Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventures in Cake Decorating #1 - Baby Blocks

Here's a flashback to October, when we hosted a small baby shower for some friends. Being a lover of cutely decorated—and more importantly, homemade—cakes and whatnot, I of course was not about to order some pre-made baby shower cake from the store. No! I was going to make something cute myself!

I had the idea to make little baby blocks out of the cake. I baked two rectangular cakes, one yellow, one chocolate, let them cool, iced the top of one and stacked them. Trimming the edges for perfectly flat sides and cutting out cubes was easy enough. (There were a lot of cake scraps leftover, which Len would later use to make a modified version of his mom's trifle for an office party.)

But, I severely underestimated the amount of frosting I would need and had to settle for frosting only three sides of each block—the presentation sides, we'll call them. And, even though I did what pastry chefs would call the crumb coating (a preliminary thin layer of frosting to seal the crumbs to the cake), the chocolate layer of the cake was still so crumby that the white icing ended up looking like cookies 'n' creme icing. Not a huge deal, but not Martha Stewart perfect. (If you search for baby block cakes online, you'll find most use fondant for a perfectly smooth, flat look. I did not want to use fondant and used all soft, butter cream-like icing—way more difficult for handling the individual blocks, but much tastier.)

Before I reveal the finished product, let me just say: If I'd had more frosting and more patience, I would have used more than just three colors for trimming and decorating the blocks. And, if I'd considered beforehand how bad I am at drawing, I would have piped only letters on the blocks, instead of trying to draw things like a cat, a car, a leaf... I know you can't tell what they are. Oh, and the wooden skewers sticking out of the blocks? I made the cake a day in advance and used skewers to hold up the plastic wrap, so I could protect the cake from drying out without smearing the icing. A big enough Tupperware container, if I had the right size/shape, would have been better.

Anyway, here it is, not bad for my first baby shower cake, definitely homemade, and only room to improve:

Friday, December 11, 2009

Global Day of Action on Climate Crisis

I admit this is old news, but I have been meaning to put up a post about it and am just now getting around to it.

November 30 was the Global Day of Action on Climate Crisis. Around the world, activists held peaceful demonstrations against cap and trade, carbon offsets and other solutions to climate change that some consider insufficient.

In Chicago, just a block away from my office building, one of the nine major demonstrations in the U.S. was happening—protesters lay in the middle of the street, arms linked by tubes bearing messages like, "You can't trade away our future," while others crowded around holding signs with similar messages and police on foot and horseback kept watch. In the end, about a dozen protesters were arrested, I assume for lying in the street for too long.

In case you're not clear on these climate change solutions the groups were protesting, here's a quick rundown:

Cap and trade, also known as emissions trading, is when a governing body sets a cap on companies' pollutant emissions. Companies that need to exceed the emissions cap can purchase carbon offsets ("carbon credits"), which represent a reduction in emissions. The company is not actually polluting any less, but it is giving money to companies that are polluting less or to green energy industries, in essence trading for the right to emit the amount of pollutants that these other organizations have ceased emitting.

The idea is that, while individual companies may pollute more or less than the "allowable" amount, overall emissions would average out below the cap. Whether such practices actually reduce the amount of pollutants being pumped into our air and water is yet to be determined. There aren't many statistics yet on the resulting effectiveness or ineffectiveness, and some people—November 30's protesters, for example—stand firm that emissions trading is not the answer to our climate crisis.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Reusable and Disposable Meet Halfway

I think the best way to get your coffee to go is in your own thermos. But for the sake of argument, let's say you don't like carrying around a travel mug or don't want the trouble of another dish to wash. So you get your coffee in a paper cup. While the cup is not recyclable (because of the waterproof finish on the inside), that cardboard sleeve around it usually is. And recycling is great, but reusing is even better. After all, we do have to burn fossil fuel to power those recycling plants. Now, you could hold on to the same old cardboard coffee sleeve and keep reusing it, or you could get a stylin' coffee sleeve made of fabric, like these from Caribou:

They're a neat idea for you paper-cup junkies, and they're easier to carry around than a whole thermos. And I got to thinking, you don't even have to buy one: You could just cut a cuff off of a ratty sweatshirt or sweater, and voila! Instant coffee sleeve, if you don't care much about the stylishness. Or maybe the tops of tube socks around coffee cups will be the next fashion trend...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pie Pumpkins Aren't Just for Pies

It’s easy to forget that pumpkin is really just another kind of squash, we’re so used to it being a dessert food—pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, pumpkin spice latte. But this fall, Len and I have been tasting a full range of rich pumpkin flavors. If you think you don’t like pumpkin, maybe you just don’t like sweet pumpkin things. This seasonal staple tastes quite different under different circumstances, and I encourage you to try some savory recipes before you completely write it off.

Yes, I had the pumpkin latte from Starbucks. We didn’t even wait until Thanksgiving to eat a wonderful pumpkin pie because Len already baked one from scratch. He also made pumpkin bread. And, of course, we carved a jack-o’-lantern for Halloween and toasted its seeds. (And you know we saved some seeds for the garden, but that’s not relevant to food... Yet.) But our first more adventuresome pumpkin dish this fall was a pumpkin and Swiss chard lasagna recipe from I was in love after the first bite. More recently, a friend passed a stuffed pumpkin recipe around the office. Len was skeptical when I first showed it to him, but after tasting it, he has added pumpkin to the grocery list so we can make it again.

Stuffed pumpkin is a centuries-old and easy comfort food. You can make the stuffing very simple with bread and butter, or you can jazz it up with garlic, onions, sausage or fruit. We went simple and got a delicious, soul-warming pumpkin dinner. It could also be a side dish, but it’s heavy, so I would suggest a very simple meat entree.

All you need:
  • A pie pumpkin or any small orange pumpkin (ours was 4 lbs.)
  • A flavorful melting cheese like Gruyere, grated or cut into small chunks (I used a mixture of goat cheese and asiago just because they are what I had in the fridge)
  • Some stale bread, cubed (or some toasted cubes of fresh bread)
  • Cream or evaporated milk (I used about 1 cup for our 4-lb. pumpkin)
  • Seasoning: salt, black pepper, white pepper and nutmeg

Preheat your oven to 375. Cut a lid out of the top of your pumpkin and set it aside. Scrape out the seeds and strings from inside the pumpkin. Lightly season the inside with salt and pepper. Then toss the bread cubes and cheese into the pumpkin in rough layers. Press the layers down a little to really stuff it! In a bowl, gently mix the cream with a little white pepper and nutmeg, then pour it over the bread inside the pumpkin. Set the pumpkin in an oven-safe dish, put its “cap” back on, and bake it for about an hour and a half. The pumpkin will become soft to the touch, and its skin will brown. Take its top off and bake it about 15-20 minutes more, so the cheese inside gets nice and bubbly.

After you remove the pumpkin from the oven, it will keep its heat for awhile, especially if you put its lid back on, so you can serve immediately or let it stand while you finish up any other dishes.

To serve, cut the pumpkin into wedges and serve each wedge scooped with some of the stuffing. The pumpkin’s skin will peel right off. Don’t forget you can eat the cooked flesh on the underside of the lid, too!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Winterizing the Apple Trees

It has been a very busy autumn so far, canning apple butter, freezing pears, sprouting cherry seeds, baking all kinds of goodies, driving through the natural grandeur of northern New Mexico... Plenty of things we haven’t yet taken the time to blog about. We've been percolating blog post ideas, for sure—I've got vertical farms and cat litter (not together) on the brain lately—but tonight, I’m focusing on our apple trees.

