...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Reminders of Spring

Ah, Forsythia...
My favorite spring bloom is forsythia (I always think of the holiday song "All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth" as I say the word.)  These delicate yellow blossoms finally popped out around our neighborhood within the last week and will forever conjure up memories of the forsythia bushes between our house and our neighbors', Cliff and Vera Schroeder (who our little V is named after), when we lived in Racine.  I'm hoping to clip a few branches from somewhere this weekend--maybe our across-the-alley neighbors who are also the parents of a close friend--because I don't have any in my own yard.

Umbelliferae family bed--parsley, carrots, parnips, salsify

Last Monday when we had all that sunshine and warmth I took advantage of the day and got a running start on direct sowing some vegetable seeds.  The raised beds I installed last year looked crusted and lifeless.  In hindsight I should have gone with the organic topsoil source recommended by my friends from the Victory Garden Initiative, but at the time the gentleman's truck was out of commission and of course I needed my topsoil now!  Instead I called a southside mulch and topsoil company who unloaded several cubic yards of both mulch and topsoil at my house.  The mulch was great, but the topsoil was like that of the nutrient-depleted, crusty clay I've seen in conventional farmers' fields.  When the sky came down last July and all that rain flooded our city--though we were the lucky ones--it was all my veggies could do to hold on.  The drainage in these beds was horrible.  So I hand-tilled the soil this week, spread a thin layer of compost, and topped it off with some nice fluffy organic topsoil that I picked up at our neighborhood hardware store.  Not ideal because of all the plastic packaging I had to throw away, but I know that this topsoil will give better results.  The original raised bed I installed six growing seasons ago and filled with this same topsoil is still the best soil in our garden.  I may not know much about soil fertility, but I know crummy "dirt" when I see and feel it.  

V's path
So our overwintered compost bin is now empty.  Every year as I'm pitchforking all the wonderful nutritious goop out of it I get to a point where the best way to completely empty it is with my good old hands.  Not the most ideal activity to get involved in shortly before preparing dinner because the stink doesn't want to come out of my fingers and already very short nails, but at least I know where that stink comes from.  As I was loading the compost into the wheelbarrow V stood by watching and said "Ew! I don't want to eat compost.  It's gross!"  Perhaps it's too early to explain to her that this is the good stuff that's helping grow the food that she does eat (or at least will hopefully taste more of this summer...still practicing eating our veggies.)  But it gave me a better idea of how I can use our garden as a learning tool this summer.  I'm so excited.  V loves being outside, even in her small available play space.  As I was cleaning and organizing my garden shelf yesterday I watched her from my periphery as she very carefully transported a tiny plastic shovelful of dirt (from an unplanted raised bed, thank goodness) to the wheelbarrow a few feet away.  I realized that there are so many opportunities to sharpen her balance and hand-eye coordination out there.  We're going to have a blast come warmer weather.  So far I'm trying to draw some boundaries for her.  As in "please don't trample what Mommy has planted."  I just amended a ground level veggie bed (the one area I've kept free of structure JUST in case that backyard hen ordinance passes and we need the space for a chicken coop/run.)  I used the last of the beautifully gnarly ash twigs and branches from the huge tree our neighbors pulled down a few summers ago.  Held together with several twist ties, I made a natural edging that will hopefully stay together for at least this season.  I made it clear to V where her path is and so far she's been very obedient--and rather enthusiastic--about hopping only on the stepping stones.  (Anyone want to wager how long this will last?)

