Monday, January 30, 2012

Environmental Work & Play

I'm spending a lot of time involved with our local Transition group. Yesterday a couple of us went to see a screening of the movie The Economics of Happiness. You can watch the trailer here. Then there was a discussion led by a friend about progressing from acting in a personal but somewhat futile way against climate change to being more empowered through engaging with local citizens, groups and government to make communities less carbon reliant and more resilient.

In my home, I'm shopping, growing and cooking local food; insulating my home to reduce our heating needs; trying to drive less; and purchase less and purchase used. But these efforts feel less than impactful lately. How can my sacrifices make up for those nearby who build bigger and bigger homes and drive Escalades? Even more alarming is the rise in global energy needs across the developing world and evidence of the quickly changing climate.

So I'm trying to add more local and political efforts to my individual actions. I'm reading relevant books, watching informative documentaries, attending lectures and discussions, planning events and writing articles for the local media. Here's one about an orchard hike and presentation I planned, and here's another about a recent lecture about flooding in our town.

This type of environmentalism can get depressing and exhausting. Time to rejuvenate and get out into the real environment. So on another unusually warm Saturday in January, R and I headed out to Noanet Woodlands, another wonderful Trustees of Reservations property.

This 600 acre area has had many uses, Native American hunting ground, farm, mill, and now conservation land.

The early 19th iron mill which produced barrel hoops, wheel rims, and nail rods, had been abandonned and was destroyed by flood long ago. But it has been partially restored.

Beyond the mill area, there are miles and miles of trails through forest and around ponds. The pine woods are thick and getting thicker. Look at all these competing seedlings.

There are lots of huge boulders and evidence of the ice age glaciers that once covered the area.

Streams to cross...

and icy ponds to throw rocks in...

Because of the lack of leaves in the winter, our eyes are drawn to the verdant moss and sculptural fungi of the woods. I hope to do a bit of investigation about these living organisms so I can identify them. There is such variety.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Flow of Chopping

I just finished reading Fed Up with Lunch, a book about a teacher's year of eating and blogging about school lunches. It described the challenge of serving healthful meals to children at school with limited time, limited money, USDA and corporation influence, and kids' unwillingness to try new things.

I spend quite a bit of time in my daughter's elementary school helping the kids learn to recycle and compost. Our school is trying to do it right. The kids come straight to lunch from recess. The cafeteria tries to serve healthier options: pizza with whole wheat crust, baked sweet potato rather than regular fries, fresh fruit. But there is a lot of waste. Salads, carrot sticks and other vegetables are often heaped into the compost untried. I keep trying at home with my kids to accustom them to veggies and fill them with delicious nutrient rich meals and snacks.

So more cooking. Creating different vegetable-rich meals seems to be my obsession these days. I combine this with food planning to make the next meal easier.

Last night I tried some Indian cooking inspired by a salad dish a friend made for a pot luck I'd been to recently and a rice/mung bean mix that my mom gave me for Christmas. Rice and canned chick peas were combined in two dishes with chopped veggies (carrots, peppers, frozen peas), herbs and spices (cilantro, cumin seed, garam masala). I'm finding that flow when I chop.

With the chick peas: toasted cumin seeds, lemon juice, olive oil, raw peppers, carrot, cilantro, apple.
With the rice/mung bean mix: peppers, carrots, peas, garam masala, cumin seeds all into the mix before or half way through rice cooking. Then cilantro before serving.

The finished plate with a bit of naan and some grapes:

The previous night I had made roasted spaghetti squash with a creamy sage sauce with bacon. At the same time I roasted that squash I put in some butternut squash to roast. (Filling the oven when I turn it on as best I can.) This became squash scones for breakfast this morning.

Pumpkin/Squash Cornmeal Scone (adapted from Moosewood Restaurant New Classics)

1 1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp brown sugar

Gently fold dry ingredients into mixed wet ingredients:
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup pumpkin/squash puree
3/4 cup apple cider

Spoon batter as biscuit shapes (9-12 depending how big you want them) onto baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees F.

