggest you discuss expectations before you leave so that no one is frustrated when it doesn’t play out the way they want it too.

We choose campsites that are about an hour’s drive away. We don’t want to spend the better part of our weekend just getting there and back. Plus, that’s about the limit to the time my children can spend in such close proximity to each other without someone getting hurt or mommy losing her mind.

Here’s a few more tips for Kid-Friendly Organic Camping:

1. Create a “camping box” that can be used for each trip. Fill it with the necessities that you are most likely to forget and the items that you use solely for camping so that you don’t have to track them down each time. Our big plastic bin for camping trips includes:
Lots of rope (for clothes line, securing tents and temporary shelters, and tying up unruly children - kidding)
Flashlightslots of them (remove the batteries if they’re going to sit for a long time so they don’t leak)
Shovel (if you’re in to primitive camping and have to dig a latrine)
Toilet Paper (also for primitive camping and just in case no one wants to walk you to the bath house at 2am)
Paper Towels
Aluminum foil
just for cooking on fires
Spatula for same purpose
Dish Towels
Utensils, cups, plates
(even if you’re planning on using disposable products, you just never know when someone won't show up)
Coffee Mugs
Fat wood/fire starters
Waterproof matches and/or lighter
Pan scrubbie
Camper soap
Oven mitts
Playing cards (in case of rain)
Garbage bags
Ear plugs
(in case you have noisy neighbors or barking dogs)
Camping journal (of trips past and things to remember next time)

2. Keep a list in your camping box of things you want to be sure not to forget. Add the things you forget to the list before you pack the box up after each camping trip. This has been a life saver. We always think of things we will bring next time, but by “next time” we’ve forgotten. The list reminds us. This year I added: recycling box, ear plugs, and extra garbage bags)

3. Buy safety marshmallow sticks. These are the greatest invention since sliced bread. Truly. They fork back on themselves so there are no sharp, pointy metal ends. We still end up screaming at children to keep the flaming marshmallow away from other campers, but at least we don’t have to worry about anyone taking another’s eye out. We bought ours at Plow and Hearth.

4. Bring plenty of firewood. We fill our car-top carrier and another family with a pick-up brings plenty also. Firewood at campgrounds is pretty pricey – just like food at amusement parks. Most campgrounds don’t appreciate you scrounging their woods for campfire wood and many are already picked clean anyway.

5. Some great things to include on a menu –
marinated chicken - pack it in freezer bags already marinated. We like honey mustard dressing and Montreal Chicken Seasoning.
corn on the cob - we soak our corn in the husk for 30 minutes and then cook it in the fire
breakfast scramble - bacon, homefries, eggs, and cheese, cooked in that order in one skillet all together– ridiculously yummy. I like to throw in sautéed onions and peppers too.
s’mores - get beyond plain chocolate and try Reeses cups, caramello bars, anything you like. Try a chocolate graham cracker with a marshmallow and cookies n cream white chocolate bar. Or use chocolate chip cookies instead of graham crackers. The possibilities are endless!

6. Bring lots of extra towels and tarps – you can never have enough. If it’s humid the towels don’t dry fast enough and if it rains, you’ll need them to dry everything off. Tarps under and in front of a tent are mandatory and they come in handy when you need extra shelter from rain or sun.

7. Take LOTS of fruit and veggies for snacks. Camping makes children extremely hungry and having fruit available keeps them from breaking in to the s’mores fixins. Pack it in Tupperware containers and leave it sitting out so little people can sneak some whenever they need to.

8. Bring poison ivy soap, Caledryl lotion, hydrocortisone cream, Benedryl cream and medicine, sun screen, Tylenol, and bug repellent.

One item that is critical for an enjoyable outing in the woods is insect repellent. This year I searched for an option beyond Deep Woods Off and its chemical nastiness. I tried out a recipe for homemade insect repellent and even convinced a few fellow campers to give it a go. This insect repellent was easy to make once I procured the ingredients.

The repellent itself smelled very nice and was actually good for our skin. I had a few scraps on my arms from an encounter with a pine tree while mowing this past week and the tea tree oil and aloe vera juice in the recipe healed them up nicely. So those are a few nice side effects of the repellent.

