Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Homemade Applesauce, Anyone?

There’s no better comfort food in the world than warm, homemade applesauce. And once you’ve made your own, you’ll never be able to stomach another bottle of store-bought applesauce again. I promise. The bonus is that making your own is just about the easiest thing to do. And the other bonus is that making your own will impress your friends and families. They will be in awe. And they’ll want a bowl. Wait, and there’s one more bonus – it will save you lots of money because store-bought applesauce is ridiculously overpriced!

We are in the throes of apple season right now. Apples are fresh, cheap, and plentiful. There are so many varieties available it’s overwhelming. I think the best applesauce comes from mixing lots of varieties together, but making applesauce from fresh apples you just picked yourself is pretty stellar too. I try to get my kids out to a pick-your-own farm each year. There is nothing in the world like a fresh apple eaten moments after it is picked. Nothing. Don’t take my word for it – go find out.

Most fruit markets sell apple seconds. If it isn’t immediately apparent, ask someone about it. When you’re making applesauce, quantity is important and looks aren’t. I like to go to the seconds room and ask for a few bushels of mixed apples. I ask them to throw in every kind of apple they have except Red Delicious. Red Delicious may be yummy eating apples, but they make only mediocre sauce. A mix of varieties makes the taste much richer and more complex.

Making applesauce is not a precise science, so don’t get hung up on following a recipe. Personalize your own. All I do is core, peel, and slice enough apples to fill a big pot. Periodically, I splash a few squirts of lemon juice on the apples to keep them from turning brown. When my pot is full, I fill the bottom quarter of the pot with water and put it on the stove. Working on a medium-high setting, I bring the apples to a boil, mashing them with a spoon and stirring often. Once the apples are boiling, I turn down the heat a little and continue to mash them with a spoon or a potato masher.

Next I add sugar. Now, how much sugar you add is a completely personal decision. I add about ½ cup for a big pot, but you can add much more or none at all. A fresh mix of apples creates such an amazingly complex and sweet flavor that you probably don’t need anywhere near the amount of sugar most recipes call for. So if you’re following a recipe, cut the sugar in half and then taste. You might not need the rest.

I continue cooking and mashing occasionally until the mixture looks like applesauce. I’m not sure how long this takes. I promised myself I would pay attention last night when I made applesauce so I could be more precise in my instructions but then I got distracted preparing dinner and dealing with homework issues. It might have taken 15 minutes, but then again it might have been longer. All I know is there is a point where the apples become really easy to mash and the whole mixture suddenly looks like applesauce.

This is where I stop and move on to canning, freezing, or eating, but if you don’t like chunky applesauce (which is one of the qualities I love about homemade applesauce), you can now put your concoction through a food processor and eliminate all those chunks that make your kids say, “Did you make this?” Although, once your kids have tried real homemade applesauce warm from the pan with a sprinkle of cinnamon they’ll change their tune.

A great way to increase your kids’ enthusiasm for homemade applesauce is to enlist their help in the process. If you own an apple peeler/corer/slicer get your kids in on the action. We have a peeler/corer/slicer that attaches to the kitchen counter and the kids love to use it. They love to eat the long, curly apple peels. Most peeler/corer/slicers only work on perfectly shaped apples, so if your seconds are particularly assymetrical and/or overly ripe, don’t get too frustrated when the handy contraption doesn’t work. Then you just have to revert to the old fashioned knife to do the job.

We can some of our applesauce and freeze the rest in abandoned yogurt containers. Slightly thawed, frozen applesauce is a wonderful dessert treat. But the best way to eat it is still warm from the pan. I make applesauce in large batches in the fall, but I make smaller ones anytime I end up with a bunch of apples that are getting long in the tooth or being ignored in the bottom of the fridge. So don’t think you can only make applesauce when you have time for the big production it can become. Grab a little sauce pan and peel, core, and slice 3 or 4 apples. You do the same thing your do for a big batch, just modify your amounts. Fresh, warm applesauce makes a yummy side dish anytime.

A jar of homemade applesauce and a basket of apples is a wonderful gift for a teacher, friend, or new neighbor. If you don’t remember how to can see my post from July 15 for directions. Now that you know how easy it is, try making some homemade applesauce, not only will it be comfort food for your body, it’s comfort food for the soul too.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How Big is Your Trash Pile?

Sustainability expert Melissa Schweisguth doesn’t throw anything away. In fact she can fit her entire year’s worth of trash in one coffee can. Isn’t that impressive? I’m way impressed. She composts, recycles, re-uses, and even takes her own utensils and napkin with her to restaurants! Talk about living trash free. She is my hero.

I didn’t think our family does too bad on the trash front either. After composting, recycling, and hoarding, most weeks we have a half-full trash can to drag down the hill for the trash truck. I really think if it weren’t for my children, we could get down to a coffee can or two a week. But I have children and children create trash. I take some comfort in the fact that Yu-gi-oh cards can be recycled, but what about all those Littlest Pet Shop creatures and all their stuff?? I was faced with this dilemma this morning as I sorted through our basement. Things have gotten to the breaking point down there. As I confessed in a recent post, it is a dumping ground. Out of sight, out of mind. At least until you need to find an extra lunch box because someone left theirs at school. Wading through the boxes and piles and stepping over the furniture and bins was becoming much too treacherous.

