Q&A: Reusable Snack Bags

  • September 13, 2011 8:08 am

My daughter starts kindergarten today (!) so I thought I’d post a little back-to-school friendly question and answer exchange that happened recently on my Facebook page. If you’re not already chatting with me on Facebook, please “like” my author page and join in the discussions.

THE QUESTION:
Do you have any info on reusable snack bags?  I am wanting to make some, but all patterns, etc. say iron-on vinyl for the interior.  While they don’t have BPA, they do have phthalates.  Not cool.  Do you have an alternatives in mind?

-Melanie

THE ANSWER:

Glad you’re trying to avoid those little plastic baggies that can’t be recycled and clog our landfills.

Oh no way on the vinyl. Yuck. There are many many versions on the market from recycled plastic to nylon and back — none of them have vinyl. We have some that are hemp on front and a nylon-y fabric inside. Not entirely waterproof but machine washable/good enough for me. Check out reusablebags.com and GreenDepot.com. Many options.

Also, I found these on Etsy, which are what I bought [at Green Depot] and use at home.

What You Don’t Know: Fat

  • September 7, 2011 10:32 am

When you’re cooking with meat, do you try to use every last morsel?  If the answer is no, you’ll be surprised by the rewards.  I try to waste nothing, whether I’m cooking with vegetables, fruits, grains, or meat.  I should say especially meat. I never forget that something has died for my dinner. Every last bit of that needs to be used. When I discovered, while reporting The Butcher’s Guide To Well Raised-Meat, how many ways fat could be used, I was delighted to also discover how easy it is to render, store, and eat.  Basically I’m talking about potatoes roasted in bacon fat. If you haven’t tried it, do.

Here’s an excerpt from The Butcher’s Guide to Well-Raised Meat on many other kinds of fats and how to best use them. Do you use any of these? How? Let me know in comments.

Part of the nose-to-tail butchering is coming up with uses for fat, which makes us roughly 15 percent of an animal’s body weight.  Over the years we have gotten pretty creative – we have made beef tallow citronella candles (short-lived – they smelled like a barbecue gone horribly wrong) as well as lovely smelling tallow-based soaps.  But mostly we just make our fat into chunks of tallow, blocks of lard, and tubs of duck fat for our customers to (hopefully) cook with.  Here’s the skinny on what’s what in the world of fats:

Caul Fat is the fatty lining of a pig’s stomach, which looks like a sheet of diaphanous webbing.  It is used to wrap lean meats while roasting; this technique is called barding, and it imparts moisture into the meat as the fat melts.

Duck Fat Is there anything better than duck fat?  Use it to panfry potatoes, like they do in French bistros, or confit a couple of duck legs.  Duck (and goose, too) fat is great, but often hard to come by.

Lard, or rendered pork fat, is nearly 100 percent fat, as opposed to butter, which is about 80 percent fat and 20 percent water.  Though animal fats have gotten a bad reputation as heart-stoppers and artery-cloggers, lard is still well loved among bakers and intrepid cooks who prize its ability to produce flaky crusts and silky sauces.  Lard has a high smoke point, making it exceptional for frying things like chicken.  It’s also healthier than manufactured hydrogenated  fats like most vegetable shortenings.

Leaf Lard is the dry, hard, crumbly fat cap that surrounds the kidney of the pig.  This fat contains the fewest impurities, making it the gold standard for baking.  Mix this with butter (a 1:1 butter-to-fat ratio is good) for the best pie crusts you have ever made.

Tallow is rendered beef, veal, or lamb fat.  It is used mainly commercially to make animal feed, soap, and cosmetics, or for cooking.  McDonald’s managed to piss off a lot of vegetarians a while back by cooking their fries in tallow without informing the public – no wonder they were so addictive after a long night of drinking.  We use lamb fat in our chicken sausages to get that rich, decadent taste that you just can’t get from plain old chicken.  And we also know hunters who add lamb fat to their venison burgers for a more fatty, luscious taste.

