What You Don’t Know: Saving Energy In The Kitchen

  • October 4, 2011 9:57 am

How often do you use your oven?  Probably a lot more now that the temperatures are dropping and a little warmth in your home is welcome.  (As I type there’s a celeriac roasting in mine.) And how often do you think about minimizing the energy output of your kitchen?  Hopefully more once you read this easy how-to list from The Conscious Kitchen, excerpted below.  Every little bit helps!

MINIMIZING STOVE AND OVEN ENERGY OUTPUT

Whatever kind of cooker you have – new or old – here are ways to minimize its impact:

-Make sure all elements are in good working order.

-Match your pot size to the burner size or you will waste heat/energy.

-Pots and pans come with lids for a reason.  Use them.

-If you use drip pans under your burners, keep them clean.  And don’t use aluminum foil liners for this purpose.  Good-quality reflector pans save energy and are made to last.

-Gas stove burner holes can get clogged.  If the flame is uneven or yellow, turn it off and carefully unclog it with a pin or an unfurled paper clip.

-Calibrate your oven (see below).

-Don’t preheat, even when baking.  And don’t repeatedly open the oven door to check cooking items.  Both waste heat.  If you have an oven with a glass door, peek through there.

-Like your refrigerator, the oven door has a seal.  Make sure it’s tight and not sagging, and that the door hinges are in good working order.

-Don’t overuse the self-cleaning feature (don’t use it more than once a month), or you’ll waste the energy you were hoping to save by having it.  Place a sheet pan in the oven to catch drips and grease so you won’t even need to clean.

-If you turn on the oven, fill it up.  Use that heat to bake/roast/broil more than one thing at a time.

-For more information, check out the following websites: American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy: ACEEE.org; ConsumerEnergyCenter.org; HomeEnergy.org; EnergyStar.gov.

Calibrating an Oven

Ovens often run too hot or too cold.  To fix this, you can adjust your own cooking to match however your oven seems to go, you can get a thermometer, or you can “calibrate” it (fancy for fixing it).  This is easiest to do with a digital stove – follow the instructions in the manual.  For nondigital ovens and/or if you don’t have the manual, Google the instructions for your make and model.  The process can be overwhelming for the un-handy, so call in a repair person or a handy friend if needed.

What You Don’t Know: Ground Meat

  • September 27, 2011 10:00 am

Another day, another ground meat recall. Ever wonder what the ^%$ is going on? What is it about ground meat that leads to the worst case scenarios?

I got an answer–and an education–when reporting The Butcher’s Guide To Well-Raised Meat.

Here are two excerpts from the book to help educate anyone else who might be interested in this monumental waste of flesh.

“Don’t be fooled by meat labeled ‘freshly ground’ at the supermarket. Usually that’s a giant 20-pound chub (or tube) of coarse pre-ground beef they then regrind. That stuff is a gamble. There’s no telling what’s in it–bone chips and shit , at least. And it could also be made from a thousand different animals from ten different countries. Try tracing that.”

“…It doesn’t matter that there are USDA inspectors in every slaughterhouse. They’re not catching the outbreaks and it’s only getting worse. Contamination can come from anything–from feces on a hide to dirty hands to stomach bile that wasn’t properly washed off a carcass.  It takes time to slaughter and clean right. The giant operations rush to slaughter up to twenty-five thousand steers a day. When you see enormous numbers like 143 million pounds of beef recalled, it’s because that’s the “stop number”: that’s how much they grind before they clean or that’s how many pounds ago they tested for pathogens.”

All the more reason to know and trust your butcher or to grind your own meat.

What You Don’t Know: How To Keep Helping Farms After Irene

  • September 20, 2011 8:48 am

Hurricane Irene seems like a long time ago, right?  Autumn is upon us, school has started; the summer is in the distant past.  Unfortunately, for far too many farmers in the Hudson Valley, Greene County, New Jersey, Vermont, and beyond, the effects of Irene  are still very much alive–a living nightmare. Crops, acres, entire harvests are completely underwater.  Ruined.  100 percent crop loss is uttered again and again. Our farmers need our help. Out of sight should not be out of mind.

Please take a moment to visit Just Food’s Hurricane Irene Relief page to find out how you can volunteer and donate.  Also, check out Evolutionary Organics Flood Recovery Fundraiser for more ways to contribute. Don’t forget to frequent your local farmers’ market this coming weekend–talk to farmers as you shop. You might be surprised to learn how many of them have been touched by Irene, how many people are still there selling with 30, 50, and even 70 percent crop loss back on their farms. Buy as much as you can. You can also sign up early for a 2011/2012 CSA share ASAP so a local farmer will have money they sorely need now to get going for next season.

Farmers need all of us to support them in good times as well as bad. We need to ensure our local farmers are taken care of. They feed all of us and we need them and their farms. And please spread the word.

Here are a few more links for hurricane relief efforts.  Do check them out, tell your friends:

GrowNYC Make a Contribution

GrowNYC Volunteer Opportunities

Dine Out Irene

Dine In Irene

Farms Affected

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.

What You Don’t Know: Label Reading

  • August 30, 2011 10:07 am

Most cleaning product labels are a very quick read because they usually contain very little information. If you’re lucky you might learn what the product is, how to use it, safety information, and any storage and disposal guidelines.  What you won’t find is a list of ingredients.  Why?  Oddly cleaning product formulas are currently considered government-protected trade secrets. Manufacturers aren’t required to disclose their contents to consumers. So they don’t.