There were warm scones for breakfast with pear and yogurt. Some more are leftover for snacks. And another jar of puree for another warm batch in the next few days.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Peek at my Bookshelves

What a wonderful post by Soulemama's husband yesterday. He talked about his own reading life and that of his family. The post was accompanied by photos of the books scattered around the house. As I usually do with these kind of photos, I enlarged them and tried to scan the titles on the bookshelves. I love seeing what books people have on their shelves. Toward that end, I'm sharing my shelves with you. I hope you do the same.

I'll start with my kids' shelves. My 15 year old has a nice big bookshelf that has lots of the kids' favorites. My daughter mostly reads these now. My son reads a lot of books that he gets from school, and he reads fantasy, science fiction or historical fiction on his Kindle.

But his shelves contain hints of the child he was. We waited for the new release of many of the Harry Potter novels. I read the first few to him, but he read later ones himself. My daughter waited for fewer of them. How odd that kids who will read them in the future won't have to wait. They'll get to read to the end without waiting years for the culmination. Another series we loved was: The Series of Unfortunate Events. We loved the word play, the humorous warnings, the resourceful children, and wicked Count Olaf.

Up on his desk are some favorites and reference for schoolwork. This is the second copy of The Way Things Work in our house. The first one fell apart even after having the spine well reinforced by duct tape.

My daughter has a much smaller bookshelf. Some of her favorites are there. She's read a lot of things many times, The Little Princess, the books of Roald Dahl, the poetry of Shel Silverstein, the original Peter Pan and Dave Barry's interpretations.

The size of her bookshelf is characteristic of the lack of storage space in our house. We had to get rid of many books before we moved. Now the library is our giant bookshelf. Here's my daughter' current stack.

And my library stack which by coincidence had Amanda and Stephen Soule's latest book on the top when I saw his wonderful post. We're going to watch Andy Serkis in Planet of the Apes tonight.

Onto my favorite books and collections: Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Atwood, Barbara Kingsolver, Jumpa Lahiri. I read most books from the library but treasure my favorites.

Not only do I love books with devastatingly beautiful prose. I've got a nice collection of books with inspiring art: Sark, Brian Selznic, Maira Kalman, and political art: Umberto Eco, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi.

Please notice the little Shirley Hughes collection to the right. That thick anthology was purchased on a trip to London. I love this British children's author and sought out her work while I was there. It is a treasure. I treasure many children's books especially those with the theme of peace or justice. When my kids were little, I loved buying picture books for them, but as they've grown older, I realize a lot of them were for me... and I continue to purchase ones that touch my heart.

If you like this post, please try one like and post a link. I love to explore people's bookshelves and libraries.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's Happening Today

Inspired by someone who found my blog and commented today...

Outside my window
... It's very windy, but it was still warm enough that I took out the scraps in my kitchen composter and turned the pile. I also filled a couple empty milk jugs with the little water still left in the rain barrel. Into the greenhouse it goes.

I am thinking...about focusing on positive, wholesome things and staying away from the radio and its political talk

I am thankful... for a warm house, warm sweater, knitted hats and gloves

In the kitchen... before composting, I turned a cauliflower into flowerettes and little tuppers of vegetable bits into more of that yummy Mexican slaw I described in the last post.

I am kangaroo sweater (soft brown, roomy with a big grey front pocket)

I am reading...New Yorker magazines. I did lots of novel reading over the holidays, now I'm catching up with my subscription.

I am hearing...wind chimes.

Around the house...bright sun coming in the window. Yes, I'm feeling the days getting longer.

I am to get my kids outside more (willingly) in the cold weather.

One of my favorite things... when a friend calls out of the blue to have a picnic or take a walk.

A few plans for the rest of the day... Helping kids grades 1 to 5 compost their school lunch scraps from 11:30 to 1:30. Watching the kids socialize and eat can be so funny.

