Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Versatile Sourdough

by Lynn at Viggies Veggies

When I got started making sourdough this summer, I was expecting lots of sourdough bread like the kind you'd buy in a store. I was surprised to find just how versatile sourdough really is. It's not just the type of bread I had in my mind, but a method of growing your own yeast and being dependent on one less store bought perishable.

A starter is begun with just 1 cup each flour and water. During the first week half is discarded each day and it is fed back up with 1/2 cup each flour and water. This gives your growing yeast colony plenty to eat. Once you get going you may want to start with recipes like pancakes and biscuits that will perform well even without a good rise. Your little yeast friends take some time to grow up. I started baking bread right away with mine and they were good tasting but not big fluffy breads until the starter had matured for 2 months or so.

sourdough pancakessourdough biscuits

Once the first week is over, you don't need to keep discarding. But if you do you can save and use that discard in recipes. I cook once a week so I just feed every day and let my starter grow. That way by the end of the week I have plenty for all the recipes I'm making. If you don't bake that much you could also put the starter in the fridge. It doesn't need to be fed in there and you can take it out a day before you do want to bake.

sourdough muffinssourdough french bread

Sourdough can greet you at breakfast with delicious muffins or rich pancakes. Neither of which are sour in the least. It can bake up fluffy Italian breads and very filling biscuits. I've really enjoyed learning to make novel things like bagels and hamburger buns. Well veggieburger buns in my case :)

sourdough bagelsourdough hamburger buns

The sky is really the limit with what you can do with your sourdough once you've got it going. If you want someplace to start, I've been working off of these recipes. I've done most of them already and they are excellent.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

Easy Candied Nuts

by Kate
Living a Frugal Life

Originally uploaded by elana's pantry

I'm a pretty do-it-yourself kind of woman when it comes to food. If something tempts me at a farmer's market, grocery store, or on a restaurant menu, or if I sample something delicious that a friend has made, I'll usually take a stab at making it myself at home. There's a lot to be said for intrepid experimentation in the kitchen. This winter I seem to be coming across candied nuts everywhere I turn. They're quite trendy at the moment, commonly paired with dried cranberries in a spinach salad. Of course, they're also perennial mainstays in the bowls of nibbly appetizers at holiday parties. 'Tis the season, I suppose.

So I decided to try candied nuts at home too. Nuts are generally expensive enough on their own. No need to pay even more for a little superficial processing. What I found out is that making candied nuts is surprisingly easy to do. And the amount of sugar in standard recipes can be drastically reduced if you're not aiming for a super-sweet party treat, or if you simply don't need lots of extra sugar in your diet. The recipe I've given below makes for somewhat sweet nuts, but even less sugar can be used and the "candy" coating will taste mostly of the spices with only the faintest sweetness.

Start with a small egg if you can get one. You'll only need one egg white to make a fairly large batch of candied nuts. Also start with raw nuts, preferably whole or halves. They don't need to have the skins removed. You can mix them in whatever proportions you prefer. I like a mixture of pecan, almonds, and hazelnuts, but many other types will work nicely. The spices can be tailored to your own tastes, but I've listed a combination I like that doesn't overwhelm the flavor of the nuts themselves.

Easy Candied Nuts

1 egg, preferably small
1/4 cup sugar (~60 ml)
a scant 1/8 tsp. cayenne powder
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
10-12 ounces raw nuts (280-340 g)

Preheat the oven to 300 F/150 C. Line a large baking sheet, or two smaller baking sheets, with baker's parchment, or grease them well.

Separate the egg and set aside the yolk for another purpose. Put the white into a small mixing bowl and beat it with an electric mixer just until it becomes opaque. Add the sugar and spices and beat for another minute or two until it is quite foamy. Mix 10 ounces of the nuts into the beaten egg white mixture, stirring well so that all surfaces of the nuts are well coated with the liquid. If there is an excess of the egg white mixture, add the remaining 2 ounces of nuts to the bowl and stir to distribute the coating over all the nuts evenly.

Arrange the nuts in an even layer on the baking sheet, separating them as well as possible. Bake them in the oven for 35 minutes. If you are using two smaller baking sheets, reverse their positions top to bottom and also rotate them 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. Allow the nuts to cool to room temperature after baking. When fully cooled, store them in a tightly sealed jar in a cabinet. They will keep for two weeks, if they last that long.

If you want a really festive and indulgent version of these nuts, double the sugar. Play around with the spices, substituting nutmeg for the cardamom, and cloves for the cayenne. Or try adding vanilla seeds scraped from inside a vanilla bean for a decadent treat. The egg yolk from this recipe could go into a lovely homemade garlic aioli for crudites or polishing off the holiday roast in sandwiches. It could also be used in a batch of lemon curd, in ravioli filling, rice pudding, or even tempera paint!

The nice thing about these nuts is that I can rip off those fancy restaurant presentations by including them in my salads at home. For next year, I'm also adding candied nuts to my list of homemade goodies that can be given as holiday gifts. And there's still time to use these at a New Year's party. Just about everyone can enjoy them since they're vegetarian, gluten-free, and can be integrated with either meat or dairy kosher meals. For those watching their sugar intake, you can cut the sugar back even farther from the 1/4 cup I listed in the recipe above. Enjoy!

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Some Re- Words for the Season

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Even in the earliest days of civilization, people realized that something happened this time of year. There was a change, a literal hesitation and then a swinging back in the natural world. As religions developed, each put their own stamp on this time, their own observation and celebration of the solstice - perhaps with a different name and focus, but recognition nonetheless. With the adoption of our modern calendar, the somewhat arbitrary beginning of the year was added. This hesitation time, between solstice and the start of a new year, is a natural time for what I'm calling some re- words.

Some memories are as fleeting as the time it takes to address and sign a holiday card. Others are more long-lasting. Traditions from childhood, even if no longer observed, are still there somewhere inside. This time of year is naturally full of memories of family, friends, and seasons past. It's an emotional time, and some of the memories brought back can be very powerful - some even painful. In a season everyone around you is calling joyful and wondrous, it can hurt to admit, even to yourself, that you might be feeling a bit down instead.

For some, the absence or loss of loved ones can be especially pronounced. I lost a parent not too long ago, and sadly, am old enough that I'm now starting to lose friends and peers. It's a consequence of growing older that you will outlive others - some now gone due to age, but others under more tragic circumstances. Especially poignant to me are those lost by their own hand. It's so hard to understand the depths of despair that can lead someone to undertake such a permanent solution to what might have been a temporary problem.

There are progressive stages one goes through in processing loss, whether bereavement or other significant life events, such as divorce, drug addiction, infertility, or unemployment - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance. But the process is not of smooth transitions, nor accomplished in an orderly succession. The memories and emotions brought up during this time of year especially can bounce one back to an earlier stage, and this is completely normal. Humans developed as social animals, and there's nothing noble about suffering in silence. Please, find someone to talk to - a trusted friend, maybe someone qualified to give counsel, your pet, or even your version of a higher power - if the memories brought up by this time of year become painful.

