Stockposting

  • July 31, 2011 8:30 pm

The New York Times Dining section printed a wonderfully conscious, fun, and eco article about using everything when you cook this past Wednesday, called That’s Not Trash, That’s Dinner. Cute. Read it here.

It reminded me of a section I wrote in The Conscious Kitchen about what I call stockposting–I use what most people put in the compost pile (or the trash) to make stock. Well it’s really more like scrap broth than stock but whatever you call it, it’s making use of every last bit of kitchen odds and ends to add flavor to your next dish. Basically it’s common sense. Back in the day it was frugal grandma territory. Now it’s hip. I love it!

Here’s the stockposting section from The Conscious Kitchen:

Restaurants never waste a scrap; they can’t afford to.  But at home, we all do.  It’s alarming how much useable food we toss.  Before composting, see what you can still use.  Things like celery fronds, spinach stems, and the outer layers of onions can be used to make vegetable stock, for example.  I call it stockposting.  Keep a bowl in the fridge or a jar in the freezer to collect these odds and ends in, too, and when you have a full container (and the time) toss them on the stove in a pot of water with some seasoning.  Strain it and store the resulting broth in the fridge or freezer.  What could be better than homemade veggie stock out of what you thought was nothing?  For similar chicken stock, boil stockposting ingredients with a bound-for-the-garbage roast chicken carcass.  It won’t be as hearty as a traditional stock, but it does the trick to add flavor and liquid to grains, sauces, and more.

Q&A: Stuffed Animals

  • July 28, 2011 9:42 am
THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,
I was really interested in your post about buying safe toys for your daughter.  I found this extremely timely, as I’m expecting my first child momentarily (literally; due date is tomorrow!).  I’d love to know your philosophy on stuffed/plush animal toys– most all the ones we’ve received as gifts are made in China.  My husband and I are trying to avoid products made with harmful chemicals, sketchy manufacturing processes, etc. through product research and just buying LESS stuff (which dovetails nicely with our having no place to store it anyway).  Stuffed animals don’t (hopefully) contain lead paint, which I feel like is the concern I’ve read most about with toys made in China.  But are there other concerns with stuffed animals you’re aware of?
Best regards,
Carter
THE ANSWER:

Carter,
Get off your computer and enjoy your final moments of freedom! Kidding! Well, not really.
Still here?
Fine, I’ll answer. Great question–you’re right to wonder. Stuffed animals often contain questionable/unhealthy flame retardants and are filled with random plastic pellets–also potentially unhealthy. It’s difficult to impossible to know which contain what. The dyes are also of concern, especially as young children mouth everything.
When you introduce a “lovie” to your baby, start with one made from certified organic cotton. Usually a company that bothers to use  organic cotton on the exteriors of their plush toys is doing ok on the interiors as well as the dyes. But there is no guarantee here;  unfortunately there is no one standard/third party certification families can turn to to be sure. Ask questions about materials, interiors, flame retardants, and dyes as well as read the fine print when you shop. I also like to consult HealthyStuff.org.
As for the stuffed things you have already gotten as presents, use them for toys when your baby is a bit older. Or do as I did–exchange them! I spent hours with a sleeping girl strapped to me wandering around town in the delirious haze of early motherhood exchanging gifts for things we might be able to use. It was an amusing way to spend the time and stock up–we really hadn’t bought much of anything before she was born as I was convinced we needed nothing more than my breasts, love, some diapers, and a blanket. Plus we also have little room for stuff. Makes me laugh to think of it now. You could also always exchange a few stuffed items for glass bottles or other staples to donate to mothers in need.
Enjoy your babymoon. There’s nothing like it.
Best,
Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Energy, Water, And Laundry

  • July 27, 2011 8:55 am

How often do you think about the environmental impact of your dirty clothes?  Believe it or not, about 90 percent of the energy used associated with doing laundry is just making water hot!  The other stuff like making detergents and the actual energy used by the machines accounts for only 10 percent. Fascinating, no?

When you reach for the hot water button on your washer, it’s hard to conjure up the image of a coal-fired power plant and the pollution it creates, but try to connect those dots. Picture greenhouse gases and the mercury residue in our waterways and seafood.  Although we may be home alone washing doormats, jeans, and rags, our actions always ripple out and affect the world beyond our walls.  Washing in cold will reduce that impact and minimize your dirty laundry’s footprint.  Here’s a little  excerpt from Planet Home about cold water washing:

By using cold water, you will also reduce your indoor air pollution: heating water blasts volatile chemicals, including chlorine in municipal water, into your breathing space.  If you’re using heavily fragranced conventional synthetic detergents, all of those vapors are also released when heated.  Cold water is truly all you need to clean, and some natural detergents are specially formulated to remove soils and stains in it.  Cold also prevents stains from setting, colors from bleeding and fading, and wools and silks from shrinking.

