Saturday, 27 February 2010

Consider Kefir

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
I like yogurt. I use it in smoothies, atop fruit and granola with honey, and interchangeably with buttermilk in baking and some recipes. I know how to make it at home, but it's such a fussy process I never do. Keeping it at a constant warm temperature in a house heated with a wood stove (when I light a fire at all) is difficult. Then, you're supposed to start with fresh "from the store" culture every so often anyway. Despite trying to avoid purchasing plastic packaging, if I want yogurt, I buy it from the store.

But a few weeks ago, by coincidence, I found something better. I've been writing about making vinegar and dealing with the mother-of-vinegar culture on my own blog. I got a comment from a reader saying it sounded a lot like making kombucha tea. That same day, I'd just read a magazine article about kombucha too. I was intrigued, and posted a request for a kombucha starter on my local Freecycle network. I received two offers, and made plans to meet with one. When I got there, she also offered to give me some water kefir grains, and some milk kefir grains. Oh boy, more stuff to experiment with! I'm still deciding about the kombucha and water kefir. They take longer to culture, and both need added sugar to work. I don't like the idea of increasing my intake of sugar, so the jury is still out on those.

But I'm already hooked on the milk kefir. I've tasted the flavored stuff you can buy in the store, and I do like it. But it's sooooo expensive, and comes packaged in little individual plastic bottles. So, not something I'm gonna buy. But making your own is so easy - much easier than making yogurt, once you have some kefir grains.

Kefir grains aren't grain. They're a symbiotic combination of good bacterias and yeasts - more of the same kind of probiotics that make yogurt good for you. They've been used for centuries (Marco Polo mentions kefir in his journals) to ferment milk to form a beneficial cultured product. Kefir grains look like little bits of cauliflower, with a squishy texture somewhat like tapioca.

You can't make them from scratch, but once you have some you can keep using them indefinitely. They can be ordered via the Internet, but try what I did and just ask around. Over time, the grains increase in number, making it easy to pass some on to a friend. Added to milk, the culture forms in your home's ambient temperature. They work great for me in a jar on my kitchen counter.

It's also easy to make as much or as little as I need. Each morning, I put the grains into a soap-and-water clean jar and add milk right out of the refrigerator (I use non-fat milk. I've also read that it will work with non-dairy milks, such as soy or nut, but haven't tried it), and put a lid on it. A couple of times during the day, if I think about it, I'll give the jar a little swirl, but try not to get any of the culture on the metal lid. By evening, the culture has thickened to the consistency of store-bought buttermilk, and the grains have risen to the top.

It could be used then, but right now I've been letting it continue to culture overnight (in the summertime, when it's hotter in the house, 8-12 hours will probably be long enough). By the next morning, a bit of whey might start to separate from the culture at the bottom. It's now more the consistency of paint - thick enough to support a plastic straw. You're supposed to avoid contact with metal for the best taste, so I stir up the kefir with a clean plastic straw or spoon, and then strain out the grains.

I have a nylon tea strainer, designed to fit inside a teapot, that just fits inside the opening on a wide-mouth canning band. It takes only a few minutes of stirring and pouring into the strainer to end up with the fresh kefir in a quart jar, the kefir grains in the strainer. Some sources have said to rinse the grains each time, others say it's not necessary. If I were on city water that contained chlorine or fluoride I might not rinse mine. But we're on a well with good water so I rinse the grains a bit in the strainer under cool running water. Dumped into a clean jar, I either start the process again for the next day, or the grains will keep, covered with a bit of milk or cream and stored in a covered jar in the refrigerator (the woman I got them from had kept them for a couple of months that way, and they revived, no problem).

I like refrigerating the kefir then, later mixing it 50/50 with any kind of juice, making a flavored beverage just like the ones you buy in the little plastic bottles, for an afternoon snack. In the blender with frozen fruit, it makes a great smoothie. I've used it as a substitute for buttermilk in baking recipes, and drizzled it plain over granola and fruit. Plain, it's a bit sweeter than yogurt - not quite as tangy. Left to culture as long as I let it, the texture can feel a bit "ropey" in your mouth to just drink right out of the jar. It's not as solid as yogurt, and won't form much "cheese" if left to drain. But it's sooooo easy, and good - I'm definitely happy with this discovery.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Comfrey: Wonder Plant

by Kate
Living The Frugal Life

I'm posting one from the archives of my own blog today, in anticipation of planting season in the northern hemisphere. If herbs or perennial plants are on your mind for this year's garden, this one's for you.

Image originally posted by Buttersweet

I rarely cheerlead for products or services, and I don't think I've ever promoted a particular plant before. But today I'm going to discuss the many merits of comfrey, because it's both extremely valuable in the home garden and also little known.

Comfrey is an herb native to wide swaths of Europe, long known for its soothing medicinal properties. Many over-the-counter skin ointments and natural remedies include this herb for its healing qualities. One of the effects of comfrey when applied topically is to increase the rate of cell division, so that wounds and burns heal more quickly. A woman in my area posted an advertisement last year looking for fresh comfrey. She had a skin condition that hadn't responded to any treatment she had tried. She used some of my Bocking 14 comfrey to make a tea that she soaked her arms in and later told me that the comfrey helped more than anything else had. She just sent me an email asking if my comfrey had any leaves up yet this year. Comfrey also reduces inflammation, swelling, and irritation. If you enjoy home remedies or making herbal salves, comfrey would be an excellent addition to your garden.

There's an ongoing debate as to whether or not comfrey can be safely consumed, even by animals. Old herbal books in my possession discuss preparing comfrey as a cooked green matter-of-factly. Yet there is apparently some level of toxicity for the liver, both in humans and in animals. I am definitely not recommending that anyone consume any part of the comfrey plant. However, some studies suggest that a toxic dosage would only be reached after consuming huge quantities of the leaf or root. Comfrey is very widely used in Japan as an animal fodder, without any ill effects, evidently. And I have spoken to several homesteaders who regularly give small quantities of comfrey leaf to their chicken or duck flocks and even to pigs. I myself have fed my laying hens fresh comfrey leaf about once a month in modest quantities, and also use it dried as a winter feed supplement when fresh greens are scarce. The chickens absolutely relished the stuff. Since comfrey leaves are very high in protein, this isn't surprising. I never observed any detrimental effect on the hens after feeding them comfrey leaves.