The Swiss Chard/Dill/Cilantro bed

Aside from our outdoor activities, V and I had more fun indoors this week.  On Monday we made egg salad with the hard-boiled eggs we dyed last weekend.  I did most of the peeling--though she wanted to help for a minute.  She cut the eggs with my Gram's old egg slicer, I tossed the main ingredients into the bowl (homemade mayo, home-brined "Midwest capers," celery), she mashed (with a potato masher...then I helped with a pastry cutter) and mixed and shook in some dried dill, then I seasoned.  I had no idea what a great kid-friendly activity this would be.  The egg slicer is not sharp--just a series of taut wires that cut into the hard-boiled heuvos--and the mess was minimal.  Too bad it's not on my list of kosher foods these days, but Daddy likes it so perhaps V will grow up perfecting an egg salad recipe.  (My favorite quote as she's pulling a celery stick through the globs of mayo along the edge of the bowl, "Should we add more mayo?"  I love her suggestive nature these days.)

I hear the weather will be nice this weekend.  I still have two raised beds that are empty.  The main (original) bed on the south 1/3 of our backyard will house most of my bush beans, some greens, cabbage, and brassicas this year.  I usually direct seed my pole and bush beans but because most of them stood little chance against the slugs last year I've started some of them indoors and will attempt to transplant so at least they'll have more body before those slimy creatures can nibble away at the first true leaves.  I placed my beer-filled tuna/sardine can "slug traps" a little late last year, but over the winter I gathered many more cans and as long as I can convince B to buy a sixer of "cheap beer" for once, I hope to create an obstacle course for these garden pests.  But I'm also considering planting some hills of beans outside this weekend.  I wouldn't normally do that for another week or so, but as I took stock of my garden supplies yesterday upon cleaning I realized I have a lot of homemade cloches I could use to protect the seeds/seedlings from the potentially harsh weather we might still encounter.  I'll have to report back on this.  At any rate, I'm planning to be outside for as much of the weekend as possible.  Yay!


The Day of Eostre

Unfurling Skunk Cabbage Leaf

Today is Easter Sunday.  The word easter was derived from the ancient was for spring, "eastre," and the Teutonic dawn goddess of fertility, "Eostre."  Though there are obvious religious, especially Christian, reasons for this spring holiday, we choose to celebrate it for its pagan roots.  There was no better day to get in the garden and start grooming and preparing things for the fertility I anticipate this season.  On Saturday I spread most of the compost from our tumbler with hopes to complete the task this week after acquiring a load of topsoil to cover it--I paused in my spreading as I realized if I left the mostly composted food scraps exposed, our curious little one would be picking up avocado skins and peach pits saying "what's that?" and scattering them around the backyard in mysterious places only for me to find later in the summer.  So if the weather cooperates this week, I would like to finish the job.  Today I also seeded some pole beans in our front windowboxes (and watered them with compost "tea") and continued the interrupted job of cutting down dead perennials from last fall.  I also worked on creating some ambience for our backyard eden as I transferred the string lights from the fence that supports our grapevines to the cherry tree with a few small branches that overhang our "patio."  The grapevines leafed out so much last year that the lights were lost and unappreciated.  At the top of an unsteady ladder I wrapped and wrapped and wrapped strands around the delicate branches of our sweet cherry tree in a manner not unlike that of those in downtown Chicago--pretty soon they'll be calling to offer me a seasonal gig (yeah right!)

Naturally dyed eggs
One of these days I will get organized enough with my blog to post holiday ideas well before the holiday so that readers can use the information for their own meals and crafts.  My sister-in-law brought this to my attention around Thanksgiving when she was checking my blog for recipes for the big meal only to come up empty-handed (so sorry Chrispy! I owe you one.)  So this information is belated, but as long as my blog is intended to be a "web log" of my journeys through our urban homestead, this will have to do.  Yesterday V and I spent about eight minutes coloring hard-boiled eggs with natural dyes.  Her attention span for crafts is very short these days, but we decorated the eggs nonetheless as I realized that it's quite a passive activity anyway, especially when using natural dyes in which the eggs have to sit for an hour or two in order to take up the pigment.  We chose beet juice (pink), celery seed (gold), dill seed (brownish gold), and turmeric (yellow)--for some reason I gravitated toward the warm tones like I do with decorating.  We had mild success--the only color that wasn't strong enough was the beet juice.  This morning we hid the eggs around the yard, V had fun hunting for them--with much prompting--and was lead to her basket at the end.