This morning I headed to the basement with boxes, a big contractor clean up bag, and my resolve. I would not hold on to everything. But what about the six thousand pieces of “pottery” the kids made at clay camp? Or the large plastic fragments left from Christmas’ past – part of the Mega-ship Shark Attack? What to do with hundreds of Beanie Babies and their hand-made Beanie Baby sleeping bags? Then there were the craft kits - garden mosaic, Tile-Fun, Your-own-Pottery-Wheel, and those aptly named, Blow Pens? Not to mention the Earthworm observatory and the Ant Farm. What do I do with these things? Lucky for me our church is having a Yard Sale this fall. We go to a very open-minded, environmentally-friendly church filled with creative, resourceful people who are very big on recycling and re-purposing– maybe someone will want a partially used Ant Farm? I filled several boxes with potential treasures. I also filled several boxes for Goodwill because I just can’t bear for anyone to know I ever owned these things. It took hours and hours, but things are a little better down there. Even after re-purposing and recycling, and possibly pawning off as much as I could I still trooped up the stairs with a Contractor Trash Bag filled to the brim. I am no Melissa Schweisguth.

Reading about Melissa did inspire me. It’s made me hyper-aware of everything I bring in to my house. I thought about going to the store today to get the ingredients for Watermelon Slushies. I have a ton of watermelon leftover from the monster watermelon we sliced over the weekend. It needs to be put to use today or it’s chicken food. The recipe called for several items I don’t have so I mentally made plans to stop at the store this afternoon. But as I dug through the mounds of stuff in my basement I thought about our trash allotment. It’s mostly kid junk and food containers that can’t be recycled. Two of the items I need for the slushies come in just such containers. This motivated me to create my own slushies using what I have here so I can keep my trash allotment at zero for today.

I get some really nice e-mails from people who read this blog and I’m always thrilled to hear from anyone, especially someone with more ideas about living a kid-friendly organic life. Here are two products that were suggested by readers that can help reduce the trash created when it comes to packing lunches for your kids (or you):

Reusies –
Reusies are basically 100% cotton bags that are lined with a washable nylon coated material (BPA, Lead and Phthalate free). The Velcro closures on the outside allow you to close the bag tightly and keep the snacks inside instead of all over your lunch box. I was doubtful about this ability, but after using them this summer to carry snacks in my purse, my backpack, my kids’ backpacks, the floor of the car, and the pool bag, I can say that we’ve had no spillage. The bags come in several sizes to fit sandwiches and just about anything else you might put in a Ziploc bag. They can be washed in your washing machine (be sure to turn them inside out and attach their Velcro back to themselves or they will disappear only to be discovered in a sleeve or pantleg someday.) or just rinsed out with water. There are lots of color options to choose from and fun patterns kids will like. The only downside on these little beauties is that they are kind of pricey – 8.75 for large and $6.75 for small. My mom was able to make some with her sewing machine, so if you’re handy like that you might buy a couple and then figure it out for yourself. In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that one of my children refuses to use the reusies, claiming that the food is stale by lunchtime. I’ve done my own tests to verify this and can honestly say it is completely in the mind of the beholder. Nothing I put in there got stale, even after a couple days. To learn more about them and/or order your own, check out http://www.reusies.com/.

The other product that I really liked, but was again kind of pricey, is Laptop lunchboxes. Each “Bento Set” (this is an international company so I’m not sure where the Bento comes from) is $24.95. The laptops were very cool for my 4th grader, but now that she is in 5th grade, not so much. I think they are perfect for younger children. The lunchbox is shaped like a small briefcase and has four plastic containers inside that nest in the designated compartments. They even come with a teeny, tiny adorable container with a lid for dip to go with your carrots. A slot on the side makes room for utensils. Only one of the containers has a lid, but the lap top is engineered so perfectly that none of the food migrates to any other sections. It’s a fun way to pack a lunch and creates no trash since all the sturdy plastic containers can easily be handwashed. I would love to see a bigger version of these laptops because my youngest child has such an appetite that I just can’t pack enough food in a laptop for him. Also, the laptop doesn’t have a handle or a place for a drink, so it’s a little unwieldy to carry to the lunchroom. The company does sell an assortment of bags to fit your drink and laptop inside, I was just too stingy to go for it. You can get your own Laptop Lunchbox at http://www.laptoplunches.com/.

Tupperware also makes some really nice sturdy sandwich keepers and snack holders. We got ours adorned with SpongeBob. They even have their own version of the laptop lunchbox which does hold a little more food, but also doesn’t have a handle. I’m sure by the time my kids are grown up, all these glitches will be worked out and there will be an uberlunchbox. Or maybe the schools will finally figure out how to serve a healthy, environmentally conscious lunch. I’m not holding my breath.

It is a challenge to be like Melissa, but it’s a good challenge. I hope you will make it your own.