But comfrey has yet other virtues beyond healing and animal fodder. Comfrey is a bioaccumulator plant whose long roots mine minerals and nutrients from very deep in the soil. (There are reports of comfrey roots reaching as much as ten feet deep into the ground!) Other culinary and medicinal herbs grown adjacent to comfrey have been observed to contain higher levels of essential oils and flavor than herbs of the same type not grown next to comfrey. Comfrey leaves can be cut and used as excellent green manures for other garden vegetables. The first leaves put out by comfrey plants each spring were traditionally used specifically with the planting of potatoes, to give the potato plants an early boost of nutrition and growth.

Comfrey is particularly known as an excellent companion plant in fruit orchards, especially apple orchards. With its tall and densely growing leaves, it will easily outcompete other nearby plants, reducing the need for weeding. Though it likes full sun, it can also tolerate the shade under fully grown trees. This contributes to its utility in orchards.

Although comfrey will not spread aggressively if left undisturbed, it is quite tenacious once it is established. And if the earth around it is tilled, new plants will grow from broken off fragments of root. If you want to eradicate comfrey from a particular spot, it will likely take some doing. So choose a spot to plant it with care. I have heard tales of gardeners cutting comfrey to use as green manure when planting other crops, only to find that the cut leaf took root and established itself in the new location. I haven't seen this happen [Update: I have seen this happen.], but then I take the precaution of letting all comfrey cuttings intended for green manure wilt in the sun for a few hours after cutting.

Along with its utility as a green manure, comfrey is equally valuable as a foliar feed ingredient. Foliar feeding is a natural form of fertilizing that uses weeds or other plants in a fermented liquid state. Like all anaerobic fermentation, a foliar feed made from comfrey leaves will smell atrocious. But it produces a natural, concentrated liquid fertilizer that can be diluted and applied to the leaves of many vegetable and flowers.

The comfrey varieties I have planted have large, somewhat oval, slightly hairy leaves that grow up to about 36" (90 cm) tall. Near the base of the leaf stalk the hairs sometimes develop enough heft that they become small prickles, much like a summer squash vine will produce. But they are not particularly bothersome if you have gloves. By their second year at the latest comfrey plants put out borage-like flowers for a long time from late spring to to midsummer. They vary in color apparently, but my plants' flowers are purple. Most varieties of comfrey do not reproduce themselves well from seed, but will readily grow from root divisions. There are several varieties of comfrey, all of them fairly hardy perennials. Some varieties are hardy up to zone 3, but most are hardy to zone 4 or 5. The Bocking 4 variety was specifically developed as a green manure, while the Bocking 14 was developed as animal fodder.

This is such a useful plant that I recently ordered a third variety, common comfrey, and plan to divide the roots of each type of comfrey I grew last year. It will allow me to make good use of the shaded areas of my property where very few edible things will grow. Instead, I'll harvest the fertility of those spots and transport it to my garden beds in the form of comfrey leaves. I can scarcely credit so many wonderful qualities packed into this one plant. Comfrey has medicinal uses, can feed livestock, and greatly enhances the fertility of my garden soil. On top of that, it's an attractive plant that has few pests and provides a bit of food for bees. I can hardly think of a non-edible plant that I would consider so essential for a sustainable garden as comfrey.

If the long term fertility and health of your garden soils are of concern to you, look into comfrey! I got my comfrey plants last year from Richters. They have an amazing selection of herb seedlings for those in the US and Canada, and the prices aren't too bad. I only wish I'd ordered some of the intriguing Piss-Off plant!

Update: check out what I learned at the 2010 PASA conference for yet another awesome attribute of comfrey. Just when I thought this plant couldn't be any more impressive, I found out I was wrong.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Do You Love What You Do?

by Melinda Briana Epler, One Green Generation

This weekend I spent a lovely evening with my grandfather and his wife celebrating their 99th birthdays. I shared a bit about it at One Green Generation, and many people wanted to know his secret.

When my grandfather was in the hospital 2 years ago - for the first time ever! - he was asked that very question:

A nurse came in to see my grandfather just before his surgery, looked at his chart (born in 1911), and marveled at his age. She asked him how he lived so long. He thought for a moment and said, “Well, I suppose it’s because I always loved what I was doing.”

My grandfather came of age during the Depression, so he learned early on to be able to adapt to new jobs quickly, juggle multiple jobs, and when you can, move on to something new if you were better suited for it. Every time he had learned all he could, and taken that business as far as he could go, he moved on. And he was able to get through the time “in between” jobs because he was smart with his money: investing wisely (and conservatively), minimizing debt, and not buying things he didn’t need.

What did my grandfather do? Well, I’m sure I’ll miss about half of his jobs, but from what I remember, he: worked in a grocery store, owned one of the first self-serve hardware stores, was a fireman and helped create the first aid car in Seattle, was a private detective for small businesses, was a pilot in the Marines in World War II, was a business consultant, and was hired to gracefully take several businesses out of business. After all that, he started up a Savings and Loan with two others who didn’t know anything about banking either, and brought it to such success that he was flying his own Cessna to other areas where they were set up franchises. He retired at the bank when he was 65 (about ten years before the S & L scandals in the 80s). After retiring he consulted with several businesses, and spent about five years bringing profit to three of my cousins’ businesses. And to this day he still volunteers.

He was also a father of 2, a grandfather of 6, a great-grandfather of 2, and a great-great grandfather of 1!

With everything he does, he infuses it with passion.

Do You Love What You Do?

