Monday, August 30, 2010

Saving Some Summer

I’ve been canning again. The counter is littered with lids, rings, towels, and jars. 26 quarts of tomato sauce, 15 pints of pizza sauce, and 10 quarts of peach sauce are now crammed in the cupboard. Round two is on the horizon as hot weather is predicted this week and the next several thousand tomatoes are likely to ripen. I love canning, but it can consume my day, trash my kitchen, and inevitably includes at least one panic stricken moment when a pot boils over or I forget some crucial step. This weekend I only dumped half a jar of minced garlic in the pizza sauce (forgot I’d removed the shaker lid) and broke a quart jar trying to cram it in to a full canner of boiling water. Not bad, especially for me.

I love the Laura Ingalls feeling of seeing all the jars lined up on the shelf. Very satisfying. This year I was even interviewed for a canning article in Hobby Farm Magazine, so now I’m an expert (as far as they know). If you’ve never canned, give it a shot. It doesn’t take much to get started and the pay off is huge – self sufficiency, self confidence, and self satisfaction. You can do this. Plus, you’ll open a jar of tomato sauce in February and it will bring back summer (or at least that moment when the tomato sauce boiled over the edge and poured in to the jenn air vent).

This morning as I lined up the equipment to get going on the peaches, a guy who is helping us with a dry wall project walked through the kitchen. He remarked that so few people can anymore. He doesn’t know anyone who does except his Grandma. He laughed and said, “It’s like they made us all forget how to grow things and can, and now we’re all going organic but we have to pay other people big bucks to grow and can our food for us.” So true, but we don’t really have to pay other people for it. You can do it.

Here are two easy projects you can do if you have ten minutes or two hours. First the quick one. Did someone give you a pot of basil? Sure you might use a few leaves in a recipe here and there, maybe even whip up a batch of fresh basil, but what do you do with the rest? Before a frost threatens – cut down your basil and harvest the leaves (it won’t survive the winter, really it won’t). If you don’t have a basil plant, check out the farmers market for fresh basil or ask your friends and neighbors. Basil is so easy to grow many people have it, and this time of year it’s leggy and everyone’s over the novelty of it.

Take as many leaves as you can, wash them, and toss them in a food processor. Next add about 1/3 as much pine nuts as basil to the processor – fresh, toasted, whatever kind you like. Add about the same amount of fresh grated parmesan cheese. Then pour in a few tablespoons olive oil (best to start out conservative with the oil and add more if you need it to fix the consistency). Process your ingredients until you have pesto. Add more oil if needed. Save some to eat fresh, but with the rest, fill ice cube trays and freeze. After the pesto is frozen, pop the cubes out and fill a plastic bag. Keep these in your freezer to add to soups and sauces. You can even just melt one with some butter to pour over noodles or veggies in the dead of winter when you need some summer.

Peach Sauce is very simple to make and can. If you’re not buying my rant about the joy of canning, you can also freeze it. Head to a farm market and buy a half bushel of peach seconds. No sense in spending the money for firsts when you’re only going to peel and crush them anyway. You’ll spend less and usually get riper peaches to start with.

When you get your peaches home, leave them out to ripen. It’s much easier to make peach sauce with ripe peaches. Unripe ones are hard to peel. Before you start you’ll need four pots – one to boil water in to loosen the skins, one to cool the peaches, one to put the peel and pits in, and one to put the good peach meat in. If you’re canning, you’ll want to start your canner at the same time. I fill my canner with water and the jars I’m planning to use. You can read the basics by clicking here.

Step one is to boil water and keep it on a low boil on the stove. Working with a few peaches at a time, drop them in to the hot water for 30seconds to a minute. Then remove them and plunge them in to the cold water to cool them. I leave a bowl in the sink with cold water that I change periodically to keep the peaches clean.

Once the peaches have cooled, you can slip the skins off. Then take the peach and crush it with your hands, pulling out the pit. Repeat this process until you have a full pot of peaches ready to cook. You’ll want to squirt some lemon juice in the pot periodically to keep the peaches from turning brown. As you heat the peaches, use a potato masher to break up the peaches. I usually crush them pretty well with my hands as I go (great for working out your frustrations), but a potato masher helps make the whole mess a little more uniform. Add sugar if you’d like. I add about 1 cup for a big 7 quart pot. But you do it to your taste.