Prepping the dyes

Supplies are ready

Letting them soak

Hmmm, I wonder who ate one...Vera?
Skunk cabbage
Our Easter day plans were modest from the beginning--we thought we'd visit a nature center then have a quiet dinner just us three.  Mid-week we were ramped up to drive to Horicon National Wildlife Refuge.  By this morning, considering naptime, we downgraded (but only distance-wise) to driving much less to Schlitz Audubon Center  in Bayside then keyed it down (distance-wise) again to Havenwoods State Forest on Milwaukee's north side, and finally decided not to drive at all and simply enjoy the flora in our own "backyard" as we strolled to the Seminary Woods just blocks away.  I always intend to visit the same natural area at least once each season of the same year to observe the changes taking place with the wildflowers, trees, and fungi.  We took a Valentine's Day weekend walk along this very path so let's say we're two for four with examining the grounds at the same location in 2011.  We saw many signs of spring as we identified bloodroot in bloom, skunk cabbage along the stream, trout lilies establishing themselves throughout the woods, and thriving ramps (wild leeks) dotting the undergrowth.  I realized that a tricky part of wild foraging is that one must be dedicated to getting out at least a few times each week to check what's in bloom or ripe.  It's not like the backyard where a person can take just a few steps to see what's close or at peak ripeness...and with many fewer competitors waiting for the same food.  This summer will be much different from the last as naptimes are consolidated and nursing intervals are non-existent.  A walk through the woods always gets my blood pumping and mind rolling--today I was obviously pondering summer.  In the meantime, it was a cold day for a walk, but fantastic to breathe the fresh air and listen to the trickling water of the stream and the knocking of the downy woodpecker.

We even used the wedding china
Our garden sorrel
We capped off the evening (and Ben's week staycation) with a quiet yet delightful celebratory meal, all kosher for my needs (see, it would have been nice had I posted recipes last Tuesday):

Lamb Loin with Sorghum and Tarragon Glaze

Polenta with Mushrooms

Local Spinach and Sorrel Salad with Pickled Beets, Toasted Hazelnuts, and Apple Vinaigrette

Chocolate Coconut Cream Pie with Almond Crust   

 A sampling of my old stamp collection
Though we're sad to see Daddy go back to work tomorrow, we greatly appreciate his spring cleaning efforts this past week.  I think we're all feeling cleansed and rejuvenated with more room to breathe.  I shipped so many things out the door this week it felt GREAT!  Although I'm determined to clear the clutter, I was still unable to part with my stamp collection--yes, I was a geeked out philatelist from about third grade until junior high.  Looking back at my loosely "organized" collection (and by that I mean it's a bunch of loose stamps messily piled in an empty Animal Clipper box from the days my mom and I had a dog grooming business), I believe I was more into the stamps for the quality and variety of artwork they displayed.  Now I'm feeling inspired to somehow upcycle this collection--I can't bring myself to sell them (besides I wouldn't know where to begin pricing them) and I'm certainly not going to "Antiques Roadshow" them.  Stay tuned for more crafty ideas...and Happy Easter!


Spring Clean(s)ing

Re-alphabetized spice cabinet
Grain and bean pantry
Ben's been home all week on staycation and he lovingly chose to spent the time doing a deep spring cleaning with me.  We looked at our weekly chore list with its less frequent (monthly, bi-monthly, six-monthly) tasks and built a list of our cleaning goals for the week.  He tackled window, screens, and floors early in the week (yes, I know he's a dream!) and I managed to vacuum the (unfinished) basement, clean inside cabinets, reorganize shelves, and pare down.  We make a great cleaning team.  Though we've been getting rid of more things in the last year or so it never ceases to amaze me what we're still hanging on to.  I was busy Freecycling, donating, and recycling at the dump this week.  I can confidently say that the flow of possessions going out of the house now far outweighs what's coming in.  It feels great; there's more room to think and live.  Now let's keep it that way.