As the year comes to a close, it's a natural time to look back. Years like this one, ending in 9, can also call up recollections of the past decade. A lot has happened in the world, and in your own lives in this time, so it's a good time to think about how you and your life have changed. Maybe it's time to reassess your goals, and certainly a time to celebrate your successes.

But there are bound to be some failures too, and possibly even regret. Figure out what went wrong, and maybe even come up with ideas to fix it. Feelings of regret mean there's a lesson there to be learned. Think about why you're feeling regret, and figure out what that lesson is. If it's something that you can remedy, take action now - apologize, make amends, change your actions - and then move on. Regretting something done in the past is wasted time and emotion; continuing to do something you regret is just plain stupid. Learn the lesson, and strive for a life without regrets.

'Tis the season. This year, I'm gonna get every bit of clutter out of my house, lose 50 pounds, grow all our own food, cook every meal from scratch, make all our clothing, run a marathon, never eat fast food again, go to the gym every day, never yell at the kids, save the redwoods, save the polar bears, save the planet . . . this year, I resolve to be PERFECT!!

Ok, whoa! Anything sound familiar? To save yourself lots of frustration and disappointment come the end of January, go ahead and write out your entire list. Then, pick just one, maybe two at the very most, items that are the most important to you right now. That is your ultimate goal(s), and it might take all year, maybe even more. Now, stash that list away for now (at least until the equinox - you can reassess your progress then, and maybe decide on something new to address). For now, figure out just one little tiny baby-step action to take. Bad habits are hard to change - the best way is to consistently substitute some other action every time. Commit, really commit, to just that one little thing for at least three weeks. Maybe then, but maybe longer, you can figure out the next tiny little baby-step to take.

Take a really deep breath - really, right now, do it. Hold it a sec. Now, slowly, gently, breathe out. It's an emotional time of year - looking back, planning for the future. Every once in a while, take a minute to just savor what's happening right now. Indulge all your senses, devoting complete attention to each one in turn - stop and notice what's happening in your world, right now, and just breathe. It's nature's little hesitation time - that perfect equilibrium before the earth starts tilting back, swinging back around the sun. It's the perfect time to find your own equilibrium too.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Last-Minute Gift Ideas For the Holidays: No- and Low-Cost Gifts

by Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

I posted this a couple of days ago on my own blog, but thought that you all might find this list useful, too. Please share any ideas you have in the comments!

It's nearing Christmas, and I haven't bought a single gift for the holidays. Am I worried? Maybe a little bit, but I'm not stressed about it. I have thought about it a lot, and I already know what I'll be getting most of my friends and family. For most, I don't even need to leave my home!

The other day I asked readers and friends what ideas they had for no-cost gifts. Here's my favorite answer, from Stacey:

So, as a kid, I collected Breyer model horses. I was obsessed with them and all things horsey. Recently, I found them stored in my garage and have decided that they now need to belong to my equally horse-obsessed nieces. There are so many things right with this... I get a whole new opportunity to share my toys [I may not have excelled at this as a ... See Morekid], my nieces get something that they'll love to play with, the garage will be less cluttered and, the best thing is that I get to share something with them that I once loved.

That brings me to....

Gift Idea #1: Gifts From Your Home, Garage, or Storage

Most of us have things around the house, and particularly stored in a box or a corner somewhere that mean something special to us - or more often than not, meant something special to us - and we can't bare to part with it. Books, records, dresses, coats, vases, pictures, dolls, figurines, games, tools, fishing gear, ... the list continues, doesn't it? So why not keep it close to you, and give it to someone who will really appreciate it? An antique means nothing in your basement. The memories will never leave your mind, and new memories will be formed if you give it to someone who will love it.

If the object means something special to you, you might want to attach your story to the gift. Tell the special someone about the gift, or write it down in a note: where it came from and what it meant to you. Think of this as part of the gift you're giving. Because after all, it is probably the most important part!

Here's another great story from Julie:

One of my most treasured gifts was from my grandmother- a collection of old photos from my childhood, my mother's childhood and even earlier ones of my grandmother as a young woman. She was able to scale back her photo closet plus give us grandkids something to treasure. She really enjoyed the process of going through and picking out ones for each of us.

Gift Idea #2: Special Keepsakes From the Heart

My grandmother always used to say that instead of waiting until she's passed away and people attach sadness to a special gift given in a will, she'd rather give it away now and watch people really enjoy it. So true - it makes such a difference to hear the stories and to share the experiences!

Maybe it's a piece of jewelry, a photograph, a work of art, an heirloom passed through generations... Share it with someone you love this year. Make sure you tell the stories behind the gift, and make the giving of the gift truly special. Spend the time and effort to let the person know how special this keepsake is to you, and how much you want that person to have it and treasure it. And let it bring you closer together.

Gift Idea #3: Thoughtful Non-Material Gifts

Here's a great list from Rachel:

1. Baby sitting someone's kids for the evening so they can have alone time.

2. Washing someone's car or cleaning their house - or doing any other housework errand that they can't find the time/energy to do (like helping them tackle that overflowing mess of a closet, for example).

3. Chopping someone's firewood.

4. Putting up someone's Christmas lights for them.

5. The gift of your time. Actively prioritizing relationships we take for granted: ACTUALLY taking the time to spend a few hours visiting with friends that you don't often see.

And from Risa:

6. Listening. With offer of fresh hot chocolate.

I'd add to this list:

7. Help painting the porch
8. Gardening: pruning, planting, composting, and more
9. Setting up dad’s computer
10. A candlelight dinner for two at home

Gift Idea #4: A Coupon Book of Non-Material Gifts

Here's another one from Julie:

One time my sister and I made a coupon booklet for my parents, with things like: a homecooked meal, mowing the lawn, a neck and back massage, being chauffeur for the day, etc.

You can certainly add kisses and hugs, as well as all the things listed in #5.

Gift Idea #5: Re-Gift

I know, it's not super kosher to re-gift, but what else are you going to do with it? And why not give it to someone who will appreciate it?

From Tree:

For my Father-in-Law: I regift (I know some people think its taky). Each year one of the Servicers I use through the year, sends me a lovely gourmet basket - It perfect for DH’s dad and we don’t eat that sort of stuff.

Gift Idea #6: Make Something

You don't have much time, but sometimes things don't take much time to make. On Tuesday, my Mom and I are getting together to make homemade biscotti for all of our cousins. I see it as a gift my mother and I are giving one another (spending quality time together), and a tasty gift for our family members. Another idea? How about a collage of meaningful photos, or a calendar made from your great trip photos or photos of your garden?

From Rob:
most things I give are homemade, and this year giving one of my turkey fryer burners to a friend who brews his own beer. LOL I don’t need two fryers anyway. And I am “remaking” clocks- one or two of them are old clocks I had sitting around, and 1 was bought at the “AS-IS” department at IKEA
From Erin:

I’ve been canning my garden bounty the last few weeks and have lots of salsa and mustard to give as gifts. I also plan to do a lot of knitted gifts again this year, but am keeping it simple with toys/ornaments for the nieces and nephews.
That brings me to...