Heat the peaches, stirring frequently until you get a nice, quiet boil going. Then boil for about 10 minutes, again stirring frequently. (this is one of those pots that MUST be watched – it’s a mess when it boils over, trust me I know) Now they’re ready to go in the jars and be processed. If you’re not canning, you can put the lid on the pot and let the peach sauce cool before serving or freezing. Yum. My kids love peach sauce and we eat it all year long as a switch from applesauce. It goes great for a snack, served on the side with a pork meal or warmed up over ice cream.

Right about now the peaches are going fast – so get moving on this project. It’s almost fall. Time to collect the harvest. Time to fill the pantry and get ready for the winter that will be here in no time. Be sure to save some summer by canning, freezing, or preserving. If this winter is anything like the last, you’ll need it!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Start Packing!

School starts in a week. I did the math and the kids have been out of school for nearly 90 days. That’s three complete months. I know I’m ready for them to go back, and for all their caterwauling (I’ve always wanted to use that word), they are ready too. The one thing I’m not looking forward to is making lunches every morning. So this year I’ve decided I’m not going to.

No, I’m not shelling out the money for them to buy lunches laden with too much starch and sugar and questionable proteins. I realize they’d just eat the roll, choose chocolate milk and finish off their lunch with artificially sweetened pudding (Pennsylvania has yet to get on the healthy school lunch plan). No, I’m not making lunches this year because my kids are making their own lunches.

We’ve tried this before, but this time I’m giving it a little more structure and direction. They can’t simply grab what they like and stuff it in their bags. And I’m not buying single serving versions of the junk food they crave. No, this time I’m offering a little lesson in how to put together a balanced meal, countered with the promise of dessert every day. Here’s how it will work:

Each child must place five things in his/her lunch: fruit/veggie, carb, protein, water, and dessert. They can make their lunches as big or small as they want, but they must have at least these five things. I’ve explained that having a healthy lunch will give them the energy and patience to survive the rest of their day. I hope they’ll also realize that just because a lunch is balanced and healthy, doesn’t mean it won’t taste good.

I’m providing plenty of Tupperware snack size containers and colorful Reusie bags for them to fill. No plastic bags or aluminum foil to clog up the planet. They have been strictly directed to bring their containers home. I’m giving them the choice of cloth napkins or planet-safe paper towels (which they must bring back home and compost). To make their lunch, all they have to do is:

Choose at least ONE OR MORE FRUIT OR VEGGIES: banana, apples, blueberries, peaches, oranges, sliced watermelon, strawberries, carrots, celery, or cucumbers. (of course these choices will vary according to season and my shopping whims)

Choose at least ONE OR MORE PROTEIN: peanut butter & jelly sandwich, ham & cheese sandwich, hard boiled egg, garbanzo beans, kidney beans, nuts, bagel with cream cheese, or cheese slices

Choose only ONE carb: pretzels, grain chips, crackers, popcorn, bagel chips

Choose only ONE dessert: cookies, leftover dinner dessert, leftover candy from the last event (Halloween, birthday party, valentine’s, road trip, Mom’s weak moment), homemade pudding, or zucchini bread

Choose ONE OPTIONAL DAIRY: yogurt, cheese stick/slice

Fill your water bottle. Add a clean cloth napkin and any utensils you’ll need.


Because they are taking over a job I normally have to do, they also receive one mom buck (see our family money system) for each day they pack their lunch with out my involvement (this includes me having to nag them to do it). I’m going to encourage them to consider packing the night before, but leave the decision up to them.