Last night was to be the kick-off of our regular Craft Night at a girlfriend's house.  She recently got a sewing machine and is excited to work on reconstructing some thrifted clothing.  I simply wanted to knit.  We were joined by one other friend who is in town for the week and spent most of the evening sipping vino, eating, and chatting.  The extent of our "crafting" was an attempt to give my friend a demo on her new sewing machine.  Upon closer examination, I realized it was the type of machine I remember using in junior high Home Ec.  It's a sturdy machine, but I've been spoiled by my extremely user friendly version.  If you'll recall, technical manuals and I don't mix so I referred my friend to her godmother who is scheduled to give her a demo soon.  Instead we went over the basic anatomy and physiology of her machine and skimmed the surface of pattern language and symbols.  Perhaps as our craft nights develop we'll actually make some progress though sipping wine and catching up with girlfriends isn't a bad way to pass the time either.

On a crafting note, I finally delved into my pile of upcycled materials last weekend and crossed an item off my list.  I had a fish bowl full of metal canning lids that are not reusable.  As of last year I am using reusable lids so I shouldn't have this stockpile in the future.  I'd been wanting to make a "Memory" game--one of my favorites from childhood--though I wasn't sure how I would go about getting two of every image for the game pieces.  I wasn't about to hand draw them, though I didn't want to print something from the internet and use up all that colored ink.  I finally got the idea--though I cannot for the life of me remember which fellow craft blogger inspired me--to cut out images from magazines or colorful paper.  On my craft shelf, I have a stash of interesting pages and papers that I save for bookmaking purposes.  I raided this box and found all kinds of cool pieces to use for my game as well as some circles cut out from paperboard food boxes.  As long as enough of both images are the same to indicate a match, they don't have to be identical.  I used glue to attach them to the indented side of the canning lids and stacked them inside a fancy reusable (plastic) gelato container--a perfect fit.  Until Vera understands the concept of "Memory" we can play it as a matching game.

Colorful "Memory" game pieces
Looks like I need a few more pieces to complete the set.

Perfect storage container

Who's winning?
French bread fresh from the oven
Aside from cleaning, I've had time to do a bit of baking this week--gluten-free buckwheat chocolate chip cookies, French bread, GF/vegan Banana Chocolate Cream Pie.  Just getting warmed up for the next food holiday this coming weekend--Easter.  We celebrate Easter for it's pagan roots of fertility--I'm hoping to explain the eggs and rabbits thing to Vera this week--or at least read a book or two depicting these symbols.  We were on the fence about putting together an Easter basket for V, but I decided that if I forgo all the unnecessary candy then I can probably handle giving her a basket.  I've included a small pair of gardening gloves, a tomato growing kit, some local honey sticks (her favorite), a butterfly bubble wand and homemade bubble solution, and some felt pieces to make a bunny face (an idea I got from our Tuesday library story hour group--felt boards are awesome!)  I'm hoping to do some natural egg dying on Saturday and hide her basket on Sunday.  We're talking about making a day trip to some sort of nature preserve then we'll cap it off with a quiet Easter dinner at home Sunday night.
Vera's alternative Easter basket

