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Children and Nature Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Uncategorized

Start Gardening at Home

cilantro babies

Are you at home more and wanting to go to the grocery store less?  This might be a good year to grow some of your own food at home.

When I started this blog I was the School Gardens Coordinator in the most densely populated city in New England: Somerville, MA. I’m now living (and still happily gardening), in rural Vermont.  Over the years I’ve posted many articles about how to start your own garden, whether it’s in raised beds, pots on a porch, or a large plot tilled in a field.  I’ve gathered the posts below in the hopes that they might help you get started or answer some of your questions.

*Please excuse funky formatting of older posts.  I recently changed the format of the blog to make it more mobile friendly.

making-quick-work-of-a-weeding-chore

Gardening with kids: If you have kids at home, this article has a lot of really helpful tips.  When I wrote it I was coordinating the weekly programming and maintaining the vegetable gardens at 8 Somerville public schools.  Gardening is an incredibly rich sensory activity that allows for movement and engaged outdoor time.  Watching seeds grow into plants and produce food is magical.  I strongly encourage you to try it with your family!

Pic 1006

Making a Raised Bed Back-Yard Garden: I wrote this series of posts when Evan and I built raised beds in the backyard in Brookline.  Raised beds can be a good idea if you want clear boundaries between play/yard space and garden space.  This can help family members understand where they can walk and where they can’t, can help lawn mowers avoid veggie plants, and can keep lawn grass from creeping back into your garden.  The “Planning” post has the most information on how to get started in your backyard space.
Bakyard Gardening: The Idea
Backyard Gardening: Planning
Backyard Gardening: The Shopping List
Backyard Gardening: Construction Day
Backyard Gardening: First Harvest
Backyard Gardening: Putting The Garden To Bed

7d

Seeds vs. Seedlings: Sometimes it’s best to buy vegetable seedlings from a nursery.  Sometimes it’s better to buy a packet of seeds to start yourself.  Check out this post  to decide whether to buy seeds or seedlings.

IMG_4437

Consider planning a Container Garden: If you live in an urban setting with questionable soil, rent or are planning to move, or have a nice sunny porch, you may want to consider a container garden!  Containers are a great way to try out vegetable growing on a small scale, and can help you determine if you’d like to do more the next season.  If you start gathering materials now, it can also be a very affordable option!  This post lists all the things you should consider to grow a successful container garden.

Seasonality Tips: In April it’s still quite cold and only certain seeds should be planted.  Check out this post to know what to plant when.

Let me know if you have any vegetable gardening questions!  Questions from friends, family, and neighbors inspired every one of these posts.  Happy Gardening!

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Recipes Uncategorized

Homemade Sushi

homemade-sushi-platter

Making your own sushi is a surprisingly easy process and creates a beautiful array of appetizers or centerpiece for a special meal.  The most difficult part of the process in Vermont is obtaining really high quality raw fish.  If you do have a good source, that’s great!  If not, there are plenty of other delicious ingredients that can be used to make flavorful and colorful sushi rolls.

The only piece of equipment that is unique to the sushi-making process is a bamboo sushi rolling mat.  They’re widely available online for less than five dollars, however, and don’t take up much room in a drawer.

making-sushi-at-home

Prepare your rice:

True sushi rice should be white and short grain, prepared with rice vinegar.  Cook one cup of rice with just over one cup water.  Cover pot and bring to boil.  Simmer, covered, for about 10 additional minutes until water has been absorbed.  Taste rice to make sure it is cooked through.  If so, stir in two tablespoons rice vinegar and a dash of salt. Allow to rest, covered for a few more minutes so any grains stuck to your pot release.

Decide on your flavors:

“Sticked” or thin log shapes (imagine a carrot stick or baby carrot) work best for rolling into sushi.  Thick spreads like cream cheese can also work well.  Very hard things or ingredients in small pieces or bits work less well.  I like avocado slices, pieces of cooked sweet potato (extra credit for marinating them ahead of time), marinated tofu slices, smoked salmon (if you don’t have a reliable source for raw), red onions, egg strips (beat eggs with salt and sesame oil, fry in a flat “pancake” in a frying pan, cut into strips), and various pickled vegetables.  I often scan the fridge for leftovers that could be included.