Post-Post: I did make Watermelon Slushies and they turned out awesome. I’m a bit of a free from cook and didn’t measure anything, but here’s an approximation of the recipe:

Watermelon Slushies

4 cups chopped watermelon (frozen for at least an hour)
1 cup chopped ice
½ cup water
1/8-1/4 cup organic sugar
2 teaspoon lime juice
½ t Orange Essential Citrus Oil

Process thoroughly in blender. Add more water or ice to make the consistency you want. If you don’t have the citrus oil, you could use a ½ cup orange juice instead, or skip it altogether.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Salt is Salt is Salt....or is it?

Another quote about salt jumped out at me while reading Time magazine this week. “18 billion – estimated health-care savings if Americans cut their average daily sodium intake to 2300 mg per day, according to a new Rand study.” It seems like you can’t open a newspaper any more without hearing more bad news about salt. What’s a person to do? All animals naturally crave and need salt. This morning I replaced my horses’ salt block with a new and improved carrot-flavored salt block to the tune of $4.95 ($3 more than the ordinary block I usually buy). Somehow I succumbed to marketing and purchased a carrot flavored salt block for my little beasties. Did they need a carrot colored, carrot smelling, supposedly carrot-flavored (but who is going to verify this? Not me. I’m sure I could prevail upon my 7 year-old with the great sense of adventure, but I won’t) block? Seems kind of hypocritical of me, huh? Here I am, constantly ranting about added artificial colors and flavors and over-marketing of products, and last week in the feed store in a moment of weakness, I caved to the new salt block. It just looked kind of cool. Now, just like the rest of us Americans, my horses will probably eat too much salt for the next few months.

We didn’t always eat too much salt. Over time our diet has changed. We’ve become a nation that eats primarily processed food, fast food, and convenience foods loaded with fat, sugar, and way more salt than we need. Most people used to eat more real food – food they grew, prepared, and cooked. But then along came the carrot-flavored salt block companies. And just like me in the feed store last week, we couldn’t resist. It’s easier! More convenient! Tastes great! Looks kind of cool! Processed foods are loaded with sodium. If you don’t believe me, just read a label. Try reading the kid favorite – Kraft macaroni and cheese. I don’t have a box here, but the organic version has 570mg per 1 cup serving! Another case of just because it’s organic, doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

Salt is not all bad. I, personally, overuse salt on a regular basis. I load it on my eggs, popcorn, and vegetables. My husband cringes when he sees me do it. But our bodies do need salt. Every individual is different and some need more than others, while some people are oversensitive to it. Salt helps to regulate our blood pressure and assist with muscle and nerve function. But too much salt can contribute to hypertension, heart disease, and stroke.

So, what’s a salt-loving person to do? Use the good stuff. Even though my father, the chemical engineer, will disagree with me (sorry dad!), all salts are not the same. Maybe they are chemically identical at their core, but where and how they are harvested makes a difference. Your typical table salt is refined. To keep it dry, refiners add several additives, including aluminum compound. To replace the natural iodine salts that are removed during processing, potassium iodide is added. To stabilize the volatile iodide compound, processors add dextrose which turns the iodized salt a purplish color. Of course, the next step is to add a bleaching agent to make the salt white again. So, like I said, all salts are not the same. Refined salt is created through chemical and high-temperature industrial processes that remove valuable magnesium salts as well as trace minerals that naturally occur in the sea.

Sea salt, on the other hand, contains traces of marine life that provide natural organic forms of iodine so there’s no need for iodizing it (or stabilizing it or bleaching it). Reading about Celtic sea salt in the book Nourishing Traditions (Sally Fallon), I found this interesting tidbit: “Some researchers claim that this form of iodine remains in the bodily fluids for many weeks, whereas the iodine released from iodidized salts passes through very quickly. This may be why the late physician Henry Bieler found evidence of sodium starvation in the tissues of people who consumed large amounts of refined salt.”

The purest form of commercially available unrefined sea salt comes from the salt marshes of Brittany (off the coast of France). This salt is usually labeled “Celtic sea salt”. Celtic sea salt is “farmed” according to ancient methods. It is hand-harvested and dried by the sun and wind. It contains no anti-caking agents, bleaching agents, or additives. This is good and bad. Good – it tastes amazing. I promise you will notice the difference. Bad – Some regular salt shakers can’t be used with Celtic sea salt as the salt crystals are a little bit bigger because they aren’t so refined. You can buy Celtic sea salt in its own shaker with larger holes – that’s what I do. But it does mean I can’t use my cute little salt and pepper shaker sets which I love. My grandmother collected salt and pepper shakers and I always loved to look at her collection. Maybe that’s where I got the affinity. Now, they are only pepper shakers because I know too much to go back to the pretty white iodized salt that fits in the salt shakers. Celtic sea salt is also grayish in color, but don’t let that scare ya. The gray color comes from the pure clay lining of the salt beds where Celtic sea salt is harvested.

