Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oodles of Green...Noodles!

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So, I gave you a peek of the sausage tradition in Len's family, and Len posted his latest bread recipe. Now here's some good food from my side of the family.

My mom and my sister made spinach lasagna noodles (and then later the whole dish, of course)from scratch.

There's my sis spreading the sheets of rolled-out dough:
....
If you like to play with your food, homemade pasta is for you. It's very hands-on. My great grandma was Italian, and she used to tell me that she could never roll her ravioli dough as thin as her mom could (isn't that always the case?). I've tried rolling pasta dough with just a rolling pin. It's much easier with a manual pasta maker, which has a knob to adjust how close together the rollers are, so you can keep feeding the dough through, rolling it thinner and thinner.
...
The dough is basically eggs and flour. So far, I've only used all-purpose flour, but many recipes call for semolina, and now that we have some in the house (see Len's aforementioned bread recipe), I'm going to try it to see the difference. I'll keep you posted, so to speak.
...
For the spinach pasta dough, Mom and Sis cooked, drained and pureed some spinach and incorporated it into the dough. Voila! Green noodles.
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To cut out the individual lasagna noodles from the thin sheets, they used a special pasta cutter (think pizza wheel meets pinking shears).
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The result:

Another great thing about fresh, homemade pasta is that it needs less time to boil than dried pasta. Yes, that benefit is countered by the time it takes to mix, roll and cut the dough, but those steps really are easy and don't take very long (if you make pasta a lot, you could probably do it in the time it takes a large pot of water to boil). Besides—and here's the whole point—it's fun!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

New York City-sized ice collapses off Antarctica

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Yep, you read that right. That's about 700 square miles! What's more, the ice shelf's thickness indicates that it took hundreds of years to form - much like the Larsen A ice shelf (collapsed in 1995) and the Larsen B (collapsed in 2002). You can read more/get depressed here.

...just one more sign of what we're going to be dealing with in the coming decades. Ugh, I need a hug. What really gets me - help me out here, Al Gore - is the paradox I'm finding myself in. I still pump out my fair share of CO2 driving the car, taking a shower, watching TV...and yes, even blogging (computer needs power; power comes from power plant; power plant burns fossil fuels). Granted, our carbon footprints measure closer to a sneaker than a snowshoe, but still.

I'm not really a fan of Roland Emmerich's films, but it's got me wondering...is The Day After Tomorrow already here?

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Adventures in Edible Gardening

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It's chilly and rainy again. (I told you these Chicago winters were everlasting.) I'm itching to get my veggie seedlings in the ground—if it ever gets warm enough! I love having fresh produce in the yard. It's satisfying, it's cheap, and it makes healthful eating easier. I like to start my plants from seed when possible, so to get a jump on a short growing season, I start most of the seeds indoors in mid to late March. I'm still learning how to time things right.

This year, I'm embarking on a bigger gardening adventure than usual. It will be interesting to see how we get all this food to grow in our yard; you'll see why a in a little bit. Here's what we have going for Growing Season 2009:

Started from Seed Indoors
Cucumbers (small seedlings)
Pumpkins (lots of large gangly seedlings)
Cherry Tomatoes (teensy seedlings)
Yellow Pear Tomatoes (barely sprouted)
Bell Peppers (thought I saw a sprout... maybe not)
Chives (nothing yet; didn't sprout well last year either)
Cilantro (barely sprouted)
Sweet Basil (barely sprouted)
Flat-Leaf Parsley (barely sprouted)
JalapeƱos (nothing yet; seeds may be too old)
Marigolds (nothing yet; seeds may be too old)
Green Chilies from New Mexico (nothing yet, etc.)
Green Beans (nothing yet, etc.)

Sowed Directly Outdoors
Snow Peas (in a container; tall seedlings)
Butternut Squash (in starter cups; nothing yet)
Buttercrunch Lettuce (in a container)*
Romaine Lettuce (in a container)*
Chinese Cabbage (in a container)*
Spinach (in a container)*

*Of these four lettuces, I think three types have sprouted, maybe all four. But I can't remember which seeds I put in which section of the rectangular wooden box, and they're all too small to identify right now.