This is my daughter (in the white shirt) and her friends eating the dinner they prepared for her birthday party. Homemade mac & cheese, broccoli, carrot sticks, and chocolate chip cookies from scratch.

I have my daughter's teacher in my heart today. Her husband is very ill. Today she is meeting with the class along with the school counselor to explain why she will be out of class unpredictably for a while.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Veggie Inspiration: Favorite Enchilada Dinner

Saturday night dinner is often my most complicated meal of the week. During much of the year I pick up my CSA veggie box on Thursdays. In winter, there's a local farmer's market on Saturday. Either way, I have lots of fresh vegetables, time and inspiration.

At the farmer's market this past Saturday I found red onions, green cabbage, and cilantro. The cilantro came from a local farm's greenhouse and the guy who cut it described to me the smell when he's in the greenhouse cutting bunches. I'd love to be there. I knew I had some related items at home (peppers and a lime) and a dinner idea was born: green chicken enchiladas (adapted from Martha Stewart Quick Cook Menus) and south of the border slaw.

At home, a pound of frozen chicken cutlets and some enchilada greens that I had frozen (half of a big batch I made during the CSA season you can see the type of thing that goes into it at this post) came out to defrost. The enchilada greens consist of sauteed onion, spicy peppers (like jalapenos) and some kind of greens (spinach or chard or mild kale, radish or beet greens).

South of the Border Slaw
bell peppers
red onion
lime juice
salt, pepper

First I make the slaw. I did a rough chop of about 3/4 of the cabbage, a rough dice of some colored peppers, and made thin slivers of a small red onion. I do very little measuring. Into that veggie combo went about 1/2 cup mayonnaise, juice from half a lime, a pinch of salt and about a 1/4 cup cilantro leaves and stems chopped. Stir and slaw goes into the fridge. Finished.

Green Chicken Enchiladas
1 lb. chicken poached chicken breast meat
1 pint sour cream
4oz jar chopped chili peppers
1 Tbs cumin,
enchilada greens (sauteed onions, jalapenos, chard/spinach/kale)
beans, your favorite (cooked or canned)
burrito size tortillas
cheddar cheese shredded

While various laundry, taking away the last Christmas decoration and other tasks are going on, I poach the chicken breasts (15-20 minutes in slow simmering water depending on the thickness). When they are done, set them in a bowl to cool while you prepare the enchilada filling and sauce.

A pint of sour cream, 4 oz. jar of chopped green chilies, Tbsp of cumin, another handful of chopped cilantro, and salt and pepper go into a bowl. Add the premade enchilada greens (if you haven't a stash of this, it can be sauteed while you're poaching the chicken. Here's what that looks like:

After this is stirred, I place half of the mixture back into the sour cream container to save for sauce. I shred the now cooled chicken and add it to the mixture with prepared beans (canned is fine). I like to use small white beans or navy beans, but I only had red beans for this batch. Here's what that mixture looks like filling the purchased whole wheat tortillas:

I usually fill 7 to 8 tortillas with this mixture and put them in a buttered 9x13 pyrex pan. The reserved sauce sour cream/greens sauce gets spread over the top and about 4-6 oz shredded cheddar goes on top of that.

Bake for half an hour at 375 degrees. If my daughter is around, she will be my stirrer and cheese shredder. She might also whip up a Fannie Farmer "Mix-in-the-Pan Chocolate Cake" that can bake at the same time the enchiladas are in the oven. (I'll keep the oven at cake baking temp 350 if this is going on). I love to fill the oven if I'm turning it on anyway. If I were planning to make squash soup the next day or had some beets to roast up for salads, I'd throw those in while dinner is cooking too. Out come the enchiladas, melty and slightly browned:

Grab the slaw and some fruit and plate up a veggie-rich favorite meal.

This meal fed our family for 2 nights. This enchilada recipe is one of those in my repertoire that takes the most time and planning. But it is worth it once in a while. Especially, if the next night just requires a quick reheat.