You can find Celtic Sea Salt in the grocery store and it’s a little more pricey than regular salt. Once again, we pay a premium to protect our health. I believe it is worth it. The news is filled with the dangers of too much salt. So, if you’re going to flirt with danger, at least use the good stuff. Pick a salt that is as good as it can be for your health and your taste buds. But if you really want to do your health and your sodium intake a favor, cut out the processed foods – your health and your waistline will thank you.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Your Very Own Raspberry Patch

I thought since I started to write about raspberries in my last post and ended up rambling on about my own issues with managing my life, I really should post about growing raspberries. If you only grow one fruit, let it be raspberries. They are the best plant for those of us who just don’t have time to care for our plants. If you put them in well to begin with, raspberries will bear fruit for years and years without you doing anything other than cutting them down each winter. All you need is a sunny spot. Raspberries do wonderfully along the edge of a yard or against your house or barn, but you can plop them down anywhere.

Perhaps the best reason to grow your own raspberries is they are so expensive, even when they’re in season. Kids are drawn to raspberries. Despite the fact that we grow them at home, my kids beg for them at the store. They can’t resist the plastic carton filled with plump, juicy raspberries. And half the time you buy those beautiful tempting berries in the store you come home to discover they are moldy in the middle. Raspberries don’t keep well. So when they are in season you just have to eat and eat and eat them, which is also a good thing, because they are really good for you. Organic raspberries are even better for you. Commercial raspberries that have to travel a great distance to reach you must certainly be laden with preservatives and heaven knows what else, or they wouldn’t survive the journey. Another great reason to grow your own!

Raspberries are very simple to grow. I would counsel you to spend some time preparing a proper garden bed for them, but truthfully raspberries are a bit like weeds and they can generally take over a garden all on their own. I hope you’ve taken advantage of the thousands of wild raspberries that grow all over the country side. They have a sweet-sour taste while the domesticated ones are just plain sweet. I can’t get enough of the wild raspberries and regularly get up at the crack of dawn to beat the neighborhood kids to the best patch.

Plant your raspberries in a single or double row, but no more than that. Otherwise you can’t get in to the middle to pick them. Raspberries are prickly, so you don’t want to be reaching too far in to your raspberry patch to harvest your berries. I would advise that you sink a border around them at least 4 inches deep – wood, plastic, metal, something that doesn’t leach awful things in to the soil. Raspberries will send out roots and spread to kingdom come, so you need to keep them contained. You also want to keep the grass surrounding them from moving in and strangling the raspberries’ root system. I would say that raspberries can handle anything and they’re much tougher than any wimpy lawn grass out there, but I know different now, so a border is advised. If you don’t put in a border, keep an eye on the immigrants crossing over and yank them out before they become entrenched.

Your raspberries will bear fruit the first year. (I told you they’re easy!) I looked up the details on pruning in a couple of texts before I wrote this and was confused by the directions about cutting down certain canes right after harvest and the tops of others. I’m sure that if you are a master gardener or own a raspberry farm you’re up to speed on those rules, but for the rest of us, I’ll share what we do. After a good hard freeze (usually early February), we pull out the dead canes and cut the others down to about tummy level. That’s it. We have a huge harvest every year with that simple effort. I’m always about simple and easy. But if you’re more of a detail person, you can check The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch. She’s got a nice section on raspberries with details on the complicated way to prune them.

Our raspberries bear a light June crop and then a heavy September crop. It’s good to have that break in the middle because you can only eat so many raspberries. The thrill of the first raspberries is not lost on my kids and they generally eat them all up as soon as they ripen. In September the kids are pretty distracted, so I am able to pick lots and use them to bake and freeze. I don’t make jam because the fussy people I live with don’t like seeds in their jam and removing seeds from raspberry jam is just way too tedious. Every now and then someone gives me a jar of homemade raspberry jam with no seeds and I am in awe. We eat lots of fresh raspberries and freeze many bags. You freeze raspberries just like all the other berries – clean them, dry them (salad spinner works well for this – but be gentle), and spread them out on a cookie sheet. Freeze them overnight and then transfer them to plastic bags to store.

Last week I wanted to do something with the raspberries, but I wasn’t getting enough in one picking for anything fancy, so I washed the raspberries and added sugar to preserve them and kept adding more berries to the mix all week. As I said before, raspberries don’t keep well, so if you aren’t going to eat them or bake them or freeze them right after you pick them, you need to add a preservative of some kind, sugar works well for this. By the end of the week I had a big bowl of raspberry mush that tasted divine. I added a little essential lime extract (incredibly potent lime flavoring I got from a fancy gourmet store). Then I pondered what to do with it. It sat for several days while I pondered. I tasted it daily and made everyone who came by taste it and we all just sighed and said “that’s incredible”. Finally my husband couldn’t stand my dithering any longer so he threw some in a blender with ice and another potent liquid and made a rather delicious drink. I’m thinking you could also mix it up with ice cream to make a more family-friendly smoothie that would divine. Eventually I did make a decision and used the amazing raspberry concoction to make a cobbler. I mixed up some shortbread and topped the raspberries with it and baked it in the oven for 20 minutes. Oh wow – a taste of heaven with whipped cream.