Already Growing Outdoors
Shallots (planted the heads last fall; "green onions" tall already)
Raspberries (planted the bush last fall; new leaves are out)
Grapes (planted the vine last fall; new leaf buds visible)
Strawberries (also harvested last summer; a few new flowers out)

We are going to cram all of these tasty things into our tiny, north-facing backyard that is approximately 25' x 10'. Or we hope to, anyway. (There may also be the option of a plot in a neighborhood garden, but that's another story.) A few things are going into containers on or near the front porch, which faces north and is sunny all the time. The strawberries and grapevine are pretty unobtrusive in the ground right against the porch, and Len found a pair of wooden barrels that nicely flank our little sidewalk—I'll put the tomatoes in those. And I'm experimenting with hanging baskets on the front porch for the snow peas. Since they like to climb, I will try to train them to drape from one basket to the next. It might look pretty.

But there's hardly room for everything in front (the front yard itself is pretty much a row of bushes and a strip of grass that I'm sure our homeowners association wants to look pristine). In back, only a strip of ground closest to the alley gets sun almost all day in the summer; that is where we have dug out a rectangle in the ground and also placed the rectangular wooden box I mentioned earlier. The rest of the yard only gets full sun for a few hours at midday, and most edible things don't thrive in that much shade. So, we're planning to squeeze things in here and there. For example, the raspberries and shallots are in the sunniest part of the shady part of the yard (does that make sense?) and doing OK so far.

I'm trying to think three dimensionally to make the best use of all the space around us, not just the space on the ground. We'll see how it goes.

At any rate, I'm already tired of nursing these seedlings and can't wait to put them outside for good. At this point, they've experienced some of the nicer days outside on the porch but have to come back inside for the damp, chilly nights.

Wish me luck, and check back later for the next installment of Adventures in Edible Gardening.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread Recipe

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“Eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart”

-Ecclesiastes 9:7


Baking bread is sort of a hobby of mine. Having worked in a bakery (the picture is from my brother’s first day on the job with me) and, later, watching the KETC-St. Louis program “Breaking Bread with Father Dominic” (good article about him here), it wasn’t long before I picked it up—in part because it’s also easy and economical. And, who needs a pre-sliced, store-bought, week-old loaf when you can make it yourself and fill your home with the aroma of fresh-baked bread? If only they made car air fresheners with that heavenly bouquet.

Anyway, last night I did a couple loaves: a basic banana bread (wet dough/batter) and an imitation Wonder bread (dry dough/bread machine). The recipe for the latter comes from the Top Secret Recipes cookbook (a disclosure I hope will protect me from a lawsuit should DG rack up as many hits as Pete Rose). But I digress…again.

The Wonder bread was my first try at it and calls for semolina, which looks a bit like fine-ground cornmeal (makes sense, as semolina can sometimes be used as a cornmeal alternative). Yellowish and a little gritty, it’s the same stuff you’ll find in recipes for gnocchi. Nicole said she thinks it might also contain more gluten, making the bread softer in texture. Came out good, but gigantic; I’ve modified the recipe to yield 2 loaves:




1 1/4 C warm water

2 T sugar

2 t salt

1/4 C unsalted butter, melted

4 C white flour

1/4 C semolina

4 1/2 t dry yeast


Add ingredients to bread machine in order listed and select dough cycle. Once dough is complete, separate in half and turn into 2 greased loaf pans, covering each with a bag. Let rise in warm environment for 20-30 minutes or until bread is peeking out above the pans about an inch. Just before placing in a preheated, 350° oven, brush the tops with extra melted butter. Bake for 30 minutes.


Regarding the banana bread…While it’s good on its own, I made the loaf mostly because I had some bananas that were starting to speckle, and because I wanted to try some banana bread French toast, an idea I got from the menu of Butterfield’s Pancake House, which Nicole and I visited on my birthday. Came out good! See below. Too bad the picture’s a little blurry…but you get the idea.