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Make it From Scratch

by Chiots Run

Here are Chiot's Run we don't buy much manufactured food. Our pantry is filled with dry goods, home canned items, and spices. We make our own pasta, butter, cheese, bread, granola bars, salad dressings and try to stay away from food that contain long ingredient lists, preservatives, artificial colors and flavors, and any weird unpronounceable ingredients.

We occasionally buy pretzels, those big sourdough niblets that have a short ingredient list; the same things I would use to make them myself (we do make soft pretzles at home, but haven't mastered the art of crunchy ones yet). Other than this however, our pantry is devoid of boxes and bags of items made in a factory somewhere far far away.

If you're trying to eat healthfully and avoid preservatives it's much much cheaper to make things at home than buy them at the health food store. It does take some time to learn to make all the different things you enjoy. Sometimes it takes a palate adjustment to learn to like and prefer a homemade version of a store-bought item (like ketchup).

This is something you probably don't want to do all at once. A great place to start is by replacing items in your pantry with homemade versions when you run out. This way you don't waste food you've already purchased, and you aren't overwhelmed by trying to learn to make everything homemade at once. Once you learn and make something a few times it becomes much easier. Start with something simple as well, like homemade salad dressing or made from scratch pancakes, muffins or a cake.

Pretty soon you'll wonder why you ever bought mixed and pre-made items from the store, especially since you'll notice the homemade version taste so much better. Not to mention all that extra cash in your wallet and think of all that packaging you'll be saving from the landfill!!

How much of what you eat is made from scratch at home?

Monday, 22 February 2010

Not just for wreaths

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Maybe you just read Sadge's recent post on grape vine pruning or are coveting a neighbors grapes, or that grapevine you see on your walk in an old vacant orchard gives you a sly look every time you pass by. This is the time of year to take cuttings for rooting, and bring that special grape to your small fruit orchard.

I know grapevines are abundant in catalogs and garden centers, but propagating your own is a skill that will stand you in good stead. It's fun, easy and a very inexpensive way to get more plants. This tutorial is about grapes, but the process is the same for other small fruits like currants, gooseberries, and kiwi, just to name a few.

Now is the time to take hardwood cuttings of last year's growth. If your neighbor is pruning his grapes he will have an abundance of trimmings that will be headed to the craft room or compost pile. Just ask. It only takes a stick or two to make a new grape vine.

Items needed:
Grape cuttings
Sharp Pruners
Large nursery pot with drainage holes
Well rotted compost or potting soil
Pencil or clean stick or dowel
Positive attitude

Bored dog

A rooted cutting from last year.

Your cuttings will root and put out new growth over the course of a year and be ready to plant in a nursery bed or row by the next spring.

Grape vine prunings, make sure you only keep last year's growth for your cuttings.

Well rotted compost works well for a rooting medium. Or native soil will work with a little sawdust mixed in to ensure that the soil will hold some moisture. You don't want the cuttings to drown or dry out - strike a happy medium.

The process isn't as boring as he makes it seem... .

All the vines look dead at this time of year, if it is confusing, look at the cut end - if you see green, the vine is dormant and you're good to go, if it is brown, discard it, it is a dead vine.

To discern the top from the bottom, look at the buds - the buds grow up, not down.

Angled cut at the top of cutting.

I like to have 3 buds per stick for my cuttings. Top, middle and bottom.

Starting at the bottom of your pruned vine, make a straight cut about 1/2 inch below the first bud. Count up three buds. This will be the top of your cutting, make a 45 degree cut about a 1/2 inch above the bud. That bud at the top is where the new growth will appear. The angled cut helps the cut shed rain, since this baby grape vine to be will be outside for a year, rain or shine.

Move up to the next bud and make a straight cut about a 1/2 inch below it. If you make straight cuts on the bottoms and angled cuts on the top, it helps you tell the top from the bottom. Continue in this manner until you have made all the cuttings you will need.

A handful of cuttings. Plan on at least 50% to make it. You may get more, and maybe a little less. If more root than you need - a plant you propagated from just a dead looking stick makes a great gift for a gardener or foodie. A little provenance never hurts, a gift of an heirloom grape vine can be more meaningful than one purchased at the home improvement store.

Here is where the pencil or dowel comes in. You need a dibble to make a hole in the soil to stick the cuttings. Insert your dibble, make a hole.

Insert the cutting at least half way into the soil. The roots will form in several places along the stem under the soil line, as long as the soil is kept moist.

After your cuttings are stuck, water them in. Place your pot out of full sun, and in a place where you won't forget to water it. Most gardeners have nursery area like this. Come spring you should see the buds start to push and grow. And hopefully underground, the roots are doing the same. By mid summer it will be apparent if the cutting has rooted. Resist any temptation to pull out the cutting to check on the progress. Instead, watch the leaves on the new growth - if they wilt and die, the cutting did not root, if they are growing along, your cutting rooted.

The rooted cuttings should stay undisturbed until at least fall. At that time you could re-pot them or just leave them until planting time the next spring.

Happy propagating!

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Menu Planning with Leftovers ($70 a week menu plan with ethical meats)

Eilleen (Consumption Rebellion)

Pizza ingredients. Photo by J Colman
Hello everyone!

Well, its been awhile since I posted here at the co-op. A combination of things really - time, net problems and conflicting priorites. I have been reading here though! And its good to finally be back contributing to this blog again.

I've been noticing many of the food related articles here lately. I particularly enjoyed Kate's "Going Meatless" post and can relate to many of her (and readers') views regarding the consumption of meat. Like many readers here, I try to buy free range and/or organic meats when I can.

When people in my day-to-day life find that I buy free-range and/or organic meats many of them often ask me how I can afford it. And when I tell them that my weekly grocery budget is about $70 a week, most are postively shocked.

So I thought I'd elaborate on how I menu plan and hopefully this will give you ideas on how to either incorporate your values into food consumption and/or cut your grocery bill too.