No one needs scalding water; you just wind up cooling it with cold – a big waste of energy.  Set your furnace lower – 125 degrees fahrenheit will suffice – and you’ll use less hot water when you choose warm on your washer.  If you have a choice, an on-demand or tankless water heater is best, followed by a high-efficiency gas version.  With electric, the heater itself is efficient, but the production and transmission of energy is not.

Another great way to save energy and reduce your carbon footprint is to air dry–outdoors or inside.  Using natural elements–sun and air–makes sense for so many reasons:

-It’s gentler on your clothes, provided you don’t leave them in the sun for too long (your colors will fade).

-It’s extremely environmentally friendly–dryers use 10 to 15 percent of domestic energy in the United States.

-Sunshine is great at killing bacteria, fungus, and mold–no chemical disinfectants needed!

-Indoor racks can help humidify dry indoor spaces, a big bonus come winter in my apartment.

Unfathomably, many municipalities and condo or co-op associations have banned laundry lines. If you’d like to sign a petition allowing line-drying where you live, go to www.right2dry.org.


Recipe: Chilled Summer Squash Soup

  • July 24, 2011 9:41 am

Earlier this week I said I had reached the point in the summer where I had had enough summer squash and asked readers how they were cooking theirs. I got great responses. Here’s what Glenny Cameron, my editorial assistant, is doing with her haul.

—-

Summer squash has been in abundance this season, and I honestly cannot complain.  I find this vegetable to be super versatile, and it keeps well in the refrigerator.  I’ve been eating it roasted, shaved raw into salads, and sliced atop a garden pizza (AKA put whatever I have in the fridge on some pizza dough and call it a night –wonderful and easy).  When the heat took a turn for the bold this week, I began thinking about chilled soups.  I’m not a huge fan of cold soup, but on sweaty days like these, they are a welcome relief and don’t require turning on the oven.  Totally satisfying.  Here is a simple recipe for my summer squash soup.  (Don’t forget that you can play with the seasonings!  Use your favorite spices and herbs and make it your own.)

CUMIN SPIKED SUMMER SQUASH SOUP

3-4 medium assorted summer squash, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped

1 1/2 tsp cumin

salt and pepper

4 cups vegetable broth (or water)

1 generous cup chopped cilantro (plus more for yogurt)

greek yogurt

1 lemon

Sautee garlic and onions in a large pot over medium heat.  Add salt, pepper and cumin and continue to cook until onions have softened and garlic is slightly brown.

Add diced squash and vegetable broth.  Make sure to add enough liquid to cover the squash.  Bring to boil.  Cook until squash is very tender (about 20 minutes).

Remove from heat and add cilantro.  Using a blender or an immersion blender, puree (carefully!) the soup until very smooth.  I added a little more water at this stage to reach my desired consistency – thick, but not dense.  Put in the fridge to chill.  (This will take a few hours, so plan ahead.  If you don’t have enough time, you can always put it in the freezer or in an ice bath.)

Meanwhile, mix greek yogurt with a few tablespoons of chopped cilantro and salt.

Squeeze a few tablespoons of fresh lemon juice into your cold soup.  Taste and adjust the seasoning – chilled soups tend to need more salt and spice than hot ones, so keep that in mind when flavoring.  Serve with a dollop of the yogurt and more cilantro for garnish.

To make it a more substantial meal, I served mine with spicy shrimp and roasted tomatoes on skewers, but you could add anything.  Croutons?  Feta?  Corn salsa?  Keep experimenting and you’ll be surprised by how exciting summer squash can be!

–Glenny Cameron

Glenny's full spread, a simple summer meal.

Q&A: Beanbag Chairs

  • July 21, 2011 9:10 am

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

Can you recommend a beanbag (or beanbag-like thing) or a place to look for a beanbag? It’s for my son’s room. I’ve been looking online but don’t trust these sites selling “eco-friendly” bags made with recycled foam. That sounds bad, no? My gut says to steer clear of styrene, too. I wonder if you may be able to point me in some other good directions.

Thanks, R.