Idea #7: Gifts From The Garden

You can't grow anything now, sure - but you can give dried herbs or fruit, canned goods, saved seeds, and propagated plants. Yes! I have a cardamon plant indoors that just keeps making new shoots. It's too big for its pot now, so I'm going to divide a few of the shoots and re-pot them as gifts! Or maybe you're like me, and you have four pothos plants around your home from different cuttings at different times. Why not give one away to someone who doesn't have much greenery in their home? Plus, imagine the joy of receiving a jar of homemade jam... Yum!

Idea #8: Peruse Antique Stores, Thrift Stores, and Used Book Stores

You may have cleaned out your storage units, your closets, and your garage and have little to offer from your home. Well, go into town and have some fun going through the local antique store. A beautiful first-edition copy of your mom’s favorite book, an awesome game you used to play as kids (maybe you can turn it into a new holiday tradition), a vintage handbag, an irresistible shawl, a tricycle, almost anything you can think of giving comes in used versions!

Idea #9: Charity Gift Cards

This is a great gift for people who don't need or want more things, but to whom you really want to give a gift and show your appreciation and love. If you know their favorite charity, you can make a donation in their name. Otherwise, one of my favorites is Heifer International, where you can make a donation of goats for a family to keep for milk, or ducks for eggs, or many other things. And one of our favorite clients is TisBest, which allows you to give a gift card (you can give it in email form), and the recipient can choose which charity to give it to.

Idea #10: A Coupon Book for Local Goods and Services

Here in Seattle, we have the Chinook Book. I love it. It costs $20, you can buy it from any number of local stores or charities, and it has loads of coupons for green, sustainable, and local goods and services. I save hundreds of dollars using these coupons over the year, and it helps me support local businesses. How about giving one to someone who are looking for an extra push to "go local" or "go green", or someone who could use some extra coupons in their life (and who couldn't these days?).

There are several other types of coupon books out there. Check around or Google "coupon book" and the name of your city or state. And the Chinook Book is also available in Portland, Denver, Silicon Valley, East Bay, and Twin Cities.

Did You Already Buy All Your Gifts?

You may have done all your shopping this year. But did you see something on this list that is better than what you've bought? Or cheaper? So give the no- or low-cost, meaningful gift instead and take the other one back. I bet you won't regret it at all!

Did This List Make You Think of Some Great Gift Ideas?

Yes? Great!! Go do it, and please take a moment to share your ideas with the rest of us in the comments below, so we can all have more ideas!

And have wonderful, safe, and happy holidays everyone!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Holidays Your Way

posted by Chiot's Run

"Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer.... Who'd have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously?"

~Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

There are a lot of influences in our lives that try to tell us how to live, what to buy, what to wear, what to drive, where to live and what to eat. These influences are particularly strong during the holidays with people telling us how we should celebrate, what we need to buy, how we need to decorate and what we need to do to ensure a happy holiday season. It can be tough to back away from the mainstream influences and to keep and develop meaningful holiday traditions for your family.

Mr Chiots and I watched a special on PBS a week or two ago and it highlighted he different Christmas traditions in the countries and regions of Europe. We were delighted by all the different traditions people held and celebrated just as their ancestors had for centuries. We talked a little about our traditions and the traditions here in the United States and how it seems like we've lost a lot of what makes the holidays special in a traditional and cultural way. Perhaps it's because we're a country of many cultures, or perhaps it's the influence of consumerism.

I grew up in Colombia, their Christmas traditions are different than the ones here. Since we were Americans, our celebrations became kind of a mix of Colombian traditions and family traditions. Since my family was very religious, our Christmas celebrations always centered around religious traditions. We always had a nativity set out. We always lit a the angle chimes and read through the Christmas story on Christmas Eve. We enjoyed eggnog and Christmas cookies while opening our gifts on Christmas Eve. We never were a big gift giving family, a few small gifts were it, and generally they were useful items. On Christmas morning we'd wake up to stockings filled with candy and a few small trinkets, then we'd enjoy a big meal of ham and all the usual sides.

Mr Chiots and I have tried to establish a few traditions of our own along with a few family traditions. We set up a nativity set and a few decorations, we exchange a few small gifts, which are generally useful. We enjoy a big breakfast on Christmas morning and always keep the day to ourselves, watching vintage James Bond movies all day. This year I'm planning on incorporating a few Colombian traditions, like eating buñelos with hot chocolate, which are traditional Colombian food for Christmas. My nativity set is handmade from Colombia, and it was our family nativity set. We would love to develop more traditions or pick up some old ones from around the world.

What are some of the holiday traditions that you keep or have developed for your family?

Monday, 21 December 2009

Construct your own Seed Mats

By Thomas from A Growing Tradition

seed mats
Homemade Seed Mats (Radishes)

Have you ever come across an idea that sounded a bit silly or even crazy at first, but then the more you thought about it, the more you realized how absolutely brilliant it is? In this case, it took me about 5 seconds to see the light of day. And I have to thank none other than Gran from Annie's Kitchen Garden for enlightening me.

This my friends is a homemade seed mat, which allows you to sow many of your crops accurately and efficiently. For me at least, the benefits of these mats seem endless. Here are just a few I can think of as I'm writing this:
  • The obvious - thinning, or lack there of. Since you've perfectly spaced the seeds on the mat, you spend less time thinning your seedlings. Carrot growers rejoice!
  • Eliminating waste - Since you have less to thin, you also get to keep more of what you sow. Seeds are becoming increasingly expensive these days and more gardeners are choosing to save seed. These mats allow you to maximize your seed usage.
  • Aesthetics - The perfect spacing achieved by these mats gives your garden an ultra-neat look.
  • Maximizing space - Seed mats allow you to maximize your available square footage by evenly spacing your plants according to their specific requirements. This is particularly important if you only have a limited amount of growing space in your garden, hoop house or cold frames.
  • Regulating growth - Because your plants are evenly spaced, their overall growth becomes more regulated.
  • Time and flexibility - You're sowing entire mats, which is a fraction of the time it takes to sow individual seeds. (Your back will thank you.) Also, it took me about 15 minutes to construct 3 mats while comfortably sitting at a table. This is the type of gardening I don't mind doing at 11 pm.
  • Comfort - they are particularly useful for small seeds and crops that do not require large amounts of space in which to grow. From my own experience, I've found certain seeds to be particularly tedious to handle and sow into neat rows (wild arugula seed, for example, is the size of a grain of sugar).
  • Finally, cost - It costs next to nothing to make these mats and chances are, you already have the materials in your home. A six-row seeder costs $549.00.
Are you convinced yet? Or curious at least? Then give these homemade seed mats a try. All you need are some thin single-ply paper napkins or toilet tissue (anything that disintegrates easily when wet), some water soluble glue (like your child's Elmer's glue), a ruler and toothpick. Personally, I use fast food restaurant napkins for my mats, which degrade very quickly in the garden. The directions are pretty straight forward:

1. Unfold your napkin. On your napkin, using a ruler and pen, make a series of evenly spaced points. The space between these points will be dictated by the type of crop you are sowing. To give you an idea, most baby salad crops can be spaced 2 square inches apart (2 in by 1 in). Carrots and radishes can by spaced 4 square inches apart (2 in by 2 in). Spinach, many Asian greens, turnips, beets, claytonia and smaller-head varieties of lettuce can be spaced 16 square inches apart (4 in by 4 in). In fact, these seed mats are best for any crop that you can direct sow and space 6 inches apart or less.

