Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Living Green: How to Have a Greener Kitchen

1.    Cookware:  
      No Teflon.
Teflon pans are coated with a polymer that release toxins at high temperatures, both into food and into the air. 
      No Aluminum.
Exposure to excess aluminum can contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.  Aluminum leaches into food from the cookware when heated, so it’s best to avoid if possible.
      Stainless Steel, Iron or Enamelware.
High quality stainless steel, or copper-based stainless steel pots and pans with durability are the best for cooking and safety.  Cast iron pans are also beneficial and give added iron for people who experience anemia.  Enamelware is a good option, but make sure it is cast iron that is being coated and not aluminum.  If you choose enamelware, do not buy it second hand.  Old enamelware had high levels of cadmium and lead, but modern versions do not.
      Clay, Glass and Pyrex.
Clay bake ware is excellent for baking and cooks very evenly.  It is not dishwasher safe because it is made of natural material and the clay will absorb the soap.  The clay should be cured and carefully wiped and rinsed, and dried.  Glass is very versatile,
      Baking Sheets and Muffin Pans. . 
Iron or stainless steel.

I would suggest, for convenience, that cookware be purchased with glass lids, for convenience when cooking.  Even if you purchase cookware second hand from places like Goodwill, buy with an eye towards long term use.  If you are uncomfortable doing so, buy from discounters or ask for the item as a gift. 

2.    Utensils:
      Stainless Steel
A silicon handle is helpful.  These are durable and recyclable if damaged.
      Bamboo Wood
Sustainable and durable, for things like wooden spoons or wooden spatulas.
Good stainless steel or carbon steel, with decent handles (not plastic).  These are essential kitchen tools, especially if you do a lot of cooking.  Try not to skimp on these.
Avoid Plastic and Aluminum
Not only are they virtually disposable, but many of them will leach chemicals into food when used on hot items (just like with plastic containers).  Use of aluminum is shown to affect incidents of Alzheimer’s disease.

Be sure to evaluate your need for certain items.  If you use garlic a lot and would benefit from a garlic press then get one.  You’ll also want a decent can opener but an electric one is not necessary.  Only get the utensils you will actually need and use, and which won’t sit in a drawer gathering dust.

3.    Dishtowels & Dishcloths:
Dishcloths are reusable and inexpensive. They resist harboring bacteria and have multiple uses in the kitchen.
      Can be washed and hung to dry, bleached.
They can be sterilized in a solution of non-chlorine bleach and water, or vinegar and water.  Can be washed and hung to dry, and rarely need replacing.  They also can be used as rags when too dirty for kitchen use.
      Paper towels of recycled material.
While I don’t advocate regular use of paper towels, and openly advocate avoiding use of paper plates, cups and napkins, sometimes paper towels become necessary.  If you must use them, buy them made of mostly or all recycled material.
      Coffee filters of non-bleached paper.
A French press, or cafetiere is probably the most frugal and green way to make your cup of joe, but if you do elect to use an electric coffee maker, make sure to unplug it after use and use coffee filters that have non-bleached paper (brown).  Recycle the brown paper filters and grounds into your composter.

4.    Dishes:
      Eco-friendly dish soap
Low-phosphate, natural, gentle ingredients.  Some good brands are Greenworks or Seventh Generation, both of which are at most regular grocery stores.
      Scrubbers made of plant fiber. 
Loofahs, sisal or other natural sponge fiber-based scrubbers should be used, which can be composted when no longer effective.  Avoid metal or plastic scrubbers and those with soap inside.
      Use a dish drainer and a wash bin.
Turn off water while washing. Use cold water on dishes that aren’t heavily stained. Rinse all dishes at the end of washing, instead of continually throughout the process.
      Using a dishwasher
If you do use a dishwasher, make sure the dishwasher is complete full before running and use an eco-friendly dishwasher product.
      Low-flow faucet heads.
Faucets should have aerators or low-flow faucet heads to preserve water and minimize usage.

5.    Wraps and Containers, Transporting and Storing Food
·         Recycled Aluminum Foil
·         Compostable Garbage Bags
·         Reusable Grocery Bags
·         Reusable Lunch Bags and Water Bottles
·         Parchment Paper
·         Wash and re-use plastic zip bags
·         Glass or metal containers with lids, avoid plastic containers.  If you must use, do not microwave or put hot food in them.  They can leach chemicals from the plastic into food when heat is applied.

6.    Table Top Compost Collector
·         Stainless steel, with lid for odor control.
·         Removable inner sleeve for disposal.

7.    Appliances
·         Only what is essential for cooking; this will vary per individual
·         Energy Star certified
Keep clean & in good repair for low energy use

8.    Plumbing
·         Make sure in good repair, no leaks and flush pipes periodically.
·         Faucet-mount water purifier, or pitcher system
·         Aerators or low-flow faucet heads.

Monday, October 24, 2011

How To Make Your Own Cleaning Products

This article is on how to make your own cleaning products, using everyday household items that have minimal impact on the environment.  The additional benefit of these products is that they are dual use and rather inexpensive to buy.  It is extremely easy to make your own green cleaning products using my cleaning products recipes below.

