Thursday, 8 December 2011

Silver linings

By Aurora@Island Dreaming

The UK is heading full tilt into another recession, not that it feels, for most people, like the last one has actually ended. We are warned daily of the possibility of the collapse of the Eurozone, on the need for austerity, on the consequences of high unemployment, high inflation, a 'lost generation', riots, civil unrest, a 'lost decade', or even permanent decline. Where once you would read of these things only in peak oil and select 'doomer' forums, these concepts are being trotted out before our very eyes in mainstream newspapers and news programs. There was even a lighthearted comment piece on stockpiling (and why it might not be so dumb and reactionary) in one of our broadsheets this week.

I know that many of us would have seen these events looming on the horizon and have been exasperated every time a politician or economist stood up and said that the turbulence of recent years was caused by 'black swan events' or 'unforeseeable circumstances'. Whilst the joys of a simpler life are self evident when you have actually adopted that life, the other upside is that you are exposed to the reality of a world intent on cannibalizing itself. When you begin to pay off your debts, reduce your consumption and start to take care of your own little patch of earth, the din of those around you running in the opposite direction is deafening.

One of the silver linings of all this, is the number of people who are starting to turn in our direction, whether through necessity or by choice. Some will rally hopelessly against the new limits being imposed and stretch every sinew to maintain what they see as their 'standard of living'. Others will hopefully start to look instead, in the absence of material goods and perhaps increasingly for many, material comfort, for the contentment  that can exist beyond those things.

I occasionally check in on Facebook and more so in recent weeks, because the nature of the comments and status updates have changed. I haven't changed my friendship group, but the nature of the comment feeds has definitely improved for the better in my eyes. Where once there were reams of updates about shopping, clubbing, needs, wants monthly overspending and excess, I  now see lots of references to home baking, to gardening, to making Christmas presents this year instead of buying. There is even the odd beer brewing comment. There are groups of friends getting together to knit, to fund raise, to cook.

This is reassuring for someone who has always felt a little out of step with the majority of her friends and acquaintances. It is keeping me sane through some tough times, that the response to this newest crisis is slightly more creative than the response to the last one.

Where are you finding your silver linings these days?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Curing Olives At Home

written by Gavin from The Greening of Gavin and Little Green Cheese.

I have been wanting to try this for years, ever since I tasted home cured olives for the very first time at my mate George's house when I was about 12 years old back in my home town of Loxton in South Australia.

I have three very small olive trees and I have yet to produce any of my own fruit.  They are just not mature enough.  Combined with the fact that I just love olives whether they be green or black, I just needed to get my act together and give it a go.  I have noticed many places around our town that have olive tree laden with fruit, and they were just sitting there going to waste, which seemed like a crying shame to me.  What to do?

Well first I had to learn to cure olives before I approached anyone for their surplus.  So when we visited a country farmers market (Talbot Farmers Market), I visited the olive man and asked him if it was easy enough to cure olives.  He rambled on a little but I got the gist of it, and it was enough to whet my appetite and seek other curing recipes.

I purchased 1kg (2.2lb) of Sevillano Olives and took them home.  After a bit of research I found that there were a few ways to cure olives, one in brine, one in water then brine, and one in lye.  I chose the one in water and then brine method as the Sevillano olives are mostly green all the way through, even though they look black, which is a bit deceiving for a beginner like me.

So here is how I went about curing my olives (click to enlarge photos).

Firstly I disregarded any with bruises and blemishes and threw them in the compost bin.

I separated what I thought was the green from the black, as the recipe calls for different soaking times.

Next I used a sharp knife to make a cut lenghtwise on opposite sides of each olive to quicken the soaking process.  Try not to cut into the pip.  The soaking process removes most of the bitterness from the fresh olive, and anyone who has tried to eat a raw olive will attest to its horrible bitter taste.

So in clean and sterilised spring clip jars, I placed the black and green olives (black at the back and green at the front jars).  Then you simply fill each jar to the brim with tap water and then clip down the lid.  By ensuring that some water leaks out when you clip it down it is fairly certain that all the olives are entirely immersed.  Change the water every day, which is easy with this type of jar.  Just release the tension on the clip and drain the water.  Then fill up again to the brim with tap water.   The recipe I used said that you soak black olives for 4 days, and green for 6 days, however I found that both were too bitter still for my liking and discovered that the black ones were really green olives in disguise!  I soaked mine for 14 days until I was happy that most of the bitterness was gone.  If you get a little bit of scum on top of the water some days, don't dispair as this is normal.