As far as actually repelling insects, it seemed to work fine for about 30 minutes and then needed to be reapplied. I used it at the campsite and while hiking. I sprayed it on my kids, who didn’t complain of any bites, but then again, they are generally moving too fast for anything to bite them. I took a lot of grief from my husband and a few other campers once it was discovered that the key ingredient in the repellent is vodka. Still, I recommend it over the toxic options out there. I’ll continue to test it on my morning runs and my horseback rides. There isn’t much that deters deer flies so that will be the true test.

There are lots of options included in the recipe that allow you to target exactly what you’re trying to deter. I found this recipe on the blog Little House in the Suburbs.

Homemade Insect Spray

1 cup vodka
2 Tablespoons aloe vera juice
2 teaspoons favorite conditioning liquid oil (soybean, castor, olive, etc.)
1 1/2/ teaspoon essential oil blend

Lavender Oil – mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, fleas, flies
Lemongrass Oil – mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, fleas, flies
Peppermint Oil – lice, spiders, ants
Rosemary Oil – fleas, ticks
Tea Tree Oil – mosquitoes, lice, ants
Eucalyptus Oil – mosquitoes
Citronella Oil – mosquitoes

I used tea tree oil, because I like the smell and because mosquitoes were my main foes, repelling ants seemed like a bonus. Hopefully, there were no lice around to deter.

I put my concoction in a used salad dressing sprayer and a small spray bottle I found amongst the travel size toiletries at the dollar store. Both containers worked nicely. Be sure to shake before using.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Canning is Simple and Satisfying

When I mention to people that I “can” they are amazed. That is, unless they can also and then they know it’s really no big deal. It’s not difficult at all and requires only a few special tools. Pictured here are all of my canning supplies. Here’s what you see:

A canning pot – these large enameled pots have a wire separator inside that keeps the jars from touching each other. My pot can do seven jars at a time. I do traditional hot bath canning as opposed to pressure canning. The high temperatures and special pot you need for pressure canning just seem too complicated for me. I’m happy with hot bath canning so I stick with that. If you want to can meat or certain non-acidic vegetables (green beans, beets, carrots, corn, peas, and potatoes to name a few) you’ll need a pressure canner (and a different blogger). I freeze my meats and most of my vegetables.

Canning pots are not expensive. A brand new one at the most expensive hardware store in town only costs about $20. You can also find them frequently at Goodwill and yard sales as many of the people who ‘can’ are moving to retirement communities.

Besides a pot, you’ll need a jar lifter and funnel. My lifter (pictured) is red rubber on one end (the end that picks up the hot jars) and black plastic on the other (not a good idea to put plastic in to boiling water). A jar funnel is used to fill the jars. It is wide enough for a regular mouth jar at the bottom and wider at the top. This makes ladling hot jams and sauces in to jars much easier. Mine is metal and very old. Many of the new ones I’ve seen are plastic. If you can find a metal one I would opt for that as heat and plastic are never a good combination. These are also not overly expensive and can be found at old time hardware stores and kitchen stores where they sell canning supplies.

And of course you’ll need jars. When you buy a new case of jars they will come 12 to a case and include the lids and bands. After that you can recycle the jars and bands, but need to buy new lids. The lids are sold separately anywhere you can buy the jars and cost about $2 for 12. I stock up at the end of the season when all the canning supplies go on sale. Same goes for jars because I always need more the next year – some break and some are given away. Jars can be found at yard sales but are rarely much cheaper than new ones. The people selling jars know they hold their value. Unless you can get them for 50 cents or cheaper, I’d stick with new ones. If you do buy used ones be sure to check carefully for chips along the rim. Any chipped edges will make it impossible to get a good vacuum seal.

Jars come in half pint, pint, and quart sizes. They even make smaller jars, but that seems silly to me. I use pint and quart sizes for everything except hot pepper jelly which I can in half-pint jars (nobody eats huge amounts of hot pepper jelly). The tops can be regular mouth (the smaller one pictured) and wide mouth. I use regular mouth jars for most everything except pickles which are easier to take out of wide mouth jars. It is completely personal preference, so do what you want – the recipes are the same for either type of mouth.