Here’s my favorite raspberry recipe. It also uses sweet corn, conveniently in season at the same time. Now don’t get wiggy on me and say you can’t eat corn and raspberries together because you will totally miss out. This is way yummy.

Fresh Corn Cake with Raspberries
(Cooking Light)

1 Cup fresh corn kernels (about 2 ears)
6 T butter, melted and cooled
1/3 C water
2 t fresh lemon juice
2 t vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 C flour
1 ¼ C sugar
2 t baking powder
1 t salt
½ t baking soda
2 C fresh raspberries
2 T flour
1 T powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 325.

1. Coat 9” cake pan with spray, line bottom with wax paper. Coat was paper with spray.
2. Combine corn and next 5 ingredients in blender or processor; process until smooth.
3. Combine flour, sugar, powder, salt and soda in large bowl; stir well with whisk. Add corn mixture to flour mixture, stirring until just combined.
4. Toss raspberries with 2 T flour; fold into batter.
5. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake at 325 for 1 hour or until toothpick comes out clean.
Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack.Remove from pan and carefully peel off wax paper. Cool completely.
6. Sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do It Right the First Time

I once had a job that required I do ten things at once and rarely ever finish anything. It was a challenging, if frustrating, situation. Too many days ended with my office strewn with project after project and my desk swimming in papers. I’d turn off the light and sneak out, stressed beyond belief and anxious to get some sleep so that I could get back at it the next day. I kept a quote taped to my desk in those days, after staring at it for six years, you’d think I’d have it committed to memory. It went something like this, “Do it right the first time, because there isn’t time to do it over.”

This mantra is one that has gone the way of high heels and sleeping in. It’s no longer realistic since having children. In the early years, it was just do whatever the hell it takes to get it taken care of, covered up, cleaned up, or hidden, and move on. This was true not only of my house, my diet, my wardrobe, but my garden too. I’ve gotten really good at getting a lot of things done, but please don’t look in my office, or my basement for that matter. Chaos rules. There are piles of books to be read, projects to be finished, papers to be filed, and they don’t hold a candle to the mounds of things to be put away, sorted out, given away, or mended. But generally I just close the door and sneak away and manage to neaten the piles when guests come to stay (the spare bedroom is my office).

This weekend as I began the huge project of tearing out our raspberry patch, I meditated on my long forgotten belief that you should do it right the first time. If we had taken the time to build a proper bed for the raspberries when they were first bequeathed to us six years ago, we wouldn’t be fighting the entrenched grass, mile-a-minute vine, and quite literally a small poplar tree as we struggled to save the raspberries that were being slowly suffocated by the interlopers. Back then I dragged some plastic over the ground, poked holes in it and plunked the raspberries in the holes. I mean, raspberries are really weeds, they can beat anything, right? Wrong. It was a long morning.

When I was just over half-way through the patch, my darling husband joined me in the battle. We talked about other options for the space (more tomatoes? How about moving the blueberries up here?). But in the end we recommitted to raspberries. Only this time we tilled the ground thoroughly, yanking out stubborn grasses and unidentifiable roots. We sunk a wooden border around it which would keep the grass out and the raspberries in, and debated the mulch options. As I re-planted the salvaged plants this morning, it felt really good. Good to be giving these beauties a new start instead of scrapping the whole mess and giving up. And hopefully this time we’ve done it right and it won’t be necessary to plant the raspberries a third time.

Satisfied with my efforts, I leaned on the pasture fence and surveyed the new garden. It looked so neat and tidy. I just wish the rest of my life were neat and tidy. I can’t help but think if I could apply my do-it-right-the-first-time strategy to the rest of my life it would be neat and tidy. If we just put away things as soon as we finished them – laundry, dishes, the newspaper, puzzles, games, clothing, SHOES, homework, and all the crap that fills my car, think how neat it would be! But we don’t. Life is just too busy. And I don’t want to spend my days nagging. All I can do is try to create places for everything and bribe children to put things where they belong. Besides, I do love to see the masterpieces that my youngest son creates, even all seventeen of them as they are displayed throughout two rooms in the latest version of his “art sale”. Of course the clutter from the masterpieces and the accompanying sale signs taped to the walls contribute to the “broken windows theory”. The theory that says if the neighborhood has broken windows and graffiti, people will treat it badly. They’ll assume that no one cares and add to the trash, crime, and general apathy that erode the area. I think that’s what’s going on in my car. Not that there are any broken windows, but there is graffiti in the form of yellow crayon on my window and some kind of black goo splattered on my ceiling. I think we need to embrace the broken windows theory and get things in order before we can begin to live the Do-it-right-the-first-time belief.

