Friday, 8 October 2010


by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Southwestern, Tex-Mex, Mexican - the cuisine of the US southwest goes by many names. Tortillas, salsas, and chile peppers are much more likely to show up in the markets in other parts of the country now than in the past, and everyone has now heard of burritos, tacos, and refried beans. Many folks are familiar with green salsa or chili verde, but incorrectly assume they're made with green, aka unripe, tomatoes.

Those green soups and sauces are made with tomatillos (toe-ma-TEE-yos). The confusion is understandable. The word "tomatillo" looks like it could mean a kind of little tomato. Instead, the tomatillo grows inside a green husk, somewhat reminiscent of ground cherries or Chinese lantern plants.

For a gardener, the annual plants are easy to grow. I start a couple of seeds inside in early spring, the same time I start my tomato, pepper, and eggplants, and set them out after the last frost (they can be direct-seeded, but start out so tiny that I find it easier to start them inside. They'll also volunteer if you don't clean them up well in the fall). Once established the plants will thrive despite abuse that can kill other, tenderer, crops. They're drought-tolerant, but lots of water just makes them grow even faster. The light frosts in early fall won't faze them, nor will summer heat. Mine have never been bothered by bugs, critters, or disease. They do take up a bit of space - they're a sprawling, almost weedy-looking plant. I set out two plants close together, allowing them a space at least 4 feet square. They're quite prolific too - two plants provide enough for the two of us to use fresh in summer, and to can for winter soups and enchiladas.

Seeds are easy to come by, especially if your local market carries fresh tomatillos in the produce department (or start with some ordered from a seed catalog and then save your own seeds after that). With a fresh tomatillo, tear off the husk, cut the green fruit in half, squoosh the inside seed-carrying flesh onto a piece of paper, and set it aside to dry (incidentally, the same way I save tomato seeds - that soaking and fermenting in water is completely unnecessary). The seeds are much smaller than tomato seeds - more like eggplant's. When the paper is dry, the seeds can then be picked off and planted right away, or the paper folded up and tucked into an envelope to wait until Spring planting time.

To pick tomatillos, just lift up the sprawling branches and feel for heavy fruits that completely fill out the husk. For the best flavor, harvest when the husk and fruit inside are both still green. If you leave them until the husk dries out and the fruit inside turns yellow, they're still edible but too sweet. Harvested when the fruit inside just fills the husk, unwashed and unhusked fruits will keep a month or two just piled in a basket on a cool, pantry shelf (not refrigerated or in plastic).

To use fresh, pull off the husks and discard, then wash the round fruits inside (they'll feel a bit sticky). For salsa, dice or puree, along with roasted chile peppers, garlic, onion, and cilantro. They're also one of the easiest items to can (tomatillos on the left, above, jalapeno jelly on the right) for later use. Just barely cover dehusked and washed whole tomatillos with water and bring to a boil. Simmer 20 minutes, or until the fruits are soft. While they can be canned whole, I use a potato masher to smush them into a lumpy sauce. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars, adding 1 teaspoon lemon juice to each pint. Leaving 1/4 inch headspace, seal, and process 30 minutes in a boiling water bath.

My favorite way to use canned tomatillos is to make a big batch of chili verde: pork cubes browned with chopped onion and garlic, add cumin and oregano, water or stock, chopped roasted and peeled chiles to taste, and a jar of tomatillos. Simmer until the pork is tender, and serve in bowls with tortillas or corn muffins on the side. It's even better the next day - try it smothering a scrambled egg and potato breakfast burrito, topped off with a bit of cheese. ¡Muy sabroso!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Quick Herbal Bug Bite Salve

by Chiot's Run

Several years ago I read about the wonders of Broad Leaved Plantain, a "weed" that grows everywhere. It's also known as: Bird's Meat, Common Plantain, Great Plantain, Rat-tail Plantain, White Man's Foot.

I have it growing all over the gardens here at Chiot's Run and I'm quite happy about it. It comes in very handy when I'm out working late and get bit by mosquitoes or if I get stung by a bee.

All you have to do for a quick salve is grab a leaf or two, chew them up and apply them to the bug bite. I often do this while I'm out working if I need to, but I prefer to make a poultice with some baking soda as it stays on better and I think it works better. (as with all wild plants, make sure you know exactly what you're picking & using!)