If anyone wants the recipe for banana bread, let me know and I'll share it in my next post. For now, I've gone on long enough (yep, here comes Nicole with the cane to yank me off the stage).

Friday, April 24, 2009

Compost, Compost, Compost

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Looking to grow some veggies this summer? Give your plants a hand with a healthy dose of all-natural compost, which is basically recycled organic stuff. The end result of decomposition, it's an ideal soil conditioner that keeps your garden supplied with rich nutrients. Here's a partial list of stuff you can compost:

apple cores
banana peels
carrot trimmings
corn cobs
potato peels
mushroom stems
cantaloupe rinds
strawberry tops
citrus peels
Jack-O-Lanterns
yard waste
coffee grounds
coffee filters
tea bags
egg shells
dryer machine lint
hair
leftover pizza
old car batteries

...Never mind those last two. ;-) But the other items are legit: basically anything that was grown from the earth can be recycled back into it (the dryer lint, hair and egg shells are sort of anomalies; I've been told worms love egg shells...not sure why).

Did the celery go bad in the crisper? Compost it. What about that old container of fruit salad? You bet. Not only are you improving soil quality, you're extending the life of your garbage disposal and saving space in your trash, where the organic cast-offs would stink and rot.

If you want to get serious about composting, your best bet is to buy or DIY a sturdy bin (mine's homemade). Make sure it has a heavy cover to deter animals and adequate ventilation to allow for proper breakdown of the material and prevent water from stagnating. You'll want to add plenty of carbon to balance out the organics (in our case, paper shredder clippings) and follow the three S's: sift, stir, and spray (with water) so everything decomposes evenly. From there, it's a matter of letting nature take its course, with the sun and air slow-cooking your pile into a dark brown loam...at which point you can fold it into your topsoil. A few random points to remember:

1) Composting is like your diet: you need variety! If your bin is 90% dryer lint, it's no good.

2) You can compost year-round! Waste from the winter decomposes when the weather thaws.

3) Ask friends/neighbors/relatives to pitch in. That's what we do!

4) Worms tend to speed up the process. We added some last year, and Nicole thinks they did the nasty in there also, because we have twice as many now.

5) During the summer, your pile's going to attract fruit flies, so keep it as far away from your living space as possible.

6) No excuses, city-dwellers! What about a small, in-house container?

Happy composting!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Recycling and Freecycling

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Since I bring home a lot of recycling from work (you wouldn't believe how much recyclable food packaging a department of 10 people produces in a week), our City of Aurora recycling bin is usually overflowing with bottles and cans come Friday morning.

I used to go out to the garage on Thursday night and stomp all the cans down under my shoe so that everything would fit and not blow all over the alley. It got to the point, though, that this was taking way too much time. Sometimes the can would shoot out from under me and slide under the car. And it wasn't doing my shoes any favors, either.

So I got a wall-mounted can crusher! Watch as Nicole demonstrates.
video
I know, real exciting stuff. I named it Beverly after Dr. Beverly Crusher on Star Trek. Yeah, yeah, I'm a nerd. It's Nicole's fault, she has season 1 on DVD.

Anywhoo...the really exciting part is that I got it for free from my freecycle group - an online community where you can post items you're looking for, or post items you're trying to get rid of, and people from your neighborhood come pick the items up. It's not swapping or bartering, it's just people that want to keep their old stuff out of the landfills. And as you can see, ol' Bev's still got some life left in her.

For more info, check out freecycle.org and find a group near you.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Eighty Pounds of Tradition: A Sausage-Making Adventure

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Yes, this is the Polish sausage. I could tell you the recipe, but then I'd have to kill you, if my in-laws didn't kill me first. It's a generations-old family secret. We still use Len's grandpa's handwritten recipe, along with his old measuring spoons and the same plastic mixing tubs that Len's dad, aunts and uncle remember from their days as little helpers on annual Sausage Day. The past three years, Len and his brother have taken over their dad's and uncle's jobs of mixing and stuffing (under the close supervision of my father-in-law, of course). I've had the privelege of helping my mother-in-law by measuring the spices, rinsing the casings, and tying off the ends.