2. Going row by row, dab the slightest bit of glue onto each point. (I've also used a thick paste made from flour and water, which worked well too. Use a toothpick to dab a bit onto each point.)

3. Place a seed at each point and press lightly with your finger. (For baby salad crops, I adhere 2 to 3 seeds at each point for better germination rates. For small or more delicate seeds such as carrots and many salad crops, touch the tip of a toothpick to your tongue or a wet sponge and use it to pick up and transfer the seed.)

4. Let the mats dry completely. Do not store stacked until they are completely dry.

radish seed mats3
Newly Sown Mats

5. In the garden, amend your bed and level the soil surface with a garden rake. Lay the mats on top and sprinkle a bit of compost or garden soil onto each mat to keep them in place. (You can make a 50/50 mixture of compost and organic garden soil.) Once all of the mats are laid down, fill with enough soil to achieve the appropriate sowing depth. Water thoroughly.

6. Two or three days after the first seeds have sprouted, fill in any germination gaps with fresh seed.

radish seeds mats
I achieved about a 90% germination rate with my radish seed mats.

And that's about it. Hopefully, some of you who are as anal as I am about neat and evenly planted rows will give this a try. For Gran's instructions on how to construct these seed mats, click here.

winter radishes
Same radish bed a few weeks later.

Sunday, 20 December 2009


by Eilleen
Consumption Rebellion

Hello everyone!

What wonderful posts we've been having on this blog! To the other writers here, a big thank you from me.

Readers of my personal blog will know that I'm a bit of a bah-humbugger when it comes to Christmas. The commercialism and over-consumerism of this time of the year has, to date, elicited at least one bah-humbug post from me every year since I started blogging in September 2006!

But I have to admit, another part of me really wants to truly celebrate this time of the year. Whatever your religion (or no-religion), this time of the year marks many events and festivals - Bohdi Day, Hannukah, Al Hijra, Summer Solstice (in Southern Hemisphere), Winter Solstice (northern Hemisphere), Christmas and Kwaanza to name a few. I truly believe that this time of the year may be one of the few times when many of us are, in turns, reflecting and celebrating.

However, is it possible to truly celebrate simply without over-consuming? Whenever I ask myself this question, a huge part of me wants to say "Of course its possible!". Unfortunately, the reality is that for many of us, celebrating is done collectively. Unless your collective has the same values and ideas on how to celebrate, there will always be tensions or "disconnects" associated with this time of the year.

Many of us who have opted to go against our collective's norms and choose a different life will have come up with this dilemma of addressing the disconnects sooner or later. In my own journey, I've found that its this time of the year that highlights the disconnect between my own ideas and others.

When that disconnect is shown in such stark terms, its easy to get caught in the trap of not wanting to celebrate at all. And that just makes me sad.

But as with most things in life, sometimes all it takes is a mind-shift and one can see this time of year in a whole new light. So I thought I'd share this sermon I stumbled on last year from a Reverend at my local Uniting Church. While I am not a Christian, I can recognise the wisdom in his sermon and I thought I'd share it here:
Christmas is a global weaving together of religion, media and popular culture, creating a legitimacy of its own, and independent of the church’s definition of spirituality.

...while most of us would say there is a problem with Christmas, some religious critics believe the problem is called ‘commercialisation’. A few of us, critics of the religious critics, disagree with that answer.

The problem is not ‘commercialisation’. That is just a modern age-old wrinkle. And if you believe the reports in The Canberra Times, such commercial vulnerability that Christmas spending brings is not always welcomed by the commercial sector. No, the problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant. There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety. Richard Frazier suggests:

“The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses. Rarely do we experience beauty in depth. Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

We will not understand Christmas by simply trying harder.

...Christmas is best seen as we are open and receptive to its simple mystery: being sensitive to opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.
Full sermon is here.

So wherever you are, whoever you are, I would like to wish you moments where you can truly appreciate the beauty already surrounding you - in ordinary events and even in people who are different from you....and in turn may your awareness of that beauty help you to truly celebrate.

My son giving me a flower. This photo was part of a series of photos taken by my children when they decided they wanted to show readers of my personal blog how they see their neighbourhood. I'm not sure how they affected readers, but what they did do was show me how beautiful my neighbourhood was. Something I had forgotten until then. Blog post is here.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Tasty candied popcorn

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

I posted on my regular blog about my memories of eating Cracker Jack popcorn as child. Not really liking the taste of the commercial version as an adult, I started tweaking recipes for caramel corn until I finally came up with a tastier version. Commonly molasses is used, along with high fructose corn syrup. I was looking for a different flavor and definitely a way to leave out the HFCS. Besides the obligatory popcorn, you will need popcorn, nuts, butter, brown sugar, salt, cream of tartar, honey, espresso powder or instant coffee, and baking soda.

This is pretty tasty, and makes a great last minute gift. Easy to make with ingredients on hand, you may want to make a double batch.

Instead of peanuts, I substituted filberts because they are locally grown, and I love them. Any nut will work. Or leave them out. I chopped mine coarsely.

Add nuts to unseasoned popped corn. Mix. You will need 6 quarts of popped corn. To make the mixing easy, I divided it between two large bowls. Have this part ready before making the candy part.

In a deep, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, honey, salt, cream of tartar and espresso powder.

Bring to a boil, and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, stirring to prevent scorching. If you like to use a candy thermometer cook the mixture to 260 degrees F or to hard ball stage.

Remove from heat and add baking soda. The mixture will foam up.

Divide the mixture between the two bowls of popcorn, and stir quickly to distribute the candy on the popcorn.

Bake at 200 degrees F, in 2 well oiled jelly roll pans, or lipped baking sheets for 1 hour. Stirring 2 - 3 times during the baking.

Cool, and break into small clusters and store in an airtight container.


6 quarts unseasoned popped popcorn
2 cups chopped nuts (optional)
2 cups brown sugar
1 - 2 Tablespoons espresso powder (optional)
1/2 cup honey
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. Divide popcorn and nuts between two large bowls. Oil baking pans and set aside.

In a deep, heavy bottomed saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, honey, espresso powder, cream of tartar and salt. Bring mixture to a boil and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. If using a candy thermometer cook until thermometer reads 260 degrees F. Remove from heat and stir in baking soda. The mixture will foam up with the addition of the baking soda.

Pour the syrup mixture over the popped corn, half in each bowl. Stir the popcorn and caramel together quickly to mix. Spread the coated popcorn evenly on the baking pans and bake for 1 hour, stirring about 3 times and swapping pans if you need to, to ensure even baking. Remove from oven, cool and break up large pieces if necessary. Store in airtight container.

Warning: It's hard to make just one batch - Happy Holidays!

Friday, 18 December 2009

Simple Gift Ideas

Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

Hopefully by now you have everything sorted for next week, and you're reading this for ideas for Christmas 2010...