Some things about me first - my menu plan is to feed 3 people - my two children (aged 5 years and 7 years) are big eaters (as well as very very active) and so I've learnt to count their meal portions the same as mine. My daughter and I are the more adventurous eaters. My son is not adventurous at all and takes some coaxing. As a result, I have learned to keep "adventurous" meals down to maybe one meal a week or to keep it to one side dish a week.

My food values are this - cocoa products (coffee, chocolate etc) must be fairtrade as I can not abide by child-slavery. All my meat products must either be humanely raised and killed OR organic.

So here is what I do:

1. At the start of the week, I look at *any* leftover food in the fridge or pantry and make ONE meal from leftover ingredients in the fridge or pantry.

2. Write down 1 other dinner that I would like. Write the ingredients for that meal.

3. Review the ingredients for that meal and now write down another meal that uses many of the same ingredients from that first meal - eg ingredients for a stew are often very similar to say a stir-fry or savoury pie. Repeat till you have 4 dinners. What you should now have is a list of meals that allow you to buy ingredients in bulk.

4. Review all dinners and ingredients for the dinners and see if you can expand the ingredients to include lunches and breakfasts - eg. if the ingredients for 4 dinner will use up "6 eggs" and you know that you probably will buy a dozen eggs, then you know that you probably have enough to make omelettes for at least 2 breakfasts or 2 lunches. By doing it this way, you can now buy in bulk with a purpose (as opposed to buying in bulk but never really using it all up).

5. Write down any other ingredients you may need for the breakfasts and lunches.

6. Now that you've written 4 dinners and (hopefully) 7 breakfasts and lunches, you should now review what you can do with any of the leftovers from the above. (Think of it as a "Masterchef challenge" :P). I've found that by having 4 dinners, 7 breakfasts and lunches, then I can always come up with atleast 2 more meals using leftovers.

7. And so that makes 6 dinners, 7 breakfasts and lunches AND the 1 dinner using just existing ingredients in the fridge/pantry.

8. (Optional tip) If you are in the habit of getting takeaway (food to go), then PLAN that in your menu plan!! You would be surprised how many people actually throw away leftovers from their takeaway food. When the kids and I splurge on takeaway (the Ethiopian restaurant near us has a GREAT takeaway menu), I plan any leftovers from that too.

So, as you can see, I put a lot of emphasis on leftovers. When I first started this journey, I found it difficult to incorporate leftovers. That was for 2 reasons:

1. I didn't have the skills to think about leftovers creatively.
2. I didn't recognise "leftovers" to begin with - that is, I didn't know I was wasting food - I just thought it was "normal" to throw it away.

To address my first reason, I started slowly - just using vege leftovers to make one side dish instead of a main meal etc - nothing really flash, just little "experiments". The more I did this, the more confident I became with how to do it. And the more confident I became, the more creative I got with cooking. I tried not to beat myself up with mistakes either!! If it didn't work, then I learned from it and tried to not make the same mistake next week. Remember its not a race!!

For the second one, I have to admit this came as a shock to me. I didn't think that I was wasting food at all until I met up with people who used every bit of food they had. If I had not met amazing people like these, then I would probably not realise how much I can "extend" my food.

Here's an example of what I do to use up every last bit of food...

Night 1: Make roast chicken. My roast chicken has a stuffing consisting of 1 chopped tomato, 1 chopped onion, garlic and soy sauce.

Day 1: Have leftover roast chicken sandwiches - include a bit of the stuffing as part of the sandwich.

Night 2: Using what should now be the carcass of the roast chicken, make chicken stock. Set aside any leftover stuffing. After making chicken stock, it time to throw away the bones. (Eat something else ;) )

Night 3:
Using the chicken stock, make rice. When rice is just about cooked through, use the leftover stuffing to flavour your rissoto even more. Add any other ingredients for your rissoto (hopefully the ingredients are also leftover ingredients from other meals).

So the leftovers from the roast chicken meal ended up becoming 1 lunch and 1 extra dinner - that's 3 meals using pretty much the same ingredients!

Now, prior to me seriously menu planning, I would've made roast chicken and then *maybe* used bits for a sandwich BUT I would've thrown away the carcass and the leftover stuffing thinking I couldn't do anymore with it. But as you can see, its possible to actually make more meals with it.

Anyway, I hope you can see now why my grocery bill is as low as it is. If you have any questions, or more ideas on how to get your grocery bill down, then please let me know! (I can always improve).


Some great sites you may want to visit:

- helps you with a menu plan! You choose your tastes and they give you recipe ideas, complete with a list of ingredients at the end to print out and use.

Love Food, Hate Waste
- lots of food facts, including what expiry date/use by dates mean, lots of recipe ideas for leftovers, and portion control.


I hope you have had a wonderful weekend!

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Recipe - Pork and Shrimp Pot Stickers with Orange Ginger Dipping Sauce

Posted by Thomas from A Growing Tradition Blog

making potstickers 8
If I were to write a cookbook one of these days, this would probably be one of the first recipes to make it into the manuscript. I have to admit that I am very proud of this one. I have been making these pork and shrimp potstickers for many years, but only recently decided to jot down proper measurements. Hopefully, some of you will decide to give this recipe a try.