I can't share the recipe,
but maybe you can
figure out the spices in
this picture.






Do the seasonings make
it Polish, or is it the
hands that mix it?






The homemade Polish sausage is a staple of Len's family's Easter dinner, but since we only make it once a year, we make so much more than just a holiday's worth; we make enough to have hearty Polish dinners year round. Eighty pounds to divide among us, this year. Open our deep freezer now, and you'll get a blast of frozen garlic breath. Oops! Just gave away one of the major ingredients. Well, that wasn't a hard one to guess. If there's anything in this sausage, there's garlic. Lots and lots of garlic. And maybe some of my brother-in-law's wrist hair (see photo above). Mmm.

Boil, then brown.

A tasty end result.




Hooray for Earth Day!

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Good news on this relatively pleasant Earth Day: there's more than corn in Indiana! The Fowler Ridge Wind Farm in Benton County, about 90 miles northwest of Indianapolis (you can see part of it from US-52), will eventually be one of the largest of its kind, able to produce 750 megawatts of power at peak operation. Currently, there are 222 wind turbines online, with plans to install more this year. Hopefully it'll be a windy year. And what a great picture! Perfect for your computer desktop.

So is it windy in Benton County? I wasn't able to find any weather info online, but most of the local high schoolers agree that Fowler Ridge blows. ;-)

Oh, I just realized this is also the 1-year anniversary of recycling my office's plastic and aluminum! I encourage you to consider doing the same for your place of work (if they don't offer such services already).

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Delicious homegrown apples...in a few years, maybe

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This past fall, Nicole and I got some gargantuan apples from my cousins up north in Wisconsin. I mean, these suckers were as big as grapefruits! I guess apple trees love the "natural fertilizer" cows provide. The apples looked like a cross between a Jonagold and a Cortland - yellowish with lots of pink and red streaks. Haven't yet been able to confirm the exact variety, though (might need to take a trip to Thorpe and see the tree).

Anyway, when Nicole cut them up and turned them into pies, I figured, what the hell, let's save some of the seeds and see if we can get them to germinate. Our online research indicated the best way to do this was to keep them between moist sheets of paper towels in the fridge. But after more than a month, all we saw was a little pink residue on the paper towels.

Nonetheless, I planted about a dozen seeds a few months ago, and after a few days of watering, woohoo, seedlings! So now we have 6 potential trees growing on our sill. The tallest, shown here, measures about 8" with a hardy-looking stalk. Not sure where we'll plant them yet (it's not like we have room for an orchard in our backyard) or if we'll be able to pollenate them effectively, but who knows, maybe a few years from now we'll be baking a bunch of king-size apple pies with apples plucked from our very own tree!

UPDATE: We're still nurturing three beautiful apple saplings in 2012! Click here to read a recap of our apple tree experience.

This Land Is Your Land

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You don't have to look far to find "green news" these days (in fact, all you need to do is check our blog). And while there's positive green news to share (a community garden, a new wind farm, etc.), there's also lots of depressing stuff coming across the wire, too. Lots. Need an example? See the slideshow at:

http://lifestyle.msn.com/your-life/living-green/staticslideshowgreenchan.asp
x?cp-documentid=18995575>1=45002

...allow me to sum it up: yuck! Basically, this is a coast-to-coast rundown of some of the most pollution-filled places in the U.S. (never mind the "muck factories" dotting the globe - same of which paradoxically provide us with the goods and luxuries we enjoy all around us, but that's another story altogether). The article covers air (L.A.'s smog), land (Colorado's mining district, the soil of which contains high levels of cadmium, lead and arsenic, to name a few) and water pollution (the Gulf of Mexico's ever-increasing levels of "agricultural runoff" supplied by the Mississippi River).