Without wanting to give too much away (in case my gift recipients read this before the 25th), here are a few idea of some simple gifts I’m giving this festive season…

Angels by Chrissy Butler

Garden Tools and Seeds
Hand Cream
Vouchers – for stores and for my time
Shopping Totes
Drinking Glasses filled with goodies

The part of me who used to get a thrill from seeking out and buying the perfect gift has lost her enthusiasm! My children are growing past their ‘toy’ years and almost everyone I know doesn’t really need anything… I loathe the idea of buying for the sake of it.

So without being so predictable as buying socks, hankies or boxes of chocolates, I now try to buy or make useful but beautiful items. Things which will either be consumed fairly quickly (without much waste) or used daily (or thereabouts) over a long period of time. In fact socks, hankies and chocolates would do nicely, but I do still prefer to use a little imagination!

Some handmade and homegrown items I’ve given in the past…

Stationery sets
Handmade soap
Sweet treats in re-useable cookie jars
Potted herbs
Potted strawberries
Food hampers – bought and handmade
Framed family photos
Photo calendars
Other hampers – art supplies, cooking kits, etc
Jams and sauces

And for a gift which keeps on giving, my most favourite are Oxfam Unwrapped.

Here are a few of my favourite recipes (most are adapted versions of recipes shared on the Simple Savings forum):

Big Batch of Bikkies
750g butter
1.5kg raw sugar
6 eggs
2kg wholemeal flour + baking powder (half a teaspoon per cup of flour)
3 tsp vanilla extract

Melt butter and let cool. Mix in all ingredients, starting with 1.5kg of flour and adding more if the dough is too oily or wet. Mix it with your hands unless you have a large food processor.

Form dough into balls the size of a 10c or 20c coin. Put on baking tray. Bake at 225 degrees C for 15 minutes. If you like softer biscuits, cook for a shorter time.

Makes over 150 biscuits. Freeze well.
* Add carob or choc chips, nuts, coconut, sultanas or other (diced) dried fruit, oats, rice bubbles, etc. You can also add cocoa powder to this mix to make a chocolate bikkie.

Carob Fudge Balls
Mix together 1/2 cup nut butter (peanut butter, tahini etc), 1/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup carob powder, 1 tsp vanilla, 1 cup dessicated coconut (can substitute some sesame seeds here).
Roll the mixture into balls and coat in more coconut if desired.

* you can substitute all sorts of fruit, nuts, puffed rice, seeds etc into this recipe and roll into balls with the carob/honey/nut butter combination and create a variety of different treats.

Cheese Biscuits
250g butter
250g grated cheese
2 cups wholemeal spelt flour
1/2 cup milk
2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp herb salt
1/4 tsp ground black pepper
Few tbspn grated parmesan

Rub butter into flour. Mix cheese through. Add spices. Stir milk in to create a workable dough.

Roll dough into balls. Press into parmesan and bake on oiled tray @ 180 degrees C for 10-15 minutes (until edges are golden). Cool and store in airtight container. Suitable to freeze. Makes a couple of dozen large biscuits, depending on how big you make them.

Coconut Balls
3 eggs, beaten
180g raw sugar
250g dessicated coconut

Mix ingredients together in a bowl. Form into balls about 2cm in diameter and place onto 2 greased trays. Bake at around 180 degrees C until golden brown. Enjoy!

You can use cello bags, recycled jars or buy a nice big cookie or storage jar which will be used again and again to present these items in. Add some ribbon or raffia and a handmade tag and the recipient will be pleased to receive something so obviously made with love.

Tell me, if you celebrate Christmas, what's on your giving list this year? How simple are your celebrations? Am I turning into a Scrooge, or is the holiday season is turning back to what it used to be?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Fun, Free, Frugal and Social

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I'm currently in a season of unemployment which means apart from job hunting I have a lot more time on my hands. The only problem with having more time, is that human desire to fill it, which I'm certainly trying to remain on top of. Practically, this is a very good season in my life to spend time with friends who live farther afield and friends it can be difficult to catch up with normally, as it is the holidays it is also a time when family and friends really do want to meet up. For the vast majority of my family and friends catching up means dinner and a movie or dinner and drinks, which is costly and not within my meager budget. Slowly but surely I've found there are many ways to enjoy frugal fun and while it may take some encouragement with friends who are not accustomed to more frugal endeavors, it is amazing the fun you can have on very little money. Here are some activities that have worked for me over the last month and provide a fun way to spend time with family and friends over the holiday season!

1. Games Night - host a games night at your home! A friend of mine is very good at this and everyone brings a game plus nibbles or a bottle of wine. We end up having a fabulous evening for little or no money!

2. Get hiking and walking - even though it is certainly colder right now (unless you are reading this in Australia), I've found with a hat and mitts you can convince most people to take a nice walk. If I invite friends who prefer expensive coffee shop catch ups, I might suggest we pick up a hot chocolate or coffee on route or I offer to make us one from home to bring. I recently convinced two friends to go for a long walk in a beautiful park, both admitted they hadn't enjoyed a walk in 5+ years and while they admitted they were unsure at first we've already made a date for another walk!

3. Movie Night - invite friends around and ask them to bring their DVD collection or you can rent a movie from the library or even during the Holidays choose a movie that's on the TV. This can be such a fun, frugal activity and a great way to spend time with a group of friends.

4. Accept dinner invitations or invite others for dinner - hosting people in your home doesn't need to be expensive, you can accept the offer of each guest bringing one dish and I've found with a little forward thinking I can feed a group of six quite easily while staying in my weekly food budget!

5. Join a book club, knitting group, running club etc - I am a member of a knitting club and a book club, both of which I adore. A friend of mine recently bought a house and was struggling to maintain social relationships and keep her exercise costs low while paying her mortgage, I suggested she join a local running club which was free, she has now not only found a free social form of exercise twice a week, but she's also made loads of local friends!

6. Find out about local events - over the Holiday season there are many workshops, fairs, movie events and activities around my local area that are very reasonable. Have a look for signs and advertisements at your local library, Church or recreation centre.

7. Be honest with people about your budget - I've had many offers from friends to come and stay for the weekend which is lovely, but it could create a lot of stress if friends make plans for you that are costly. I've found being honest and upfront about your budget can help you choose activities that won't get you in debt!

8. Get in the garden, learn a new skill, write a letter, listen to the radio, watch the snow/rain, host a baking day or cooking day - there are so many wholesome, relaxed, simple and frugal things we can do each and every day!

9. Volunteer - you can volunteer on your own or invite friends to volunteer with you! It is such a wonderful way to give back, learn a new skill, help others and spend your time! It can be as simple as making meals for people you know or giving a day to help at a food bank!

10. Use gift cards, vouchers etc - sometimes we have to spend money, I always try to have a few gift cards on hand with enough money for a couple of meals and drinks out. I used these when all my other simple plans fail :)

I think it is also important to remember you can't do everything and it is OK to say no. As I fine tune simple living I find there is a peaceful acceptance and joy which comes from choosing how to spend my time and having the confidence not to accept every offer. There is a freedom found by saying no that money simply can't buy.