Here’s the basics of canning:

1. First you need to get your canner going. Don’t wait until the recipe is finished to start heating the water because this step takes TIME. I place seven jars in the canner and drop the lids around them. You can sterilize your jars and lids by hand or in the dishwasher, but if they are clean to start with, heating them with the canner does the trick and saves you time and effort. I begin filling the canner by boiling water in my teapot on the stove. I pour 3 or 4 pots full of boiling water in and around the jars and then fill the pot until it is just covering the jars with the hottest tap water I have. Then I leave the canner to work up to a boil while I prepare my goodies. After the jars have boiled for a few minutes, I remove them with my jar lifter and set them on the counter on a clean towel to dry. I use long tongs to fish out the lids.

2. Cook up whatever you are planning to can. The recipe will include lots of sugar, some vinegar, and/or lemon juice as preservatives. Basically you will heat the product and boil it for around 10 minutes to be sure all bacteria are good and dead. We love to can spaghetti sauce (do not use oil in your sauce – not safe for canning), diced tomatoes, pizza sauce, salsa, barbeque sauce, pickles, fruit sauces, fruit syrups, and jams. Each year I try to add another recipe. I’ll share our recipes with you as the summer progresses.

3. Next you ladle your yummy concoction in to jars. You’ll want to fill until about ¼” – ½” from the top. Then take a knife (we have a super skinny spatula that does the trick) and work it around the edges of the jar to force out any air bubbles. (Most recipes tell you to do this, but I forget this step frequently and haven’t had a jar go bad, so if you forget and your jars are all finished, don’t toss them out.) Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth, place the lids on and screw on the bands.

4. Using your jar lifter, place the jars carefully in the canner so that they aren’t touching. Try to angle the jar in to the water as opposed to dropping it straight down. I find this produces less boiling water splash. (ouch)The water should cover the jars at least a ½ inch to an inch. You’ll bring the canner water back to a boil and process according to the recipe (usually 10 minutes or so).

5. When your timer sounds, turn off the stove and take the lid off of your canner. Give it a minute to let out all the steam. (Don’t open the lid with your face over the canner. I know of what I speak and have to remember this the hard way every year.) Set a dry dish towel on your counter next to the canner and take the jars out and place them on the towel. The towel will catch the water that comes out with the jars and also prevent any of them from slipping off the counter (heaven forbid!).

6. Now here’s the best part! Your jars will make a tinny “pop” sound as each jar creates its vacuum. This usually happens in the first few minutes after you remove the jars from the canner, but can sometimes take longer. I love this sound and on long nights when the last jar of spaghetti sauce or salsa is finally sitting on the counter, I love to crack open a beer, sit back and just listen to the pops. Satisfaction. Even if it’s midnight, I’ll hang around until I hear the last pop. If you take up canning, you’ll come to love this sound too.

And that’s it. Simple. Really it is. I tried to break it down to the barest directions for you. Things can go wrong on occasion, but if you follow the recipe and the processing times, it’s rare. Knock on wood, I’ve never had a jar go bad. And I’ve opened peaches that got lost on a move and were over three years old. They tasted just fine. If the top of your jar can be pressed up and down easily, then the vacuum didn’t happen. You’ll want to put that jar in the fridge and eat it first.

I highly recommend the book Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving. I adapt most of my recipes from it and it has answers to any questions you might have about what can and can’t be canned.

Sometimes I prepare my recipe one day and then can it the next. All this requires is that bringing the product back to a boil again for a few minutes before canning it. When I’m doing a big project like spaghetti sauce or applesauce where I’m canning 30 jars or more, this makes it easier. I’ll cook up the goods in several pots on the stove and then place the lid on while it’s still boiling and turn it off. This keeps it sterile until I’m ready to can the next day. There are only so many burners, so this method is more efficient for me.

If you’ve never canned before, start with something simple like tomatoes or applesauce. Take your time and follow the directions. That’s my best advice. I promise you’ll find great satisfaction in canning and it just might become a habit. My husband and I do much of our canning late in the evening when it’s not too hot to heat up the kitchen with all the boiling pots. We enjoy the time together, listening to music and creating food that will nurture our family all year long. Canning is more fun with company, so enlist some help.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Pee Before Canning

We learn some of life’s most important lessons when we are in kindergarten. Robert Fulgham wrote a lovely book on that premise. One of those critical lessons is to always use the potty before setting off on any adventure. I dragged my canner out for the first time this season and learned the hard way that one really should use the potty BEFORE one starts canning. Now, that’s not advice you find in the Ball Jar Book of Canning and Preserving!