Prepare your prep counter:

Gather everything you need on a counter with plenty of space.  I gather: my rice pot, a bowl of water for dipping fingers, a sharp knife, a cutting board, a bamboo rolling mat, nori (seaweed) sheets, ingredients for inside the sushi, and a platter for completed rolls.

ready-to-roll-sushi

Roll the sushi:

It will become much more clear how to make a nice sushi roll after trying it once!  Here’s my best effort to explain using words:  Lay out your bamboo mat and place a sheet of nori on top, closer to the left side of the mat.  Dip your fingers in water to moisten them.  This keeps the rice from sticking.  Take a handful of rice and push it into a thin layer covering the left half of your piece of nori.  Arrange your ingredients in a modest strip from the top to bottom along the left edge of the rice.  Moisten the bare right hand side of the nori with water.

Begin to roll the left edge over and around your ingredient strip.  When the left edge touches down, keep the bamboo mat up (so you don’t roll it into the sushi, and continue to roll the sushi until you’ve reached the end of the nori.  Give the whole roll (with the bamboo still around the outside) a gentle squeeze to bond everything together.  Your ultimate goal is to have enough rice to wrap around your inside ingredients, with extra nori to bind to itself, making a strong outer layer.  No matter how it comes out, it will taste good!

Open up the bamboo mat and lay the sushi roll on a cutting board.  Moisten the blade of a sharp knife with water.  Gently slice your roll into pieces of sushi and arrange on your platter.

Enjoy!

We serve our sushi with a dipping sauce (soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, and hot pepper paste), pickled ginger, and wasabi.  Yum!

homemade-sushi

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Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes Uncategorized

Better Bitters

homemade-bitters

Our pantry, freezer, and fridge are stocked with organic whole foods.  I feel incredibly fortunate to have access to such high quality ingredients, many originating here in Vermont and some from around the globe.  Cooking everything from scratch (and barely ever eating out) allows us to spend more on the raw materials, making incredibly high quality meals quite affordable.

Then one day out of curiosity I took a peek at the Angostora Bitters ingredients panel from our cabinet… Alcohol, water, sugar, gentian, natural flavorings, carmel color and added colors.  Not the worst things in the world, but I realized that I could do way better!  Why hadn’t I thought of making my own bitters before now?

It turns out, making bitters is incredibly easy.  Simply steep ingredients like citrus peels, herbs, or spices in vodka, strain, and enjoy!  But what to steep?

Inspired by great new companies, like Urban Moonshine and Salud Bitters, I wanted my bitters to be functional and delicious.  I had also been meaning to take advantage of the collection of herbalism resources I’d been accumulating.

medicinal-herb-books

Browsing through my books, I started to list combinations of herbs, spices, and citrus peels that would promote health or ease ailments.  I’m no herbalist, so I don’t guarantee results.  I know that herbal remedies need to be used regularly over time to be effective and I’m not planning on having bitters every day.  The herbalism lens, however, was useful to me in concocting some intentional blends from millions of possibilities.

A simpler option, of course, would be to start with single or two-ingredient bitters.  Orange, cardamom, or ginger bitters would all be great all on their own.  I was ready to make a project out of it, however, so I pulled tons of ingredients out of the cupboards and got to work.

bitters-ingredients

I filled each jar about 1/3 of the way up with herbs, spices, and peels (dried ingredients will expand and you want everything to stay below the level of the vodka).  I then filled each jar with vodka, labeled each with its ingredients list, and let them sit in a dark corner of my kitchen.  I shook them daily (sort of… on the days I remembered).  After two weeks, I strained and rebottled into old hot sauce jars.  Perfect for pouring small amounts!

bitters-steeping

Though my concoctions were blended without really knowing how they would taste, I love the unique flavor of each one.  I now have a diverse selection on hand for adding to seltzer, water, or cocktails.  What an easy way to upgrade this versatile cupboard ingredient!

homemade-bitters

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Musings Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes Uncategorized

Preparing for the Holidays, Naturally

The holidays can be a time of crazy consumption, extra trash, and lots of spending. OR, they can be an opportunity to celebrate nature’s wintery beauty and pour positive energy into homemade gifts made for loved ones.

winter-greens

Yesterday’s new snowfall set the scene for the start to my holiday preparations.  Without the garden to tend, I’ve had time to rest from major projects at home and recharge.  I cheerily began to gather ingredients for gift making.  A walk outside yielded foraged materials for decorating the house and a handful of greens (and edible flowers!) pulled from the snow-covered garden.  Back inside, with a fire crackling in the wood stove, I got to work.

sprays-and-bouquets

Click here to read about my natural holiday decoration suggestions.

herbal-teaClick here for a great list of ideas for homemade gifts you can make in the kitchen.  Additional delicious gift ideas I’ve written about include homemade crackers, dukkah, herbal tea mixes, homemade vanilla extract, all-in-one soup mix, and homemade apple sauce.