Do you have any ideas for frugal ways to spend time with friends and family during this holiday season?

Finally, if I don't get the chance to do so before the Holidays, I wanted to wish every single reader a wonderful Holiday Season! Thank you for enriching my life this year.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Vegetables for the Picky Eater

by Badhuman

I'm a picky eater and I married a picky eater which makes meal planning a bit harder. Try to add in fresh veggies and it seems impossible! But, much to our parents shock there are two vegetable recipes that my husband and I both love.

One is braised kale and the other is roasted brussels sprouts (when roasted they are more addictive then potato chips or popcorn!)

Braised Brasilian Kale, originally uploaded by asacco9642.

Braised Kale from Emeril Lagasse

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cups thinly sliced onions
1 teaspoon salt
12 turns freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons minced garlic
8 cups (firmly packed) torn and stemmed kale pieces
2 cups Basic Chicken Stock, recipe follows
Splash cider vinegar

Heat the oil in a large skillet over high heat. Add the onions, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the garlic, kale, and stock and cook, stirring occasionally, for 8 to 10 minutes; add a splash of cider vinegar in the last minute of cooking. Remove from the heat. Serve immediately.

little green soldiers, originally uploaded by abidangit.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons good olive oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut off the brown ends of the Brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Mix them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour them on a sheet pan and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly. Sprinkle with a little more kosher salt if desired.

What's your favorite vegetable prep?

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Keeping Keen and Green

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin

Someone asked me the other day how I keep motivated about being green, or in other words, how and why do I keep striving towards a sustainable lifestyle.  I couldn't really answer them without going into why I started living like this in the first place and what the benefits of the lifestyle was.  I sounded like a walking advertisement for Mother Earth or Grass Roots magazines.  I don't think they were bored, just surprised that it took so long for me to finish the answer.  It is hard to list the reasons why I keep keen about sustainable living into a short conversation!

This got me thinking long and hard about how to describe it better to a wider audience.  Long time readers of this blog would know about my green epiphany and how that one day back in October 2006 changed my life forever.  When I think about it, I could have walked out of the cinema and not given the message in the movie a second thought, but I didn't.  But why?  Anyone who has been to a motivational speech would know that listening and being pumped up at the end of the talk is one thing, and taking the first step towards action is another entirely.  As soon as you walk through the auditorium door, you usually fail to act because reality is waiting for you on the other side of it, and most of the time you are rarely given the next piece of the puzzle. That missing piece of the puzzle is what usually stops people dead in their tracks because of the fear of change, or not knowing where to begin.

So, how did I take that next step?  Well, the very same day as my epiphany, I began to seek knowledge.  It was like a thirst that I could not quench.  That is, I felt compelled to find out what simple steps I could take to lower my carbon emissions and in turn, and without realising it, lowering my consumption of resources which I now know is what sustainable living is all about.  So I went headlong into a journey that will probably never end, with a burning fire in my belly, determined to change my behaviours and, again without realising it, influencing those around me by my green actions.  It could have been the guilt for sins past that I felt, but I think it was more.  It was the feeling of wanting to make a difference, no matter what the cost that drove me.

I found that it took continuous baby steps, or mini projects if you like, to stay focused on lowering my carbon/environmental footprint, and it is a method I still use to this day.  Once a project is complete, (I only do one at a time which must be a man thing) and I have learnt the basic skill, I maintain that now embedded behaviour and start looking for the next challenge or project.

All of the above doesn't mean that I am a perfectionist or have found the holy grail of "greenness".  Far from it.  After three and a bit years, I still have an office job, I still commute each day, and I know that I will not be about to grow enough food, generate enough electricity or harvest enough rainwater to be self sufficient.  Self sufficiency is difficult to do alone.  Just look back a few hundred years to see that even a small village had people with many skills living in it, who all helped each other out to survive.  Self sufficiency is more for your Survivalist types (there is nothing wrong with being a Survivalist).  I am convinced that a strong, well skilled and resilient local community is the key to surviving future events, like climate change and peak oil.  A community who can and do grow some or all of their own food will be able to trade amongst each other for a fair price or exchange of labour, and able to survive better than being in isolated out in the sticks.  They will also be able to trade surplus to other towns and communities and suburbs.  Look I know it sounds a bit medieval, but I am afraid that the reality is, that without cheap sources of energy, it will be difficult to maintain the suburban lifestyle that many of us lead, without major changes.  However, I digress and sorry for the rant.

Other things that keep me focused are events like this unwarranted personal attack, whereby people challenge my beliefs in a very nasty and anonymous way.  Narrow and shallow minded people, hell bent on growth at all costs, and not being able to see the bigger picture like you enlightened readers.  This makes me even more determined to prove that it is easy to lead a sustainable lifestyle and in the process, increasing my overall happiness, which is exactly what I have found to happen.

However, the ultimate motivator is the thought that the steps I take will hopefully ensure that we have a habitable planet for my four children, the oldest being 22 and the youngest being 10, and for unborn generations to follow.  As global emissions targets are debated at Copenhagen, it recently struck me that the two important years that keep getting discussed are 2020 and 2050.  In 2020 I will be 55, and in 2050, 85 years old (if I make it to that ripe old age).  If we don't act now to combat the impending climate chaos, I will most probably live to see the tipping points.  I know that my children will definitely see either further deterioration of climate stability, or with my motivation, help and guidance, be integral in being part of the solution for change and its ultimate success.  This is what motivates me on a daily basis.

So, with all of those ways to keep green, keen, and focused on the road ahead, I don't think that my journey will ever end any-time soon.  It's not like I am going to get bored or anything like that!  One thing I have learnt so far on my green travels is that you must take time to saviour the little things along the way.  What I mean by this is simple pleasures like eating your first home-grown tomato that actually taste like the tomatoes you remember when you where a child and to watch your own children enjoy them as you do.  The very first omelette made with eggs from your well cared for chickens.  The joy of a full rainwater tank after a long dry spell, and actually looking forward to energy and water bills because you know that they will be as low as the belly of a tiger snake!

I find that keeping my lifestyle green and keen is easy if you take time to plan every now and then, and by visualising your personal goals foremost in you mind.  Enjoy the journey, as you travel towards your destination, because it is all about the journey, and when you don't think you are doing enough, just pause and reflect upon the path travelled so far.  You will probably find that you have come a very, very long way in a relatively short period of time.  Give yourself a pat on the back and celebrate the journey once in a while.

Go ahead.  You deserve it!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Sew Your Own Christmas Wrapping

From Amy at

Here's a repost from my blog, but perfect for the season, I think! You could start making a few of these this year, adding some each year and eventually phasing out disposable, expensive paper wrapping altogether! It's an easy, satisfying project; have fun!


I'd been meaning to make reusable cloth bags to put Christmas presents in, but it took a girlfriend showing up with piles of fabric and initiative to finally get the project off the ground!


Luckily we have two sewing machines, so Rachel and I were able to work side by side making tons of little cloth bags to hold Christmas presents. She chose a variety of Christmas-y prints, while I limited my palette to red and white.