Remember the little seedlings we were growing in six-inch clay pots? We've since re-potted them, and here is the largest of the five, standing waist-high in a ten-gallon crock. Another is behind it in the square container. With the onset of colder temperatures and less sunlight, it and the others are losing some leaves, and we will have to protect them from the Chicago winter. Last winter, they were inside the house. They were just babies then, had only been growing since the fall. But now that they have been outside all summer and are getting accustomed to the change in weather, we might actually kill them by bringing them inside. (And I'm not too keen on the idea that they might bring some bugs in with them.) They're big enough to safely go dormant—a healthy thing for a tree to do—but being in the containers instead of in the protection of solid ground, they are vulnerable to frozen roots—a very unhealthy thing. Like, fatal.

So, here's our plan. And, stay tuned for a post in the spring about whether the trees are alive and budding.

The smallest two trees, which are in temporary plastic containers about twice as tall as the six-inch pots and not much bigger around, are staying outside for the winter. The stems, or trunks if you will, are exposed to the elements, but the roots (still in their pots) are safely buried under some nice, insulating mulch. I dug holes for them in the front yard (sunniest and therefore warmest place) against the edge of our porch, behind some bushes, so they are also somewhat shielded from the wind.

The larger three seedlings (or are they saplings by now?) are in larger containers; digging holes big enough to keep them outdoors just isn't practical. These three will stay out on the front porch, adjusting as trees do to the change of season, until they lose all their leaves (meaning they are fully dormant) or temperatures consistently hover around or below freezing (meaning there's a risk their containers could freeze through, killing the roots, so I'm considering them close enough to dormant), whichever happens first. At that point, we will move them into an interior corner of our garage—the idea is to protect them from the wind and the coldest of the cold temps. I have already piled mulch over the dirt in the containers, insulating from the top. But we will also surround each container in layers of slightly crumpled newspaper and an old blanket or two, creating a bundle that will hopefully prevent the soil around the tree's precious roots from freezing all the way through. If we were in a rural or less-packed suburban area, I would just put the trees against a side of the house and pile hay or dead leaves over them as their winter coat. But I think our homeowners' association here would consider that not up to the neighborhood's aesthetic standards. So, newspaper in the garage it is.

You might be thinking that this is an awful lot of trouble for a few little seedlings that won't produce apples for years and even then might produce some weird, inedible variety. Well, maybe it is. But it's a long-term experiment that really doesn't take much of our time or resources, and I'm curious and optimistic. If we grow ourselves an orchard, I'll be sure to invite you all over for picking.

In the meantime, keep your fingers crossed for us, will you?

UPDATE: We have now planted two and are still annually winterizing one of our apple saplings as of Winter 2012-2013! Click here to read a recap of our apple tree experience. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Quick Dinner: Zucchini Tartlets Reprise

So, remember when I made the Zucchini Tartlets and froze half of the filling for later? This morning, I put that frozen baggie in the fridge to thaw, and tonight we had tartlets again. It turns out that this frozen zucchini filling makes a quick and easy weeknight dinner.

All I had to do was open a can of crescent rolls, press the dough into the muffin tin and spoon the pre-made filling into the cups! Throw it in the preheated oven, and we have dinner in half an hour. I did stir the filling well first, in case any ingredients had separated. And, since my filling was still a little icy, I baked the tartlets longer than when preparing them fresh—20 minutes or so. I am pleased to report that they turned out just as good!

Making the filling and freezing it for later might be a great way to preserve your late-summer zucchinis, just when you're getting tired of eating them. Cold weather is on the way, and who knows when you'll have a hankering for that wonderful taste of summer?

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Monday, September 28, 2009

How 'bout them apples?

From our latest tree-climbing expedition...just wait till you see what we did with them!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Crab Apple Butter

Back in mid-August, we harvested 35 1/2 pounds of large red crab apples (sizes ranged from large cherry to near golf ball), and the very same day canned 20 pints (and froze several more) of delicious crab apple butter. From picking to canning, it is a long all-day affair, but I'm telling you these lip-smacking preserves are totally worth it.
Last year—our first year canning anything—we managed only 10 pints of crab apple jam, and it took almost four hours just coring the little buggers (they do have seeds almost as big as regular apple seeds). Because crab apples naturally contain a lot of pectin, the finished product was a thick jelly with little chunks of crab apples. Very tasty, but I felt the process as well as the product could be improved. Since then, we have acquired a cone-shaped fruit and vegetable sieve, which eliminated the need for coring. We needed only to pare off any bad spots we noticed as we rinsed and de-stemmed. In a short time, our 32-quart pot was full—literally full—of all 35 1/2 pounds of our fruit.
Next, we added some water (12-14 cups) and cooked them. And stirred, stirred, stirred. The two bad things about using a pot that big are that you must stir constantly or the bottom will burn and that you have to stand on a chair to do it. On the other hand, it was great to be able to deal with all of the crab apples at once.
Once the crab apples were nice and mushy (doesn't take too long), we starting putting batches through the sieve, to press it into a smooth, seed-free consistency.
The crab apple puree then went back into the giant pot, and we added about five pounds of sugar and six cinnamon sticks. We brought it all to a boil again, stirring constantly as always, to ensure that the sugar dissolved and that any lurking bacteria were boiled out of existence.
All the while, we'd been sterilizing small batches of jars and lids in a pot of boiling water. At last, late at night, we ladled boiling hot crab apple butter into the jars, listening to the satisfying "pink!" of the lids sealing as we waited for subsequent batches of jars to be ready.
If you have a crab apple tree, I highly recommend making some preserves, even if you just whip up a small amount for one jar in your fridge. It's excellent on toast, pancakes, ice cream, PBJ, biscuits...
Our family of preserves: apricot jam, apple butter, crab apple butter.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy Autumn!

Could it be the first day of fall already? The pleasant weather here in Chicagoland definitely shows it.

The summer was so busy, I can hardly believe it's over. At the same time, the temperatures have been so mild, summer barely seemed to have arrived. My pathetic garden is proof of that. The way things are going (i.e., slow), I'm not sure my mums are even going to bloom before it gets too cold.

Yes, I got several handfuls of cherry tomatoes and those two sorry excuses for cucumbers you saw in my previous post. And, I did enjoy some spinach and lettuce early in the season. Oh OK, the raspberries and strawberries did great in their small spaces, but their prime time ended months ago, meaning I had almost the whole summer to watch nothing spectacular happen in my yard. Disappointing after the initial excitement of spring seedlings and the decent June/July harvest of greens and berries. I am ashamed and disappointed to say that most of what I planted either didn't grow well or didn't grow at all. And besides the tomatoes (which still could have been more bountiful), the stuff that did grow didn't produce much, if at all. My trial and error (mostly error) with herbs in small containers didn't really work out until just recently—I have a much more vigorous bunch of herbs (basil, cilantro, parsley, green onions) growing right now. I have yet to see the beginnings of an actual pumpkin on our little pumpkin vines. Considering what day it is, I guess I won't see any pumpkins this year. Oh well...

My last tasks for the growing season:
  • Enjoy what's left of the nice weather while picking the tapering supply of tomatoes and herbs.
  • Stir the compost!
  • Pull up my remaining shallots and plant the clusters of shallot "heads" for next year.
  • Think about the plan for next year's edible garden.
  • Possibly build a second compost bin (well, ask Len to build one for me) so we can alternate bins each season, maximizing output and minimizing stirring and sifting.
  • Separate what "finished" compost I can and spread it on the permanent garden beds to help get the soil ready for next spring.
  • When it starts getting colder for real but before it really frosts, trim back the raspberry bushes and grape vines. (Oh yeah, I got a few small bunches of small grapes, did I tell you that? They looked more like currants. I was pleased, this being their first full season.)