I do realize that this doesn’t get me off the hook completely. It’s still going to be up to me to keep the house stocked with options they’ll like, which may mean more trips to the market. But I’m cool with that. I’ll be thrilled if this plan works. There’s nothing that frustrates me more than unpacking three uneaten lunches to feed the chickens. Lunches I carefully packed just that morning. Hopefully this will mean less for the chickens and more food for the kids. And just maybe, it will imprint upon them how simple it is to eat a balanced, healthy, yummy meal.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Great Garbage Patch

Did you know there's a garbage patch the size of the state of Texas floating in the Pacific Ocean midway between Hawaii and San Francisco? It’s called the Great Garbage Patch (or officially the Pacific Trash Vortex). The oceans currents and our irresponsible dumping (80% of the trash originated from land and 20% from ships) have created this nightmare for marine life and obscene evidence of our wastefulness.

Most of the debris in the Great Garbage Patch is plastic – about 46,000 pieces per square mile. 3.5 million tons of trash are floating out there. Fish, birds and sea mammals all ingest this stuff because it’s more plentiful than plankton, and they wind up dying of starvation or dehydration because their bellies are full of plastic.

Every piece of plastic ever created is still with us here on earth. Yep, all those happy meal toys and cheap dollar store crap will eventually fill up the entire ocean at the rate we’re going. Except for a small amount that is incinerated (releasing all kinds of lovely toxic chemicals), the plastic we create does not go away. If you’ve ever camped with children, you know the smell of burning plastic because they can’t resist throwing that plastic fork in the fire. There’s a reason that smell makes everyone turn their heads. There is no safe way to get rid of plastic, except recycling it. But even then we’re not really getting rid of it, are we?

Much of the plastic in the Great Garbage Patch is plastic bags and bottles. This doesn’t surprise me, does it surprise you? How many plastic bags and containers do we throw away each day? So much of our food comes in plastic and many times we are too lazy to rinse out that gross macaroni salad container or clean the bag that we toted the shrimp home inside. After seeing the footage (you can see it too), I’ve been haunted by images of marine mammals trapped in plastic, carcasses of great birds bloated with plastic trash, and the sheer volume of debris floating out there. I can’t bring myself to throw away another bit of plastic. I thought I was pretty conscientious before, but now it’s a compulsion. I don’t want any other creature to suffer for my convenience.

And we can’t say this is the fault of those overindulged folks on the other side of the country, we’ve got a Garbage Patch of our own here on the east coast. It’s called the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. There are other patches out there too. We’re all responsible. Our ignorance and laziness are to blame. I, for one, want to change my ways. More than ever we need to REDUCE, REUSE, and RECYCLE. This is the simplest thing we can do. That’s easy to say and most of us already try to do that, but we need to take it to the next level. Here’s some ideas/inspiration:

1) Give up the plastic shopping bags. Just swear them off. I know it’s a pain to carry non-disposable bags with you everywhere and sometimes we feel silly using them when we only need one small item, but do it. Be quick to offer your shopping bags or say “I don’t need a bag” because if you don’t, some disgruntled clerk will bag your stuff in plastic and then put it in your cloth bag (I kid you not – this happened to me just last week! And when I removed the plastic bag and handed it back to her, she threw the plastic bag in her trash can. No, really.). If more of us bring our own bags or opt for no bags, it will soon be the accepted practice and the people walking out with plastic bags will look shocking. Put your bags in all your cars, carry a small  bag in your purse. Environmentally friendly bags are available every where now in all shapes and sizes and materials. You can announce your cause or your coolness with them.

2) Stop buying bottled water. This one is so clear to me, I want to scream it. Not only is it a waste of money – it’s an obscene use of plastic. Everywhere we go – parties, picnics, and athletic games people are offering us plastic water bottles. People carry them everywhere - to the gym, out shopping, to meetings, we can’t seem to get enough of them. We’ve all gotten the message that water is good for us – but plastic bottles are not good for the world. If you must buy a bottle (I realize that at sporting events and movie theaters you can’t carry your own in with you), take the bottle home with you to recycle. We must take responsibility for the plastic we purchase. A few places offer recycling bins, but people don’t seem to take them seriously. As I peer in to recycling bins full of trash, I often wonder whether the minimum wage worker dumping the trash just dumps the recycling in the same place rather than pick out the errant garbage. If I was 16 and barely making enough money for gas, I doubt I’d get my hands dirty.