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Children and Nature Uncategorized

Tapping Time

It has been a strange winter indeed.  If you can even call it a winter.  Certainly the extended periods of cold and accumulation of fluffy white snow that all Vermonters take for granted have been missed this year.  I’m moving on.  It’s Maple Syrup Season!

Tapping-2016-1

The forecast calls temperatures that dip below freezing at night and rise above freezing during the day.  That means it’s time to tap!  We are lucky to be surrounded by folks well-equipped to make delicious syrup from their sugar maple trees.  I don’t feel the need to invest time and money into making my own.  For the past few years, however, I’ve chosen to tap one tree at our house and use the sap for fun and delicious kitchen experiments.  It’s exciting to have a fresh ingredient to use after winter months of soups, stews, and frozen and canned veggies.  I encourage anyone who has a sugar maple in their yard to give it a try!

Learn more by reading some of the posts I wrote during past sugaring seasons:

–> For more detailed instructions for how to tap a tree at home or school and boil sap down in a kitchen, check out this blog post.

–> Want to cook with sap, rather than taking hours to boil it down into syrup?  Check out this post.

–> Want to make your own tap, or spile, from a sumac branch?  It’s free and quite easy!  This post will teach you how.

–> Are you a teacher?  Here are several fun games and activities that can help students understand the science, history, and math behind maple syrup production.

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Personal Sustainability: How-To Uncategorized

Happy Easter! Springtime Felting

felted-chick-in-eggDespite the fresh snow on the ground, it really is starting to feel like spring around here.  Sap has been flowing steadily, the river ice has melted, and migrating birds have begun to return to Vermont.  We’ve been busy felting after school for the past several weeks.  First we felted colorful eggs.  Then we felted little chicks to go inside them!  Wet felting is a great activity for students of all ages – even the youngest children in our group can felt their own balls.  If you’re interested in felting your own spring chick and egg, click the links below.  Then check out our process and results.  Happy spring!

Felting Tutorials:
-Wet Felting Easter Eggs: One technique here and another good one in video form
-Blanket Stitch: Here’s an easy to understand video
-Wet Felting Balls With Kids: I detailed our process in my post about felting acorns.
-Wet Felting Chicks: One technique (scroll to the bottom).  I ended up just sewing two wet-felted balls together, and needle felting on the beak and eyes.

Our students wet-felted their own eggs and balls, which we then transformed into cute little chicks
Our students wet-felted their own eggs and balls, which we then transformed into cute little chicks.  Egg cartons are a great way to keep felted balls organized and keep track of whose is whose.
blanket-stitch
We wet felted around plastic eggs, slit them open, and used a blanket stitch to firm up the “cracked” edge.
We used a needle and thread to sew the two balls together to form our chick's head and body.
We used a needle and thread to sew the two balls together to form our chick’s head and body.
I needle felted on the beak and eyes, but these could be sewn on as well. I also needle felted on some additional yellow wool roving to make wings, but we didn't have time to do this with the students.
I needle felted on the beak and eyes, but these could be sewn on as well. I also needle felted on some additional yellow wool roving to make wings, but we didn’t have time to do this with the students.
Chick and Egg Assembly Line
Chick and Egg Assembly Line
A felted chick in its egg!
A felted chick in its egg!

 

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Children and Nature Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

DIY Maple Sugaring

winter-maple-branch

sap-drip-sumac-spileUp here in Vermont, our temperatures have begun rising above freezing during the day and falling below 32 degrees at night.  That means it’s sugaring season!  Though specialized technology and expensive equipment have been developed to help large sugar-makers boost their production of luxurious maple syrup, it’s possible to make maple syrup in your back yard without spending much.  One thing is consistent for all scales of syrup production: it takes a lot of time!

hang-sap-bucket

It is early spring.  I’m itching to spend more time outside, am no longer excited by our local ingredients stored or preserved many months ago, and won’t start my garden for several months.  I find that tapping, collecting sap, and experimenting with this sweet ingredient in the kitchen is exactly how I’d like to spend my spare time.

sap-pour

Learn more by reading some of the posts I wrote during past sugaring seasons:

–> For more detailed instructions for how to tap a tree at home or school and boil sap down in a kitchen, check out this blog post.

–> Want to cook with sap, rather than taking hours to boil it down into syrup?  Check out this post.

–> Want to make your own tap, or spile, from a sumac branch?  It’s free and quite easy!  This post will teach you how.

–> Are you a teacher?  Here are several fun games and activities that can help students understand the science, history, and math behind maple syrup production.