I’m going to make that my first rule of canning – use the potty first. Now, my second rule of canning is PAY ATTENTION. Not that canning is difficult. I’m going to attempt to convince all you people who are afraid of jars and lids and boiling water and fresh produce that it’s quite simple. It’s so simple in fact that I tend to do a little too much multi-tasking while I’m canning. That might be OK when you are canning jars number 265 and 266, but when you are canning jars 1-7, you need to be focused on what you are doing.

I’ll tell you the story of this past Friday morning, not so much to amuse you or make you feel sorry for me, but to help you see that even those of us who have canned hundreds of jars, can still screw it up. And that’s OK. The thing is not to let it discourage you.

My tale really starts on Thursday morning when I dragged my three children to the blueberry patch to pick blueberries. This was their third trip there and let’s just say they were less than enthusiastic. One (and she will remain nameless) refused to get out of the car when we got there and rather than making a scene that might make some suspect me of child indentured servant crimes, I let her stay there with her attitude and her book. The boys and I hiked out to the fields. The smallest found a very full bush and parked himself under it and ate his fill and then spent the rest of the time calling, “Are we ever going to leave?” to which I always replied, “Yes,” because we would leave eventually.

So I was down to one other picker, but the two of us managed to fill our bucket and enjoy a peaceful conversation about how you know when a blueberry is the ripest and the meaning of the word “ameriocracy” (At least that’s how I’m guessing you spell it. He picked this word up in his reading and couldn’t be sure of the context, so that left us open to lots of interpretations). This isn’t the part where you feel sorry for me, I’m just trying to make it clear that these blueberries were harvested under great effort and sacrifice.

On Friday morning I decided to make blueberry syrup. It wasn’t really difficult to make, but it took some time to crush the blueberries and cook the blueberries and then strain the juices. We taste tested the first batch on pancakes and unanimously decided the syrup was awesome. So I set to cooking up some more to can. I pulled out seven pint jars from the basement and found seven lids and put them all in the canner and got it boiling to sterilize the jars and lids. No problem there. The problems began as I waited and waited and waited for the huge vat of blueberry sauce to reach a boil. The directions were to bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. The real problems began when I had to pee. I kept putting it off thinking the syrup would boil and then I’d simmer it and get it in the jars and then I could go. But like I said, it was taking a long time to reach a boil, so finally I couldn’t wait any longer and I dashed off to use our downstairs powder room. But there wasn’t any toilet paper and as many of you probably know, only mothers are capable of finding the extra toilet paper and replacing the roll. So now I had to hurry off to the closet upstairs to get more toilet paper and then I really had to pee. By the time I made it back to the kitchen there was a blueberry catastrophe. The syrup had boiled and since it was a sugar based concoction it boiled up and over the top of the pan, all over my stove, down the cabinets, in to the jennair vents and all along the counter top. It was lovely. I said some not so nice things and spent the next 20 minutes cleaning up the stove and kitchen. Then I put the pot back on to boil and I watched it very carefully. The next time it boiled I was ready. I supervised it and kept the heat just high enough to keep it from boiling over. My husband brews beer on occasion and he loves to quote his beer making guide that says “a watched pot never boils, but when this pot boils you better be watching.” Those words haunted me all day.

Not to be discouraged, I was still able to fill six jars and save a small amount for breakfast on Saturday. Here’s what I thought I did next – I put on all the little round lids and screwed them down with the rings. I placed each jar in the canner and I processed them for 10 minutes according to the recipe directions. I say thought but I obviously wasn’t really thinking about it because I don’t remember exactly what I did since while I was in the kitchen anyway, I set up my yogurt maker, emptied the dishwasher, mixed up a batch of dough for hamburger rolls and negotiated a truce between warring parties over the computer. I’m sure there were a few phone calls in there also. When the timer went off I lifted the lid on my canner expecting to see six cans of blueberry syrup but there were only five. I vaguely remember registering that I had an extra lid ring leftover after I started processing my jars, but figured I’d miscounted when I set them out originally. Turns out there were six jars in my canner, it’s just with the dark blue water I couldn’t find the sixth jar that some idiot had put in to the canner without screwing on the ring that secures the lid until the vacuum forms. More blueberry mess to clean up, but in the end I did have five jars of delicious blueberry syrup. Have to focus on that and not all the work it took to pick and process all those blueberries just to lose over 25 % of my product because I didn’t pee before I started and I didn’t pay close enough attention to what I was doing.