Each of the cleaning products recipes shows the various uses for baking soda, uses for Borax, uses for castile soap, uses for lemon juice, uses for white vinegar and uses for salt.  Many of the green cleaning recipes will combine these simple ingredients to make your own home made green cleaning products which have minimal package and provide loads of convenience.  All you need to do is scour your kitchen and laundry room and grab some clean, dry spray bottles and rags and you’re ready to go!

Baking Soda

Baking soda, or sodium bicarbonate, is a common kitchen staple used for baking.  However baking soda has a variety of uses throughout the home, due to its mild abrasive properties.  It scours, deodorizes, and mildly scrubs surfaces.

To clean counter tops, sprinkle with baking soda and wipe with a damp cloth.  Rinse with clean water.  To deodorize a carpet, garbage can or counter top composter, sprinkle baking soda and let sit for 15-30 mins, then rinse with clean water.  For a carpet, leave on 30 mins then vacuum.  Add baking soda to laundry to remove perspiration and bad smells.

Mix baking soda and white vinegar in hot water to pour down a clogged drain.  It will eat away the hair and unclog the drain.  This treatment may have to be done 2 times before effective.


Borax, or sodium borate, is a common laundry additive, disinfectant and mild abrasive.  It also serves as an eco-friendly pest control measure, and will repel and kill fleas, ants, roaches and mice.

It is a common ingredient in home  made cleaning products.  It is also an effective pot scrubber.  A mixture of lemon juice and Borax will remove rust and a past eof lemon juice and Borax will remove stains from stainless steel and porcelain.

Mix ½ c of Borax with 1 gallon of hot water, add essential oil like sweet orange or grapefruit, and put in a spray bottle for a disinfectant cleaner.

Castile Soap

100% pure castile soap is a good household cleanser.  It can be scented, or plain, whichever is preferred.  It is a mild surfactant that will remove oil from clothes, counter tops and dishes.

Mix 3 T castile soap with 2 L water and add 20-30 drops of tea tree oil to make a disinfecting counter top cleaner.

It is a good soap to use on hand washing items that are hung on a line or rack to dry.  It is also a good dish soap.

Club Soda

Excellent for stain removal from carpets and upholstery.  Can be used with lemon juice on items that are not affected by fading or contact with the sun.

Hydrogen Peroxide

It is an anti-viral, anti-fungal, anti-mold and anti-bacterial, so it is a good addition to any cleaning kit.

Hydrogen peroxide is a good replacement for bleach to whiten whites in laundry.  It can be used to disinfect cutting boards and counter top compost bins.

½ c of hydrogen peroxide mixed with hot water is an excellent solution for cleaning kitchen floors.

Add a ¼ to dish water to sanitize dirty dishes.

Fill a spray bottle with one part hydrogen peroxide to the remainder of water and use as a spray to sanitize fruits and vegetables before eating.

Lemon Juice

Lemon juice is an all purpose astringent and will brighten whites and degrease, neutralize hard water deposits and tarnish on silver.  One of the major benefits of lemon juice is the pleasant smell.  Another of the uses for lemon juice is as an anti-bacterial.

A combination of lemon juice and salt is good for scrubbing down a cutting board.  It is also a good mixture for cleaning a coffee pot.  A paste of lemon juice and salt is an excellent brass cleaner.

To make furniture polish, mix 1 cup lemon juice with 2 Tbsp olive oil and 1 Tbsp water, and apply sparingly to furniture using a soft cloth.  After it sits for a little while, buff. 

Place straight lemon juice on hard water stains to soften them enough wipe away.  Let sit for 10 minutes before wiping.

Kosher or Table Salt

Salt is a good scourer and deodorizer.  It can be easily mixed with other household ingredients to make an effective cleaner.

To clean the refrigerator, sprinkle and even amount of salt and baking soda and wipe down shelves with a wet cloth.  Rinse with clear water.  This will scrub and deodorize in one easy step.

Spills in the oven and on the stove will wipe up easier if sprinkled with salt. 

Rubbing glasses or a coffee pot with salt will help remove hard water stains.  Clean with soap and dry as usual after scrubbing.  It will not scratch glass.

White Vinegar

White vinegar cuts grease, kills mildew and mold, stains and wax build up.  It is an acid, so use sparingly. 

For a good all purpose cleaner mix ½ c vinegar with ¼ cup baking soda into ½ gallon.  Store in a large container and add to spray bottle as needed.

White vinegar can be added to laundry rinse water instead of fabric softener.  

Use a mixture of white vinegar and water to clean windows.  Wipe with newspaper for a streak-free shine.  This works on any glass surface.  Don’t forget to recycle your newspapers afterwards!

The smell of white vinegar dissipates when it dries.

So there you have it – the basics of making your own natural cleaning products using these easy green cleaning recipes and ingredients.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Basic Sewing Kit, Hand Sew, Easy Hand Sewing Projects, Hemming, Buttons

Today, we’ll address hand sewing basics.  One of the most frugal and green things a person can do is to repair or alter his or her own clothes when necessary.    I also find hand it very soothing to hand sew, and it keeps my hands busy during cooler months when I am listening to music or watching a program on TV  While hand sewing has its devotees, for most people living in the modern world hand sewing is a lost art.  I can’t tell you how often I have been able to employ hand sewing basics to make or repair clothes, or make or repair items to improve my home.