So Happy Autumn, everybody. I hope your garden produced better than mine, and as you're doing your end-of-season tidying up, don't forget to compost your yard waste.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Would you look at that?

My cucumbers.

All two of them.

These pitiful things, folks, are the result of shallow, heavy, clay earth. And poor sunlight.

I have work to do in this yard before next spring...

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Eating Green for Our Anniversary

August 21 was our 5th wedding anniversary. Thank you. To celebrate this milestone, we treated ourselves to a nice dinner out: Frontera Grill in downtown Chicago. We had been to this restaurant, where the food could be described as authentic Mexican with a modern twist, for lunch a couple of years ago and were eager to try its more extensive dinner menu. It wasn't the good food alone that made this a perfect anniversary spot for us.

Chef Rick Bayless, the owner of Frontera and its upscale neighbor Topolobampo, is a local-and-recently-national celebrity, and we've been fans of his TV show, "Mexico: One Plate at a Time," and his cuisine for almost as long as we've been married. But there's more: He's also a big advocate for sustainability. Rick's website even says, "Here at Frontera, one of our goals is to live 'sustainability' everyday." In other words, the restaurant is green! Here are some examples of how:

  • They use seasonal, locally grown produce, including that from their rooftop salsa garden and from Rick's own backyard.
  • They buy responsibly raised meats—free-range chickens and ducks, certified organic lamb, and grass-fed beef—and sustainably harvested seafood.
  • The vast wine list includes some biodynamic (a method of organic, holistic farming) and other organic wines.
  • They recycle!
  • They compost!
  • They even give their spent vegetable oil to a farm that uses it for a bio-diesel delivery van.
Now that's pretty neat.

I'll just conclude by saying that dinner was indeed sumptuous. One pleasant discovery was the Café de Olla, a sweet and fruity spiced dessert coffee that we've since been trying to duplicate at home. And, we did not bring the leftovers home in Styrofoam clamshells, oh no. The restaurant has biodegradable cardboard containers for guests like us, whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs.

Actually, just one more thing: You can read more about Rick Bayless' newest efforts as a sustainability-driven restaurateur in this article from the March/April issue of Natural Home magazine.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Zucchini Tartlets

If you couldn't already tell, I love to experiment in the kitchen. This evening, I took the very same Zucchini Pie recipe I posted on August 9 and went all Martha Stewart with it to make these cute and delicious Zucchini Tartlets (I might like these better than the pie—they're cute, they're portable, but they do take a little more time).

Here's what I did differently:
After cooking the zucchini and onion in the butter and stirring in the spices, pour it all into a food processor and blend it up. Because the mixture is hot, leave open the center hole of your food processor's lid—or the steam under pressure might blow it off!
Let the mixture cool a little, and meanwhile open a can of crescent rolls. Unroll the dough and press the seams together so you have one big rectangle with no perforations. Now, cut the rectangle into 12 equal pieces. Press each piece a little thinner in your palm and then put them in the cups of a muffin pan.
Now pour the cheese into the mixture in your food processor and whip it up. Then beat in the eggs. Spoon the soupy mixture into the crescent-roll-lined muffin pan.
You'll only use about half of the filling, so get out another can of crescent rolls and make two pans, or save it for later (I froze mine—we'll see how it keeps).
Bake at 375 about 15 minutes, until the crescent rolls are beginning to brown and the zucchini filling has set. Allow to cool a few minutes in the pan, then very gently dig each tartlet out with a spoon. (My first two came out sloppy, but the rest kept their shape quite nicely when I worked slowly and carefully.)
TWO NOTES: I meant to put a dollop of Dijon mustard in each crescent roll before spooning in the filling, but I forgot! Honestly, I didn't miss it, but I bet it would be good. And, I stuck cherry tomato halves into the top of each tart on a whim after plating them, but next time I'm going to try baking them with the tomato halves already in place—if you should try it before I do, let me know how it turns out!

Shared at Eat Make Grow 

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crab Grab

Today's adventure: picking crab apples! We visited just two spots, about 10-12 individual trees, and hauled back in the Croozer a whopping 35 1/2 pounds of deep red fruit ranging in size from cherry to golf ball.
There are still some crab apple trees not quite ready to be picked—you can tell by the lack of fruit on the ground below them. The trees we visited today were at the perfect stage. They had dropped many crab apples on the ground (but not so many that you have to walk through a bee-infested sludge of rotting fruit)—which means the apples are ripe—while plenty of apples remained in the tree—which means they're not overripe yet.

Len got on the stepladder and picked from the tree, and I mostly inspected the apples on the ground, bagging the ones that were not smashed, bruised or bug-bitten. Of course, we ate one while we were out—have to taste the product at every stage! These larger crab apples are tart but not bitter, like a Granny Smith but redder, if red can be a flavor.

And now, it's jam time! Expect a post about the crab apple jam soon.
.Rinsing the crab apples - this is a 16-lb. batch.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Summer's Slow Bounty and Zucchini Pie

Now that the strawberries and raspberries are long gone, I have been waiting impatiently to pick anything from my garden. It has been a slow growing season, thanks to the relatively cool temperatures and our awful clay soil. Only this week have a few of our cherry tomatoes begun to ripen. I have two (count 'em—two!) cucumbers that are growing abnormally—one looks like a cucumber ball and the other like a small, crook-necked squash. Our pumpkin plants (they're just too small to call vines) have flowers, so that's a good sign, but they have a long way to go yet. Our grapes are slowly getting bigger (so slowly!) and a few have begun to turn purple. Oh, and I think my butternut squash plants are kaput. Rabbits kept eating the blossoms (and no blossoms = no squash), so I rubbed hot pepper oil on them. It deterred the rabbits for sure but also killed the blossoms. Big sigh...

We've really gotta break in this soil or switch to raised beds for all summer vegetables. It's August, for crying out loud, and we have harvested a handful of baby tomatoes, one miniature bell pepper and that's it! Maybe I'll pull up the shallots and see if they're big enough.

I have, however, been enjoying the bounty of other people's gardens. My mother-in-law gave us a giant zucchini, half of which I used for fried zucchini strips and the other half to make sumptuous zucchini pie.

This is my mom's recipe for Zucchini Pie:

4 cups thinly sliced zucchini
1 cup sliced onion
1/4 c. butter
2 tablespoons parsley flakes (or 6 tablespoons fresh)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (or 1-2 garlic cloves, minced)
1/4 teaspoon basil (or 1 teaspoon fresh)
1/4 teaspoon oregano (or 1 teaspoon fresh)
2 eggs
8 oz. shredded mozzarella
1-2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
refrigerated crescent roll dough or a pie crust

Preheat oven to 375. In a pan, melt butter and cook zucchini and onion (and garlic if you're using fresh) until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir in parsley, salt, pepper, garlic powder, basil and oregano.

In a mixing bowl, beat the eggs with the shredded cheese. Stir in the zucchini and onion.

Press the crescent roll dough or pie crust into a pie pan or square baking pan. Spread the Dijon mustard all over the crust. Dump in the zucchini mixture.

Bake 18-20 minutes. Let cool a little before cutting and serving.

It makes a great side dish or entree.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A Quick Note for Our Fashionista Friends

A friend just bought a very nice leather bag, or as she put it as she unpacked it from the UPS box at work the other day, her first "I'm a grown-up now and can have a real leather" bag. But before members of PETA get up in arms, get this: The bag is made from repurposed leather. That's recycled, folks!