I hope my tale doesn’t discourage you. My next post will explain the basics of canning. It’s not hard, I promise, and it’s incredibly rewarding. Plus, it always impresses the neighbors and you’ll feel like you’re in touch with your ancestral roots. All good stuff. Just in case you want to can some blueberry syrup of your own, here’s the recipe:

Blueberry Syrup
(from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving)

Makes three pint jars

8 cups blueberries, crushed (I use a potato masher)
6 cups water, divided
1 Tablespoon grated lemon zest (it does make a difference if you use a fresh lemon)
3 cups granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons lemon juice (again, fresh lemon if possible)

1. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine blueberries, 2 cups of water and lemon zest. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and boil gently for 5 minutes.
2. Transfer to a dampened jelly bag (I don’t know what this is) or a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth set over a deep bowl. Let drip, undisturbed, for at least 2 hours. (I used my regular spaghetti strainer without the cheesecloth and it worked fine, I did have to mash the last bit out. I don’t mind if my syrup has specks of skin in it and none of my kids even noticed)
3. Prepare canner, jars, and lids.
4. In a clean large stainless steel saucepan, combine sugar and remaining 4 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar, and cook until temperature reaches 230 degrees (mine never made it that high and still turned out fine). Add blueberry juice. HERE’S WHERE YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
5. Ladle hot syrup into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw down band until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
6. Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process 10 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Superfood above all Superfoods

Coconut Oil is a superfood above all superfoods. It’s one of the best things you can eat. I discovered this in my efforts to learn more about foods that help the immune system. When my son was first diagnosed with Alopecia Areata I had never even heard of coconut oil. If I ever ate it, it was by accident. I never liked coconut much because of the texture, but I never knew about coconut oil and coconut milk. Now I find all kinds of ways to sneak coconut oil in to our diet.

Coconut oil is nature’s best source of lauric acid, an essential fatty acid that boosts the immune system and protects us against viruses, yeasts, parasites, and other pathogens. Lauric acid is used to make baby formula. It also occurs naturally in mother’s milk. It is a fatty acid with antifungal and antimicrobial properties. Here’s what I read in the book Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon:

Demographic indications are that countries whose populace consumes large
amounts of coconut have very low incidences of coronary diseases. In one study
of two groups of Polynesians, those consuming coconut oil as 89% of the fat
intake had lower blood pressure than those whose coconut oil intake was only 7%
of fat intake. In Sri Lanka, a major coconut producing and consuming nation, the
1978 rate of heart disease was 1 per 100,000 contrasted with a rate of 18 to 187
in countries with no coconut oil consumption.
As heart disease surpasses cancer as the leading cause of death in this country, we might all be wise to find ways to add more coconut to our diet. The more I’ve read about Coconut oil the more convinced I am that it can have a huge impact on our health, and not just the immune system. Here’s another tidbit from Fallon’s book:

Coconut oil protects tropical populations from bacteria and fungus so prevalent in their food supply; as third-world nations in tropical areas have switched to polyunsaturated vegetable oils, the incidence of intestinal disorders and immune deficiency diseases have increased.
Here’s a partial list of other benefits found in medical research and clinical observations (if you're already sold on the benefits of coconut oil and want to skip to the recipes below, feel free):

- Kills viruses that cause mononucleosis, influenza, hepatitis C, measles,
herpes, AIDS, and other illnesses
- Kills bacteria that cause pneumonia, ear ache, throat infection, dental cavities, food poisoning, urinary tract infections, meningitis, gonorrhea, and dozens of other diseases
- Expels or kills tapeworms, lice, giardia, and other parasites
- Provides a quick boost of energy
- Improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose
- Helps relieve symptoms and reduce health risks associated with diabetes
- Improves calcium and magnesium absorption and supports the development of
strong bones and teeth
- Helps protect against osteoporosis
- Relieves symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and stomach ulcers
- Relieves pain and irritation caused by hemorrhoids
- Reduces chronic inflammation
- Supports tissue healing and repair
- Supports and aids immune system function
- Helps protect the body from breast, colon, and other cancers
- Is heart healthy; does not increase blood cholesterol or platelet stickiness
- Helps prevent heart disease and stroke
- Helps prevent high blood pressure
- Helps prevent periodontal disease and tooth decay
- Helps to protect the body from harmful free-radicals that promote premature aging and degenerative disease
- Is lower in calories than all other fats
- Supports thyroid function
- Promotes loss of excess weight by increasing metabolic rate
- Applied topically helps to form a chemical barrier on the skin to ward off infection
- Reduces symptoms associated with psoriasis, eczema, and dermatitis
- Prevents wrinkles, sagging skin, and age spots
- Promotes healthy-looking hair and complexion
- Is resistant to oxidation so has a long shelf life
- Does not form harmful by-products when heated to normal cooking temperatures like other vegetable oils