THE ANSWER:

Dear R.,

What an excellent gut you have. Trust it. There really is no telling what that foam is and what flame retardants might be in it. And I also wouldn’t willingly put styrene in my kid’s room. It can be hard to suss out what is in any given beanbag chair. The first thing to consider is the outside–I’d go for organic cotton here if you can. No stainproofing needed/wanted (those chemicals aren’t pretty, either; they’re the same thing that is in non-stick pans). But preferably something you can toss in the washing machine when it gets dirty.

The second thing to consider is the stuffing, which is what you were talking about re the foam and the styrene pellets. There are many eco-friendly ways to stuff a beanbag chair. The first thing that comes to mind is buckwheat hulls. I have a neckroll stuffed with this and the texture always reminds me of a beanbag. The second is actual beans, though this might be too heavy. There are other hull-like things that eco-futon stores tend to make pillows out of including kapok.

Next up is how to find an organic cotton cover filled with buckwheat hulls. Some people do make them (I just did a quick online search). Many people making conventional beanbags allow you to upgrade to choose organic cotton and buckwheat or natural latex for the filling–safe, safe, and safe. Ask what the certification on the organic cotton is. Or call a local futon store and see if they will make you one. If you cannot find something you want or like, you could make one yourself. That way you really control the filling and can use things like old t-shirts.

Or you could have someone make one for you. Sourcing organic cotton canvas and buckwheat hulls is pretty easy. If you don’t have a local seamstress (what’s the word for a male seamstress? tailor? I’m tired today!) near you, Etsy is a great way to go. I turned to Etsy for a similar project over the winter, and had a small organic sleeping bag made for my daughter.

I’m not comfortable recommending one store over another without further research, but here’s a good Mothering.com forum thread on the topic. And here’s a good place where you can buy wholesale organic buckwheat hulls.

If you’re reading this and do have a good product to suggest, please post in comments.

Hope this helps.

-Alexandra

The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat in Edible Manhattan

  • July 19, 2011 7:15 pm

Many thanks to Edible Manhattan for mentioning The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat in their summer issue!  Love this: “…the book is much more than a manual. Simultaneously irreverent, uproarious and informative, it presents jaw-dropping truths about modern meat, laugh-out-loud explanations of offal, and, yes, stuff-your-mouth recipes for dishes like tongue tacos.” For more, see Edible Manhattan – July, Aug.

What You Don’t Know: The Nitty Gritty On Sugar

  • July 19, 2011 8:41 am

Most of us use sugar every single day without hesitation.  Whether just for our breakfast coffee or our after dinner treat, it is a pantry staple.  It lines grocery aisles and is every baker’s friend.  Unfortunately, not all sugars are equal. This might make you think of high fructose corn syrup, but I’m not even touching that here. I’m talking about regular old sugar–choosing the most sustainable is an act of environmental and social justice.  Check out this excerpt from The Conscious Kitchen on the ins and outs of the sugar world:

Sugar should be natural.  Artificial sweeteners don’t belong in a conscious kitchen, which means we can happily avoid any discussions of safety and USDA approval here.  When it comes to sugar, fair-trade and organic is a must.  “Sugar has to be good, clean, and fair,” says Alice Waters.  She urges people to watch the documentary The Price of Sugar for an in-depth look at why (ThePriceOfSugar.com – the trailer is on YouTube).  “It just took my breath away,” Waters explains.  “I guess I imagined herbicides and pesticides and all of that and unfortunate farming conditions, but I never imagined slavery.” Adding a teaspoon to your morning coffee is a political act.

At home, I use a variety of organic brown-colored sugars from our health food market, knowing full well that brown sugar sold in the United States is refined to white and has molasses added back in to turn it varying shades of brown.  It’s a farce.  Truly raw or unrefined sugar is illegal here, just as raw milk is in some states, to protect citizens from impurities and bacteria.  The process of refining is done in various ways, and is mainly mechanical, not chemical, though some sugars are filtered through animal by-products (usually bones) and so aren’t vegetarian-friendly or friendly for people trying to avoid conventionally raised animals.  Refining strips sugar of any useful nutrients it originally had.  Brown carries a healthy halo on it, but let’s not delude ourselves: Any sugar sold in the United States, even if it is called, “raw,” has been heated and is at least somewhat refined. I don’t turn to sugar for nutrients in the first place, so I’m okay with that, but I don’t like the misleading labeling.

So, what should you buy?