3) Don’t buy plastic sandwich bags. I admit to having one box in my pantry, but I can also tell you that box will at least a year in our house. We use Re-usies (and homemade versions of them), which are adorable fabric bags lined with (you guessed it) plastic that can be rinsed out or thrown in the laundry time and again.

4) This may be obvious, but just in case it’s not – DON’T BUY DISPOSABLE STUFF. There is a plethora of disposable cleaning stuff advertised. What, are we afraid of washing out a rag or getting our hands dirty? When I see things like this, I think of the garbage pickers in Mexico or the people who live in India subsisting on the things their neighbors throw away. We have come to believe that just about everything is disposable – phones, appliances, toys, home furnishings. We are very quick to throw out anything that is less than perfect or not the latest model. Many times we opt for the cheapest version of things, knowing that we can always throw it away and get another. We need to change this mentality. We need to buy quality things because they last, not cheap stuff because we can always get another.

5) Think about packaging before you buy, whether it be food or toys or anything. Don’t buy overpackaged stuff and let the retailer know. I recently bought the most delicious, healthy crackers at Trader Joes. They were called Thousand Layer Crackers and were fabulous and I wish to heaven I could buy them again. But I can’t. Why? Because each cracker is individually wrapped (yes – one cracker in each wrapper!) and then stacked in a plastic divider, which was then wrapped again in a plastic wrapper before being placed in a box. I wrote the company and complained and they sent me a nice form letter that said they’d look in to it. As long as those crackers continue to sell, I’m betting the packaging won’t change. And if most consumers make their choice based on taste without regard to the irresponsible packaging, they’ll sell just fine.

6) Buy recycled stuff. And I’m not just talking about paper products. I shop the Goodwill every week. This is a great way to buy recycled stuff. Yard sales, Craig’s List, Freecycle, there are so many options out there. Get in to the game – it’s fun to get a deal. I bought a leather Liz Claiborne purse at Goodwill last week for just $3.97! I’ve left the Goodwill price tag ($6.97) on my bread machine that’s been cranking out bread almost daily for over a year, just to remind myself of the great deal I got.

7) Donate your stuff instead of throwing it out. Just because that game isn’t in perfect condition and your dog chewed up some of the pieces, doesn’t mean someone else’s child won’t find it a treasure. I’ve been waiting for a Stratego game to appear at the Goodwill. Somehow my children lost the board (I know), and they want a new game. Well, their plastic-fearing mother can’t bring herself to buy another brand-new game (with over 60 plastic game pieces), so they must wait until one appears at a yard sale or Goodwill. Meanwhile, they’ve fashioned a board out of the side of a cardboard box and they play on. Make it easy for your kids (and you) to give away your stuff. Keep boxes marked for donation in convenient places around your house. We keep one in the laundry, one in the hall outside the kids’ rooms, and several in the basement. This makes it simple to get rid of stuff without contributing to the Garbage Patch.

I know these may seem like small changes, but like everything else, small changes add up. Retailers take note of what customers buy and don’t buy. Other shoppers notice when you carry in your own bags. Yes, that one bottle does make a difference. Change will happen, but someone’s got to lead the way. We cannot wait for government to take responsibility for the Garbage Patches. They won’t. We must take responsibility ourselves. We must be the change we wish to see in the world, right? Ghandi had it going on.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What Do Organic People Look Like?

What do organic people look like? By organic people I’m talking about the kind of people who live green, eat healthy, and care about local sustainably grown food. After finishing our Buy Fresh, Bike Local Ride on Saturday we arrived for a lovely catered lunch at Dickinson College Farm. The food was freshly picked from nearby farms, the chefs were local farmers and caterers, the plasticware was compostable, and everything tasted scrumptious. But as we lingered over our triple berry pie with homemade ice cream, we looked around and my dearest husband pointed out that we didn’t fit in. Everyone else was a Boomer or a Gen Y (is that what those young whipper snappers with all the tattoos are called?), but there were very few of us between the ages of 35 and 45.