Pork and Shrimp Potstickers Recipe

1 lb ground pork
1/2 lb diced shrimp
1/2 cup carrots, finely diced
2/3 cup chopped scallions
2 cups cabbage, sliced thin
1/3 cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup chopped wood ear mushrooms (reconstituted in warm water) or fresh Shitake
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup tapioca starch (or cornstarch)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

70 Chinese white dumpling wrappers (purchase the round ones, which can be found in the refrigerated section of the Asian market)

making potstrickers
1. Combine all of the ingredients into a large bowl and mix thoroughly.

making potstickers 2
2. Fill a small bowl with water and set aside. Working with one wrapper at a time, place about a tablespoon of filling into the center. Brush the exposed edges of the wrapper with some of the water.

making potstickers 3
3. Begin folding the dumpling in half by pinching the top of the wrapper to form a crease.

making potstickers 4
4. Lay the dumpling flat on your palm. Using your thumb and index finger, pinch a bit of the wrapper below the crease and drag it to within 1/2 inch of the top. Pinch again and drag this bit to within 1/2 inch of the last one. Repeat this several times until you've created 4 or 5 pleats on one side of the dumpling.

making potstickers 5
5. Turn you dumpling until the loose seams point upward. Take your wet pastry brush and lightly drag it across the seams.

making potstickers 6
6. Again, using your thumb and index finger, press the moistened seams together until the dumpling is completely sealed.

making potstickers 7
What you end up with is a dumpling that is crescent-shaped and scalloped on one side.

making potstickers 10
As you can see, this recipe makes quite a bit - anywhere between 65 and 70 potstickers. To freeze them, I put the whole tray into the freezer. Only after they are frozen solid do I place them into freezer bags. This prevents the dumplings from becoming one solid mass.

The perfect potsticker is one that is crispy on the bottom and slightly chewy on top. To achieve this perfection, the dumpling must first be fried and then steamed, a process that is easier than it sounds.

7. In a non-stick frying pan, heat 2 or 3 tablespoons of canola oil on medium heat. One at a time, add the dumplings until they fill the pan. (If you're unsure about which size pan to use, count the number of dumplings you plan to serve and then choose a non-stick pan into which they will all fit snugly, touching one other, and in a single layer. Also, you do not have to defrost the dumplings first. They can go straight into the pan from the freezer.)

8. Fry on medium heat until the bottoms are golden brown. Once they've reached this point, add enough water to almost cover the dumplings. (I would say that the dumplings should be covered by 3/4's of the way up, leaving the pinched tops exposed. Adding too much water will cause the wrappers to become overcooked.)

9. Cover the pan and raise the heat to medium high until the water boils rapidly. Then lower the heat to medium and cook until most of the water has evaporated (about 10-12 minutes). At this point, pay very close attention as you want to cook the potstickers until all of the water is gone and the bottoms are crispy again (another 5 to 7 minutes). They can burn very quickly once all of the water has evaporated so don't leave them unattended. When they are done, uncover and shake the pan a bit to loosen the potstickers. You can remove them individually or invert the pan onto a serving dish.

Orange Ginger Dipping Sauce Recipe

1 teaspoon of canola oil
1 tablespoon of ginger, finely minced
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 cups of orange juice (if you are using fresh oj, add 1 teaspoon of grated orange zest as well)
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/4 cup of soy sauce
2 teaspoons of white vinegar
1/2 teaspoon of dark sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon of ground chili paste (optional)
pepper to taste
garnish with chopped scallions (optional)

In a small sauce pan, heat the canola oil on medium heat. Add the ginger and garlic and stir for about 10 to 15 seconds until the flavors are released. Then add all of the remaining ingredients. Bring the sauce to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer for 10-12 minutes. Let the sauce cool for another 10 minutes before serving.

making potstickers 9
I can't say that this recipe is quick or fool proof, but once you get it right, it's definitely worth the time and effort. Enjoy!

Friday, 19 February 2010


Posted by Bel
From Spiral Garden

It's summer, and one of my favourite things to grow here in summer is the Rosella, or Malvacea – Hibiscus sabdariffa.

The rosella is an attractive bush with dark green sparse foliage and beige to yellow flowers with a scarlet throat. The woody stems of the bushes are scarlet also. It is native to West Africa and prefers a warm climate.

Plant the seeds around March in the tropics, so long as it’s not raining so much that the seeds will wash away! In sub-tropical and temperate areas, plant at the beginning of the warm season. Sow at least 50cm apart as the bushes reach up to 2 metres in height.

Rosella leaves, also known as Red Sorrel are edible and useful in salads, stir-fries or steamed.

Abundant hibiscus flowers attract beneficial insects to your garden. After the petals fall away, pick the rosella fruit for use in the following recipes before the seedpod inside turns brown. You will get a few harvests of rosellas during each season. Harvest when the calyxes are plump and juicy to get the best results in your cooking.

Rosella Cordial
rosellas (whole)
citric acid

Harvest a large quantity of rosellas. Wash and two-thirds fill a saucepan with the fruit. Cover these intact rosellas with water and bring to the boil. Simmer until soft and the red colour has faded from the calyx. Strain the red liquid and throw away all fruit and seeds etc. For every cup of this red liquid add a cup of sugar (a litre of liquid = a kilo of sugar).

Heat gently until all sugar is dissolved, stirring continually. Take saucepan off the heat source and add the strained juice of lemons (approx. 3 lemons to a litre of syrup). Stir in two tablespoons of citric acid (optional, improves keeping quality). Pour into clean, dry bottles and seal while hot. This keeps for a long time in the fridge, and may be stored in the pantry. This cordial makes a delicious pink drink enjoyed by adults and children alike. We mix with soda water for birthday parties, freeze in ice-block moulds, or drink as a refreshing cold drink in summer. Recipe originally from Green Harvest.

Rosella Jam
1kg rosella husks
1 litre water
2kg sugar (I use organic raw sugar)
or any 1:1:2 ratio of these three ingredients

Remove husks from rosellas and discard seeds etc. This is time-consuming and can be a little prickly, but worth the effort! Weigh the husks. Boil these with an equal amount of water for about 10 minutes. They should be very soft. Add the sugar slowly over a medium heat and stir well. Boil for around 20 minutes. Test the jam on a cold saucer – can place into freezer to cool. When it is cool, it shouldn’t run off the saucer when tipped up. Pour into sterilised jars, seal and label. This keeps well and is like no other jam available - sweet, tangy, perfect texture and a deep red colour.