I just wish for once I could get my house and car, and perhaps my life, in order. Make it all beautiful and neat and organized, kind of like the new raspberry patch. It’s a fantasy. This I know. Because for this season in my life, the mess is my life. Hubby, kids, animals, gardens, and friends are much more important than a clean house (or a clean car although that doesn’t seem as far out of reach). Still, I think I will attempt to resurrect my mantra of “do it right the first time.” This may make my kids a little nuts and I’m sure it will make my husband smile knowingly. But just maybe it will be the push I need to re-claim some of my house. And maybe it will help me to stop trying to do everything. Instead of starting ten new projects, maybe I can do one (or two) right the first time.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Fluoride Debate

Fluoride seems like such an innocuous thing. I remember getting fluoride treatments from the dentist when I was a kid. You spent 20 minutes trying not to gag from the molded plastic shoved up against your teeth and filled with orange flavored fluoride. And then there was the big Crest campaign that ballyhooed the benefits of fluoride found exclusively in their metal tubes. That was pretty much all I knew about fluoride the first time I set foot in the pediatrician’s office with my soon to be 1-year-old. The nurse asked me all kinds of questions about my child’s development and after I bored her with his amazing vocabulary and physical feats, she asked innocently, “Do you have well or city water?”

I’ve answered that question times three at yearly exams for my children for over 12 years now. And after I’ve replied that we have well water, the nurse hands me a prescription for fluoride pills. In the beginning, the doctors were gods, so I filled the prescription and dutifully gave my kids the yummy pills. I even had to keep them on a high shelf because they thought of them as candy. It wasn’t until one of my children ate a half a tube of toothpaste and Poison Control made me give the child syrup of ipecac that I began to wonder about fluoride. Turns out it’s toxic.

For years I’ve waffled between filling the fluoride prescription and ignoring it. Lucky for me none of my kids have any cavities. Cavities (and the big needle “the size of your arm!”) might cause the pendulum to swing pretty hard towards the fluoride. This year I’ve made it my quest to figure this out once and for all. Do my kids need fluoride supplements, fluoride treatments and fluoride toothpaste or not? I’ve asked every dental professional I can think of and several non-professionals who seem to know a lot. I’ve read all kinds of scary stuff on the internet and been dismissed by doctors who are irritated by my unending questions concerning fluoride. And for all the questioning and the reading, I’ve come to the conclusion that no one really knows. Oh, there are lots of people who think they know. It’s just that they are all credentialed and wonderful people, but they disagree with each other.

One of the pediatricians in the practice where I take my kids (a doc voted “best in Maryland” time and again), said they must have it every day or they’ll get cavities. Another one in the same practice, who is Hopkins trained and truly a stellar doc, said “It can’t hurt”. He went on to say the worst that could happen is their teeth could be mottled. (And then said, “But that can be fixed.”) My dentist whom I adore, not because he suffers the same life I have with three kids the same ages as mine, but because he is unfailingly honest, asked me how often I give the kids the fluoride. When I said, “Whenever I remember to, but sometimes only once or twice a week,” he said, “That’s about right.” Besides consulting these docs and many more scattered about my life, I also spent too many hours surfing around the internet where you can find any answer you’re looking for.

So here’s what I take away from my investigation of kids and fluoride. It won’t kill them (unless they eat the whole tube), but they don’t necessarily need it. If bad teeth run in your family, I’d err on the side of too much fluoride. If they don’t, I’d be sure my kids brushed and flossed at least two times a day with a fluoride toothpaste and occasionally toss them a fluoride supplement (provided you don’t have naturally fluoridated water). I also buy toothpaste that doesn’t taste real great and isn’t easy to get out of the tube. That way they aren’t tempted to snack on it and hopefully they are only able to use the “pea size amount” which is recommended for safety. Next week I’m headed up to our extension service to pick up a water testing kit so that I can have my well water tested for fluoride (and God knows what else).

That’s my plan. I’m sorry I’m not more helpful to you. If you are in the Fluoride-is-a-communist-plot-to-destroy-the-health-of-Americans camp, you may take a different point. I hear ya. I really do. I’ve confessed before that I’m easily swayed by dark theories and there are some really dark stories on the internet and skeptical people floating around health food stores. The story of our health is truly a work on progress. Hopefully, by the time my grandkids come for a sleepover, the fluoride controversy will be settled once and for all and I’ll have no qualms about which toothpaste I keep in my cabinet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tomato, Tomatoh, Don't Call the Whole Thing Off!

Tomato, Tomahto, this year I was tempted to call the whole thing off. Our tomatoes were a disaster thanks to the Tomato blight. Each year I can over a hundred jars of diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, pizza sauce, and salsa, enough to last us the year. This year that ain’t happening. Depressing is what it is. Last week I bought 25 pounds of tomatoes from a local farmer and did put up 11 jars of salsa and some pizza sauce. The tomatoes weren’t heirloom or organic, not even close to it, but store bought salsa isn’t homemade tasting or even close to it. Same goes for pizza sauce. So I spent a morning deep in tomatoes and that reminded me that even if I’m not canning tomatoes this year, that doesn’t mean other people aren’t.

The easiest way to can tomatoes is to simply slip off the skins, quarter and seed them and can them. Takes no time at all. Removing tomato skins is simple. Heat a pan of boiling water and plunk your tomatoes in for a minute. Remove them and put them in ice cold water. Now the skins are easily removed. The Ball Jar Book recommends scoring the bottom of the tomato with a little X before you place them in the boiling water to make the skins slip right off.