I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that this is because my generation doesn’t care about the earth, the local farmers, or their health. I just think they are busy. I know we are. It took no small amount of finagling to free up the day, secure child care, and squeeze in the training rides, to make this lovely morning possible. We may not have time to tote the Buy Fresh, Buy Local banner at public events, but we are carrying with us as we shop. People of all ages are making small decisions every day add up. As they say, “no snowflake ever feels responsible for the whole avalanche.” The times are changing and most companies are taking notice and making changes of their own.

People are becoming more and more aware of the need to eat better food (and I’m not just talking calories) and live more socially responsible lives. How and where your food is grown has become a concern of people from every generation (well, maybe the under 10 set doesn’t care so much where that cheese curl came from). This is good for all of us. The economic impact of people choosing whole grains, locally grown produce, and grass-fed meat is becoming apparent. The Money section is Sunday’s paper reported that whole wheat bread has finally overtaken white bread in sales. Our grocery store circular has an entire column on the first page devoted to the locally grown produce they sell. Grass fed, locally grown, certified organic, no GMO, antibiotic & pesticide free have all become part of the common language for many of us.

Sure I can still stroll through my Wal-Mart and observe lots of people who are not worried about where or how their food was made, let alone what it’s made of, but their numbers are shrinking. And yes, the cynic in me questions whether to trust big business with the organic label. But I believe we’ll get there. This is just gonna take some time. All real change does.

I’m consistently surprised by the types of people I meet who share my concern for the health of the planet and their family. They’re no longer the crunchy-granola type, left-leaning folks – they are people from every walk of life. Being organic is not red or blue, it’s green. Some people have come to it because of health concerns, something they read or watched that changed their view, or by the clear evidence around us. For many of us it’s just an awakening to the impact we have on the future – ours and our children’s.

I always cringe when a friend or acquaintance who knows about my passion/obsession (depends how you look at it) for organic living apologizes for their choices – “I know I shouldn’t be eating this” or “I’m sorry I brought the Styrofoam” or “This isn’t organic” or the worst, “I feel awful I feed your child this - fill-in-the-blank- chemically laden, artificially created- treat.” I don’t want to become known as the organic nazi, because I’m not. My kids scarf up the unnaturally colored freezer pops and transfat filled snacks as fast as the next kid. I totally get the need to balance the what you children want with your budget and your conscience.

I understand that this organic life is not a priority for everyone. It wasn’t always a priority for me. It’s taken quite a few years to arrive at this level of commitment. I’m not here to judge anyone. I’m just here to offer information, encouragement, and maybe a little nudge to your conscience. Any change, no matter how small, is good in my book, and even no change is fine too as long as the level of awareness has been raised. So when my priorities irritate someone or make them feel guilty that’s a sign that change is afoot. If we feel guilty, we must know that there’s a better way.

What kind of people live this organic life? All kinds, at different levels, in different ways, for different reasons. And that’s OK. At least we’re moving in a good direction.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Buy Fresh, Bike Local

Out on the bikes again this weekend we covered 19 miles. We’re getting ready for this Saturday’s Buy Fresh, Bike Local Event in Boiling Springs, PA sponsored by Slow Food Harrisburg. It’s a 25 mile ride followed by a lunch at Dickinson College Farm catered by local chefs, caterers and farmers using locally grown food. In addition to the scrumptious lunch, there will also be vendors and local artisans to visit. Proceeds from this event will benefit the South Central PA Chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local.

If this sounds like a great way to spend a Saturday morning, you can still get tickets at If the bike ride scares you, you can always just show up for the food or choose the shorter 10 mile ride option.