What I usually do is take a few leaves, cut them finely, add a pinch or two of baking soda and a little water. Then I grind them to a wet paste in my mortar & pestle and apply to the bug bite. It instantly works to get rid of the itch or sting and keeps it coming back.

This salve is also very beneficial for using on cuts and scrapes, I often add some turmeric and comfrey when I'm using it for this purpose as turmeric helps with inflammation and pain and comfrey speeds healing.

Plantain has medicinal uses of all sorts: bites, cuts, scrapes, rashes, skin problems, intestinal pain & issues, worms, boils, bronchitis, coughs, colitis, hemorrhoids, diarrhea, dysentery, vomiting, bed wetting and incontinence and many other things (for more info read this and this). I have yet to use it internally, but I use it often for bug bites, stings and cuts. I'm trying to make plantain oil for using medicinally. Since it's an herb with no known side-effects I definitely want to try using it more often.

Have you ever used plantain? Do you use herbs/weeds for medicinal purposes?

I can also be found at Chiot's Run where I blog daily about gardening, cooking, local eating, beekeeping, and all kinds of stuff. You can also find me at Not Dabbling in Normal, and you can follow me on Twitter.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Please don't can like Grandma

by Throwback at Trapper Creek

Canning and home preserving in general is making a huge comeback. And many times we turn to the past for guidance. Or better yet, Grandma is still alive and happy to gift you with her canning supplies that were so important to her in the day. Here is where it gets touchy.

1940's - 1950's era aluminum food mill.

Grandma wants to pass the torch, which many times can be wonderful. And while you can heed the warnings about old canning time tables and methods, you can use newer guidelines for longer processing times and safer methods without hurting her feelings, not using her favorite food mill may spark a little resentment. Many times Grandma wants to know that you are using her tools that meant to so much to her in a earlier era. Some relics are best delegated to display only. For instance anything made from aluminum that will come in contact with your foods, such as pots and pans, food mills, and funnels. Especially high acid foods like applesauce, fruits and fruit butters, and tomato products, which just so happen to be the most popular foods that people can.

High acid foods will react with the aluminum and impart a metallic taste to your food, and maybe some discoloration. You have to figure since you can taste it in your food, you're ingesting it and since aluminum has been linked to many diseases from Alzheimer's to cancer it best not to use it. Look for non-reactive tools for your canning efforts.

You can still honor Grandma by accepting her advice, and displaying her antiques, and buying yourself some new preserving gear that will last your lifetime. Stainless steel is a wonderful substitute, and will last a long time and become the new heirloom for you to pass on to your family. Happy canning!

Saturday, 2 October 2010

This Journey Is Like Learning To Knit

By: Notes From The Frugal Trenches

I think, when I started out on this journey, I thought it was going to be flip flops and applesauce - also known as having more time to do things I love (like wear flip flops) and learn the skills to make things (like applesauce). Oh how wrong I was! For me this downshifting, simple living has at times not been so simple, although it has certainly been memorable and mostly humorous too! There have been many mistakes, teary days, joys and a whole lot of frustration. It has at times, felt all too easy to be misunderstood and some days, living a life which felt far too different from the norm; I've yeared to be part of the simple living, homesteading, crafting posse but didn't have the land or crafting skills to make that happen. Finally, I documented here sometime earlier this year that I was going to simply take my time to get to where I want to be, with no self-induced pressure, no time lines, no stress and what do you know, suddenly it became a little easier. After what seems like years trying to learn to knit, making mistake after mistake (most of which I had no clue how to repair!), starting and re-starting, switching patterns and getting a whole slew of advice, I just decided to knit and knit and knit, adding in a few rows here and there, in my very own style, with no set pattern, all in my own time. Slowly but surely it got easier and over a period of about a month my first real knitting creation was born (pun intended); suddenly I was filled with renewed hope.

Life is a journey, finding the simple, green & frugal lifestyle that is right for you in your particular season can be bumpy, it can be a bit like one step back two steps forward (although sometimes it feels like one step forward two steps back!) and we'll each succeed (at what success is for us!) in our own way, in our own colours, with our very own stripes, in our own time...and let's just say, this knitting gig is here to stay!

Did you ever have a moment where you realized just how far you'd come on your journey? If you are a knitter, what was your first knitting creation?