2) Measure trunk circumference to determine how many taps can be drilled in the tree

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Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

A Lardy Afternoon

Most people have pretty negative associations with the word “lard.”  According to a recent story by NPR, we have Procter & Gamble’s marketing team to thank.  “…Unlike lard, Crisco was made in a lab by scientists, not necessarily an appetizing idea back then.  Procter & Gamble turned all that to its advantage. It launched an ad campaign that made people think about horrible stories of … lard. The ads touted how pure and wholesome Crisco was.”

It seems, however, as though tides are turning.  Mainstream media are publishing articles “Singing the Praises of Fat,” “Ending the War on Fat” and “A Call for a Low-Carb Diet That Embraces Fat.”  Furthermore, nutritionists agree that Trans Fat (like Crisco and Vegetable Shortening) should be avoided entirely.  A final key piece of information: animals raised outdoors on pasture consume more vitamins through consumption of fresh green grass, other foraged food, and from the sun.  They store important fat soluble vitamins (A, E, D, and K) in their body fat.  Lard from pastured pigs is especially high in vitamin D and in the same monounsaturated fat (oleic acid) that gives olive oil and avocados their heart-healthy characteristics.

Perhaps it’s worth revisiting the original shortening: Lard.  On a frigid afternoon I decided to finally “deal with” the grass-fed lard leaf I’d purchased from a small farm in our neighborhood.  If you know any local farms with pastured pigs, call them up!  Leaf lard will likely be the cheapest item they sell.  With a crock pot, my leaf lard turned out to be very simple to render.

warm-lard

crock-pot-lardHow To Render Your Own Lard
-Ground leaf lard
-1/4 cup water
-Crock pot

1) Grinding the leaf lard makes everything very easy!  If you don’t have a meat grinder, try asking a local butcher to help or pulse it in a food processor.  You can also cut it into small cubes if you don’t have access to any processing equipment.

2) Put your ground leaf lard, along with 1/4 cup water, into your crock pot.  The water will keep things from burning and will evaporate by the end of the cooking process.  Set crock pot to low, and cook (covered) for an entire afternoon.  You’ll notice the fat cooking out of the solids.  I gave mine a stir every once in a while.

warm-lard3) When the cracklings (the little pieces of solids) sink to the bottom, it’s time to strain.  Pour the contents of your crock pot through a strainer, sieve, or cheesecloth into a bowl.  Then pour the strained lard from the bowl into jars.  It will look yellow, but will turn pure white when it cools to room temperature

4) Finish off your cracklings!  Toss your cracklings in a frying pan with some salt, and cook as you would bacon.  Like bacon, my cracklings browned better when I poured off the excess fat (I poured it into my half-full jar of lard) mid-way through.

cracklings

lard5) Store lard in the refrigerator or freezer so that it keeps its fresh mild flavor and doesn’t go rancid.  Cracklings can be used like bacon bits.  I like to heat them back up again in a frying pan to get them extra crispy.  I then sprinkle them over foods like guacamole, nachos, salad, or black beans as a special garnish.  Lard is a great fat to use for frying, pie crusts, and baked goods.  It is quite mild, so unlike bacon grease, it won’t add its own flavor to the foods you are cooking.

Want to add another traditional grass-fed animal fat back into your diet?  Check out my post on making your own butter.

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Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To Recipes

Simple Sauerkraut

Have you heard how awesome fermented foods are? (if not, check out this story or this one on NPR or this longer article in the New York Times)  If you are trying to fit more fermented foods into your diet, and you don’t have unlimited money, try making your own at home!  A cabbage and two tablespoons of salt, the ingredients of sauerkraut, cost a buck or two.  A quart of “live” sauerkraut can easily set you back $10.   Sandor Katz, one of the most famous advocates of fermentation, recommends “starting with sauerkraut,” and I agree!

packed-in-jars

It’s easy to make your own sauerkraut and you can do it without buying any unusual or extra tools or ingredients for your kitchen.  Once you get the hang of it, you’ll never look back!  Here’s how:

smashing-log1) Gather ingredients (1 organic cabbage, 1 tablespoon sea salt), containers (1 half gallon ball jar, or equivalent, and a bowl it can sit on), and tools (knife, cutting board, big tupperware container or pot, washed log with flat end).  Yes, the tools include a washed log with a flat end!  Instead of buying a “tamper,” we went out to the wood pile and selected a nice maple log that was about 1.5″ diameter, brought it in, and washed it off in the sink.
cutting-cabbage1
2) Rinse cabbage and remove any really yucky outer leaves.  Outer leaves that are simply wilted are fine to leave.