Wow! If only half this list holds water, then we all need to be consuming more coconut oil. I’m sure you’re already headed out the door to get your own case of the stuff, so here’s a few things you should know. Coconut oil is pretty expensive, about as expensive as good olive oil. It’s worth every cent. Look for coconut oil that is non-hydrogenated, otherwise you’ll lose out on some of its benefits. Good quality coconut oil tastes like coconut. It is semi-solid in cooler weather and liquid oil in warmer weather. Here’s some ways to get more coconut oil in your diet:

Use coconut oil in cookie recipes and other baked goods.

It can also be used to sauté if you keep the temperature from getting too high. I suppose what you use it in depends on how much you love the taste of coconut oil. I substitute half the butter for coconut oil in all my cookie recipes and my kids don’t notice it. When I used it to cook their eggs, they turned up their noses (although I happily ate all the eggs they didn’t!).

We use it in waffles, pancakes and breads and nobody knows the difference, except that they taste REALLY good and seem really decadent.

You can also use coconut milk in soups and cooking dishes.

I love, love, love the recipe for coconut rice found in the Nourishing Traditions Cookbook and also Cooking Light’s Coconut Shrimp. Those recipes can be found below. There is also a recipe for a Coconut crust in Nourishing Traditions that I haven’t tried yet, but think would be divine as the base for a banana cream pie.

The last thing I’ll say about coconut oil is it is a great for your skin. When I finish scraping out a jar for cooking, I use my fingers to gather what’s still in there and rub it in to my arms and hands. I wouldn’t waste an ounce of that precious stuff. I once had a health professional tell me that if I used coconut oil on my skin every day, I’d look 10 years younger. I don’t know if that’s a comment on how powerful the stuff is or how old I look for my age!

Enjoy these recipes and consider developing some of your own!

Coconut Rice
(adapted from Nourishing Traditions)

2 cups long-grain brown rice
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 cardamom pods (critical – don’t leave this out!)
2 Cups Chicken Stock
2 Cups Coconut Milk
½ teaspoon sea salt

In heavy pan, melt butter and olive oil. Open cardamom pods and add seeds to the pan. (Note: I open cardamom pods by rolling my rolling pin over them a few times). Saute rice in butter and oil, stirring constantly, until rice begins to turn milky. Pour in liquid, add salt and bring to a rolling boil. Boil, uncovered, for about 10 minutes until water has been reduced to the level of the rice. Reduce heat, cover tightly, and cook for about 45 minutes or until done (you can cook longer, the original recipe calls for cooking up to 3 hours!).

Spicy Shrimp in Coconut Sauce
(Cooking Light)

½ Cup coconut milk
1 T fresh lime juice
1 t bottled minced ginger
1 t low-sodium soy sauce
1 t honey
½ t cornstarch
½ t chile paste with garlic
½ t bottled minced garlic
¼ t salt
2 t canola oil
1 ½ lbs large shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 T chopped green onions
½ t crushed red pepper
2 cups jasmine rice (I serve this over coconut rice – WOW!)

Combine first 9 ingredients in a medium bowl – set aside.

Heat canola oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add shrimp and sauté 2 minutes. Add green onions and red pepper; cook 1 minute. Add coconut milk mixture to pan; bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer 1 minute or until shrimp turn pink. Serve immediately over rice.