The first thing I recommend is to assemble a basic sewing kit.  A basic sewing box to hold your sewing kit will also be helpful, but even a small zipper or canvas bag will dol.  Often sewing boxes or old plastic storage boxes can be found at second hand stores very inexpensively.  A variety of thread can be obtained by purchasing a small sample kit of miniature spools, often contained in a plastic storage box themselves.  In your kit, there should be the following:

1. Needles
2. Needle Threader
3. Magnifying Glass
4. Seam Ripper
5. Thread
6. Snips, or Scissors
7. Thimble
8. Tape Measure
9. Fasteners, like hooks and eyes or buttons
10. Straight pins and baby pins, and a pin cushion.
11. Tailor’s chalk

Sewing kits can also be purchased online, or in stores.  Prices may vary, and quality of the items in the kit may vary, as well.  Buttons can be had from flea markets, fabric stores and also off of garments purchased.  Buttons are also often found, and can be removed from shirts and other clothes that are being recycled or repurposed.  I recommend 100% cotton thread for cotton items, 100% polyester thread or blends for polyester items.  Silk and linen can be repaired with cotton, or silk, thread which is more expensive, so I tend to use a brushed, shiny cotton thread on those.

Some additional items maybe be needed or acquired over time.  These may include fabric, patches, patterns and iron/ironing board for pressing.  A good sewing book for beginners is:  Sew With Confidence: A Beginner’s Guild to Basic Sewing by Nancy Zieman, published 2004.  It is available online in used or new condition.

Basic sewing stitiches to practice include a running (basting) stitch, which may either be tight or loose, and the back stitch – which is the strongest, and most commonly used, hand stitch.  The other common hand stitch is called over handing, and it is used to make a flat hem or seem that is virtually invisible at first glance.  It is important to practice even, straight stitching on a piece of scrap fabric until you get the hang of doing it, and then work on a small project.

The most common clothing repair is to replace a button that has come off.  It is also one of the simplest repairs, able to be completed by even novice hand sewers.  Thread your needle with a long length of thread that matches the fabric of the item to be repaired.  The length should be long enough to be doubled.  Knot the end.  With tailor’s chalk, mark the correct spot where the button should go.  Holding the button to the fabric with your non-sewing hand, put the thread through the fabric and once through put the need button holes back through the fabric in an opposing hole.  Repeat 6-8 times, running the thread through all available holes.  Tie off the thread and snip it, leaving a tiny tail to ensure no damage to your sewing work.
To make a hand sewn button hole, snip a small cut in the location you would like your button hole.  Ensure you have aligned this location with the location of the button to avoid gaping in the fabric closure.  Snip a small slit in the fabric.  Thread your needed with a long length of thread that matches the color of the item you are working with.  Double the thread and knot off the end.  Using a whip stitch, carefully sew around the edges of the slit, to keep the fabric from unraveling.  The stitches should be very close together, and even in length to appear neat and tidy.

The second most common repair is a ripped seam.  It is so easy to hand sew a ripped seam in few simple steps.  Turn the garment inside out.  Locate the ripped seam.  Using straight pins, pin the hole closed.  Thread your needle with a long length of thread that can be doubled and knot off.  Start just beyond the edge of the ripped seam and using a back stitch, sew in a direction moving towards the opposite end of the ripped seam.  Sew just beyond the other end, knot off your thread and snip it, leaving a small tail behind.  Be sure to use a thread that very closely matches the color of the fabric, or your repair will be obvious to the casual viewer.  If desired, press the seam down. 

Lastly, hemming pants or altering pant legs to a custom length is also something many people need or want to do.  This technique will also turn pants into shorts, if for some reason the knees of the pants cannot be patched.  This is also the only repair where you will probably need to use a measuring tape and get some assistance.  Put the pants on turned inside out.  Have someone help you fold the fabric up to the desired length, forming large cuffs.  With a bit of chalk, make a small mark on the leg  in a couple of places to show where the hem should be. (If making shorts, where you would like them to be on the thigh).  Using a  tape measure, draw an even line all the way around.  Extra fabric is fine as long as it isn’t too much.  It’s always easier to cut something down then expand it, so if you find you need to let the pants leg down later on, it will be nice to have the extra fabric.  Pin the pants and use a over hand stitch to secure it.  Press the pants leg for a nice final effect.

I have used hand sewing to make clothes, make cushions for a house, to repair clothes and alter them, too.  It is much more economical and green to fix something you all ready own than to toss it or buy a replacement.  Hand sewing basics c are easy to master with practice.  Once you have hand sewing down, look into purchasing a basic, economical sewing machine.  Your first sewing machine will probably only do basic stitching like zig zag, straight stitch, button holing and backstitching.  Many of them can be purchased second hand online or in shops.  It will enable you to make basic clothing items quickly, and to fix large household items like sheets, curtains, or to make toss cushions and slipcovers for furniture. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How To Make Homemade Laundry Soap and Homemade Fabric Softener

One of the things that I enjoy is to know how things are made so that if I am in a pinch, I can make them up if I have the ingredients on hand.  I do this in cooking and I do this in the home.  Sometimes, I like to make my own laundry soap and I find it often less expensive than the commercial laundry detergents on the market.  It is super easy to make your own laundry detergent with just a few simple, easily obtained ingredients.  I can show you how to make homemade laundry soap in just a handful of easy steps.

Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe

When you make laundry soap, the basic recipe remains the same.  You will need:

·         1 bar soap  (Fels-Naptha, Ivory, Kirk’s Coco-Castile)
·         1 cup sodium carbonate  (Arm & Hammer Washing Soda)
·         ½ cup sodium borate  (20 Mule Team Borax)
·         4 cups hot tap water
·         2 five gallon buckets with a secure lids for storage
·         Essential oil for fragrance (10-15 drops per 2 gallons)
·         Saucepan
·         Used laundry soap bottle/dispenser

Recipe yields 10 gallons at approximately $.01 per load.

Grate the bar of soap into the saucepan and add water to cover.  Melt the soap over medium heat, stirring until completely dissolved.

Fill the five gallon bucket half-full of hot tap water.  Add the melted soap, the sodium carbonate, the sodium borate and mix.  Cover and let sit overnight to thicken.    This is the resulting laundry soap concentrate.  To use, mix half laundry soap concentrate and half water in the laundry soap bottle.  Shake to blend.  You will need to shake each time you use to mix up the ingredients.  Also, this is a low-foam laundry detergent.  If you are looking for a lot of bubbles, they won’t be here.  Bubbles don’t clean clothes, detergent cleans clothes and this is pure laundry detergent.  If you want to add essential oils, go ahead.  Some favorites are lavender, orange, lemon and peppermint.  Otherwise, your clothes may smell more like soap, which is also okay.

Homemade Laundry Soap (Liquid Castile Based)

If you prefer liquid castile soap, such as Dr. Bronner’s, here is a homemade laundry soap recipe for that type of soap:

·         1 cup Dr Bronner’s liquid castile soap (any variety)
·         1 cup baking soda
·         2 cups warm tap water
·         1/3 cup of sea or other coarse grained salt
·         1 gallon container (any clean jug or milk bottle works)

In the warmed water, stir in the baking soda and salt until completely dissolved.
Add the Dr Bronner’s and pour into your gallon container.  Fill to the top with water and shake to mix.  Use ¼ cup of laundry soap per load.

Recipe yields 1 gallon or 64 loads worth of laundry detergent, price will vary depending on the cost of the Dr Bronner’s – which I find price-y. 

Homemade laundry soap is very cost effective and it gives you the choice, as a consumer, which ingredients and scents or dyes (if any) that go into your laundry soap.   Its impact on the environment is much smaller than commercial equivalents. Each recipe for laundry soap is simple and the ingredients are readily obtainable from your grocery or natural foods store.

For fabric softening, I tend to use just straight white vinegar in the rinse load, and for many things I don’t use fabric softener at all.  For items made of silk or other delicate material, I hang them to dry and allow the iron to soften them when I iron.  On the clothes like jeans that I do soften, I have not experienced clothes smelling like vinegar, regardless of being dried in a dryer or on a clothes rack (or line).  Some people don’t like using vinegar and claim they can smell a faint trace of it on clothes.  So, here’s a frugal recipe that is greener than commercial softeners, but which still uses traditional scents and existing materials:

Homemade Fabric Softener Recipe

·         6 cups hot tap water
·         3 cups white vinegar
·         2 cups inexpensive hair conditioner like White Rain or Suave*
·         1 gallon container (any clean jug or milk bottle works)
·         Clean rags or old washcloths to turn into dryer sheets (if desired) & a storage box

Mix hair conditioner and hot tap water in a bowl or deep pot until all the conditioner is dissolved.  Stir in the white vinegar.  Put into the gallon container and shake to mix again.  Use approximately 2 tablespoons of fabric softener either in a dispenser ball or the softener unit on the machine.  To make dryer sheets, put the rag over the mouth of the jug and tip some out onto the rag.  Squeeze to spread the fabric softener over the rag and toss it the dryer with the load to dry.  (I tend to line dry 50% or more of my clothes, but for some areas doing so is difficult, so dryer sheets might be helpful to make).

*If you use coupons and combine them with sales, often these inexpensive conditioners can be next to or absolutely free!