A simple online search for recycled or repurposed leather will lead you to a multitude of fashion and shopping websites, where you can buy purses, wallets, shoes, jewelry—pretty much anything leather—made from old leather jackets and such. And, since I have personally seen, touched, and smelled one of these earth- and fashion-friendly bags, I can promise all you leather lovers that the bag looks good and smells good—just like brand new leather. It does not look like a patchwork quilt, OK?

Now, I do very little fashion shopping myself, so I don't know for sure, but after browsing a little online, I think can safely say most of the items are priced just like new leather, too. But I'm sure the frequent shoppers out there, like my friend, know where to find the good deals.

Some of these handbag designers use leather remnants, like the ones leftover from a purse factory (or whatever they're called), so it's not so much recycling as it is preventing waste—still a great thing. And others are actually out there scouring thrift stores for battered leather goods that they will recycle into other stylish items.

So, I'll end with a reminder that you should always donate to Goodwill (or Salvation Army, etc.) your unwanted clothes and fashion accessories, even if they have holes or other imperfections. A purse designer is out there, searching for those items, eager to cut them to pieces and make something new.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Fruitful Excursion

Urban gleaning—maybe you've heard of it. Maybe not. It's related to freeganism (a good topic for another post, another time) and salvaging in general. It's big in Portland, Oregon, but is not unique to the Northwest. So what is it exactly?

Gleaning was originally a rural gig; people gathered stray crops left behind after a farmer harvested his fields. I'm not sure if that counts as stealing or not, but I suppose if the farmer isn't going to use the leftovers... Anyway, gleaning has moved into the cities, and in our case, the suburbs. People are picking fruit from seemingly ignored trees in residential areas. I'm not talking about going into people's yards (but if your neighbor has a fruit tree that is just dropping its bounty to rot on the ground, ask him if you can bring over your ladder and have at it—I bet he'll let you). These are fruit trees that don't belong to anybody and are not being picked clean by squirrels, like the trees surrounding an apartment complex.

A few years ago, Len and I noticed a huge crab apple tree in our neighborhood, on what appeared to be common ground, and under it, a massive mush of rotting crab apples, the edible kind just a little bigger than cherries (as opposed to the smaller, purely ornamental variety). We watched the fruit ripen, fall, and rot for two years in a row and were certain that it belonged to no one and was being used by no one. Last summer, we took advantage of this otherwise wasted harvest and picked a Croozer-full of crab apples, which we turned into sweet, tart, beautiful deep-magenta preserves.

We also found a few apple trees that we think exist by happy accident. They are typically near other crab apple trees, so we think they were meant to be ornamental crab apples, but in fact turned out to be full-fledged apples (perhaps due to the grafting of one type of tree onto another type of mature root stock). However they got there, it's free organic fruit! We're pretty sure there are no pesticides being sprayed on these trees, based on the fruit's rustic look. Of course, we nibbled on an apple, to be sure it wasn't some nasty inedible hybrid, and were delighted to find a couple of different and tasty varieties. We have no idea what kind of apples they are; one's Granny Smith-ish, the other is sweeter and more yellow/pink.

This past weekend, we took a bike ride (on our way to the grocery store—gotta combine those errands when you can!) to check on the varying stages of ripeness of "our" trees, and to look for other apple and crab apple trees. We started collecting for preserves and apple butter toward the end of the trees' peaks last year; we wanted to catch them earlier this time around. I'm happy to report we found lots of crab apple trees (more than we can use), some of which are just about ripe now, and even a few new apple trees.

But the best discovery of all (and one we're marking our calendars for next summer) was the apricot tree. Who knew? We can't believe we'd never noticed it before, all the times we've biked past it. But there it was, a litter of small orange fruits all over the ground and plenty more still in the tree. We stopped right there, hoisted ourselves into the tree (it was a big one, old, with thick branches) and picked to our hearts' content. We made apricot jam that very night, and I had apricots in my oatmeal for breakfast the next morning. Delicious. Delightful.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Green Grilling: Gas or Charcoal?

One of the biggest obstacles to going green is having to give up bits of your lifestyle. You know—the convenience factor. (Why do you think Al Gore called it An Inconvenient Truth?) Recycling at home, for instance, is very convenient (when your neighborhood has curbside pickup). But what about recycling on vacation? A hearty "Great job!" to all of you who carry home bags of empties from your campsites; as for the rest of you... we'll continue this discussion later. I'm sure we'll have many more posts about how to make a difference without eschewing all of your favorite things. I'm a big proponent of being as environmentally friendly as possible while still enjoying life the way you want to enjoy it, so join me in the search for that perfect balance!
Today, we're talking about grilling. What is summer without cookouts? But burning stuff on our patios can't be good for the environment, so what's the greenest way to grill? Gas or charcoal? The debate that used to be simply about flavor has evolved into a scientific study weighing the environmental impact of obtaining the fuels, burning the fuels, and disposing of their waste. The electric George Foreman grills would probably win the energy contest, but let's be honest—that's not grilling. I'm talking about charring, smoking, barbecuing.
I shall direct you to yet another Slate article (we do love Slate) on the charcoal vs. gas debate. As the article points out, barbecue emissions account for only 3 ten-thousandths of a percent of the United States' annual carbon footprint, so changing your grilling habits may not matter. But as I will point out, every little bit helps.
You'll see there are pros and cons to either fuel. But there is one big rule: No lighter fluid! You don't want to breath its harmful compounds, and you don't want its yucky residue on your food. If you use charcoal (we do, for the true smoky flavor of barbecue), get your coals going in a starter chimney with a couple of crumpled pieces of newspaper.
Perhaps more important than which fuel you use is how you use it. If you're using a gas grill, try not to leave it on any longer than necessary. But if you're cooking over charcoal, take advantage of the coals' lasting heat and grill for as long as possible. Why waste all that heat energy by flipping a few burgers and calling it a night? You could get another hour of good grilling out of those coals!
When we fire up the grill, we usually have prepared a feast of items to grill in succession, giving us meals for the week. We pile the coals on one side of our rectangular grill so there is a spot for grilling some things over direct heat and a spot for slow-cooking other foods off to the side. One of our latest feasts included burgers, two different kinds of fish, chicken breasts, kabobs, corn on the cob, mixed veggies, potato wedges, onions, and peaches.
Sometimes we go crazy with marinades and sauces, and it takes three hours to prep everything before we can light the coals, and we end up grilling late into the night. Other times we go for the convenience of bottled sauces, and the prep time simply depends on how long we take to decide which foods we should lay on the grill first. Regardless, it's a fun evening, especially if we're in the mood to try new recipes, and it makes the subsequent weeknight dinners a breeze.
We do have to add a few more coals to the fire from time to time to keep it at a high, even temperature, but even then we're using fewer coals than we would have if we had grilled each meal on a separate occasion.
And, there's always fire left for cooking some dessert. (S'mores, of course.)

Friday, July 3, 2009

Red, White and...Green?


“Normally I don’t eat steak, a burger AND a brat…but it is the 4th of July. I’m going to need the energy if I’m going to start blowing crap up. It’s what the founding fathers would want.”

-Jim Gaffigan, Beyond the Pale

People love watching fireworks displays, myself included. Must be something about the low whoosh as they’re launched, followed by that brief moment of anticipation before a cannon-like boom sets off half a dozen lame-sounding car alarms, and a shower of sparks fills the night sky with splendor—and sulfurous clouds of who knows what. God bless the U.S.A., right?

At the risk of, well, having my patriotism questioned, I’d like to suggest that we could do some good by downsizing fireworks displays in the years to come. I admit, making that recommendation on July 3rd seems a little late, but sometimes, you don’t think about these things until they’re right in front of you. Nonetheless, trimming the Independence Day pyrotechnics stands to set a far more patriotic example by minimizing land, air and water pollution, while also saving local, city and state government some green, too.