Christmas bags3

I used French seams on mine to make them a bit more durable and also to give the insides a nice finished look. Once I got into a groove I was able to crank out quite a few!


There were huge quilted ones, tiny striped ones and plenty of plain red ones made of sturdy duck cloth. I opted not to do a drawstring or anything, for simplicity's sake. I'm a ribbon hoarder, so we have plenty of lovely ribbons to tie the tops. I can't wait to see them all stuffed and under the tree!


Crafting Christmas decorations

by Francesca

I bought our first artificial Christmas tree five years ago. It wasn’t an impromptu purchase: I’d already decided on it 11 months before, when, as had happened every year, our Christmas tree once again died before I could transplant it. I’d always bought trees with a root ball, planning to transplant them after the holidays, but I only succeeded once, and even that lone survivor died inexplicably several months later, during the summer. And in my part of the world, a dead Christmas tree creates waste: it produces minimal firewood, and you can’t compost it very easily unless you own a proper shredder.

At first, my husband objected to the idea of an artificial tree, saying he’d miss the natural feel and scent of a real tree. And although, living at the edge of the woods with three kids coming in and out of the house all day, I feel like I’m spending most days trying to keep nature out of our house, I could see his point: the Christmas season is also about celebrating the dormant and yet living nature around us. But the idea of not killing a tree every year did appeal to him, and eventually we struck a balance between nature and, well . . . the unnatural (aka a plastic tree).

Nowadays, when we decorate our house for Christmas, in addition to our artificial tree, we also cut a few boughs from the local umbrella pines and drape the hearth with them, or hang them like wreaths on our doors. It never ceases to amaze me how long these branches stay fresh: they continue to emanate their fresh, green, aromatic scents for weeks. And whereas our old Christmas trees, which had roots and soil, would hardly survive until the end of the holiday season, despite regular watering, these fresh-cut boughs never seem to die.

In the past month I've been struck by the simple, creative ways that other bloggers have found to use nature to decorate their houses for Christmas. I've asked a few of them to share their projects in this space (all photos by the authors).

Trinsch, a Danish mom of three who lives in Israel, used a red wool sweater that was mistakenly put into a hot wash and got felted, to make felt hearts, and decorated a striking branch for the holiday season. I'm fascinated by the contrast between the red felt hearts and the stark, bare branch.

I love how Nicola salvaged some wood from fallen eucalyptus trees at her daughter’s school in Northern California and used it for crafting. Among other projects, she used the eucalyptus bark and a repurposed glass jar to make this amazing Bark Vase.

In cold and snowy Poland, Isabelle, who is French, made a wonderful garland by stringing mandarin peels together with pine cones she'd bought at a local market. It’s a garland that grows, because her family of four adds the peel of each mandarin they eat to the garland - until they use up the last of their pine cones!

Gardenmama in rural northeastern US used beeswax to craft sculpted figures and candles. She also made these beautiful beeswax ornaments, and in her tutorial she describes the intense incense-like aromas they gave off during the making.

I was very inspired by these handmade ways to decorate our houses for the upcoming holiday season, which turn simple, natural and repurposed materials into beautiful, artistic decorations.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Surviving Everyday Mishaps

by Lynn of Viggies Veggies

The road to self-sufficiency is littered with failures. I know that not because I'm looking back from the vantage point of my vast experience. But because I'm at the beginning of the road where everything is new and easy to get wrong.

Like this morning when the sun came out and I went to clear the thick layer of snow and rain (now ice) that had accumulated on the cold frames. I know they say they don't make things like the used to, but I can tell you for certain that doesn't apply to glass! Luckily in this case the plants had frozen in our extreme cold that came with our first snow anyway (-20F with windchill!) so I'm not losing a crop...and I have a spare window so can fix this when it warms up a bit.

Coldframe mishaps

This is the point in your life where you really develop your sense of humor. Because you are going to fail. Spectacularly. And often. That's part of the process of learning so many new skills, experimenting with new ideas, and pushing limits as you go. Like during my attempt at cloning tomato plants. The one in which I didn't thoroughly clean the tomato cuttings taken from my garden and ended up re-homing a thriving colony of aphids into my living room, who proceeded to quickly kill the plant.


Or during my indoor growing experiment when I learned that my kitten LOVES greens. Going so far as to eat my bush beans WHOLE!!!! That's certainly not something you expect to happen. I thought it'd be easier growing indoors in a controlled environment without all the pests. In reality I introduced my poor innocent plants to two giant cat pests who love to nibble and dig.


And those are just the recent ones I have photographic evidence for!

What have I learned from these types of disasters? To enjoy the process. To love learning. Even the part that involves learning from your mistakes. Not to stumble over the unexpected. And that even if your failures aren't very funny at the time, it will be hilarious when you tell everyone about it later. And hopefully while they are laughing, your audience will learn a little something from your mistakes as well.

Friday, 11 December 2009

The Art of Dish Arranging

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I was introduced to the art of dish arranging at an extremely young age. My mom started me washing the dinner dishes when I needed to stand on a kitchen chair backed up to the sink. I'd wash, she'd rinse, and I'd watch as she'd put each item into the dish drainer to drip-dry. As I stepped down to a mere stool, I took over the rinsing and stacking while my younger sister washed. By the time I was standing on the floor, I'd begun perfecting my technique.

Dish arranging techniques are individualized visions. Trying to dictate how another arranges dishes can lead to resentment, discord, and outright rebellion. It's far better to allow each to develop his/her own style than to risk losing the services of a dishwasher completely. Even though I cringe when unloading a dish drainer my husband has arranged, no way am I going to say a word. He must be free to follow his own path.

I prefer an orderly approach - plates lined up, graduating down in size, from the far end of the drainer (while at the same time allowing enough space for any pot and pan lids to slip in at the very end to allow for the protruding handles). Bowls, on the other hand, start from the right, graduating up in size. Mugs align alongside the bowls, and glassware, according to fit and drip range required, either on the pegs or with the mugs. Table flatware goes handles down in the nearer hanging bin section, cooking utensils and paring knives (handles up) in the farther one. Judicious arranging of serving bowls and cooking pots above allow for everything to fit while preventing anything from retaining water.

Automatic dishwashers also require dish arrangement expertise, but their very design dictates much of the process, and stifles the creativity and flexibility only available in a well-stacked drainer. I've had very limited experience with automatic dishwashers. There wasn't one in my childhood home (why get a dishwasher when she already had five of them, my mom always said). I was 16 when we moved to a house that did have one, and I left home at 18. Not a one of the various rentals I lived in after that had one, and neither does our home now.

That this is far from the usual state of affairs nowadays was brought home to me very vividly a couple of years ago. My sister and family were visiting for Thanksgiving, and after a day spent in the kitchen and a wonderful meal, we decided her teenage sons, my nephews, should do the washing up. It was a bit of a shock when we realized they had never in their lives faced a sinkful of dirty dishes - a life lesson lacking up until then. They were given a rudimentary lesson and then left to develop their own techniques. It was only right, after all. Dish arranging is a personal quest. By this year, they had the basics down, and are well on their way to realizing their own artistry.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Secrets of Chocolate Crinkle Cookies

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

I was taken unaware by the Christmas spirit this past weekend when we got a 6" snowfall, a bit early for this part of the world. We threw on our lined jeans and layered up to go cut our tree at a nearby tree farm while the snow fell. To carry on with that holiday theme once we were back inside, I decided to bake a few chocolate crinkle cookies. After posting the photospread for the day on my own blog, I had a couple requests for the recipe. And since there's a trick to these cookies that I'd like to share, I decided to bring it here to the Co-op for a wider venue.