Rosella Tea
Remove the outer fleshy husks of each rosella. Discard seedpod and stem. Dry in a slow oven or dehydrator until fully dried. Store in an airtight jar. Rosellas are the main ingredient in the popular red zinger teas and taste wonderful with a little dried or fresh lemon grass. This tea keeps for a long time without losing colour or flavour and is a great source of Vitamin C.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

The Green Life With A Reading Addiction

By Notes From The Frugal Trenches

When I first became more environmentally conscious and decided to make major changes in my spending, both by spending less and by committing to spending on quality local, fairtrade etc, it occurred to me the one worry I had was my addiction to books - the last time I looked there were no fairtrade books available yet! For a few weeks I worried and fretted and then little by little I began to see there were many ways my new commitments could be adhered to, even with a pretty significant reading addiction.

The first thing I did was stop purchasing my daily papers. To ease into the transition, I allowed myself to purchase a weekend paper but the rest of the week I read the papers online! I have to say, the transition was incredibly easy - I so enjoyed my weekend treat and found incredible resources online through blogs, websites and forums that in many ways opened up my world all the more!

Next I dusted off the old library card, which was used about once a month previously and I committed to going to the library each week to look for new books I'd like to read. My local library, sadly, doesn't have a very large selection however I have found some gems there, read some books I would not normally have read and learned to wait patiently for others :)

I then did an inventory of all the books I had, and shame on me found quiet a few I'd never read. I kept the books that were favourites, those which would be needed for smallholding and donated the rest to charities. Boy did that feel good :)

Finally, I found out about local book resources, like a free book cycle program in my city, book swaps online, second hand book sellers and charity shops.

Now, if I come across a book I'd really like to read instead of jumping to buy it I

  • really examine if this is the right time to read the book - a bit of a need vs want check, although yes ultimately reading is a want (only just!)
  • check my local library
  • have a look at local charity shops
  • ask friends and people in my reading groups
  • check online groups or stores for second hand sales that are within my reading budget
  • put the books on my "wish list" for Birthdays and Christmas
  • accept it may take a month or even a year to find a book, but accept it and enjoy the wait :)

And what am I currently reading? Animal, Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and I'm re-reading Fall On Your Knees by Anne Marie McDonald.

How do you cope with the desire to learn and read with the frugal, simple and green life? What are you currently reading?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Cognitive Dissonance

by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin.

Back in September last year, I wrote a post about this subject.  It around this time in my journey that I felt a little burnt out from all the environmental and sustainable living activities I had been undertaking and were continuing to volunteer for.  I had been doing all of this work in the community, with little outcome to visibly show for it and was beginning to feel that I was the only person, besides a few friends that I knew, that actually cared about any of the big issues that were facing us.  I was totally wrong of course, because when I attended the yearly Walk Against Warming in my city three months later, over 40,000 like-minded people joined in to show support.  My spirits were also buoyed by the overwhelming and global uproar that the Copenhagen COP15 conference caused, even though the outcome was not the best for the planet.

Looking back, this term aptly described my state of mind about other peoples actions that I saw everyday when I was at a low, and how I felt just before my own green epiphany;

Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. The "ideas" or "cognitions" in question may include attitudes and beliefs, the awareness of one's behaviour, and facts. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, or by justifying or rationalising their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

So my two contradictory ideas that I held simultaneously in my head, that were causing me an uncomfortable feeling;
A.  That we are on the cusp of a global emergency, with a changing climate, resource depletion, overpopulation, and the end of cheap oil, and obversely,

B.  Everywhere I look around me, everyone was going on about their business as if there was nothing wrong and everything is smelling like roses.  Even the global recession was over, so many commentators said (which I didn't believe for a second and I was right about).
Was it just me with this battle going on in my brain?  Some days I felt like my head was going to explode, because everything I believed to be true about these issues constantly manifested themselves in events I could see around me and read about everyday.

That was last year, so I don't think this way any more, well not as often as I did.  I have come to realise that cognitive dissonance is the first stage of awareness about an issue, and although it is very confusing for a while, you suddenly realise that these massive issues are not all full of doom and gloom, but are filled with hope and opportunity.  I now accept that everyone are at different stages of understanding, and that those of us who have a better understanding of these issues better can assist others in seeing the bigger picture. Some won't accept what you are telling them, but the majority will take it as food for thought and research further.

Thinking of the worst case scenario only paralyses people (and yourself) with fear, and you fail to act.  By describing a message of hope and a better life without loss of lifestyle, it is an easier way to engage others and keep them interested in the simple changes you have made yourself.  It took me a while to figure this out, but hey, I have always been one to learn from my mistakes (eventually). 

I have found that when I talk about my lifestyle at work in a positive way, I get far more interest than if I had started telling people about the big issues that face us.  It is in this manner that I have influenced the most people without them even realising it.  They are motivate and happy as they change to a simpler way of living.  Gardening always seems to be the easiest subject to talk about, and then I supplement the conversation with how I prepared the harvest, what I cooked, and how I preserved the surplus.  It brings a smile to my face when my work collegues tell me how their veggie patch is thriving and growing, and then they ask for more tips to save money and simple changes they can make.  It is great fun to share experiences other than just those at work, and bringing in home made cheese to sample always helps stir up interest!

So, take hope if you are feeling cognitive dissonance right now, as it will pass as you learn more.  I suggest that you don't ignore it, but act upon it.  Seek out others who can help you understand the issues in a realistic way, and can explain to you why simple living has so many other benefits other than saving you money.  Take my fellow writers and all of our readers on the Simple, Green, Frugal Co-op for instance.  I have never had such pleasure in sharing thoughts, ideas, and experiences with such a wonderful group of people.  The simple fact that this blog is visited by thousands of people each day gives me the biggest boost of hope that we are providing a valuable service to the global community.  Simple, positive actions break down cognitive dissonance quickly and then you know that you are heading in the right direction, this feeling disappears and fades away. 