So, there you have it!  It’s so simple and easy to make homemade laundry detergent and it gives you a sense of control over what chemicals, dyes and fragrances you allow on your body.  I always recommend experimenting with the recipe until you find one that works best for you.  When you make your own laundry soap, it can feel quite satisfying and fulfilling!  It is definitely one of the more fun parts of ‘going green’.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Best Books Ever On Organic Gardening & Composting (In My Opinion)

Below, I have added my list of  the best books ever on organic gardening and composting.  I have or have read these books and keep them handy as references when I am working on my organic garden or my herb garden.  Various topics covered by these books include companion planting, planting tips, crop rotation, composting methods and natural pest control for organic gardens.
  • Stephens, James M.  Vegetable Gardening in Florida, published 1999.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8130-1674-0.   This is a great book!  It is very simply laid out , very detailed (complete with pictures) and filled with planting tips and information on companion planting.  It has pictures and shows you what you need to know.  It doesn’t focus on organic gardening specifically, but it does talk about organic gardening and what kind of crops grow well in this climate.  I learned about this book from a co-worker who also gardens, and she gave me a copy as a gift.  I definitely use and refer to this guide a lot, for zone 9 gardening.
  • Martin, Deborah & Gershuny, Grace (editors)  The Rodale Book of Composting, published 1992.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8785-7990-7.  This is a definitely 'best book ever' on compost methods and troubleshooting for most areas.  There is some complaint about not enough information on composting methods for drier climates, but since I live in a sub-tropical climate, I find this book fits my needs.  This Rodale book was a really good investment and I have found my compost bins to be very fruitful, productive and beneficial to my vegetables due to using their composting techniques.
  • Martin, Deborah, Bradley, Fern, Ellis Barbara (authors)  The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Pest and Disease Control: A Complete Guide to Maintaining A Healthy Garden and Yard The Earth-Friendly Way (Rodale Organic Gardening Books),  published 2010.  ISBN 13: 978-0-8759-6124-8  This book is definitely my go-to resource for natural pest control for gardens and the recommendations and solutions are often very easy fixes, a lot of which can be made with normal household items or easy to obtain ones (like neem oil).  It also talks a lot about how to prep your garden to avoid pests before they start.  Another great Rodale book, and highly recommended.
  • Hamilton, Geoff  (author) The Organic Garden Book (American Horticultural Society Practical Guides), published 1994 ISBN 13: 978-1-5645-8528-8. I love this book.  It was one of the first ones I read about organic gardening and it is very helpful for beginning and experienced gardeners alike.  Another reference book for me, I keep it handy.  I like being able to use certain approved standards by which to work, along with tried-and-true methods that help me avoid costly mistakes.  It is my encyclopedia of organic gardening.
  • The Old Farmer’s Almanac 2012, copyright 2011 by Yankee Publishing Incorporated.  Library of Congress Card No. 56-29681 The Old Farmer's Alamanac was one of the first things I ever read about gardening and it still serves me well for planning and planting today.  It has never steered me wrong and I buy a new one each year and wear it out until it isdog-eared and raggedy.  It addresses companion planting and when to set seeds out, it also deals with natural pest control for organic gardens and serves as a companion to any organic gardening guide. 
So, there you have it.  These are my top 5 organic gardening books and if you have an opportunity, I would highly recommend picking them up and giving them a read.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Farmers Markets, CSAs and Local Produce Markets

Because my family consists of locavores and 'mostly vegetarians', we tend to eat a lot of local produce.  This can be a budget buster for a lot of people, because it can be expensive and the food doesn't last long.  Also, for some people, it can be difficult to find access to a local farmers market and that may make it difficult to eat local produce.  One of ouur remedies to this situation has been to use CSAs (community supported agriculture, aka community farming projects) and a local farmers market that offers organic produce that is locally grown.

I have found that our CSAs locally offer competitive pricing.  A half share, which has fruit and vegetables, is about $25 for organically-raised, in season produce and is enough to feed three people for a week.  A full share is about $50 and will feed a larger group of people, or a smaller group of people for a longer time (if properly stored).  Our main CSA is HomeGrown Organics and we make arrangements to pick up our produce nearby, whenever there is a need.  The only reservation about using CSAs is you often have to place an order in advance, so it's not a good option for just picking up a few needed items.  It is an excellent option however, if you want a regular, weekly supply of locally grown, in-season, organic produce.

Another option is to use produce markets.  Often, these offer organically grown, local, competitively priced seasonal produce.  Not too far from me, there is a weekly farmers market - the Alachua County Farmers Market.  One of the great things about this farmers market is that, in addition to seasonal produce, it offers fresh baked goods, honey, candles, cheese, free-range chickens, homemade jellies and jams and smoked mullet (local catch), as well as wild boar sausage.  Some of the vendors will sell vegetable, herb and fruit plants, too.  That makes it a convenient, stress-free way to eat local, in season produce.  As a person who strongly supports community farming projects, it feels good to spend money to support produce markets and local farmers markets instead of big chain grocery stores.

A lot of areas have food co-ops to join, as well.  That can be a very effective way to keep costs down while maintaining access to organic, locally grown and in season produce.  A recent development in Alachua County is the Citizens Co-Op, which is a community-owned market.  A member purchases a share in the market, and purchases items from the market.  The individual will get a dividend, or refund, from the market based on how much money is spent there, reducing out of pocket costs.   There are student and low-income shares available, too.  Other memberships available are producer memberships and employee memberships, which require more direct contact and support of the food co-op, as opposed to a consumer membership.