Tomatoes have a few other issues when it comes to handling them. Use only stainless steel pans. The acid in tomatoes can react with other types (copper, brass, aluminum, or iron) and then they sometimes taste really funky. I just learned recently that I shouldn’t be using my big wooden spoon to stir them either because the wood can absorb flavors. This discovery led me to wonder what else I don’t know about cooking tomatoes.

Since I’m not actually canning many tomatoes this year, I had a few moments to read about canning tomatoes. I was excited to learn the reason why my sauce sometimes comes out too runny no matter how long I boil it. It has to do with the enzymes that are released when you crush tomatoes. I feel like a scientist just talking about enzymes. The only thing I really know about enzymes are they get going when something sits around at room temperature for awhile (like yogurt) and they can do good things. They’re the reason dry aged meat tastes so great.

When tomatoes are cut or crushed, a natural enzyme is activated which causes the solid and liquids to separate. So if you’re canning you want to begin heating your tomatoes the moment you begin cutting or crushing them. I was excited by this knowledge, so I tested it out on a small batch of pizza sauce made from the tomatoes I bought from a local farmer. I skinned them, seeded them and put them through my food processor in small batches and immediately tossed them in to the pan to begin cooking. I think there was still too much lag time, but my pizza sauce came out much thicker than usual. I can’t wait to figure out how this will play out with my spaghetti sauce next year. Hopefully I’ll retain this knowledge until next tomato season!

One more point of reference on tomatoes. Lemon juice is always something I debate with myself over. Add it or don’t add it. This year a friend who had plenty of tomatoes called me when she was knee-deep in canning them and we debated the lemon juice issue at length. I thought if I kept her on the phone long enough, she might offer me the tomatoes just to end the conversation. No dice. Anyway, the question is do you or do you not have to add lemon juice to your diced tomatoes when canning them in a hot bath canner. I know, I know, it would have kept you on the edge of your seat I’m sure. Most references do tell you to put lemon juice in the jar before you add the tomatoes to ensure that the acidity is high enough to keep the tomatoes stable in the jar. So it’s probably a good idea. Having never done this, I had to take the other point and say that many homegrown, heirloom tomatoes may have plenty of acid and do just fine on their own. I’ve never had a jar go bad (knock on wood) and I’ve never added the lemon juice. And then we consulted several texts and decided that since we don’t have a lab that can test the acidity of our tomatoes (and I’m not truly certain what the correct number would be anyway), we should err on the side of caution and go with the juice. So now I’m a little paranoid, and I will probably add the lemon juice next year.

Amazing that I learned so much about canning tomatoes this year without canning very many. Maybe there was a reason I got the blight. Maybe the powers that be knew I didn’t know enough and I certainly didn’t have the time to can a hundred jars this year. Live and learn. That’s what it’s all about.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Seed Saving Saves

Finally, I’m posting about seed-saving. I’ve meant to write about this for some time, especially since many of the seeds that you can save are probably long gone. Still, there’s lots left to save. Normally, I’m a big seed saver. It just seems so self-sufficient and Laura Ingalls-like. But this year with “the great tomato blight”, I’m feeling a little hesitant to save anything that might be contaminated. I’m leaning towards only saving flower seeds and avoiding anything that grew in the same garden as the tomatoes, but you probably aren’t facing this dilemma, so let me get right to the details of seed saving.

Seed saving is very simple, really. The most important thing to remember is to be sure your seeds are completely dry before you store them. If they aren’t they’ll mold and die quietly while you are certain they are tucked away safe in their beds ready to brighten your garden next spring. If you are a real seed saver you can save seeds from virtually any plant. I’m more of a basic seed saver and I save only the ones that are special to me or are incredibly easy to save.

Another critical piece of information: You can’t save seeds from hybrids or genetically engineered plants. Well you can, but if they’re hybrids they’ll be one or the other of their grandparents, but they won’t be what they came from. I’m sure that makes no sense, but think about it and maybe it will. Many of the engineered seeds just plain won’t grow. They’re designed that way so that you have to go buy new seeds from the seed companies each year. This is one of the criminal practices that put small farmers out of business. Even if the seeds would grow (and a few would), it’s illegal to save them because they are patented. If you plant your own seeds in a field next to a field planted with designer, patented seeds and they pollinate each other, you can’t save your seeds that year even if they were your own to start with – again, it’s illegal and farmers have been prosecuted for this. Big agri-business is as territorial as the mafia. So, buy heirloom seeds and start saving them to ensure their survival.

I would encourage you to enlist your children’s help on this endeavor. First of all, it’s a great living science lesson. Second of all, children love treasure hunts and that’s what this is. And third of all, anything that gets them interested in gardening is a good thing.

Here are some of the things you’ll need to get started: Clean bowls, clean newspaper, clean containers (preferably dark colored). That’s pretty much it. There is some fancier seed saving equipment, but for now you don’t need anything you don’t already have.