These are not cookies that you can whip up from start to finish on a moment's notice. The dough must be chilled rather thoroughly before baking. Most recipes you find for these cookies if you just google for it will tell you to chill the dough for three hours before baking. That's certainly a good start. But to get the full effect of the dramatic appearance of these cookies, there's an essential extra step; one that's little mentioned in the recipes I've run across either online or in print. After chilling the dough, I scoop the dough onto a baking sheet and freeze the dough solid. Once the dough is frozen, these do indeed become spur-of-the-moment treats. You can put the frozen chunks in a plastic bag and then reach into the freezer for however many cookies you feel like baking at a time. The dough will keep for two months in a frostless freezer, longer in a chest freezer. But read the recipe below carefully if you want the cookies to turn out as beautiful as they are delicious.

Chocolate Crinkle Cookies


1/2 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder (~55 g)
1 cup sugar (~190 g)
1/4 cup cooking oil (~53 g)
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup all purpose flour (~100 g)
1 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. table salt

For topping: about 1/4 cup powdered sugar (aka confectioner's sugar)


Combine the cocoa powder and the sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the cooking oil, eggs, and vanilla extract and stir well to produce a homogeneous mixture. Add the remaining ingredients except for the powdered sugar. Stir again until the dough is consistent throughout. Cover the mixing bowl and chill the dough in the refrigerator for at least three hours and up to 24 hours. (The dough will be very soft and spread far too much if shaped without this pre-chilling.)

Scoop the dough using a small ice cream scoop or two tablespoons, forming rounded balls of dough. Arrange them, tightly spaced, on a baking sheet and freeze them until solid. Remove the frozen cookie dough from the baking sheet, place them in a plastic bag, and keep frozen until you feel like baking some.

When ready to bake

Preheat the oven to 350 F/175 C. Put the powdered sugar in a bag or plastic food container and either grease your baking sheet or line it with baker's parchment. When the oven is up to temperature, remove however many chunks of cookie dough will fit on your baking sheet and put them directly into the powdered sugar. Working as quickly as possible, close the bag or container and shake it to thoroughly coat the cookie dough chunks with sugar. Remove the chunks one at a time, making sure each one is well coated with powdered sugar, arrange them on the baking sheet, and get it into the oven very quickly. (NB: If the dough is allowed to sit at room temperature, either before or after being coated with powdered sugar, the sugar will become damp and the appearance of the cookies after baking will be muddy brown rather than a stark contrast of white and black.)

Bake the cookies for about 10-12 minutes. They will expand as they cook, producing a festive cracked appearance. Bake just until the chocolate areas of the cookie lose their very wet sheen. They should still be fairly soft, though you can bake them longer if you want to produce a crisper cookie. The softer version of these cookies will fall slightly after being removed from the oven. Allow the soft version to rest for three minutes before removing to a cooling rack. Get the crunchy version off the baking sheet as soon as they're out of the oven.

The yield from this recipe depends very much on the size of the cookies you make. I typically double this recipe and end up with about four and a half dozen medium-sized cookies. This is a dairy-free vegetarian recipe, so I believe they can follow any meal in a kosher household. Although very easy to prepare, they also draw lots of remarks in a holiday cookie exchange. I hope you enjoy them!

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Making Sustainable Purchases

by Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

I strive to be sustainable, because I don't think it's worth it to my self, my family, my culture, nor my world to be anything less. Sometimes the moment strikes and overpowers my senses and I want to forget my values, but at those moments I think of the past, the present, and the future.

As beings on this planet we have a role, and that role is not to destroy everything. As beings in a family we have a role, and that role is not to leave one another in more debt that we can overcome. As an individual living my own life I have a role, and that role is not to work myself into poor health or to live a life unsatisfied.

For me, sustainability is an all-encompassing term that includes:
  1. Economic Sustainability
  2. Socio-Cultural Sustainability
  3. Personal Sustainability
  4. Environmental Sustainability
It's about lifestyle, it's about life choices, and it's about the past, present, and future. It's not something you can throw out of your life when it's inconvenient, it's something that sticks with you through every decision you make throughout the day.

Purchasing decisions are just one part of the sustainability lifestyle, but they're an important part. When we purchase things, those things come from somewhere and someone - probably a whole lot of someones - got all the materials together, made it (or grew it), transported it, stored it, transported it again, displayed it, and then sold it to you. And when we purchase that item, we are purchasing all that product's history and sustainability (or lack thereof). That makes us responsible.

So how do we make sustainable purchases? Here are the rules in our house - we follow these in order, more or less:
  1. Do you Really Need it? Do you need it at all, or is it something you could live without? Can you reuse or repurpose something you already have? Maybe you have an old one in the garage that could be fixed up nicely (with the bonus of adding a repurposed/reused charm)? Or can you borrow it from a neighbor, friend or family, or even make it yourself? Also while we all need food, starting a garden will mitigate what you have to buy - you can grow vegetables year round. Plus when you start that garden, don’t buy seedlings - grow them from seed, and then save your own seeds for next year!
  2. Buy it (or Barter it) Used. There is no need to bring more stuff into this world if we don't have to. So whenever possible, we buy from used bookstores and clothing stores, thrift stores, antique stores, libraries, etc. Even better, barter and borrow with your friends and networks.
  3. Buy Locally. Drive as little as possible to get the item, and buy it from a locally-owned and -operated business. It’s even better if the business makes the products locally, or has a local source for them.
  4. Buy Fair Trade & Fair Wage. Buy the item from a manufacturer that pays its workers an honest wage. AND buy from a business with good business practices. If you have a choice, go for the business that gives back to the community, pays its workers well and gives them health insurance, and has good customer service. You may even find a business that has been built with sustainable building practices, and has taken steps to reduce its daily carbon impact.
  5. Buy Green. This means different things to different people, but essentially, minimize the impact the item has on the environment, including the materials used to produce and package it. That includes recycled, reused, organic, biodynamic, etc.
  6. Buy it to Last. Think twice about going cheap and easy. It’s no good for your pocketbook or the environment if you have to throw away an item when it breaks or looks ugly in a year or two, and then you have to buy another one. Instead, buy something that will last 5, 10 years - or better, a lifetime. For furniture, look at used furniture and antiques - what you find may cost the same as an item from IKEA, and it will last long enough to hand it down to your kids or your friends or someone in need. If you can’t afford good quality, wait a few months and save up to buy a good quality product that will last. In the long run, it will cost less in time, money, and environmental impact.
Remember: Cost includes the amount of money you pay for an item, as well as what the environment and society pay for that item.

What About You?

Do you make sustainable purchases? What rules does your family use when making purchases? Will you consider adding some of these other components?