HOW TO RENDER FAT

It’s simple to make high-quality lard or tallow that can be used for baking, cooking, or soap making.  Fats should be stored in the refrigerator, where they will last for three months or can be frozen for a  year.  We like to cut our lard into manageable 1/2-pound chunks and freeze it – it defrosts quickly, and does not have to be defrosted in the refrigerator.

-Buy pork fat, beef suet, or lamb fat from your butcher shop or farmer.  Make sure the fat is fresh, clean smelling, and not slimy.  Whatever you render, count on getting a 75 percent return.

-Cut the fat into 1-inch squares and then finely dice it (we run ours through the meat grinder).

-Place the diced fat into a heavy-bottomed pan set over low heat.  Melt the fat, without stirring, until it is literally a pool of oil.  Alternatively, you can melt the fat in a Crock-Pot.

-Let the fat cool until it is still in liquid form but not hot.

-Strain the fat through a cheesecloth-lined mesh strainer.

Q&A: Dishwashers Vs. Washing By Hand

  • August 25, 2011 8:06 pm

THE QUESTION:

Hi Alexandra,

What is your take on washing by hand and using a dishwasher??

Thanks, Meika

THE ANSWER:

Meika,

Thanks for your question.  The pros and cons of dishwashers have been debated down to the very last droplets of water, but at the end of the day they are more environmentally friendly than washing by hand, even if you factor in the energy used to manufacture and run the machine.  Here is an excerpt from Planet Home re the eco-friendliest way to wash dishes:

Running a dishwasher filled with scraped–not rinsed–dishes using eco-friendly detergent free of chlorine and phosphates is preferable to washing by hand, especially if the machine has a good Energy Star rating and you don’t use the energy-draining heated dry option.  Only run the dishwasher when it is totally full (although be sure you’re not blocking the water or aeration methods with any dishes, or they won’t get clean).  Face everything inward.  Enzymes in detergent are there to eat off scum.  If you have over-rinsed your dishes, they will have nothing to work on and will therefore dull the surfaces.  Get to know your dishwasher: Does it have a heater or a fan?  Does it have a grinder?  Operate accordingly.  Don’t put everything under the sun in a dishwasher.  Opening the door a crack after the washing cycle is complete will help the dishes air-dry more completely, but it will also increase indoor air pollution.  Fragrances and chemicals (including chlorine) in traditional auto-dishwashing products get turned into vapors when the machine heats up, and so do the pollutants (possibly chlorine or chloroform, maybe radon) in municipal water.  We breathe these vapors as they vent out of the machine during the washing cycle, making dishwashers a major source of indoor air pollution.  Minimize the danger by using a natural (chlorine bleach-free) detergent and by not opening that door until the machine has had a chance to cool off.  Giving the racks a shake will help get the residual droplets off the dishes.  Keep in mind that your municipal water supply will likely provide your machine with chlorine anyway.  A whole house water filter will reduce some of the worst vapors, as will keeping your kitchen well-ventilated.  If your dishes aren’t getting as clean as you’d like them, try using less detergent if you have soft water and adding a natural rinse aid if you have hard water.  This keep minerals in the water from redepositing on your dishes.  You can buy a natural version, or simply use white vinegar.  If you’re in the market for a new dishwasher, consider stainless steel interiors, which retain heat and reduce noise.  They also don’t off-gas (i.e., release fumes from the plastic) when heated to very high temperatures.

Hope this helps!

Best,

Alexandra

What You Don’t Know: Cotton

  • August 23, 2011 9:05 pm

Can you believe it’s back to school/work/life season already?  Ugh. As cooler temperatures and new wardrobes (for some people, anyway) are on the horizon, it’s time to pause for a moment and think about what clothes are made of and what it entails to manufacture them. I found and continue to find the following facts about conventionally grown cotton shocking. They’re enough to send anyone straight to vintage/consignment/thrift shops. Second hand clothes are obviously a great way to reduce/reuse/recycle, but you’ll also likely be surprised by the gems you can find.  It might take some digging, but you’ll be rewarded with unique items and you’ll save money, too.