There is a movement among us to raise awareness about the state of our food supply. Slow Food Harrisburg is part of the International Slow Food movement originally begun in Italy in response to McDonald's opening up shot there. Buy Fresh, Buy Local, is part of Food Routes Network, a national nonprofit organization that provides communications tools, technical support, networking and information resources to organizations nationwide that are working to rebuild local, community-based food systems. To find your own local chapter check out

There are times when I am acutely aware that I am in the minority when it comes to my food values. I am still stunned to see the Cracker Barrel parking lot jammed at 3pm on a week day. I shake my head in horror as I detour my way around a snaking line for the drive up window at the Arby’s. I understand the occasional fast food necessity (sort of), but the demand for fast food is still huge, despite the fact that the food purchased there is not just bad for your health and the local farm economy, but could kill you. I believe if the people purchasing that Big Mac, spent a day touring the Feed lots where that beef is grown and the manufacturing plant where it is processed they would spend their hard earned money elsewhere. It seems unconscionable that we care not about the treatment of the animals who gave up their lives for our lunch. And it seems plain stupid that we aren’t concerned about the way our food is handled and processed before we eat it.

We are much too far removed from our food. Most of us don’t know where it comes from, let alone, what’s in that bag of cheese curls we just gave our children. I’ve been watching the series Mad Men (I’m only on Season Three, so don’t spoil it for me) and I’m blown away by the way everyone smokes. From what I’ve read the show is very realistic and I do vaguely remember the way people smoked during my childhood. Smokers enjoyed a near majority. Nowadays they seem to be the social lepers because we all know smoking can kill you. If we could time travel somehow back to the 50’s and explain this to the pack of women smoking while their children played on the swingset, they would laugh at us. Smoking can’t be dangerous – everyone smokes, silly! If it was going to kill us the government wouldn’t allow it!

Ahh, such trust we have in our government. We don’t trust it with our tax money, our childrens’ education, or our personal information, but we sure trust it to ensure that the food available to us is safe. What are we thinking? Or why aren’t we thinking? If you haven’t figured it out by now, the government is run in large part by the guy with the largest pockets, which in most cases would be the big companies that make a fortune on unhealthy food laden with pesticides and grown with GMO seeds, meat stuffed with antibiotics and raised in feed lots, and “food” made from artificial ingredients, chemicals, additives, fillers, and enough salt and sugar to mask it all. We are getting fatter and sicker, and we blame it on advertising and will power? Why can we not connect the dots??

OK, I’m just saying.

Back to feeling like I’m in the minority. I join organizations like Slow Food Harrisburg and Buy Fresh, Buy Local PA because they are doing the hard, thankless work of raising public awareness and questioning the laws and ethics that govern the food industry. They are fighting for the local food economy and the farmers that haven’t given up. So I support them. Attending events like this Buy Fresh, Bike Local Ride this weekend lets me have a few moments with kindred spirits. For a few hours I’m one of the majority. These are people invested in their communities and their health. They get it.

If you want to connect with others in your own community who are striving for a healthier self, community, and world, look up one of the following organizations. Even if you can’t attend their events, you can support them with your membership and spread the word.

A national nonprofit organization that provides communications tools, technical support, networking and information resources to organizations nationwide that are working to rebuild local, community-based food systems.

Slow Food
A non-profit, eco-gastronomic member-supported organization that was founded in 1989 to counteract fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, how it tastes and how our food choices affect the rest of the world. To do that, Slow Food brings together pleasure and responsibility, and makes them inseparable.
Today, we have over 100,000 members in 132 countries

Center for a Livable Future (Johns Hopkins University)
As the world's population and consumer demand continue to grow, there is urgent need to improve human health, prevent disease, and meet basic needs for food, water and shelter equitably for all people. The challenge of our time is to meet these goals as population increases while protecting the environment, preserving biodiversity, and conserving finite resources to meet the needs of future generations.

Green America (formerly Coop America)
Green America is a not-for-profit membership organization founded in 1982. Our mission is to harness economic power—the strength of consumers, investors, businesses, and the marketplace—to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.

Eat Well Guide
The Eat Well Guide® is a free online directory for anyone in search of fresh, locally grown and sustainably produced food in the United States and Canada.

Local Harvest
Helps you locate farmers’ markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.

The Center for Food Safety
This group works to protect human health and the environment by curbing the proliferation of harmful food production technologies and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. This site even has a non-GMO Food Shoppers Guide (with a phone app for you tech junkies that is downloadable) to help you avoid GMO foods.