First, the bad news: fireworks imports have been on the rise recently, more than doubling between 1999 (65,000 tons) and 2006 (123,000 tons). This has lead to an increase in atmospheric emissions of heavy metals, sulfur-coal compounds and some low concentration toxic chemicals like barium, antimony sulfide and perchlorate (the latter is found in rocket fuel). So, while the displays may be breathtaking, that's the one thing you wouldn't want to do in the middle of a smoke cloud. The chemicals released often find their way into lakes, affecting fish and other wildlife. In one study, perchlorate levels rose more than 1,000 times above normal and stayed there for 14 hours; levels didn't return to normal for another 20-80 days. The effects of human exposure over long periods are currently unknown. Suddenly, the fields of non-biodegradable fireworks debris, while a concern, don't seem nearly as scary.

Now, the good news: fireworks are still regulated/restricted in many states by the Clean Air Act (whether that's enforced effectively is another story). Pyrotechnicians have also developed biodegradable fireworks shells and a mixture of clean-burning compounds that use nitrogen instead of potassium perchlorate (the only downside is, many large outdoor displays haven't made use of them because—guess what—they're more expensive, and until there's more of an incentive to purchase them, there probably won't be many buyers). And Disney recently pioneered the use of a compressed air launch pad, saving a bit on gunpowder emissions.

Interested in making the case to green up Independence Day? Unfortunately, I don't have many resources to point you to at the moment, but I'll be sure to follow-up with some information. Until then, I suggest starting at the local level and working your way up. You might find that, with a petition and a handful of signatures, your cash-strapped city government might be open to trimming the budget for the 4th. And, while many might groan at the thought, it never hurts to write your congressmen to let them know how you feel. Or hey, you could even start a blog and gripe about whatever you like. :)

If you’re like me and have a love-hate relationship with fireworks, you might like this article.

Until next time, happy 4th of July!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Table in the Alley


At long last, a pic of the table I found in the alley, which is now about 300 miles away (and possibly being chewed up, ala the squad car in Turner & Hooch, by a crazy dog). Except for a little scratching in the near left corner, was in pretty good shape, and after a little polishing, I'd say it still has some life in it. Hopefully my SIL enjoys!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Trying Again with the Pumpkins

Remember when we were pumped about our pumpkins? Me too... Let me summarize our little pumpkin adventure thus far.

We saved the seeds from the bigger of our two Halloween jack-o-lanterns and planted them indoors in late winter, mostly just to see if they were still alive. They germinated all right and, as spring wore on, became quite gangly little vines on our bedroom windowsill. They even began sprouting blossoms.

But indoor winter weather just isn't ideal for vegetables—the sunlight isn't quite right, the air and soil are stagnant, the little cups holding them are small. We started these seeds way too early. So we planted a few more later. These, too, germinated and sprouted quickly, stretching toward that sunshine just out of their reach outside our bedroom window.

About half of the oldest seedlings eventually pooped out and died. We gave most of the others away. When the danger of overnight frost was gone, we finally planted our two remaining vines outside. Within days, someone or something nipped them off at the base of the stem.

I planted six more seeds in a shallow tray of seed-starter mix on our front porch. It dried out so quickly, I couldn't keep up with the watering, and only two of these sprouted. They promptly died while we were on vacation.

In a fit of frustration, I dumped the tray of seed-starter mix right onto the spot where we had planted those first two seedlings. I spread a handful of seeds around in it, making sure the seeds were just lightly covered with the soil. I watered it every morning (except days it rained).

Just a few days later, voila! Cute, aren't they?

Upon closer inspection, however, I gasped in horror at this creepy crawly discovery: Roly-polies were everywhere, and they were eating my precious seedlings! Just look at that guy munching the leaves of that poor baby pumpkin plant.

Web forums on the subject of protecting plants from roly-polies (a.k.a. sow bugs, pill bugs, wood lice) were mostly useless, mostly just hosting debates on whether or not these formerly endearing crustaceans actually do eat living plant matter. Guess what? They do. I was watching them chew.

So what to do without using insecticide? I mixed up some olive oil and hot pepper flakes to brush or spray onto the leaves, thinking the bugs might not like the spiciness. But I have not tried that remedy yet. I'll go back to it if my first line of defense doesn't work. I cut plastic drinking straws (See? We rinsed and saved those straws for a good reason!) into segments the length of the seedlings stems. I cut a slit down the side of each piece of straw, so I could slip it onto the little stems—it looks like the seedlings sprouted right out of the straw. Then I pressed the straw segment into the soil just a tad, to hold it in place and to give the seedling a tiny bit of protection under the surface. I also skipped a day of watering, since roly-polies love that ever-moist soil.

Today, it seems there are fewer roly-polies. So far, the seedlings are in good shape. I will, of course, keep an eye on them and adjust my battle plan as necessary. I'm saving the hot pepper oil just in case.

And, I'll have to thin out the bunch soon. (You saw how many there were!) I never liked thinning out my plants. It feels like killing something, wasting potentially good produce. At the same time, I understand that if I don't thin them out, leaving only the very few strongest seedlings, the growing vines will be fighting for soil and sun and water and space. In our tiny yard, even one vine would be fighting for space.

Friday, June 19, 2009

More Adventures in Edible Gardening

In mid-June, the temperature has finally crept up to what I consider comfortable; most other Chicagoans might consider it warm. Good gardening weather.
Today, I planted some more fun stuff in our yard: jalapeño seeds we cut out of a store-bought pepper, the butternut squash and cucumber seedlings I had started in small containers, and, just to see what happens, an avocado pit and some key lime seeds. We have previously made an avocado pit sprout roots and a scrawny stem in a glass of water, but it died before it really turned into anything. This time I just stuck it in the dirt. As for the key lime seeds, I have no illusions that we can sustain a citrus tree outdoors in this climate. They're just an experiment. If little lime trees happen to spring from the earth, I'll dig them up and pot them and then figure out what to do.
A garden really is just an outdoor laboratory, isn't it? I made an interesting discovery in mine a few weeks ago. This plant, and now, another baby one just like it, sprouted on its own in our little garden bed.
As it grows, it looks—and smells—a lot like a tomato plant. Last fall, I spread some almost fully decomposed compost onto my garden areas. Could it be that seeds from tomato scraps survived the winter and germinated "wild" on their own? We'll find out. I'm letting these two plants grow undisturbed until I discover they're actually a cleverly disguised weed.
Another experiment I began today is growing my cucumbers in a window-box-type container hanging on our fence, right under some latticework for easy climbing. But, can cucumbers thrive in shallow soil? There isn't much room for their roots to stretch. We'll see. Just in case, I planted two more seedlings in the ground at the base of the fence. They'll just have to reach a little higher before they can attach themselves to the lattice.
Meanwhile, my snow peas aren't doing so great in the hanging baskets. They look pretty, but don't get enough sun under the porch roof and therefore haven't produced a single pea yet.
The sweet pepper and tomato plants (the purposely planted ones) are still short but are slowly reaching for the sky. A pepper about half the size of my thumb is already growing, so that's something.
The strawberries are still producing like crazy. And we still have our own little salad bar out there with the remaining heads of romaine and buttercrunch lettuce.
The grapevine is stretching and has tiny clusters of tiny green balls. I wonder if these become the grapes, or if they become flowers that become the grapes? I've never seen the life cycle of a grape, so I don't know. Again, I say, we'll find out.
And, take a look at my bushy raspberry bushes (tied back to grow up against the side of our garage instead of out into the yard), fronted by massive shallots. Those onion shoots are almost waist-high. Their tips have burst into clusters of mini onions, shallot "heads" meant to be planted back in the ground, meaning the onions beneath the dirt are almost ready to be pulled. Could I have ten times as many next spring? Or even as soon as this fall?
Oh, and that scary-looking Chinese cabbage was definitely not cabbage. It sprouted lanky stalks of tiny yellow flowers. My mom suggested it was a type of wild mustard. She found the same thing growing in her garden 300 miles away. It had to have come from that Chinese cabbage seed packet we shared! Strangely, though, she did get some cabbage in her garden. Whatever it was, I yanked it out last week. Maybe I'll sow my leftover seeds later for a fall harvest and keep my fingers crossed.
What's new in your garden, readers?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Gadgets that Save You Energy and Money: Guest post by Dan Harrison

As fossil fuels diminish, energy costs are going to keep rising until we have a viable alternative energy source. Until then, you can minimize your energy bills by using as little energy as possible. So in the interest of saving energy, here are a collection of gadgets for your home that should help you reduce your energy bills.