While there are organizations working hard for label disclosure as well as chemical reform , at the moment it’s really up to consumers to self educate and seek out cleaning products from companies that willingly disclose ingredients (and use natural ones). Alternately you can make your own from safe household staples with ingredient lists.

In Planet Home, I explain how best to read cleaning product labels when there is no ingredient list. Here’s an excerpt:

LABEL LITERACY 101

1. Look for warnings. Avoid any product that has the words “danger,” “poison,” “toxic,” “hazardous,” or “flammable” printed on the label.  They are dead giveaways that there are harmful chemicals inside.  Be sure to check the front and back labels, including the fine print.

2. Check the listed ingredients. Avoid anything with no ingredients listed or that lists chemicals with known or probable chronic or acute toxicity.

3. Check to see if the product is fragranced. Stay away from synthetic fragrances, which may contain hormone-disrupting phthalates.  Most products claiming to have the “fresh scent” of “morning air” contain synthetic Fragrances.  Fragranced products (including perfumes, air fresheners, cleaning products, and candles) can also release harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your home environment.  Many VOCs from cleaning products, such as formaldehyde, are known to be hazardous air pollutants and can have short- and long-term health effects.  Look for labels that read “VOC-free” or “free from dyes and fragrances.”  If you want a fragrance, seek out products that are scented naturally with essential oils.

4. Think about what the performance claims are telling you. These are the selling points clearly stated on the front label.  Products claiming to “whiten” likely contain bleach, and products claiming to “brighten” usually contain optical brighteners.  Use the Ingredients Guide to see what you’re really getting with that “streak-free shine,” and to learn why an ingredient is or is not hazardous.

5. Do a sustainability check. Choose products in packaging made with the highest PCR (post-consumer recycled) content and that can be recycled or reused.  As for the products themselves, buy ones that are biodegradable or compostable and claim to be “petro-chemical-free,” “non-toxic,” or “septic-safe.”

6. Go to SeventhGeneration.com and download the Label Reading Guide. It will help you better understand the ingredients in cleaning products and their risks.

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.

What You Don’t Know: Beer

  • August 10, 2011 12:41 pm

I’m a wine drinker through and through. But I must admit that come August with the summer heat far from abating, an ice cold white beer is a welcome evening beverage.  (My apologies to my summer sidekick, Glass Of Rose.) Before popping that bottle cap, take a few minutes to make sure that what you’re going to be drinking is the best brew for the environment and your health.  Ok, ok, I know some people will say there’s no such thing as a healthy beer, but it will be better for you without pesticide residue.

As always, buying organic and local is the number one choice, not only to avoid unwanted additives (check out Food Democracy’s post on this), but also to reduce the carbon footprint of your happy hour.  Unfortunately, buying completely organic and local beer is a challenge, as I explain in The Conscious Kitchen:

Even if you could find beer’s ingredients – water, yeast, malt, and hops – in your area (and that’s a huge if), if doesn’t mean they’re processed locally.  In fact, according to Max Oswald, director of sales and marketing at the Otter Creak Brewing Company in Middlebury, Vermont, the grain used for the malt in their Wolaver’s organic beer must be shipped to the Midwest to be processed.  Why?  Because that is where malt processing is done in this country.  “It’s a conundrum.  We do the best we can,” says Oswald.

HOPS

Organic hops tend to be grown in the Pacific Northwest, Europe, and New Zealand.  Vermont-based Wolaver’s uses New Zealand organic hops and works with a contract grower in Oregon.  The goal is to rely solely on Oregon.  This is as local as it will get.  The Northeast used to produce tons of hops, but the crops were wiped out by fungus.  Other organic brewers are also taking this route of contracting small organic farmers.  Meanwhile, the USDA, in response to a hops shortage in 2008, has put hops on their exemption list, meaning beer made with nonorganic hops but that is otherwise organic can still be labeled USDA organic – music to Big Beer’s ears, and not exactly motivating to any farmers attempting to grow the vines the way they should be grown.  (The amount of hops in any beer, it should be noted, is pretty minimal.  But still.)

AT THE BREWERY

Though it is difficult for any brewer to source all-organic, all-local ingredients, there are other environmentally friendly steps they can take with their brewery.  Otter Creek, according to Oswald, has redone their lighting, runs a boiler system on biodiesel, tries to reuse heat and water, and recycles their grain by giving it to farmers for feed…This is an expensive and lofty goal for the smallish brewery -  in 2008 they were doing about thirty-three thousand barrels, one-third of which was organic – but it will make quite a difference.  Many other breweries are also working to reduce their energy consumption.  Some have green roofs, others are using solar power.  Still others make sure their used equipment is made only in the United States.

Here are a few solid organic (or eco-friendly) brewers:

Peak Organic is very committed to local purveyors.

Brooklyn Brewery isn’t all organic, but is the first company in New York City to be run by entirely by wind power!

Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s trucks are all run on vegetable oil and they promote their closed loop recycling system. Everything that would be considered waste is reused at the brewery or in the surrounding community.

Otter Creek Brewery (Wolaver’s) Wolavers is 100% organic hops and malt–the nation’s first organic brewers.

Cheers!

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!

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/