Yield: 4 servings (1 cup shrimp mixture and ½ cup rice), 310 calories per serving

(Latest Version of) A Little Bit Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookies

½ cup butter
3/4 cup coconut oil
1 cup sucanot (or 1 cup white sugar)
1 cup brown sugar (or 1 cup rapidura)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup organic white flour
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1/3 cup almond meal (optional)
¼ cup ground flax
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt (I use celtic sea salt and increase it to almost 1 teaspoon)
2 cups grain sweetened chocolate chips (or use a good chocolate chip like Ghirardelli’s – cheap chips cheapen the cookie in ways other than price)

1. Preheat oven to 375.
2. Cream butter, oil, and sugars. Add vanilla, eggs, and flaxseed. Beat well. (If it’s cool out and I’m using coconut oil it will be kind of hard, so I beat it much longer than if I do when it is warm to ensure that it is evenly spread through the batter.)
3. Mix together flours, almond meal, baking soda, and salt with whisk. Add to batter. Beat until mixed well. Add in chocolate chips.
4. Use mini ice cream scoop or melon baler to drop small tablespoons on to pan.
5. Bake for 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the cookies and whether you heated the pans. It also depends on your oven, so watch your cookies carefully the first few times.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Couch Cushions and Parenting

What is it about children and couches? Is it just my children who cannot walk past a couch without upending a cushion, pitching a throw pillow, twirling an arm cover on one finger, or dragging the throw-blanket away for a superman cape? If there’s anything I regret most in this life it is buying a couch with unattached cushions. A day does not go by when I don’t have to track down and return some critical seat or back cushion for our couch. I will put the couch back in order and no more than leave the room before the cat appears wearing an arm cover as head piece or a child flies past me with a seat cushion strapped to his chest as a shield. I always know when my youngest has been messing with the stereo, not because of the sound but because of the huge stack of couch cushions positioned in front of the cabinet so that he can reach all the knobs. On the scale of life’s difficulties I know that replacing the cushions and washing the pillow covers once again is relatively low. But what drives me nuts is that I could have prevented this.

Parenting is all about prevention. Kids grow up, this is inevitable. Our job as parents is to create an atmosphere that is safe and sane and gives them enough freedom without turning ourselves in to shrews who are constantly yelling, “Why is the couch cushion on the swing set?” We need to be smart because kids’ brains are gaining on us every day. Prevention. I’m telling you that is the key. Buy couches with attached cushions. If you don’t want your kids watching 10 hours of TV a day, cut the cable (and break your own habit too). If that video game seems way to mature for kids, get it out of your house. You want your kids to read more? Don’t tell them to read, fill the bookshelves. Reduce the screen options. Kids won’t stay bored for long – I promise. Learn to say no. If you don’t want your kids to have it, then don’t give it to them. And for heaven’s sake, don’t fall for that “all the other kids are doing it” crap. My kids still don’t know how to play Nintendo and have no idea what a reality TV show is. And it’s not making them social pariahs. Just because so many kids out there are allowed to watch inappropriate adult television shows, play hours of violent video games and eat corn syrup sweetened diets and society shrugs their shoulders, doesn’t mean it’s OK. Whatever you decide is right for your kids, be clear with them because making no decision is certainly making a decision. Kids know this and they capitalize on it. Just remember - you don’t get another shot at raising your kids.

The same goes for eating healthy and organic. Of course kids aren’t going to choose the healthy choice if it’s stale and unappetizing and there are Transformer Fruit Snacks on the next shelf. If you don’t want your kids to eat things that aren’t good for them – don’t buy them. Don’t have them around. Fill your cabinets, fridge, and counter tops with healthy options. Fresh fruit, nuts, cheese, whole grain snack food, and yogurt should always be available. I left a bowl of freshly picked apricots out on the counter this weekend and my kids ate every last one by Monday morning. (Of course, I’m still finding pits all over the house too, but that’s the price I’ll pay.)

Think through what you really want for your kids in terms of lifestyle, habits, eating, and priorities. And take a hard look at your home – make the changes you need to make. Kids aren’t supposed to have all that impulse control mastered yet so we need to set them up to be successful. Sometimes teaching them about healthy choices means not having any unhealthy ones available. I look at it this way – I’ve only got a few years to have any influence on their lives and even fewer in which I can actually control much of their lives. I have to make the most of my time, my example, and my decisions now. Sure they may make all kinds of unhealthy choices the moment they set out on their own, but at least I’ll know the foundation I helped them build is strong and there is a good chance that some habits will be hard to break.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Just Bag It

So lets talk about bags. I know they seem boring and inconsequential, but in reality they have great impact on the quality of your life – or at least, your food (which is necessary for your life, so indirectly the bags affect your life). This year I’ve truly expanded my bag repertoire. That’s a sentence I never expected to write in this life (and probably not one you expected to read). I have bread bags, cheese bags, lettuce bags, potato bags, onion bags, and too many bags for recycling.