Friday, 1 October 2010

Buying Organic

Posted by Bel
from Spiral Garden

Ideally, we would produce almost all of our own food, but in reality, we're still buying grocery items and some produce each week to feed our family. There's a whole checklist of criteria when shopping for the family - local, organic, less-packaging, no additives... Never before has something as basic as feeding the family required so much research and thought.

Certified Organic grocery items – food, home and personal care items – do not contain residue of the harmful chemicals that the EPA considers to be carcinogens (60% of all herbicides, 90% of all fungicides and 30% of all insecticide). These chemicals are designed to kill living organisms. In humans, they are implicated in cancers, birth defects, nerve damage and genetic mutations. Not only are our families at risk, but our country’s farmers, their families, their neighbours and all living creatures around farms are also at risk.

Certified Organic products are not only made without the use of synthetic chemicals and irradiation, they are also GMO-free and don’t contain harmful preservatives or artificial ingredients. Children are particularly at risk from these residues, processes and additives because the levels of safety are set at an adult level. A study of young children in New York showed that those who didn’t eat organic food had over 300 different chemicals in their urine. Those who did eat organic had about 12. It’s what’s missing from Certified Organic products that make them good for you.

Our bodies absorb significant amounts of what we put on our skin, in our hair, and brush our teeth with, etc. It is estimated that the average Australian adult is exposed to 126 chemicals through their personal care products, every day. If you are concerned about the chemicals your family are absorbing through their skin, you can reduce the number of products you purchase, opting instead for a few old-fashioned basic options, and you can also seek out Certified Organic products through your supermarket, pharmacy or local health stores. After switching to more natural alternatives for awhile, most people find that the highly scented, chemical-laden products no longer appeal to them.

Australia’s organic industry is regulated the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). Professional Certification bodies are responsible for certifying products as organic or biodynamic. Look for the certification logos on organic grocery items to know that growers and producers have fulfilled the stringent certification requirements. Imported products will also carry Certified Organic logos recognised by their own country and approved by AQIS.

It is legal in Australia for products to carry a brand name or description “Organic” without actually being a certified product or even in any way more natural or less harmful than other products on the shelf. In the case of a bottle of shampoo, for one example, a tiny percentage of its ingredients may be botanically derived, yet the label can legally imply that the shampoo inside is “natural, organic, herbal, botanical”. The only way to tell if you’re eating or using a certified organic product is to a) grow or make it yourself from 100% Organic ingredients or b) look for the AQIS-approved logo on the packaging. There is a push for truth within labelling, and it is expected that the use of the term “Organic” will be more limited on Australian products in the future.

Buying organic is also a blessing for the environment. Industrial farming uses more fossil fuel than organic farming because the energy required to produce artificial fertilisers and other chemicals outweighs that used in tilling, cultivating, harvesting crops and transporting and refrigerating products. Organic farming prevents soil erosion, promotes biodiversity and keeps water clean. In practice, it nourishes the soil, which nourishes the plants and animals that nourish our bodies. Simple.

A lot of families would love to buy Certified Organic, but believe that the cost is prohibitive. Buying organic allows us to support a true economy. Conventional grocery prices don’t reflect hidden costs borne by taxpayers, including federal subsidies. Other hidden costs include pesticide regulation and testing, hazardous waste disposal and clean-up, and environmental damage. Isn’t it easier to spend our dollars doing things the right way, and avoid those hidden costs?

Our family also finds that a lot of organic food is more nutrient-dense and therefore we eat less of it. One example is a 375g pack of Organic Wholemeal Spelt Pasta. Our children enjoy this pasta because it actually has substance and flavour, and in our large family, this small packet goes a lot further than a 500g packet of white wheat pasta from the supermarket. It is true that I will pay more than twice as much for the organic product, but for me, the numerous benefits outweigh the extra cost.
There are various lists suggesting the items to buy organic, here is one example of six important food products from a large Australian supplier Organic Oz:

1. Apples
2. Bread
3. Carrots
4. Baby food
5. Dairy food
6. Rice

Of course there are the other issues of food miles, additives, packaging and so on. How important is it to you that your food and other grocery products are Organic? Do you find labeling confusing? Please leave a comment and share your thoughts and experiences.