When buying new clothing, organic cotton is solid choice. Here are a few motivating facts excerpted from Planet Home about the cotton industry:

Conventional cotton often comes from genetically modified seeds and has been sprayed with pesticides, which is bad for farmers and the environment.  According to the Sustainable Cotton Project, cotton farming uses about 25 percent of the world’s insecticides and more than 10 percent of the pesticides.  These pesticides used on cotton happen to be among the world’s worst: Five of the nine most commonly used have been identified as possible human carcinogens.  Others are known to damage the nervous system and are suspected of disrupting the body’s hormonal system.

That said, organic isn’t the only thing to consider when it comes to sustainable fashion–not by a long shot. I explain further in this article I wrote recently about sustainable denim for The New York Times.

Meanwhile I’m personally just avoiding this whole change-your-wardrobe moment. My daughter could use a few items for school as she’s growing up up up, so I’ll fill her wardrobe in with hand-me-downs and maybe a few new things. I prefer to hold on to summer by avoiding wearing long sleeves for as long as possible, and to “shop my closet” when the weather forces me to. Amazing how much I’ve bought over the years that can be resurrected!

Recipe: Blueberry Ice Cream!

  • August 20, 2011 10:42 am

Glenny here!  Alexandra has been on vacation all week (I’m VERY jealous), so this week’s Saturday post is directly from me.  I decided to post a recipe, so got to thinking about do-it-yourself projects.  And about the shorter days and how the cicadas’ chirping announces autumn.  Although summer is waning, we can’t fret yet: the temperatures still merit an icy treat for dessert.  I ADORE ice cream and frankly, I believe that it can be enjoyed all year long.  There are so many variations that you simply can never be bored.  I was delighted with my birthday present from my father last year (a Cuisinart Ice Cream Maker), and have furiously been making concoctions ever since.  No more of that store-bought stuff for me, no siree.

Summer IS coming to an end, but its fruit is still going strong.  Here is a very easy and wonderful recipe for blueberry ice cream to celebrate the season.  (Many thanks to the NYTimes article last summer about egg-free ice creams.  It got me hooked on the lighter, more fruit-forward and refreshing version of a household favorite!).

Blueberries and Cream Ice Cream

1 1/2 cups blueberries

1/2 lemon

2 cups heavy cream

1/3 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons, as needed

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons vodka

1. Mash the blueberries with a fork or a potato masher until slightly chunky.  Try not to leave too many berries whole, when frozen they can be a little difficult to eat.  Drizzle with the juice of 1/2 a lemon and mix thoroughly.  Set aside.

2. Bring cream and sugar to a simmer in a medium saucepan.  Taste berries and if too tart, add 2 extra tablespoons sugar to the cream.  Stir occasionally until sugar is dissolved.  Transfer to a bowl and add salt and vodka.  Place in the refrigerator or an ice bath to chill.

3. When cold, pour into your ice cream machine.  Add your mashed blueberries and churn for about 15 minutes, or until starting to thicken.  Make sure to read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for your specific machine. Transfer to a container and freeze until solid, about 2 hours.   Let your ice cream sit at room temperature for a few minutes before serving.

This is the most simple form of this recipe, but try adding your own spin.  Perhaps a dash of cinnamon or a few sprigs of mint?  The more the you play, the happier you’ll be!


What You Don’t Know: Toilets

  • August 16, 2011 9:37 am

The toilet is one of the few absolutely necessary household appliances, even for the most ardent environmentalists. Argue with me all you want in comments, family cloth-ers (!), I stand by these words.

The rub is it’s also one of the largest household consumers of water, especially if it gets a lot of use–i.e. you have a large family or live in, say, a frat house. The good news is that there are plenty of ways to ensure that your toilet is as eco-friendly as possible, which I explain in Planet Home, excerpted here:

Older toilets may have 3.5-gallon or even 5-gallon tanks, whereas toilets made in the United States for home use after 1994 are required to consume 1.6 gallons of less per flush.  Environmentalists flush them as little as possible, but even extremists should try to flush at least once daily (especially if said toilet has multiple users).  One can go longer without causing any harm, of course, but the odor isn’t great, and concentrated urine can stain.  People who let yellow mellow may also find themselves battling clogs from time to time if too much of their 100 percent recycled, non-chlorine bleached toilet paper has accumulated.  Keep an eye on the levels and flush before you reach a problematic clump.  If you’ve got a clog, plunge it.  Then clean your plunger by rotating it vigorously in a recently cleaned and flushed toilet.  Store it where it can dry so it won’t grow mold.