Let’s start with the potato and onion bags because that was my first venture outside of re-using the plastic grocery bags. I bought these bags from Current. I’ve recycled their catalog for years and rarely give it a parting glance, but on this occasion I was stranded at the bus stop holding the mail and the kindergarten bus was late. There was nothing else to do but leaf through the catalog. I discovered these bags in their clearance section so I don’t know for sure if they’re still available with Current, but I’m sure someone somewhere is selling them on the internet. The catalog claimed that these bags would keep your potatoes and onions from growing eyes and tails as potatoes and onions are prone to do if you don’t eat them quickly. They are heavy burlapy feeling bags that have a dark lining that keeps light out. They have a drawstring on one end and a small zipper entrance on the other. You place your potatoes in the potato bag and your onions in the onion bag. Aside form the cutesy drawing of potatoes and onions on the outside, I don’t see how the bags are any different. I’m not sure what made me order them in the first place, most likely it was the great clearance price. When I look back it seems very out of character for me to have ordered some cheesy bags from a wrapping paper catalog. At any rate, the bags work great so I’m glad I did. My mother looked at them and deduced that you could probably make your own, but I like to believe that these are one-of-a-kind bags with years of technology behind them. If you venture out and buy your own potato or onion bags, remember you should never store potatoes and onions together. They will make each other go bad. Even when they are in their own bags – keep them apart.

The next specialized bags I purchased were bread bags called Debbie Meyer Bread Bags. They came 10 in a box (including 2 extra long ones for French baguettes) and cost about $7. The box claimed to make bread last longer. Since I bake our bread and homemade bread tends to mold much faster than the preservative laden store bought bread, I was all about finding ways to make it last longer. The bread bags do seem to extend the life, but more importantly they are large enough to hold a bread machine loaf. With the bread bags, my bread will last about 4 or 5 days in the bread drawer and weeks in the refrigerator. I don’t have a huge mass of data on this because bread doesn’t typically last that long at our house without being eaten. I asked my dad the PhD Chemical Engineer why these bags that look like ordinary plastic bags would make bread last longer and he said it probably had something to do with the amount of oxygen in the plastic. Hmm. They do tear pretty easy so we’ve gone through a few. I bought our last box about four months ago and we’re down to about five bags now.

Cheese bags come from the same company as the bread bags. They are my newest addition to my bag collection. So far I do believe that cheese kept in these bags is not getting moldy. You do have to remove the wrapper the cheese comes in which makes it difficult to know which cheese is what if you have as many types in your fridge as I do. I find myself sniffing little blue cheese bags pretty regularly trying to identify the occupant.

I have tried the vegetable bags made by Ziploc and been unimpressed. Vegetables at my house either get eaten immediately or get lost in the back of the vegetable drawer never to seen from again until the drawer starts leaking nasty liquids and my husband cleans it out, muttering under his breath about people who stuff too much in the fridge. I am most happy with my own system which is to leave veggies in their original package if they come from the store and to eat or freeze them immediately if they come from my garden. Lettuce would be the only exception. Lettuce I wash, dry, and put in Ziploc bags with a dry paper towel. I think the specialized bags by Ziploc and hefty are just one more way to take our money and clog up our kitchen cabinets with unnecessary boxes of bags.

Which brings me to the gazillion plastic bags that manage to enter my house even though I carry my own bags to the store with me. I think that some day when they are digging up the remains of our civilization what they will find is plastic grocery bags. We are completely outnumbered by them. I just want to take the electronic space right here to say – recycle your plastic bags – ALL OF THEM. I know sometimes we get lazy and think “I’ll just throw away this one,” but don’t do it. Even the little plastic ones that individually wrap the gift card you bought or the plastic bags that held all the pieces for the game your kid just got for his birthday. All of these bags need to be recycled so that they don’t end up blowing around a parking lot somewhere, or suffocating a woodland creature or clogging up the drainage ditches. Instead they can become a deck or playground or whatever else the clever scientists are figuring out to do with them. So recycle your bags – develop your own system to make it easy. Buy or make a bag collecting bag or put a box in the bottom of your closet or pay your kids to recycle them, but find a way to do it. Because someday you don’t want the only thing our generation is remembered for to be a plethora of plastic bags.