Central heating is great for keeping you cozy and warm, but your house is losing heat; you'll be wasting energy. The Thermal Leak Detector from Black & Decker is essentially a remote thermometer gadget that helps you find cold patches in a room. The detector shines a beam of light onto the part of the wall you're checking. The color of the light changes from red to blue when a cold spot is detected. The temperature of the cold spot is also shown on the LCD display on the detector. By finding the cold spots, you can then patch them up and save more energy.
For the kitchen, you can make your morning breakfast more eco-friendly with a Morphy Richards Ecolectric Toaster. The toaster saves up to 35% of the energy compared to a conventional toaster. The Ecolectric Toaster uses a special cover that closes when you start to cook your toast, resulting in less energy needed to cook the toast. The toaster also uses a motorized carriage to ensure your toast is evenly cooked. It's a bit more costly than a standard toaster, but it will save you money if your family eats loads of toast.
Do you love your cups of tea or coffee? Well the eco kettle is designed to make it as easy as possible for you to only boil the water you need. Using a special chamber of water, you release the water you need into the main kettle compartment to boil it. On average, people boil twice as much water compared to what they actually need, so this simple kettle should save energy pretty quickly!

Perhaps something for the bathroom? Namely the EcoDrain. The EcoDrain is a clever heat exchanging device that uses the excess heat from waste shower water and uses it to preheat the cold water inlet to the shower. This means the shower's heater uses 25–40% less energy compared to using just cold water from the mains. The EcoDrain has no moving parts, but it does have a non-stick coating on its waste pipe to ensure it doesn't get clogged by dirt and debris. What makes the EcoDrain practical is that it needs very little plumbing work to fit it into your existing shower system!

I hope you enjoyed reading about these interesting energy saving gadgets. This article was written by Dan Harrison who writes about eco gadgets for EnviroGadget features all kinds of gadgets and technology that save water, save energy or just do something to help save the planet!

Friday, June 12, 2009

One Man's Trash Is...One Town's Cash?

With the economy against the ropes, it's no surprise municipalities left and right are tightening their fiscal belts; but in some places, things are getting a little desperate. Take the Cook County suburb of Evanston (pop. 74,360), which is now looking into regulating scrap haulers because the city loses money (normally charged to homeowners) every time a scrap hauler nabs an item before the city has a chance to pick it up. Starting at $25 a pop, the city last year generated an impressive $89,000 that way.

Here's my take: these so-called "rogue haulers" are doing the city and its neighborhoods a valuable service, so there's no need to regulate them. Rather than leave that refrigerator rusting in the alley (where it can pose a danger to kids and shelter rodents and other pests) in the hopes that a city employee will eventually get around to picking it up, why not notify AMVETS (800-732-1708 for pick-ups in IL) or just pick a scrapper out of the phone book, give them a call and let them pick it up for free? I'm all for supporting city government, but I think there are probably better ways to fill the budget gaps.

Granted, there may be a few bad apples in the bunch—haulers that steal unattended items and/or rifle through recycling bins for scrap metal—but there has to be a way to isolate them without taking a bite out of business for those haulers willing to play by the rules. I wonder if Evanston's beef has more to do with demographics, as many of the haulers come from downtown and drive trucks that don't exactly add to the pleasant suburban aesthetic.

I admit, I may be speaking too soon; the news indicates only that officials are looking into "regulating" the haulers, so there's still a chance Evanston will find a fair the same time, it's clearly about money, and that's usually when the fights start to get nasty. I'll be keeping my fingers crossed.

In the meantime, our own little scavenging operation is humming along. I just picked up a large, two-drawer coffee table from our alley for my sister-in-law. Even after a slight rain, it was easy to spruce up with some furniture oil and a little lubrication of the wood sliders. (I'll post a pic next week. I wish I had the foresight to take a snap before I put my refurbishing skills to use on it so you could see the "before and after" effect).

For more on the issue of Evanston's trash, here's an editorial that falls on my side of the issue. Feel free to get in on the discussion here if you have a viewpoint you'd like to express.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

English Muffin Bread...from the Microwave!

It might sound funny, but it's true–you can "bake" some breads by nuking the dough in a 650-watt microwave oven, which also decreases rise time and offers better energy efficiency than a gas oven (especially true if you're only making one loaf).

Since we hadn't had any bread in the house for awhile, Nicole had requested that I bake a loaf or two for sandwiches and breakfast toast, so when I came across a recipe for English Muffin Bread, I knew I'd found what I was looking for. I added a little cinnamon and some raisins for good measure, and although there aren't as many nooks and crannies, the slices toast up nicely and make for an economical choice over the prepackaged varieties you'll find in the grocery store.

Cinnamon-Raisin English Muffin Bread

1/4 cup warm water
2 1/4 tsp. yeast
1 cup warm milk
2 tsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. baking soda
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2–1 cup raisins

Place warm water in large bowl; sprinkle in yeast and stir until dissolved. Stir in milk, sugar, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. Stir in raisins and add flour gradually until dough is uniformly sticky.

Grease microwave-safe loaf pan; sprinkle with cornmeal (optional). Turn dough out into loaf pan and microwave uncovered at 50% power for 1 minute. Let rest 10 minutes and repeat, allowing another 10 minutes of rest time. Once dough has doubled in size (you might need to repeat the process a third time), microwave on high for 4–6 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes in pan before removing to cool on wire rack.

I've since made this recipe a second time with the same quality result. The picture below also shows a couple loaves of a new multigrain bread recipe I tried. If only our blog offered smell-o-vision!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Chocolate Cranberry Macaroons

Inspired by Au Bon Pain's ambrosial, fist-sized Chocolate-Dipped Cranberry Almond Macaroon, I experimented a little bit and created this easy and quick bite-size replica. I should say, these macaroons are quick in that they require very little hands-on time, but there is cooling time needed for the "cookies" and then for the chocolate. So allow for a couple of hours overall, or make them at a leisurely pace, baking the macaroons in the early evening, dipping them in melted chocolate later that night, so they'll be ready and waiting in the morning. Mmm!

2 egg whites
pinch of salt
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 cups shredded coconut
1/3 cup dried cranberries or cherries
1/4 - 1/2 cup chocolate chips
1 - 2 tablespoons butter

Preheat the oven to 325°. Butter a mini-muffin pan.

Beat the egg whites and salt with an electric mixer until they form soft peaks; that is, you can form a temporary crest in the whites before it falls back down a little. (It is very important that you do not overbeat the egg whites into stiff peaks, as if you were making a meringue, or your macaroons will turn out too crunchy—more like macaringues...) Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the whites and beat again for just a few seconds, until the peaks appear glossy.