Definitely seek out fair-trade, organic, and/or sustainably grown and as unprocessed as possible.  Sucanat and brown less-refined sugars (like demerara, turbinado, and muscavado) are more real (for lack of a better word) than the soft sugar called “brown.” To avoid sugar that was filtered through bones, look for labels stating the product is suitable for vegetarians.  Always avoid conventional table sugar–white or brown.

Of course, there are other natural options like honey, maple syrup, agave nectar, and molasses that are much more environmentally friendly.  Try to buy honey and maple syrup at your farmers’ market, where it will be local and unprocessed. I use a fair amount of both and I’d be lying if I said otherwise!

CSA Overload: How To Use Every Last Morsel (aka Glenny Makes Cocktails, Vinegar, Gin, And Syrup)

  • July 16, 2011 8:59 am

I was out of town on Tuesday and offered my CSA share to my lovely editorial assistant Glenny. The catch: she had to trek to get it in one zillion degree weather (subway plus a walk). I love it when people who adore produce do it justice when I’m unable to (even though I get jealous! I missed the first week of the fruit share! argh! I’ve never had blueberries from this CSA before!). When I sniffed around and asked Glenny what she made with the goods, one of her answers floored me. She made cocktails with the thai basil! It has never, ever occurred to me in ten years of being a member of this CSA (check out the farm here) to make a cocktail with my herbs. I guess my age is showing. All I do is shove it all together and try to get it on the table before my five-year-old is too hungry. But how good does this sound? Also — props to her for using everything. I know from experience that I sometimes let the herbs go to waste. All too often I use a few sprigs and then toss them in the compost when they start to look worse for wear. So much so that I tend to put them on the CSA swap table at pick up and take something else I know I will use. No longer. I’m totally inspired by Glenny’s recipes below. Cheers!

—————

This past week I was gifted a wonderful surprise: Alexandra’s CSA share!  As she was out of town, I was the lucky girl who collected her family’s allotment of fresh produce.  What a treat!  Summer squash, heirloom cucumbers, lots of lettuce, and (swoon!) blueberries, apricots, and red currants.  I’ve been eating very well for the past few days, and have plenty more feasts on the horizon.  While most of the vegetables are staying fresh in my refrigerator, the two huge bunches of thai basil were already starting to wilt on my (sweltering) walk from the pick-up location.  Not wanting to waste a scrap, I decided quickly that the basil would have to be put to use immediately.  Some was used for infusing vinegar, infusing gin, and making simple syrup, but I was still overwhelmed with the amount I had left.  Lucky for me, my boyfriend is a bit of a cocktail ace and was excited to play around with new ingredients.  Here are two delicious, refreshing, and seasonal cocktails for those humid summer evenings when you find yourself with just too much thai basil.

A BOOZY, BASILY BLUEBERRY COCKTAIL

3 to 5 thai basil leaves

1/3 cup blueberries

Muddle in base of a cocktail shaker.

Add:

2 oz dry gin

1 oz fresh lime juice

1 oz honey (or agave nectar)

Fill shaker to the top with ice and shake for 20 seconds.  Strain into ice-filled cocktail glasses.  Garnish with a basil leaf and some whole blueberries.


CUCUMBER BASIL MARTINI

3 to 5 cucumber slices, peeled

3 to 5 basil leaves

Muddle in base of a cocktail shaker.

Add:

2 oz dry gin (or vodka)

3/4 oz Dolin Blanc (vermouth blanc)

Fill shaker to the top with ice and shake for 20 seconds.  Don’t strain the mixture, just pour into cocktail glasses.  Garnish with a cucumber round.

THAI BASIL VINEGAR

Mix 1 quart white wine vinegar with 2 cups chopped basil in a large jam jar.  Let stand in a cool, dark place for 2 weeks.  Strain basil leaves and use for salad dressings and marinades.

THAI BASIL GIN

Mix 2 cups dry gin with 1 cup chopped basil in a medium jam jar.  Let stand in a cool, dark place for 2 to 3 months, depending on how strong you’d like the flavor to be.  Strain the basil and use gin for cocktails, or simply drink on ice.

THAI BASIL SIMPLE SYRUP

Combine 1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, and 1 cup chopped basil in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil and stir until sugar is dissolved.  Remove from heat and let stand for 15 to 20 minutes.  Strain basil and use syrup to flavor baked goods, lemonade, or as a base for a sorbet.