A lot of these places, the EPA calls them "superfund" sites, because they qualify for gobs of money and broad federal authority to clean them up - because they pose a serious danger to public health (we're talking hazmat suits). And believe me, we've done some serious environmental damage in our 233 years: as of this past December 12, there are 1,255 of these sites on the National Priority List and 63 new sites proposed. Yikes.

None of the highlighted locations are near me (thankfully), but that's not to say the article makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, either. Like Woody Guthrie sang, this land is your land, this land is my land; and reading this article, I'm reminded of our environmental responsibility. I hate to sound all goody-goody, but it's true: if we all roll up our sleeves, just a little, we can make a difference. Example: it may not make a big impact, but when I'm biking and I have the Croozer with me, I'll toss whatever bottles and cans that litter the road into it so I can recycle them at home. Think globally, act locally, right? Just a thought for the day...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Green Pizza

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...as in spinach. Deep dish. Gino's East-style. Need I say more? I guess we might also be saving some "green" by making the 'za ourselves. Found a reverse-engineered recipe online (for Gino's pepperoni) and gave it a try, with only a few minor tweaks. Prepared in my cast-iron skillet, just as our forefathers used to make pizza thousands of years ago. Flavor-wise, it was pretty close...a couple more attempts and, if all goes well, you won't be able to tell the difference between homemade and the real deal!

Trust me folks, no need to adjust your monitors...it was as delicious as it looks!

as promised, Croozer pics

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from the manual...













and, an "action" shot from a trip on the Katy Trail in MO:































Speaking of Earth Day...

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Nicole and I also participated in Earth Hour back on March 28. Hurried home from the folks to unscrew our garage and porch lights (which are activated by stupidly hyper-sensitive light sensors). Rather than unplug everything in the house, I just flipped all the fuses in the fuse box, and, look at that, the meter's dial came to a halt.

Looking across the park we saw some houses that appeared to be participating, but probably an equal number of houses that didn't seem to be taking it seriously. It was cool to get rid of some of the unnecessary light pollution...even if it had a slightly post-apocalyptic vibe to it ("no phones no lights no motorcars, not a single luxury..."). Why don't we do this Earth Hour more often? And why is Earth Hour not on Earth Day? I'm curious to know. Might have to look into that.

If you're interested in more info, check out earthhour.org.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Everything's Greener

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Oh, today is a beautiful day! I'm wearing my most comfortable, light-weight capri pants and one of my favorite T-shirts, the windows are open... Ahh.

It's mostly cloudy here, but the air is warmer than it has been in years (really, about six months, but Chicago's winters seem infinite) and is, in my opinion, very comfortably humid. When the weather warms up, everything's greener. Well duh, you think, but I don't mean just the buds on the trees and the grass in the backyard (which actually looks mostly dead again!). We are greener, too.

Today we ran our first bicycle errand of the season, and man, it felt good. The gentle hills on the way home were a tad challenging, once our baskets, backpack and the Croozer were loaded with groceries, but I was pleased to find out that I'm not entirely out of shape. And it's nice not to have to rely on the car for little trips like this. In fact, biking to the store is my favorite way to multitask: Running an errand, working out, enjoying this perfect weather and being green. When it's cold outside, we can only run errands. In the car. Pbth. When it's pleasant out, the vegetable garden gets going, I stir the compost pile more often, we walk or bike most places instead of driving, Len completes a bunch of household projects (little improvements, often repairing or making new use of things that would otherwise be trash), we shut off the furnace! It's green, it's great.

So why am I inside, blogging, when it's so nice outside? Just to share one of our small, everyday adventures. Oh, and to drop a reminder: Earth Day is this Wednesday, April 22! This year, try to reduce your impact on the environment by doing something you don't normally do. That could mean not doing something, like driving unnecessarily.

As the plants outside find it easier to turn green with the warm weather, I hope you do, too.