Have you ever had environmental cognitive dissonance, and how did you react to the opposing thoughts or ideas?  We would love to hear your experiences via a comment.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Chronicles of a new garden: the beginning

by Francesca

This year I have to start a brand new garden. I had a hard time wrapping my head around this fact, but it's necessary: last year all but a few of our crops were devoured or stomped on by deer, which were introduced in the area some years back, and have reproduced at an astonishing rate (I posted about this here, and here). Previously, the only four-legged threat to gardens, orchards and vineyards in this area was wild boars, so we'd surrounded our vegetable garden with a 1-meter-high fence: wild boars don't jump. Deer, however, jump magnificently – a lot higher than 1 meter. After much consideration, we decided that building a new 3-or-more-meter anti-deer barrier on our rented land didn't make much sense. So the only solution is to relocate the garden, and start all over again.

The plot I've chosen is a thin strip of terraced land directly behind our house. It's naturally protected on three sides by steep drywall terrace walls and thick vegetation, and will only require fencing on one small side. Hopefully it will be close enough to the house to keep the deer at bay.

The primary requirements for a garden are water, good sun exposure and adequate size (soil quality and drainage can be improved with some work).

I mention water first because using drinking water to water fields and vegetable gardens (lawns are virtually unknown hereabouts) is frowned upon. Fortunately, it isn't necessary: there's an old irrigation system that supplies spring and rainwater to much of the hillside, and I'll be able to water our future garden by running a hose from the nearest spout.


Sun exposure, however, is more problematic. An ideal garden should be oriented east-west and have a southern exposure. Our terrace is oriented east-west, but it's just north of the house, and lies in its shade for the better part of the winter. Not ideal. The good news is that I'm a wimp when it comes to gardening in cold and windy winter weather, anyway, so I won't lose much gardening time. But, I wonder whether my beloved perennial herbs will survive the winter in the cold shade. We'll just have to wait and see.

Adequate size is the real problem. The terrace is, in fact, just a fraction of what we've had until now. Well, less for the deer to eat, I tell myself, should they find some clever way of breaking and entering. But I am hoping that, despite the radically reduced dimensions of our garden, I'll be able to bring more vegetables to our table this summer than I did the previous one.

I'm starting the work on this new garden now. Although it's a little too early in the year to work the soil, there are a lot of preliminary chores to take care of, so that when the time comes to start hoeing, everything else will be ready.

I'll be chronicling the progress of setting up and tending a new garden in this space.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Changes that Shape our Future

by Lynn at Viggies Veggies

I spent a long time being the sort who put in my time at work, came home to an easily prepared or packaged meal, and flopped down in front of the TV for the evening. Needless to say urban homesteading has been a wee bit of a lifestyle change for me. Although I made the decision to be more self-sufficient in fall, the changes that I needed to do in my life started a little over two years ago.

That's when I got teased by my boyfriend at the time about not eating much meat. I got really defensive when asked if I was a vegetarian. That night I got to thinking about my diet. Was I getting enough protein that way? Was I eating well at all? The next day I woke up, requested Becoming Vegetarian from the library, and never ate the same way again. TV started slowly getting phased out as I learned to cook (and realized I actually liked vegetables) and I spent evenings searching for healthy recipes and whipping them up. I learned about flylady and started implementing her routines to use my time efficiently.

When I moved to this house over a year ago in October, I set up the TV and couldn't get any channels. I just smiled at the uncooperative screen and knew this was the way my life was going anyway. I hooked it up to the DVD player for a little entertainment on the weekends or on cold winter nights and felt that was more than good enough. The extra time earned by giving television shows up completely sent me looking for new opportunities to improve my life and set goals. I turned back to my flylady routines and updated them to include taking care of my critters, gardens, and cooking from scratch.


Isn't it funny how 3 changes worked together perfectly to prepare the way for the new lifestyle needed on my little city farm? Was there a defining moment (or a mini series of events like mine) in your life that shaped who you are today and why you strive to live the way you do?

Saturday, 13 February 2010

The Well-Mannered Grapevine

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
A grapevine can be a wonderful addition to your permanent landscaping, and to your food supply. But this is not a relationship to be entered into lightly. Grapevines are remarkably long-lived. A deep taproot both protects the plant through a wide range of weather conditions but also means moving an established plant is not advised. Research what varieties do well in your area (including susceptibility to local diseases), think about how you plan to use its produce, and take a long, hard look around for the best place to put it.

Grapes are not for those seeking instant gratification either. Patience is needed, as it can be three to four years before you see your first harvest. In the meantime, careful shaping and pruning will set the stage for bigger and better crops in the long run.

I've seen many an arbor, cracking under the weight of an unpruned grapevine. Underneath, in what could be a lovely shaded spot on a hot summer day, is a spider-haven thicket of dead branches; the grapes, if any, are small and bitter - left unpicked, they can contribute to mildew and other diseases. A well-mannered grapevine, on the other hand, takes only a few hours spread out over the season to maintain. Thoughtful planning, training, and pruning can turn a scary nook into a valuable asset.

I have a red seedless Reliance grapevine, now almost 20 years old - initially chosen for its ability to withstand our frigid winter temperatures and still bear reliably. Each year, I harvest around 50 pounds of grapes - enough to eat fresh for months (Reliance does very well in cool storage - bunches spread out on trays in the cellar will hold at least until early December), some frozen whole to use like blueberries, and the rest dehydrated into about 20 pounds of wonderful raisins. Planting it on the east side of a chain link dog run provided the growing vine with support, welcome shade inside the dog run (used as a chicken brood pen), and makes it easy to wrap with a long piece of netting to protect my crop from the birds.

I need to get out there now to prune away last year's branches. I trained this grapevine into a four-arm kniffin, the best shape for the expected vigor of this particular variety, the type of support I was using, and the best use of the leaves for shade. Other shapes may be more appropriate for how you'd like to use a grapevine in your landscaping. Here is a good overview of the various pruning styles, plus getting-started instructions.