Above is the final olives and you can notice that during the soaking process the blackness of this type of olive turned green.  So on to the next stage, which is the brining.   

I added two thirds of a cup of salt to 2 litres (~2qts) of water and heated it until disolved.  Then transfered to a pyrex jug to make it easier to pour into the jars.

Fill your jars up with brine to just covering the olives. 

Some may float still, so to make it impervious to air and stop any mould from forming, cover with a little olive oil.  About 1 cm (half an inch) will suffice, enough so the oil is a single layer floating on top.

Then seal the lid with the clip.  I left about 1cm clearance so that there was no spillage when I sealed it.

My recipe called to leave these jars for 5 weeks.  After the waiting period that they are ready to eat.

Back in late May, I was invited to a friends house to pick some olives that she had an abundance of.  Kim and I picked a big 4 litre icecream container full, and I used a different method to cure these ones.  I made a brine with about 10% salt and soaked the olives for just over 5 weeks, changing the brine once a week.  I started to taste them at the 4 week mark and found that after 5 weeks the bitterness was starting to abate.  Just before six weeks were up, I made up a final 2 litres of brine, added two tablespoons of vinegar and bottled them up as the photo below.  To seal them from the air, I poured over a layer of olive oil, which you can probably make out.  They taste delicious after the six weeks, but but were much better after eight.

So how did my first set of olives go?  They taste so good that Ben and I finished off this small jar of olives shortly after this picture was taken!  I am very impressed with the flavour.

I have never tasted anything so fresh before.  Apparently they can store for up to six months like this in the brine, but they last even longer if stored in olive oil.  I don't think that they will last that long.

Next year, I will ask around and barter for a 10kg bucket of olives from friends and see how we go from there.  Until next olive season.  Just love those fresh olives!

Monday, 5 December 2011

Red, Red, Red Beef

Well, who can believe it's December already? It seems to come around faster every year.

Last year I 'hosted' my first Christmas - my husband and I were married last year, and we also moved into our first own home, so having family to stay with us and being able to cook for them was lovely! We're hosting my side of the family this year, so I'm in full planning mode once again.

It's easy at this time of year to survive on snack food and canapes at parties, and to supplement that by opening the inevitable boxes of chockies you receive from friends, neighbours, colleagues and other well wishers. So that by the time December 25th rolls around... the last thing you feel like is cooking and eating a giant turkey and plum pudding with all the rich trimmings that accompany them!

I've found being organised and planning is the key to enjoying December. This is probably nothing new. But I make a real effort to have at least 4-5 good, healthy meals planned for the following week, so I just shop for those meals in my weekly shop. It means I don't spend more than I need to, we waste barely anything, and we always know what's for dinner that night, so there's no 5pm despair. This isn't an original idea, and it may be simple, but it can make a real difference - and your body will thank you for it.

This week I have a simple beef casserole with lentils for you. It's a great healthy weeknight dinner if you're home early enough to allow for the cooking time, and if not - it's a nice comforting
meal for Sunday nights. Here in New Zealand, it's almost getting too warm for casserole these days, but Northern Hemisphere readers may appreciate the recipe!

Red, Red, Red Beef

600g beef, diced (I used rump steak, but chuck or blade steak would also be good, not to mention economical)
cooking oil spray
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 courgette (zucchini), sliced
1 cup red wine
2 Tbsp flour
1 Tbsp red curry paste
1 Tbsp tomato paste
2 cups beef stock
1 Tbsp dried rosemary, or a couple of sprigs fresh
1/2 cup red lentils (brown also fine)

Preheat the oven to 170(C). If you have a casserole dish that can be used both on the stove top and in the oven, spray that with cooking spray. If not, spray a large frypan to start with. Place the casserole or pan over medium-high heat. Brown the beef in two batches, and set aside.

Spray the pan with a little more oil, turn down the heat a little, and cook the onion, garlic, carrot, celery and courgette until softened. Add the red wine and simmer until the liquid reduces - by about a half. Stir in the flour, curry paste, and tomato paste until smooth. Add the beef stock and rosemary, and bring the mixture to the boil.