But I must qualify that my picky, vegetarian daughter gets an amended meal. (I wish I had taken a picture of her plate). Through nearly the entire cooking process, I am putting aside raw and/or no meat/no sauce versions of the meal for her. Her plate holds a quesadila (cheese and tortilla slipped into the oven near the end of the cooking time for the enchiladas), a couple spoonfulls of beans, slices of raw peppers, and fruit. I'll often throw some almonds or peanuts on her plate too.

It seems crazy that I am still doing this for her at age 11, but even as a baby she had serious issues with the texture of food. She eats a great variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, and dairy products, but they must be separate and clean. Her eating style is likely the healthiest of us all.

The point of this post is not necessarily that you will make this rather complicated recipe, but rather to highlight how fresh, local ingredients spark my creativity in the kitchen. The smell of cilantro starts me creating a Mexican style meal. Beautiful bok choy from my CSA will have me preparing an Asian stir fry. Mounds of tomatoes will have me roasting up a batch for dinner and a batch for the freezer. Throughout the year I am inspired by the local produce around me.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

December Riot Summary

According to the Riot calculator here, the results for the items I tracked for the month of December 2011 follow for a household of 4 people:

transportation: 26.8 gallons + about 300 public transportation miles between school buses and the T, 18 % of US average
electricity: 440 kwh, 49 % of US average
heating/cooking: 85 therms, 103% of US average

Still, I'm not sure what these averages are telling me. For example my electricity bill is measured in kwh/month. Specifically comparing month to month seems not as meaningful and one December to the next. However, the kwh on the bill is not always based on the same number of days. And certainly, the temperature varies which determines how much heat we use.

Some numbers that make me more aware of my use and progress are shown below:

December 2009
average daily electric use (kwh) 17.4
average daily temperature (degrees F) 38
gas for heating/cooking/hot water (Therms) 166

December 2010
average daily electric use (kwh) 15.4
average daily temperature (degrees F) 32
gas for heating/cooking/hot water (Therms) 124

December 2011
average daily electric use (kwh) 13.7
average daily temperature (degrees F) 40
gas for heating/cooking/hot water (Therms) 85

If anyone knows how to make a nice chart or insert one in blogger, please let me know in a comment. Thanks.

According to the numbers on my electric and gas bills that would be a 21% reduction in electric use and a 49% reduction in gas use in 2 years. In February of 2010, we had the house sealed and had insulation blown into the walls. The further reduction the following year may be from the higher monthly temperature, bulb replacement and shutting off our coldest room most of the time.

Here are some workers pumping insulation into the old, empty walls:

Through little holes like this:

Regarding our relatively low transportation use in December compared with previous months, it's likely a result of the fact that both D and I filled up very close to the end of November, and again toward mid Dec. January may be higher for that reason.

In the bigger scheme of evaluating our transportation use, I can frankly state that compared to 5 years ago, the cars we are driving are significantly more energy efficient. I went from driving a car that averaged about 16mpg to one getting 24mpg. I traded in my 10 year old car with 140,000 miles. It would have needed expensive fixes to pass inspection. I am driving about 1000 miles per month now, slightly less than when we lived in NJ and I drove my kids to a private school about 8 miles away. Now they take the bus to a local school.

D changed from a small pickup truck that got 20mpg to a small diesel car getting 38mpg overall and up to 45 to 50 driving carefully on the highway. While he loved that truck, it was necessary to get a safer more efficient car when he was commuting every weekend from NJ to MA before we moved. D gave his 15 year old truck with about 90,000 miles to a very good friend who needed a vehicle. The friend got a free means of transportation and was therefore willing to do the repairs it needed. D's work is about 20 miles from home in the city rather than 5 miles down the road as it was in NJ. He drives about the same distance though then takes public transportation from a commuter lot.

The old truck with the new car (VW Jetta TDI) behind it:

By the way, the truck's new owner loves it also: you can see how he decorated it for xmas here.