I did make one mistake in the earliest days of growing my grapevine. The four arms are supported by loops of old pantyhose tied to the fence. I didn't notice that one of the arms had woven itself in behind a piece of the chain link until a couple of years too late. Although I weave each year's branches through the fence for support during the season, they are cut back close to the arm, to a single bud late each following winter. Eventually, I'll have to either cut this arm back to where it loops behind the fence, or figure out how to unravel the chain link up enough to free it. I keep putting off doing either. I don't want to destroy the dog run, and this particular arm is the strongest one of all four. Plus, it wraps around the south end of the dog run, providing much-needed shade inside at the height of the summer heat.

It's best to start training your grapevine early, and keep up with it annually. But if you've inherited an overgrown mess, don't lose heart. Start by trimming the dead wood underneath away - anything that doesn't show a layer of green beneath the bark is dead. Cut back to green wood, leaving a bud or two to sprout in the Spring. It's best to prune grapevines when they're dormant, before the sap starts to rise in the spring, before or after the coldest part of winter. If your grapevine is severely overgrown, you might want to make this a 2-3 year project. The end goal is to have only a framework of support arms; each year's fruiting branches removed before the next year's growth begins. Allowing air and sunlight to reach every part of your grapevine will produce better, tastier crops and lessen disease.

I also have a 3-year old Golden Muscat just getting started in front of my deck. The first year was mainly devoted to getting a good root system established - the growth clipped back to a few inches above the ground the first winter. The second year, the main trunk was clipped when it reached the final height I wanted. Last summer, I started training two arms, one going each direction, where the main trunk tops out. This next year, I'll train those two arms to wrap around the outside of the deck, tying them to each post as they grow. I'll be able to wrap netting over and around the deck railing when my plant starts to fruit, and it will provide a privacy screen for the deck. I might even make my own dessert wine some day. Is a grapevine in your future?

Friday, 12 February 2010

Valentine's Day on the Cheap

by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

If you regularly read frugality blogs you'll find plenty of good suggestions on economical ways to enjoy a romantic day with your sweetie. Whatever you do, don't plan on dining out on V-day itself. It's one of the busiest restaurant days of the year, and you're pretty much assured a limited menu, prepared in haste, and served by overworked waiters in a room that has been crammed full of two tops. You don't have to take my word for it. Check out the Waiter's description of the day's horrors.

As you might expect from someone who watches their pennies, I would suggest a romantic evening at home. Get a sitter for the kids, at another location if need be. Maybe plan a bubble bath followed by trading massages for both of you. Then candles or dimmed lights, sultry music, a special dinner with a nice bottle of wine, and a nice dessert.

Oh, you want specifics? Well, dinner is up to you and your tastes of course. But this cherry tart is a dessert that I like to make for Valentine's Day. I adapted it from two of James Patterson's recipes. The filling and crust can be prepped a day ahead for fast assembly. Ideally of course, you'll have cherries frozen or canned from your own trees, but I sure don't have those yet. Frozen cherries work pretty well, and I have often added blueberries to bulk up the filling.

Valentine's Day Cherry Tart

For the dough:

10 tbsp. cold butter
½ cup sugar
2 eggs
¼ tsp. almond extract
2 cups flour
½ tsp. salt

For the filling:

1½ lbs. pitted cherries, fresh or frozen
¼-2/3 cup sugar
¼ tsp. almond extract
3 tbsp. cornstarch
2 tbsp. water, room temperature

Slice the butter and place it with the sugar in a food processor with the cutting blade. Pulse until the butter and sugar are creamed and the texture becomes smooth. A ball should form, but you may need to scrape down the sides of the processor. Separate one of the eggs, reserving the white. Add the whole egg, the egg yolk, and the almond extract to the food processor, and process for about 30 seconds, until the mixture resembles cottage cheese. Add the flour and salt and process for another 30 seconds. The dough should now resemble lumpy mashed potatoes. If it looks too dry, add the reserved egg white and process until the correct texture is achieved. Take the dough out of the food processor and form it into a disk on a sheet of wax paper. Wrap it up tightly and chill for at least 20 minutes and up to 24 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Put the cherries in a saucepan and warm over medium heat. As they begin to release their juices, add sugar to taste. If you have sour cherries, you will likely need at least ½ cup of sugar. If you have sweet cherries, start with ¼ cup. In either case, adjust to taste when the juices have been released and some sugar has been added. Add the almond extract and bring the pot to a medium simmer. Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl. Add the slurry in a thin stream, stirring constantly. The juice will first lighten, but then return to its previous color when the cornstarch thickens the juice. Set the pan aside to cool. The filling may be kept tightly sealed in the refrigerator for 24 hours.

Roll the dough out on a floured board to a thickness of about ¼” and place it in an 8” or 9” tart pan, pressing down on the edges to remove the excess dough. Cover the tart pan loosely with wax paper and chill it in the freezer for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Shape the excess dough into a ball and roll it out again to a small circle. (If the dough has become too soft, chill it again until it is manageable.) Cut out one or two heart-shaped pieces of dough with a paring knife or a cookie cutter.

Line a baking sheet with baker’s parchment and place the chilled tart crust on the sheet, with the cut out heart alongside it. Cover the tart with another sheet of parchment and weight it down with rice or beans to cover well. Bake for 10-15 minutes, until the crust loses its wet sheen. The cut out heart should be set but not browned. Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Place the cut out heart on a cooling rack and carefully remove the weighted parchment from the tart crust. Return the tart crust to the oven for another 5 minutes. Take it out and let it cool for at least 30 minutes.

When the tart crust has cooled, set the oven to 375 degrees. Fill the tart crust with the cherry filling and place it in the oven again on the lined baking sheet. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until the crust develops a lovely golden color. Remove it from the oven and allow it to cool for 10 minutes. Place the cut out heart in the center of the tart and serve warm or at room temperature.

Finally, to all you romantics out there, remember Amy Dacyczyn's axiom: Candlelight is not frugal if the results are twins.