If you've been using a frypan, now is the time to transfer the mixture to an oven-proof casserole dish (sprayed with more cooking spray to avoid sticking). Tip: I put my casserole dish in the oven while it preheats, so that you're not putting your nice hot beef into a cold dish and losing all your heat.

Place the casserole in the preheated oven and cook for an hour. Then add the lentils, cover again and cook for a further 30-40 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Season to taste and serve. I served my casserole on its own but it would be yummy with mashed potatoes or couscous, and some steamed greens.

Next time I'll post on something Christmassy, if you need inspiration in the meantime head over to my blog where I have Christmas Cake and other baking and gift ideas. Have a lovely week!

Friday, 2 December 2011

Taking Your Vitamins

by Linda from The Witches Kitchen

I saw an article this week about a study just published, that followed a sample of nearly 39,000 older American women all the way from 1986 till now, and came to the conclusion that "several commonly used dietary vitamin and mineral supplements may be associated with increased total mortality risk". Increased.

It's real science, done by a group at the University of Minnesota. And yet there are hundreds and hundreds of studies that show the disease preventative effect of a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients and major nutrients.

It seems they only work when they are in real food.

It's not a one off either. It led me on a bit of a research binge. A study of 161,808 participants over 8 years in the Women's Health Initiative clinical trials "provided convincing evidence that multivitamin use has little or no influence on the risk of common cancers, CVD [cardiovascular disease], or total mortality in postmenopausal women."

A study of 182,099 participants enrolled in the Multiethnic Cohort Study after 11 years of follow-up found "no associations were found between multivitamin use and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular diseases, or cancer".

And there's a batch of supporting studies of smaller groups.

So why do we spend such a fortune on multivitamins, fish oil capsules, and vitamin enriched food? Why do we go for the breakfast cereal with "added vitamins and minerals" over the plain old rolled oats? Why the bread with "added fibre"? When all the solid evidence is that if you eat a good balanced diet of real food, supplements won't do a thing, and if you don't, they won't do a thing either.

There's good data that Australians spend something like $2 billion a year - $2 billion - on complementary and alternative medicines. Some of it is real medicine, prescribed by a naturopath or someone competent, to treat a condition and there's plenty of evidence for the benefit of that. But the majority is vitamins and supplements people buy themselves, just to feel more secure.

At the same time, at least in Australia, the cost of living is a major political issue, with people stressing about the cost of food, and farmers up and down the Murray Darling river system squeezed by prices that leave them no margin for a long term view of landcare.

And maybe the two are, in a bizarre way, related. It's not a healthy relationship, but the more we worry that the food we are buying isn't the product of loving land care, the more we indulge in superstitious practices we just hope will somehow help.

If I could just get that $2 billion a year and invest it in the Murray Darling Basin Plan, and then in keeping the Liverpool Plains for growing muesli rather than coal seam gas, and then after that in protecting the Great Barrier Reef from fertilizer run off, maybe we would feel happier about the price of real food.

thank you!

by Francesca @ FuoriBorgo

Last month, I announced that I would be writing about the value of food, and ways to reduce food wastage (here and here), topics that are very important to me.  However, I won't be able to focus on them until the New Year, as I'm in the USA with my family at the moment.

We traveled on Thanksgiving weekend, when airports and planes were packed full with people on their way to spend the holidays with family and friends - more people than I ever imagined. I've always liked Thanksgiving - a whole nation (nations, even, as Canada also has its own Thanksgiving day) taking time away from daily life to be together, and celebrate by giving thanks.  So it seems just natural, today, as I'm here in North America, to stop a moment and give thanks to the founder and the co-authors and readers of this blog, from whom I've learned so much.

I've learned new gardening strategies and many frugal living tips, read valuable thought-provoking posts, and just recently, I learned an important lesson:  before concluding that your broken vacuum cleaner is beyond home repairs, ask your community for advice.  Remember my broken vacuum cleaner?  It is now fixed!  We fixed it, following the advice of one of the readers - thank you so much Sarah!

This made me reflect on the importance of the support of a community, especially when on the path to self-reliance and a frugal way of living - how many times have we borrowed tools or sugar from a neighbor?  An online community, such as this one that Rhonda has built over the years, is just as important: we all pitch in, we all share our thoughts and knowledge, and we all grow a little more self-reliant and knowledgable together.

Thank you!