The last option is to grow some yourself.  While this may not yield the entire amount of in season produce you might need, it will help to cut your costs.  Anything you can grow and eat yourself is going to be less expensive and will yield less packaging, less fuel costs and less environmental impact than what you can buy elsewhere.  It's fine to start small, with a small container garden on your porch.  I have herbs like oregano, basil, chives and stevia on my porch.  I also have tomatoes, peppers (sweet and hot), white beans, eggplant (aubergine) and squash.  I am sprouting okra, spinach, bok choi (pak choi), and Swiss chard for the next wave.  Since I have been doing this a while, my investment is almost nil annually. In fact, my last bunch of seeds was given to me by a co-worker.  I grow organically, so I spend a lot of time reading on organic pest control and optimizing compost and manure for fertilizer.  To me, it's worth it.  I feel more comfortable and secure being able to control my access to healthy, nourishing  in season produce.  I don't want to have to depend on CSAs, farmers markets or organic food co-ops for everything.  I love supporting them, but ultimately I feel I should be able to take matters into my own hands if needed.

Once you move beyond container gardening, you can start with small bed.  I have a pentagonal (five-sided) plot that has herbs like fennel, thyme, tarragon, chamomile and feverfew.  I will build some boxes and expand my vegetable garden next year.

I have also been a member of organic gardening co-ops, also known as allotments in the UK.   These groups host community gardening plots that you can rent for a season for about $10 or so.  (That is what mine cost).  UF Organic Gardens was where I had my plot, or allotment. The thing I really enjoyed about this was learning from other gardeners how to do organic gardening, being able to discuss and bounce problems off of other members, and that they had all the tools and seeds readily available for use so no additional outlay was required to get started.  What changed for me was the perspective of traveling 10 miles each way to do my organic gardening.  The need to be out there nearly daily in the height of growing season caused the fuel expense to go way up.  It seemed inefficient to spend that much gas to just be able to organically garden.  What I miss about the allotment is the comraderie and the large space in which to grow produce (along with the ease of having all the tools and seeds available).  We would also donate in season produce we couldn't use to local homeless shelters in town.  I felt really good about that.  I also enjoyed the ability to eat local and share in season produce with my fellow co-op members. However, if you have one nearby, I would highly recommend doing it.  It is educational, and empowering, to learn how to grow your own food organically.

Eating well, and nutrtionally, is an investment in yourself.  Using farmers markets, produce markets, CSAs, food-coops and garden plots (or allotments) can help make that easier and less expensive in the long run.  We encourage everyone to become a locavore, eat local and get engaged in community farming projects, even if you're in an urban area.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How To Make Hummus - Easy, Inexpensive & Tasty!

When money is tight, I hate to compromise my healthy lifestyle to save on groceries.  Over the years, I have learned the quality and quantity of certain things are better homemade.  Hummus is one of those.  While I will purchase store-bought hummus sometimes, often the price point is higher than I would pay and sometimes it contains preservatives I don't like.  So, I harkened back to my days working in a French bakery and dug out a recipe I learned there to make hummus, and which I have modified to make my own.  I have distilled down the basic recipe for hummus here, and will talk a bit about making gourmet hummus (adding mix-ins and flavors), as well, for fun.

When you make hummus for the first time, don't be intimidated.  It's super simple.  You just need a food processor or a blender, a rubber (silicon) spatula, and your ingredients.  For my part I don't mind 'cheating' with canned, organic garbanzo beans (chick peas) as long as they have no added preservatives.  My family size is small, so I just use one can and that makes enough.  If I have people over, I might make more than that.   Now, there are some real purists out there who like to use dried and soak and cook them before they make hummus.  I can't fault them for that - I have done that in the past. It shows dedication and a concern for the quality of what goes into your food.  However, when I am trying to be time-efficient as well, I find the good quality canned beans are just fine and the result is the same.

Hummus is a great, nutritious sandwich filler and snackfood.  Often, I will make hummus to have with salad, or in a pita for a quick cold supper on hot Florida summer nights.  And one of my favorite sandwiches is a pita or flatbread with hummus inside, and sliced cucumbers, sprouts, tomatoes and lettuce. (I also have one variation of this sandwich that incorporates cooked, diced zucchini, sauteed onions and eggplant for a different twist)!  Hummus is made from garbanzo beans, or chick peas, and they are high in B vitamins (folate), zinc and protein.  They are low in fat and high in fiber, and like lentils they are rather inexpensive to buy if you're on a budget or watching your health.

I will also have hummus on crackers as a healthy snack.  I make hummus and spread it on a cracker and top it with fresh diced red or green pepper, or a slice of cucumber or carrot.  I will dip carrots, sliced cucumbers and squash into hummus.  And to make sure I don't get too bored with it, I will change the flavor of hummus from time to time.  Some mix-ins I have used are roasted red peppers minced, artichoke hearts minced, eggplant diced and cooked, spinach cooked and chopped, pine nuts, pecans, walnuts or almonds chopped.  I have added chopped seeds like sunflower or pumpkin (done in a coffee grinder), and I have added tobasco for spiciness (also cayenne or jalapeno peppers), paprika, oregano, basil and cracked black pepper for flavor.  One of the keys to successful flavoring is to slightly blend or process the mix-in and add that to the hummus first, then fold in the rest toward the end after all blending has been done.  This allows the flavors to mingle and keeps the hummus recipe from getting too lumpy.