In a separate bowl, toss together the remaining sugar, the almond extract, the coconut and the dried cranberries. With a rubber spatula, carefully fold these into the egg whites until evenly blended.

Drop the batter into the buttered mini-muffin pan, filling each cup just a little over the top. You probably will end up with a couple of empty spaces. Bake for 10-12 minutes, until the coconut tips have begun to brown and the macaroons look like they're "breathing." Allow the macaroons to cool completely in the pan.

When the macaroons have cooled, use a spoon to scoop them out of the mini-muffin pan and onto a sheet of waxed paper or a baking sheet. They will still be gooey, so don't worry too much about their shape as you're scooping them—just keep them in somewhat of a ball form.

Put the chocolate chips and butter (start with the smaller amounts listed and melt more later if necessary) in a microwave-safe bowl and microwave for 30 seconds. Stir until all melty and smooth, heating for another 15 seconds at a time if necessary. Spoon a glob of melted chocolate onto each macaroon and allow to set at room temperature. The chocolate will stay soft but won't come off on your hands when you gently pick up one of the treats.

These macaroons will keep well in an airtight container at room temperature for a few days.

Shared at: Thursday's Treasures, Full Plate Thursday, Whip it Up Wednesday, Friday Favorites

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

One Stretch of Road


It's interesting how, after you start a blog on a particular subject, you might feel as though you're upping the ante on yourself. If people across the world can tune-in to your feed, shouldn't you be putting your money where your mouth is and taking your cause just a tiny step further than normal?

I think that's why I was inspired, one weekend afternoon while Nicole and I were returning from errands on our bikes, to stop along a small stretch of a nearby road (which so happens to be near a nice walking path) and collect some of the recyclable trash littering the side of the road.

With more people driving and the high-schoolers out for summer break, I guess it didn't surprise me that we were able to fill our bike baskets fairly quickly–in fact, we could have made a number of trips hauling the junk away. It was as if someone had hosted a party on that stretch of road: there was Coors Light and Bud Light, plus Sprite, Gatorade, Lipton Tea, Arizona Tea, Coca-Cola and Monster for the designated drivers. The most disgusting part, though...brace yourselves...was a bottle that had been filled with what was most definitely urine. How's that for dedication? (Without gloves, you can bet I was later scrubbing my hands like there was no tomorrow.)

And I know I don't need to remind you that there's junk EVERYWHERE. I used to go up to the northwest corner of Illinois where it was less crowded and more scenic—and even there, my morning runs turned into walks as I trudged from one dirty roadside bottle to the next.

It makes me think, one goal I'd like to set for myself this summer is to perhaps "unofficially" adopt a stretch of a given road near us. I suppose I could walk it every night (or as frequently as time allows) and try to keep it clean. Readers, feel free to do the same...but I strongly suggest you do so only after investing in a pair of thick rubber gloves.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Water, Water Everywhere

Our front porch looks out onto a meditation park with a water feature and a very thorough sprinkler system. When I say thorough, I mean to say that it's not uncommon to see the sprinklers soaking the grass and surrounding landscaping even after a couple days of rain or, as in the case of the picture above, during a significant rainfall event (note the large puddle that's formed underneath the pine tree). I'm all for green grass, but that seems like a bit much, doesn't it?
I think Midwesterners such as ourselves–which live just a stone's throw away from 1,180 cubic miles of fresh water–sometimes take our situation for granted. Meanwhile, the Southwest continues to ration precious H20 as Lake Mead–America's largest reservoir–is sucked dry by a growing local population.
Granted, the news on the homefront isn't all bad; my property manager tells me that the sprinklers use water recycled from the park's pond, and the pond itself is supplied by a well. Still, we don't live on a golf course, so why not turn the sprinklers off when it rains? Apparently it's too difficult to call the service personnel to have them shut off. Perhaps I should raise the issue at the next board meeting and suggest using smart sensors that accurately measure soil moisture levels, thus preventing the park from becoming a squishy, water-logged mess.
Does anyone else have a similar story of water overuse/abuse? We'd be interested to hear from you!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Field of Green

Over Memorial Day weekend, we took a trip to U.S. Cellular Field and enjoyed a beautiful day at the ballpark (though the outcome wasn't what we were hoping for; Pirates 4, Sox 3). In any event, we made sure to take our plastic cups and paper hot dog containers home with us to recycle.

That got me to thinking about the Cell's recycling services and, after some investigation, I discovered we really didn't need to carry these items home; turns out there's plenty of green things going on at New Comiskey besides the forest-colored seats and groundskeeper Roger Bossert's well-manicured bluegrass. In fact, the park leads the way with:

Recycling: In addition to bins placed throughout the park, trash gathered by the clean-up crew is sorted for paper and plastic. According to White Sox management, the Cell has recycled over 570 tons of material since 1992.

Conservation: Computers regulate lighting inside the park, conserving energy.

Transportation: The CTA Red Line stop (located just across the expressway) houses a few dozen secure, weather-protected parking spaces for bikes; should those spaces fill up, several more on-street racks are located on the north side of 35th St. What's more, Sox staff maintain their own fleet of bicycles to travel in and around the stadium quickly.
Raising Awareness: The Cell turns off the lights as part of Earth Hour, and also celebrates Earth Day with educational events like "Earth Day at the Ballpark."

Parking: One of the most innovative green technologies is right under your feet! Just last year, the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority (which owns Cellular Field) installed what's believed to be the largest "permeable paving" parking lot in the U.S. Spanning 265,000 square feet—the equivalent of more than four football fields—in Lot L, the durable concrete paver stones allow surface water to filter back into the earth, reducing runoff. The system meets LEED guidelines set by the U.S. Green Building Council and is recognized as a Best Management Practice by the EPA. According to my sources, the Cell is the first park in the Major Leagues to incorporate the technology.

How's that for an environmental home run? Granted, there will always be some CO2-burn going on at every game, but for a team that attracts millions of visitors each season, they're still doing their part, and doing it well, all things considered. Go Sox!

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Lowering Your Water Bill is Barrels of Fun!

Recently, my brother and I installed a rain barrel at our parents' house. Even though it's possible to make one on the cheap using a Brute trash can, a length of hose and a few basic tools, we opted to save time with an easy-to-install, aesthetically pleasing, prefabricated barrel, capable of storing 50 gallons of rainwater.
All we did was cut the downspout, put a pedestal base in place to elevate the barrel (since it's just like a water tower, in that flow rates correspond to the hydrostatic pressure provided by gravity), made sure it was level, and set the barrel on top, securing it to the house wall with some rope (in the off-chance the base should become unstable).
Of course, we also had to test it, so I put the garden hose in the gutter and turned on the water works. Since I didn't measure the height as accurately as I should have (not easy on uneven ground), I came up a little short of the tip of the downspout; to compensate, I placed a brick on top to prevent water from spilling over the top of the barrel. And, thanks to the barrel's well-fitting screen, which is intended to keep gutter gunk out of the water, Mom probably won't need mosquito dunks.
Given the size of Mom's garden and the fact that they have a sizeable roof that collects plenty of runoff, it should be a wise investment. I'm interested to see how much of an effect it has on their water bill (though specific figures might be hard to quantify). Needless to say, the barrel filled to the brim after just one storm; Mom attached a soaker hose to the bottom, which snakes through her vegetable garden, providing slow 'n' steady moisture to the soil.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go perform a rain dance in the backyard.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The Garden Eating Begins

I think it's finally safe to put the rest of my veggies in the ground. (Lettuce and snow peas I already sowed directly outside; they are "early" crops.) Here in Chicagoland, sneaky frost can occur overnight even in late May. So it was a week after Memorial Day when I finally moved my tomatoes and peppers from their tiny seedling containers, which I could put outside on nice days and bring inside on cold days, to the large wooden barrel containers in my front yard (the all-day sunny spot). But you better believe I'm watching the 5-day forecasts for that one rare overnight low in the 30s—I'll be running outside with newspaper and plastic bags to cover my precious plants. They're not quite seedlings anymore, but they're still tiny, thanks to the cool weather we've had. At this rate, it seems like it'll be July before we can eat anything out of the garden besides the lettuce!

