Thursday, March 28, 2013

Adventurously Green

Almost exactly a year ago, I signed up on Practically Green to compare our habits against a list of environmentally responsible ideals, to set goals that would improve our greenness and to in turn earn badges that would, well, be just for fun.

I had lamented that the "Healthy Green Lunch" badge was rather unattainable for us because our grocery budget just isn't suited to include so many organic items, but I was going to work on a few improvements in this area anyway, like using glass containers in the microwave instead of plastic and making reusable sandwich bags. ...Still working on those. We have taken salad or soup in mason jars for lunch a few times, but we regularly use those ubiquitous cheap plastic lunch containers, the safety of which always seems to be under review.

There are other goals I have made and completed, though, like recycling our old running shoes (the Nike store at a nearby outlet mall had a drop-off), cancelling our yellow pages delivery via, and recycling a stockpile of plastic grocery bags at our grocery store's drop-off. And badges I've earned: Conscious Consumer, Eco-Commuter, Frugalista, Grow Your Own and DIY. These have earned me enough points to go up a level from "Solidly Green" to "Adventurously Green." I like the title. Maybe I shouldn't add anymore green actions so as to keep it...

No, actually I do have some new goals to complete over the summer, and even then, I don't think they'll add up to the amount of points required to move up another level. Regardless, it's not about badges and levels (though that makes it more fun, doesn't it?). Here are a few of my goals:
Switch to reusable sandwich bags. For real this time!
Switch to a reusable coffee filter.
Join a community-supported fishery. If there is such a thing in my community.
Donate clothes to charity. You know that pile has been sitting there for months.
Plant a rain garden.
Install rain barrels. Dare I pester the homeowners' association?

Earth Day's coming up. The perfect time for such verdant goals. What are yours?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Guinness Pie, a St. Patty's treat

Every year for St. Patrick's Day, as many Americans do, I make corned beef and cabbage while Len makes Irish soda bread. We love the meal, we love the leftovers. Then just a couple of weeks before St. Patty's Day 2013, I stumbled upon a recipe for Guinness stew pot pies.

Some traditions must be overturned.

It does make me wonder, though, just how much beef and potatoes we could stand to eat in a short time, because for future St. Patrick's days, I'm not sure how I'll decide between traditional corned beef and cabbage and traditional Guinness pie.

You'll have to go to Green Eggs & Spam's website for the recipe I used. (Must give credit where credit is due.) But here I will share my Guinness pie experience in photos.

My friend Robin often posts some great "here are your ingredients" images on her blog, so I thought I'd give an ingredients shot a shot... And yes, my garlic cloves are sprouting greens.

I've made this recipe twice now (immediately upon discovery and then again for St. Pat's), and I found it quite helpful to have my veggies chopped and broth measured before I started doing any cooking. You know, mise en place.

You might notice peeking out of the top right corner something else I always find handy to have "en place"—a receptacle for collecting compost. So it's chop, chop, chop, peel, peel, chop, chop, and then all the carrot peels and onion skins and bad spots on the potatoes are quickly swept away, leaving my cutting board and counter top clean and roomy and making for a quick and easy dump into the compost bin out back.

The first step, once the ingredients are all ready to go, so nice and organized like I'm on a cooking show or something, was flouring and browning the beef.

Then, simmering the potatoes, onion, and garlic in the beer.

Then adding the carrots and broth and simmering some more, before it all gets piled into a big dish with the beef to go into the oven for a couple of hours.

Our house smelled so good.

Crescent roll dough and four single-serve pie dishes, 30 minutes more in the oven...

Super delicious. I could have made six individual pies out of the stew, but we only have four of these cute pie dishes, so what remained was eaten later as simply stew.

That was my first time, when I tried the recipe out before committing to the new tradition. When I made it again two weeks later, I put a shepherd's pie twist on it, adding peas and decreasing the amount of potatoes in the stew itself and using fluffy mashed potatoes as the "crust."

Also pretty yummy.

On review, I prefer the original recipe's crescent roll crust. But, I liked the leftovers of the second version better -- stew mixed with mashed potatoes. Oh, baby.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Earth Hour 2013 - Join me!

Get ready to flip the switch. We're counting down to Earth Hour!

In case you haven't noticed the clock and logo in my sidebar, Earth Hour 2013 is Saturday, March 23, 8:30 p.m. your local time. And for those of you joining us for the first time, Earth Hour is a worldwide awareness event during which participants unplug all nonessential appliances and turn off all the lights for one hour. It is cool, it is fun, and yes, it is real. In fact, it has become huge.

The team of people behind this wonderfully dark demonstration have been posting some interesting news and ideas on their Earth Hour Blog. Here's just a glimpse of the topics:

  • Did you know that some hotels and casinos have been taking Earth Hour beyond the hour by extinguishing some of their lights for one hour every month? While it's primarily a symbolic gesture, it does have the practical application of a slight reduction in energy usage, and even a tiny decrease is better than an increase. I mean, you've seen how well-lit casinos are.