RETROFITTING YOUR TOILET

Another way to conserve water is to retrofit your toilet so it uses less water per flush.  There are several ways of doing this, from the very DIY (put a brick or a water-filled half gallon plastic jug of water with its cap closed in the tank to physically reduce the amount of water being used) to more high-tech solutions (there are dual-flush toilet retrofitters you can purchase for less that $100 – this gives you the option for a small flush for liquid waste or a full flush for solid).  If you buy a dual-flush kit, follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions.  If you’re going the DIY route, be careful not to reduce the water level too much or the toilet won’t work well and you might wind up flushing several times in a row to get the job done, defeating the purpose.  If this happens to you, it’s simple to fix: just use a smaller jug – like a one-liter soda bottle – or a brick.  A little trial and error will get you what you need; this isn’t an exact science, and much depends on the size of your tank.

Recently, my editorial assistant, Glenny, had some toilet issues of her own. Read on for her tragic experience (thanks for sharing Glenny):

“I’ve been living in my apartment for a year now, and never had any problems with my toilet until the past few months.  To say that it had a “weak” flush would be a drastic understatement.  More like pathetic, sad, and downright feeble.  Often I would have to flush two or three times to clean the bowl, a very frustrating and pretty gross process.  Convinced that the problem was getting worse, I contacted my landlord, who happily trekked to the fourth floor to investigate.  Within 5 minutes my flush was back to normal: strong and efficient.  The issue?  The tub in the back wasn’t filling with enough water (exactly like what Alexandra describes above), but it wasn’t because of a DIY project gone array.  Instead the pressure gauge was set too low.  With a couple of quick adjustments and a few trial flushes, the back tub was filling to the correct water mark and producing a forceful flush.  Phew, a clean bowl using less water!  Problem solved.”

A good reminder to keep our bowls in working order and using the least amount of water possible. Now enough about toilets.

Recipe: DIY Yogurt

  • August 13, 2011 10:20 am

What is more fun than a new DIY project?  And what is more tasty with summer berries and homemade granola than your own yogurt?  It’s very easy to make, you need neither a yogurt-maker nor a special culture.  Although the final product might be a touch thinner than commercial yogurt, the satisfaction of making it yourself is totally rewarding.  Think beyond breakfast too – what about homemade smoothies or chilled cucumber yogurt soups?  Perfect summer fare! I also love love love that making your own means avoiding plastic containers–big or small. You can store yours in endlessly reusable glass jars if you please.

Here is a recipe from from Sally Fallon’s cookbook Nourishing Traditions she let me reprint in The Conscious Kitchen. Fallon is the president of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Makes 1 quart

1/2 cup good-quality commercial plain yogurt, or 1/2 cup yogurt from previous batch

1 quart pasteurized whole milk, nonhomogenized

a candy thermometer

Gently heat the milk to 180 F and allow to cool to about 110 F.  Stir in the yogurt, and pour the mixture into a shallow glass, enamel, or stainless steel container.  Cover the container and place in a warm oven (about 150 F, or a gas oven with a pilot light) overnight.  In the morning, transfer to the refrigerator.  Throughout the day, use a clean kitchen towel to mop up any whey that exudes from the yogurt.  Keeps for a couple of weeks.

*Note: Although Fallon recommends leaving the yogurt in a warm oven overnight, Glenny, my fantabulous editorial assistant, says you can also leave it covered in a warm corner of your apartment. I’ve never done that, but she has. She also says it will take longer to reach yogurt consistency, maybe two days, but will save on energy usage, especially in the heat of summer. Enjoy.

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.

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.


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!