The basic steps of seed saving are thus:
1. Locate and gather the seeds
2. Clean the seeds if necessary.
3. Spread the seeds out to dry on newspaper.
4. Put the seeds in a sealed container and LABEL them. (Trust me you won’t remember what they are. You won’t. Please take my word for it. Even if the container is a really special tea canister.)
5. Store in a cool, dry, dark place. (I’ve used refrigerators, but a drawer in a cabinet in a dry basement with a dehumidifier is best)

When gathering seeds from flowering plants, wait a few weeks after flowering until the flower has faded and the petals begin to drop, that’s when they’re perfect for harvesting. When you locate the seeds, it’s sometimes easiest to gather the seed pods in paper bags and bring them back to your work space to actually loosen the seeds. Flower seeds will not need to be washed. You can simply spread the seeds out on a drying tray or newspaper and let them dry. Most seed saving instructions make a big to-do about getting rid of the chaf (unnecessary flower material that accompanies some seeds when you gather them), but I don’t worry too much about the chaf. If it’s easy to separate, I do, and if it isn’t, I dry it with the seeds. I then store it with the seeds and figure it’s just more compost when it’s time to plant.

For most edible plants (i.e. peppers, tomatoes, garden veggies of all sorts), you want the fruit to remain on the plant for a week or two past its prime. This is true for all of the veggies I’m going to mention except pumpkin and winter squash. When you are gathering the seeds from vegetable plants, you’ll want to put them in a bowl with water and allow the bad seeds and pulp and what-have-you to float to the top. Leave the bowl out for 2-4 days, but be sure to stir the bowl at least once a day to keep mold from forming. (I know this seems nasty, so don’t start a big seed saving project the day before you’re hosting a Ladies luncheon or birthday party for a 3-year-old.) Once the seeds are finished soaking scoop out the good seeds from the bottom of the bowl and spread them out to dry on paper. I know there’s an analogy about the good seeds and the bad seeds in there, but it’s not coming to me.

I’ll give you some simple directions for a few of the seeds that I’ve collected successfully in the past. I’d encourage you to take your kids out and see how many kinds of seeds you can collect. There are thousands of options. You can even collect seeds from wildflowers and perennials, and certainly trees. You’ll have fun with this project and next spring it will be exciting to see what worked. You can start the seeds inside in late February just when you’re pretty tired of winter and ready for some spring.

Pick a really good tomato that looks gorgeous and is so ripe it might just start leaking all over your counter. Scoop out the seeds and whatever pulp comes with them and place them in a bowl of water. Once the seeds have finished their soaking regimen, spread the good seeds out on strips of newspaper (skinny strips) and let them dry. When they are finished you can just roll up the newspaper and put it in a sealed container. In the spring when it’s time to start planting, just snip off a seed with paper attached and plant it. Great trick, huh? I’ve found some seeds stick and some don’t, so I collect the ones that don’t in a container. I’ve also used paper towels (good organic, non-perfumey, non-colored kind) because that seems healthier than newspaper with all its ink. Especially if I plan to share the seeds.

Choose a pepper that has over-ripened and deeply colored. Cut open your pepper and remove seeds. You shouldn’t need to wash these seeds since they’ve just come from a sterile place. Simply spread them out on paper and dry them.

Pumpkins (melons, zucchini, cucumbers are the same except you want really ripe fruits) – scoop out seeds and place in water bowl. Separate the good seeds from the bad (per above) and dry seeds really well. Bigger seeds take longer, don’t forget.

Beans and peas– Allow the beans to dry on the plant. They should be so dry they rattle when you shake a seed pod. This could take 6 weeks or more. If they are close to being dry and you expect a big storm, you can lift the plant (root and all) and put it in a dry place to finish drying out and save it from the rain. You won’t need to rinse these seeds.

Marigolds –These are probably the easiest seeds to save. You should never have to buy marigold seeds again unless there’s a cool variety you’d like to try. Wait for the flower to die and the stems to begin to get brown and stiff. Then pluck the flowers off the stems and take them to your working area. Spread out a newspaper and rub your fingers back and forth on a bloom and see all the seeds release. You’ll recognize them. Marigolds have that distinctive black end and look like tiny sticks. I’ve had years when I was in a hurry and simply grabbed the blooms off the plants and filled a paper bag and then hung the bag to dry in the basement. Come spring I pulled the bag down and released the seeds and they did just fine. Still, the organized seed drying and saving plan is probably best.

Zinnias – Are just as easy as marigolds. Save lots of colors, but be prepared for them to come back in shades you don’t expect. Mine tend to come back all pink. I’m going to work hard this year to keep my Green Envy Zinnia seeds separate. I planted them away from the other zinnias, so hopefully there was no unplanned pollinating going on. We’ll see next spring, I guess.

Petunias – The seeds are in the little seed “capsules” that you’ll notice on the stems below the flowers. I don’t know a better way to explain, but look and you shall see, I bet.

Snapdragons – Also found in seed capsules that grow under the flowers (where the earliest flowers were).

Poppies – the flowers turn in to giant seed pods with a gazillion seeds in them.

Sunflower – I think you can figure out what these seeds look like.

So, happy seed gathering! And don’t forget this is important work. Gathering seeds ensures that heirloom vegetables and flowers are here for generations to come.