Q&A: Air Conditioners And Relationships

  • July 14, 2011 12:41 pm

THE QUESTION:

Dear Alexandra,

It’s so hot in New York right now, and I know its not going to get cooler anytime soon.  I hate air conditioning – I know it’s bad for the environment, wastes energy, and costs me a fortune.  Sadly, my apartment is on the fourth floor and is sweltering without it.  My boyfriend has threatened to never sleep at my place unless we keep it at a reasonable temperature (colder than I’d like).  Can you advise on how to best reach a compromise for this situation?  Obviously I can’t survive the summer without it, and don’t want to survive without him, so what is the best way to meet in the middle and be the most environmentally sound?

Thanks,

Beth

THE ANSWER:

Hi Beth!  Thanks for the question.  You’re so not alone. I cannot tell you how many couples have this same dispute every summer (cough cough).  Obviously you’re not going to give up your boyfriend, but it can be hard to agree on when to use the A/C and how much.  If he can survive some days that are below a certain temperature with natural coolers like fans, window shades, and lots of iced tea (or cold beer?), always go that route first.  Some days, even I’ll admit, are absolutely unbearable in the city, so the air conditioning is necessary. Talk about it and strike a compromise that works for both of you. Agree on what temperature you will set the A/C at, too. 75 is the current number in my apartment, and it goes on usually only after it’s around 88ish outside. If it’s humid, sometimes it goes on when the mercury is lower than that. Um, don’t tell anyone, but if it is on, I frequently sneak it up higher than 75 and–sssshhh!–even turn it off. I suspect the other people I live with are equally sneaky. Once you decide on your limits, both of you should really stick to it. Don’t act like my family.

If you’re in the market for a new machine (or don’t have one), I’d suggest upgrading your air conditioner to a high efficiency Energy Star rated unit, which will both lower energy bills and impact the environment somewhat less. Win win(ish). Air conditioning efficiency is rated using a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Rating (SEER). Any system sold in the U.S. after July 2006 must have a rating of 13. To be Energy Star rated, it must have a SEER rating of 14.5 or higher.

Window units are rated differently, through an EER rating. Energy Star units have an EER rating of at least 9.4, although the American Council on Energy Efficiency recommends a 11.6 or higher. All of this detail might make you want to fall asleep, but is worth paying attention to.

Basically, if your system was installed before 2006, you definitely have room to improve in the energy efficiency department–and have plenty of options to choose from. I’ll spare you the heat pump and geothermal information here. I’m not thinking either are in your future on the fourth floor. If so, an experienced contractor can come to your home and give you a tailored analysis of your options. You can also check out the American Council on Energy Efficiency’s site (http://www.aceee.org/consumer/cooling) for more information.

Stay cool! With any luck, the weather will cooperate with you and you’ll have many nights of just fans and the boy. Happy summer.

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Investing Your Money

  • July 12, 2011 8:59 am

How often do you think about money?  Probably daily.  Whether it’s in the purchases you’re making or the salary you’re being paid, money is a constant in everyone’s lives.  Most of us try to spend our money as consciously as possible, hopefully making purchases from eco-friendly producers, buying local and organic food, and more.  What’s tricky is that there are many many layers to the classic phrase voting with your dollars.  It delves deeper than the items we buy; it should also be considered when seeking out services.  Sometimes our well-earned money is used by the banks we deposit it in to fund a toxic chemical company, or invest in bad mortgages, or goes to support mountaintop removal mining.  Use your influence when choosing banks, credit card companies, and even cell-phone providers.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home on how to go about this wisely:

To put your money in banks that have a set of values and a focus that are aligned with yours, begin by searching for an independent bank or a community investment bank.  You may run into a neighborhood bank exclusively focused on investing in low-income houseing or helping people start small businesses.  Read the fine print.  HSBC has dubbed itself the world’s “local” bank, which is like saying Wal-Mart is a local grocery store.  If you cannot find a community bank near you, choose one elsewhere.  Most banking can be done by mail, e-mail, and ATMs, so you’re not limited by geography.  The largest resource for socially and environmentally responsible banks and credit unions, plus financial planners, credit cards, mutual funds, and even retirement options is the Social Investment Forum.  Neighborhood groups, parenting boards, and friends and family may also lead you to some good conscious options.

It’s arguably easier to find green companies to invest in than it is to find a socially responsible bank; and locating that kind of bank is easier still than finding a holistic insurance provider.  The same websites that will help locate a better bank (below) can lead to a better insurance provider, though they are few and far between.  If you can’t find one, ask your current insurance company how it invests its money and see what you think of the answer.

http://ussif.org/

http://www.greenamerica.org/

http://www.greenmoneyjournal.com/