Growing along with my lettuce is some scary-looking Chinese cabbage... or something. It looks more like a weed, with fuzzy, spiky leaves. When I look up Chinese cabbage, the pictures look like cabbage and not like the weird stuff growing in my little garden box. Maybe it is just a weed, but it's growing right where I planted those cabbage seeds. Maybe I got some bum seeds. I haven't picked or tasted any of it yet because I don't know what to do with it! It certainly doesn't look like it would be a pleasant texture. I'm sort of waiting to see how it grows out.

My other leafies, the romaine and buttercrunch lettuces, are growing great and taste great. I have been using some of the baby leaves in salads, making room for others to grow into full heads of lettuce. My spinach was good, but not all of the seeds sprouted, so we already ate it all and have to plant more. I think I can get another harvest before it gets too hot.

In the meantime, I'm just waiting for everything else to produce. Oh! Besides lettuce, we also have strawberries ripening now. About four at a time are ready every day or so, and I often just eat them as I pick them instead of saving them up for use as an actual ingredient in something, like strawberry shortcake. Now there's an idea...

So, what's growing in your garden, on your patio or balcony, or in your window sill? Check off your edibles in our poll over there on the right. If you're growing something that isn't listed, just click the "Comments" link at the top of this post and tell us about it!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Only A Few Hours Left to Vote!

Just a quick reminder - if you haven't voted in our poll, "How are you being green this month?", now's your last chance!

I'm happy to report that, although there's no runaway winner, "recycling" is leading the way with 73% of the vote. 53% of voters are tweaking the thermostat and/or walking and biking. 46% of you are switching to CFLs. Some are even bringing their own mug to Starbucks!

Though our poll ends today, it's never to late to consider how you can be more conscientious and try something—anything—to green things up a bit. See you in June!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Ahh, Laundry

Laundry is not a chore I look forward to. I have been known to choose my attire for the day directly from the dryer, where the clean clothes may have been sitting for days, just because I've been avoiding the folding and putting away. Now you'll wonder about my outfit the next time you see me. Did I select it from the tidy hangers in the closet, or did I pull it from a ball of rumpled-but-clean laundry and just shake the wrinkles out? I'll never tell.

But there is one thing that I do enjoy about laundry, and that is when I have a free Saturday, skies are clear, the breeze is moderate, and I can hang the laundry out to dry. It's the age-old green thing to do, don't you know.

Today was the first time this year we were able to do it, and now I have fresh-smelling clothes and the sun-pinkened nose to show for it. Since permanent clotheslines are not allowed in our subdivision (unfortunately true in many suburban neighborhoods these days), and there isn't much room for one in our yard anyway, we use a handy, waist-high, foldable drying rack from Ikea (pictured left and below).

Len also set up discreet, semi-permanent bases behind my raspberry bushes for inserting taller, removable poles; whenever we need to, we bring out the poles and string some extra line between them and our fence. I had two loads of laundry out there today. Now that's a crowded yard!

Of course, we make green laundry choices even when we can't dry things outside. We have a front-loading washer, which, as you know, uses less water and less detergent than the top-loading kind. It's also supposed to be gentler on your clothes. (Maybe, but the downside is that it twists all my pants legs together into a heavy pants chain that makes it tricky to extract one pair at a time without pulling out the whole ball of wet clothes.) And, of course, we use the high-efficiency ("he") detergent meant for front-loaders, choosing a dye- and perfume-free variety.

Also, we always wash everything in cold water, unless it is absolutely necessary to bleach the whites, which we very seldom do. Some of you hot-water junkies wouldn't dare wash your bed sheets in cold because you need hot water to kill the dust mites, right? I used to do that too, but no more! I'm no expert, but I've heard two different stories about that: a) the heat from your dryer will kill the mites just as effectively as the washer, or b) the hot setting on your washing machine isn't nearly hot enough to kill dust mites anyway. Whichever is true, I figure there's no reason not to keep the washer set on cold.

If you live somewhere that forbids the use of supposedly ugly permanent clothes lines (I don't think clotheslines are eyesores, but it's the only reason I can imagine they'd be banned by home owners' associations), be bold and get a portable clothes line or set of drying racks for your backyard (or your balcony!), even if you do it for just one load every once in a while. No, it's not as convenient as tossing it all in the dryer, but it's good for your clothes (just turn things inside out if you're worried about fading) and good for the earth. Clothes dryers themselves are not enormous energy hogs, but every little bit counts, and you will notice a decrease in your energy bills—always a plus.

Now for my least favorite part, taking all the clothes down and folding them. At least I get to enjoy the fantastic weather while I work.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The 100-mpg Hummer H3

Of all mankind's inventions, only a few stand out as enduring monuments of progress. Crazy straws. Edison's electric pen. The self-twirling spaghetti fork. Allow me to remove my tongue from the side of my cheek.Link
The point is, these inventions were practically obsolete from the get-go because there was a common-sense alternative already available. That's a good way to explain how I feel about the Hummer, which has been an environmental nuisance ever since AM General rolled them off the line in 1992 (GM would buy Hummer in '98. And you’ve probably heard the latest: they’re trying to unload the brand to regain some of their financial footing).

That's why I was so interested to hear about Raser Technologies' efforts to re-design the Hummer H3 as an electric plug-in hybrid capable of squeezing 100 miles out of every gallon of unleaded. Welcome news when you consider it'd cost you about $82 to fill the H2's 32-gallon tank (at the current, local average price of $2.59/gal). Could it be these vehicular behemoths were finally going green?

Not really, if you ask me. Granted, my B.S. detector is especially sensitive when it comes to fuel-efficient vehicles, especially those that make claims without government data backing them up. But this still feels like putting a bandaid on a gaping wound; an inadequate last-ditch effort to resuscitate a dying brand. And it's hardly a coincidence that this announcement comes at the same time President Obama is tightening the nation's fuel efficiency standards. What better way to nab some easy, pro-Hummer P.R.?

As the article points out, this 100mpg rating is a bit convoluted, relying on some sketchy math to get there (and probably also some hypermiling, but minimizing braking and rapid acceleration are driving habits most buyers will likely ignore). And, while the proposed figure of 33mpg is definitely an improvement on the accepted average of 14-17mpg for the H2 (actual figures aren’t published by the EPA), who in their right mind would fork over $55,000 (20%-30% more than the all-gas H3) when there are alternatives that do the job far better for less? That’s crazy straws!

What's more, you can load a 600-lb. lithium-ion battery into the chassis of any vehicle and improve its gas mileage, but you should at the same time consider the energy it takes to charge such a battery. Unless you’re hooking it up to a wind turbine, that voltage is likely supplied by a coal-fired power plant. That’s like trying to minimize your carbon footprint by walking around on your tip-toes; same shoes, same weight, different distribution. And, at an average curb weight of 5,000-6,000 lbs., Hummers make some deep footprints. Who said bigger was better?

I know it’s easy to attack Hummers as a symbol of irresponsibility, but it also gives me a chance to present The Golden Horse Ranch Square Dance Band and their tune, “Hummer.” Good question—what would Jesus drive?