3) Cut up the cabbage.  Any shape will do.  I like halving the cabbage, laying each flat half down, cutting strips, and then cutting those strips into shorter pieces.  I leave the core in – it’s just as delicious when pickled.
cutting-cabbage
4) Fill big tupperware or pot, no more than 1/3 of the way up, with cabbage pieces.  Add a proportionate amount of your salt.  If you fit half the cabbage, add half your salt: 1/2 tablespoon.  If you want to add spices, now’s the time to do it.

smashing5) Hold the container between your feet and mash, over and over again, with your tamper or log.  You want to break the cell walls and mash in the salt.  This will cause the cabbage to release liquids – enough to cover your sauerkraut with brine!  When you’ve mashed enough, you’ll notice that the pieces don’t pop around in the container as much when pounding.  They’ll be limper and less firm than when you started.

packing-red6) Pack mashed leaf and salt combination into your ball jar.  Use your masher and the back of a strong spoon to pack down the leaves as much as possible.

7) If you still have un-pounded cabbage and space in your jar, repeat chopping and mashing process until the (tightly packed) cabbage rises to one or two inches below the top of your jar.  Don’t go higher than that.  Liquid should be covering mashed packed leaves.  If it doesn’t, let everything sit for ten minutes and try pushing the leaves down into the jar again.  The salt will work its magic helping the leaves release juices.

packed-in-jars8) Cover and put in a bowl in a warmish place in your house where you’ll notice it.  A kitchen counter works well for us.  When you’re just starting, you’ll want to keep an eye on things.  Check your kraut every day.  The bowl is important – juice may leak out the top and you’ll want to catch it.

get-the-air-out9) KEY SECRET STEP: This seems to be left off of most sauerkraut how-to lists.  It can make the difference between limp stinky kraut and a crunchy yummy final product.  Stick a butter knife down into your kraut each day in a bunch of different spots to allow any air bubbles to come to the top.  If any liquid came out of the jar and was caught in your bowl, pour it back in.  Push kraut back down, making sure all the cabbage remains covered in liquid every day.  The key to good kraut is to make sure it sours in an anaerobic environment.  You can use all sorts of expensive tools for this, or you can do daily check-ups, using a butter knife to remove air bubbles and a spoon to push leaves back below the brine.

10) Taste it!  After 4 or 5 days, taste a piece!  Sauerkraut will sour at different rates based on the sugar content of the cabbage, the quantity of bacteria present, and the temperature in your house.  Plus, YOU need to decide when it has soured enough for your taste.  Everyone’s perferences are different.

11) When you love it, stick it in the fridge.  Naturally fermented veggies will last for a long time in the fridge.  Just make sure to keep the leaves submerged in brine.  If it starts to dry out and there isn’t enough brine to cover the leaves, add a bit of water and maybe a sprinkle of salt.  If the top layer gets a white filmy mold, don’t worry!  If it grosses you out scoop it off.  It won’t hurt you.  When you’ve finished the kraut, any remaining brine can be used in recipes (salad dressing, soup flavoring, etc.) or used to inoculate your next batch of pickles.

Want to pickle other veggies?  It’s easy!  Check out this blog post to learn more.

Love to play around with flavors?  Try pounding in a traditional combination of caraway and juniper berries to your next batch.  It’s delicious!

spiced-green
Green cabbage – with salt, caraway, and juniper – ready to pound
Categories
Home Gardens Personal Sustainability: How-To

Homemade Holidays

snowy-wreath

Holidays can be full of angst, over-eating, and consumerism.  Without much additional effort, however, they can be rich: full of delicious food, meaningful family traditions, community appreciation, playfulness outside in the snow, and thoughtful gift giving.  With vacation from work and more time at home with the family, holidays are the perfect opportunity to try making favorite foods from scratch.  Projects in the kitchen are the perfect way to fill cold winter days.  Crafting your own holiday presents can also make for useful and meaningful gifts for your friends and family.

Dinnans IllustrationTwo years ago, I decided to make eggnog from scratch.   Now that I’ve enjoyed the homemade version, I’ll never buy it from the store again!  Several past DIY experiments have also turned into go-to gifts ideas.  Have you ever made your own salves or hand lotion?  Here’s a post with other DIY gifts for food lovers.  And of course, it wouldn’t be the holidays without your family’s favorite cookies.  Here are the recipes for our favorite Christmas treats.  Have a happy holiday season!

A view from my walk around our "block."
A view from my walk around our “block.”
Snowy Lewis Creek
Snowy Lewis Creek