  • Meanwhile, chefs all over the world are making an all-around green event out of Earth Hour. Restaurant patrons can dine on sustainable food items during the candlelit meal, while home cooks can try out some Earth Hour recipes created by their favorite celebrity chefs.

  • Kids tend to latch onto an idea and become some of the most passionate activists, don't they? Some youngsters are doing some pretty cool things, extending Earth Hour into broader environmental campaigns.

What do I love about Earth Hour?

It's so visual. When you can see your city's landmarks go dim, suddenly the night sky is clearer, and so is the message.

It's impactful. If one hour of lights out can make a measurable difference, just imagine the difference we could all make by being just a little more mindful of what we could unplug every day.

But most of all, it's so easy! Just turn off all of your lights and—I feel like I have to throw this in every year—unplug your dang phone charger!

I will if you will. And I will, so...

Monday, March 4, 2013

A Time to Prune

The snow, like moth-eaten fleece, wears thin over the loamy bed that is now solid and unforgiving but slowly warming, bracing for the first impact of spade. Not long now.

Spring is looming and much is about to happen in the garden. Meanwhile, the dead of winter requires little of casual gardeners like us aside from reflecting, dreaming, planning.

There was pruning, though. In mid-January we pruned our apple trees for the first time, guided by instructions and illustrations we found online, like this helpful article from Weekend Gardener. The basic idea with these young saplings is to start planning the shape of the tree and to think ahead about how branches will grow, keeping them out of each other's way, preventing a bramble of twigs from clogging up the middle of the tree. It's a good bet we should have pruned even more aggressively than we did, but it's a little scary just to hack away at a living thing. I suppose that's why you do it in the middle of winter. The tree is well dormant, storing all of its life deep below the soil in its roots. It will simply awaken in the spring thinking, Hm. I feel lighter. I mean, if trees think. There's next winter, anyway, for additional pruning once we see how this summer's growth turns out.

The grape vines also need pruning this time of year, and I finally took care of that this weekend. Just in time, I think. Again, online articles were helpful in guiding my shears. The main idea with grape vines is to get rid of the newest growth.

We already cut back the raspberry bushes in the fall, when it's obvious which canes have just produced fruit and/or which canes are dead—both need to be removed. The blueberry bushes were too small for us to bother with pruning them (the rabbits did a lot of that anyway!), and actually, they might be dead. We'll soon see. I just purchased two more blueberry bushes. I may have to take soil amendment more seriously this time around.

This week is also the week we can reserve our spot at the community garden! ...And then wait a month and a half to get in there.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Chipotle Stuffed Sweet Potatoes

Did you ever try out a recipe thinking it looked pretty good and then it actually turned out fantastic? Like, "kick-you-in-the-crotch, spit-on-your-neck, fantastic?" (Thanks, Friends.) And so it was with these sweet potatoes. So delicious I surprised myself.

I was so inspired by these chipotle chicken sweet potato skins that I wanted to make them that very night, but I didn't feel like getting meat out of the freezer or going to the grocery store, so as I often do, I was going to substitute ingredients to avoid a trip to the grocery store (for example, I had peppers to use up in my fridge rather than spinach). Also, I didn't feel like saving the insides of the potato for something else.

So mine ended up more like twice-baked potatoes, and became a delicious and substantial vegetarian meal on their own.

Chipotle Stuffed Sweet Potatoes
Makes six stuffed potatoes, number of servings depends on how hungry you are.

3 medium sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 jalapeƱo peppers, chopped and seeded (I used red jalapeƱos)
1 poblano pepper, chopped and seeded
2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin
salt and pepper
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
shredded cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wash the sweet potatoes and stab them a few times to make some steam holes. Bake in the oven about an hour, until fork tender. (You may want to position a pan on the rack below the potatoes to catch the sugary juice that seeps out of those steam holes—it's sticky and burns on the bottom of your oven.)

Meanwhile, combine in a large bowl the oil, vinegar, garlic, peppers, and spices. Set aside.

When the potatoes are done baking, remove them from the oven and crank the oven up to 400 degrees. Slice the potatoes in half lengthwise and, when they've cooled for a few minutes so you can handle them, scoop out the flesh. Put the skins on a baking sheet and brush their insides with just a little of the oil/vinegar mixture. Put them back in the oven for 5-10 minutes, just to help the skin crisp a little more.

Put the sweet potato flesh and the beans in the bowl with the oil/vinegar mixture and mash until there are no more solid chunks of potato and the seasonings are well blended with the potatoes and beans. It doesn't matter how many beans get mashed or stay whole.

Pull the potato skins back out of the oven. Stuff them with mounds of the potato/bean filling and top each with some shredded cheese. Put them back in the oven for another 10 minutes or so, until the cheese is nice and melty and everything is heated through. Serve hot.

Linked up at Friday Favorites, How To Tuesday