So, there you go - a quick tutorial on how to make hummus, with a recipe for hummus (and a lot of different varieties), too!  Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

My Top Five State Parks (And Nature Spots) In North Central Florida

Below, I am providing a list of my top five state parks in Florida, and nature spots.  I live in North Central Florida, so these state parks and nature spots are one that I have direct or very near access to.  These are places that are kept close to nature and which my family and I love to visit when we want some low-cost fun.  We tend to favor places that are near fresh or salt water, but there are also state parks listed that are not near water, as well. Most state parks in Florida charge a nominal entrance fee, but many other nature spots are free.  Florida state park fees are an indication, however, of how Floridians feel about their state parks.  Most are fiercely protective of these pristine, natural spots as they represent the best of the wildlife and wooded areas Florida has to offer.  We are happy to pay to maintain them and frown on littering and destruction of wildlife habitats.

  1. Rum Island Park:  Rum Island Park isn't really an island and there's no rum there, either.  It's one of the idiosyncrasies of  the South.  It is a small spring and outcropping on the Santa Fe River in North Central Florida in nearby Columbia County.  It is located just past High Springs and is a wonderful place for swimming, drifting down the Santa Fe River, picnicking and just enjoying nature.  This is a free park, and it is closed on Tuesday mornings until noon for park maintenance.  It is very rustic:  There is a set of steps to get down to the spring, a boat ramp, trash cans and there are a couple of picnic tables, but there are two porta-potties and no official bathroom facilities other than that.  Overnight camping, alcohol and dogs that aren't leashed are prohibited. There is no entrance fee to this state park.
  2. Devil's Millhopper Geological State Park:   Located off County Road 232 in Alachua County, The Devil's Millhopper is a sinkhole and hiking trail state park that is popular amongst many visitors to Florida.  The sink leads down 120 feet to a minature rainforest, complete with waterfalls.  The stairs are steep, and going up can be difficult, so this part might be difficult for those with health conditions, but the remainder of the park contains very walkable hiking trails that give visitors a sampling of native Florida wildlife and forests.  The entrance fee to this park is nominal; it's $3.00 per car and it's on the honor system.  You put your fee into an envelope, drop it into the receptacle and take a ticket that hangs from your rearview mirror.  The park is closed on Monday and Tuesday, but open the remaining days of the week.
  3. Anastasia State Park: Most visitors to Florida state parks expect that they'll hit the beach at one point of another.  Anastasia State Park is located in St. Augustine Florida, off State Road A1A. This particular park includes the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, and St. Augustine boasts the honor of being the oldest continuous settlement in the United States.  This FL state park is very popular and the fees range from $2.00 per person for pedestrian traffic, to $8.00 per car and overnight camping is $28.00 (which includes electric and water hook up).   This park has many amenities, including full bathroom and camping facilities, hiking and fishing.  This park is open 365 days a year.
  4. San Felasco Hammock State Park: Located between Gainesville and Alachua, FL San Felasco Hammock State Park is located off of US Hwy 441.  It is one of the newest ones added to our list of favorites, and we recently discovered it on a trip to Rum Island.  It contains both horse-riding and biking trails.  The bike trails can be shared with hikers, but hikers must yield to the bikers.  There are picnic facilities, bathroom facilities and horse-care facilities (for grooming and washing down horses).  This park has a $3.00 per car entrance fee and very good maps and trail markings.  There is a one mile trail (the one we hiked) and a five mile trail, on the bike side.  We did not access the horse-riding trails, but I hear they are beautiful .  We were struck by the pristine beauty of this hidden spot and had passed the entrance to this state park before, but never tried it.  We will certainly be going back.  
  5. Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park:  This state park is also located on US Hwy 441, but going south towards Micanopy.  Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park was Florida's first preserve, established in 1971.  This state park offers camping and hiking facilities, including cabins.  It also boasts ranger-led activities on the weekends.  The park is open from 8:00am until sundown, 365 days a year and the average fee is $6.00 per carload of people.  The prairie is breathtaking and boasts horses and a large herd of bison.  It has several hiking trails that showcase a variety of different Florida ecosystems and is a great spot for camping.  Camping fees are $18.00 per night, and include water and electric hook ups.
So, there you have it, my top five state parks in Florida. This list was difficult to compile because there are other spots we definitely enjoy, like Lake Alice on the University of Florida campus, and several of the local parks such as the Gainesville-Hawthorne State Trail.  However, in the interest of simplicity I kept it to my top five state parks and nature spots, otherwise I could keep going.  There are many more we haven't seen and would be interesting in learning about as well, because Florida's state parks are worth exploring and preserving.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How To Make Cheese: Organic Farmers Cheese

I often like to make organic farmer's cheese on the weekends.  In this blog post, I will talk about how to make cheese and some of the different variations of cheese that you can make easily at home, with little fuss.  In order to make farmer's cheese, you will need a small amount of kitchen equipment:

A collander
A food thermometer
Some cheesecloth
A stockpot
A large ceramic bowl

And, of course, a recipe on how to make organic farmers cheese.

The most important thing about making farmers cheese is to make sure your equipment is clean, dry and sterilized..   Any time you are handling dairy products, this is key to preventing unwanted contamination in the finished product.  I prefer to use metal, ceramic and glass items for this reason, over plastic.  Wooden spoons are okay, but a metal one is preferrable for stirring.

A long time ago, these simple recipes were the common property of housewives who didn't often go to the store or market to buy them, but rather did them at home.  Specialty cheeses from different regions were bought at market, but everyday food rarely was.  Learning how to make cheese was the mark of a good homemaker's education, along with baking bread, and simple stews like pottage.

For my part, I love garlic and herb cheese.  Or slightly spicy cheese with cayenne, black pepper and paprika.  I keep the milkfat content high because I find that makes a smoother, tastier farmers cheese.  I do realize that it makes it less healthy than it could be, but I also think limited quantities are fine.   The milk is organic and there are no preservatives in my homemade cheese.

I learned how to make cheese through trial and error.  I think one of the things that surprised me most is how much milk is required to make cheese.  You might be surprised that a gallon of milk leads to such a small quantity of farmers cheese.  I know, for my part, it made me appreciate how much milk goes into the process when you make homemade cheese!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Waste Not, Want Not: Using Leftovers In A Kitchen Sink Soup Recipe

When I was little, my mother used to make something she called  "Kitchen Sink Soup".  She learned about it from her mom, who lived through the Great Depression Making soup is super easy, and both my mother and grandmother often saved money on the food budget by putting leftover bits of vegetable, cooked grains, beans, meat and peas into a pot.  It was a delicious, nutritious low-cost meal, with salad and bread that could really fill the gap when money was tight.  To this day, I use this Kitchen Sink Soup recipe whenever I have leftovers in the fridge I can't figure out how to use.  The soup freezes beautifully, by the way, so you can make it year-round.  The name "Kitchen Sink Soup" refers to the fact that you can put anything in it, ie ‘all but the kitchen sink’.  Today, I am going to talk about how to make a soup, and the many variations thereof.
Often, you’ll have little bits of vegetable or grain leftovers in your fridge in small containers.  Or the last remnants of frozen veggies in the freezer.  Those are the start of a great soup, in and of themselves! This soup is never boring, never the same twice.  This Kitchen Sink Soup recipe can be vegetarian, or sometimes you can put bits of meat or seafood in it, too. 

The first thing you’ll need is a large pot, though even a medium sized pot will do.  If you use a medium size pot, you’ll simply get less soup!   I usually start out with a Dutch oven.  I put in 6 cups of water to start (try 3-4 for a medium size pot, more for a stock pot), and put the water on medium, so it slowly boils as I scour the fridge for ingredients.  I might chop up half an onion and carrot from the vegetable bin.  Cut up a remnant of a zucchini, and a green pepper.  There might be some tomato sauce, or left over canned tomatoes to toss in.  Canned beans are a fine addition, especially if you all ready used half for another dish.  The point is, there is almost no wrong way to make soup.  It’s the flavor at the end that determines success.  The point of this  Kitchen Sink Soup recipe is to keep you from throwing out little bits of veg you don’t know what to do with, contributing to food waste.  If you have a little bit of frozen peas or broccoli left, even if it's not enough for just one person, toss that in.  A bit of chicken left over?  Go on.  Or maybe some pot roast ends?  Keep tossing.  Summer squash,  asparagus and green beans next, but remember it is what you have in YOUR fridge. Even if they aren't 'pretty looking', they'll do fine (just nothing truly gone over to the dark side, that should be composted!) Add some salt to taste, maybe some dried herbs like oregano, parsley, basil leaves.  Have some left over boiled potatoes?  In they go.  I clean out my fridge when making my Kitchen Sink Soup recipe and just pile up the empty containers in the sink.    The only thing to remember is don’t put the rice, barley or pasta in until the end or it will soak up all of your water!   Remember, when you make a soup it is important to taste as you go along, adjusting for your own personal tastes.  If the water seems to boil down, add a bit more and taste.  Try not to overcook Kitchen Sink Soup – remember, most of the ingredients are pre-cooked, so you’re merely making and seasoning the broth they’re in and warming them up.  The main thing to remember when making soup is to balance the flavors – too many strong tasting things like onions, peppers and garlic will give you a strong tasting soup, so also add carrots, peas and other milder vegetables to balance things out.

I love that Kitchen Sink Soup can be anything you want it to be; it can be vegan or vegetarian, or it can be a seafood lovers' paradise, or a meat lover's delight.  It just depends on what you have on hand that can be repurposed!

Learning how to use leftovers is an important skill.  Not only does it help you keep food on a budget, Kitchen Sink Soup is a healthy meal that helps to prevent food waste, or reduce food waste. I try to stop food waste where I can, using leftovers to best advantage. While we put fruit and vegetable peels in the composter, it seems a shame to put perfectly good food in the scrap heap when all it takes is a little imagination, a large cook pot and some easy instructions on how to make a soup!

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