Cutout bunny on felt board


Longing for Warmer Weather

Kiddos @ dusk--would have been out all night if allowed
Sunday evening we drove down to Grayslake, IL to share Sunday dinner with our friends who farm organically at Prairie Crossing.  We were joined by another couple of close friends from Chicago and their little one.  Great food (prepared by the men!), lots of healthy children running around, a tour of the farm and the kids' chicken coop all made for a lovely evenly.  We capped it off with dessert on blankets out of the lawn.  Ben signed up to make the final course and since he prefers not to "bake" I guided him towards a recipe that would fit my bill, use local ingredients, and go only as far as the stovetop.  He put together a delicious dish of home-canned peaches, vanilla ice cream (or coconut vegan "ice cream" in my case), and a maple brown sugar sauce.  It was wonderful to feel the warm air, sip the last of our wine, and watch the kiddos run up and down the gravel lane.  If only it could have lasted.  Where did that lovely warm weather go?  We knew it was too warm too soon so this week we've been back in jackets, hats, and layers with a new cold to boot (the LeForts just can't seem to shake it this winter no matter how much elderberry cordial we throw back.)  We really just need to ditch the forced air, fling the windows open, and spend the majority of our days out of doors.  V and I have spent a lot of time this week in the yard--even took a wheelbarrow ride yesterday as I was clearing last year's perennial growth out of the front yard.  But until it truly warms up, I'm still inside baking and cooking hearty meals to warm our bodies.

I have lots of recipes to share.  I almost added these to my last post, but it would have been way too long--at least when I think about my attention span for reading things online and keeping up with all of my favorite blogs.  Last week and this week thus far have been very productive in terms of recipe development.  I've included my favorites.

Bison Burgers That Can't Be "Beet"
Makes 3-4 burgers

Mixin' in the Cuisinart
I still had some local beets in my fridge until last week.  They always hold up extremely well if refrigerated all winter.  The tricky part about cooking these burgers is that because they are "red" from the beets, it may be difficult to tell when they're done.  Either take an internal temp. or cook for the recommended time below.

1/4 small onion, peeeld
1 T. nutritional yeast
1 t. salt
2 medium cooked beets, peeled
1/4 c. fresh parsley
1/2 t. granulated garlic
1 t. ground cumin
1 lb. ground bison
Grapeseed oil, for cooking

Combine all ingredients, but bison in food processor and process until somewhat finely chopped.  Add to bison and mix thoroughly--I think the hands are the best tool for this.  Shape and press into patties.  Heat cast iron skillet over high heat.  Add oil, heat.  Add burgers and cook covered about 5-6 min. per side.  Melt cheese on the second side, if desired.  Serve on bread or a bun and garnish with avocado mayo or your condiment of choice.  

My gluten-free, vegan explorations continue and as I find alternatives at the grocery store that I like--such as wraps and English muffins--I'm also realizing how expensive these products can be.  So I set to work making my own English muffins...and have plans to try a flour tortilla recipe soon.  

Gluten-Free English Muffins (GF, Dairy-Free, Egg-Fre)
Makes 6 muffins

Better than store-bought
Adapted from Better Hagman's The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread.  They were easy to make and better than the store-bought variety.  My favorite way to top them comes from an open-face sandwich my mom always prepared for us as kids--peanut butter, sliced bananas, honey, and sunflower seeds.

1 1/2 c. Featherlight Rice Flour Mix (see below)
1/4 c. garbanzo bean flour (also known as gram flour)
1 rounded t. xanthan gum
1 1/2 t. baking powder
2 t. unflavored gelatin
1/2 t. salt
1 T. almond meal
4 t. egg replacer
1/4 c. cool water
1 1/2 T. brown sugar, divided
1 c. plus 2 T. lukewarm water
2 1/4 t. dry yeast granules
1/4 c. nut butter (almond, cashew, sesame, peanut, etc.)
1 t. molasses

Place 6 English muffin rings on a cookie sheet and grease the rings with vegetable oil spray.  In a medium bowl, whisk together flour mix, garbanzo bean flour, xanthan gum, baking powder, gelatin, salt, and nut butter.  Set aside.  Place the egg replacer in the cool water and whisk until it thickens to egg white consistency.  Measure 1/2 T. of the brown sugar into the warm water and add the yeast.  Set aside.  In a large mixing bowl, place the rest of the sugar, dough enhancer, nut butter, and molasses.  With a hand mixer, beat slightly.  Add the egg replacer liquid, beat again.  Add yeast water, blend on low.  Spoon in half of dry ingredients and beat until smooth.  Add the remaining flour and beat with a spoon until blended.  Spoon into prepared rings, cover, and let rise for 45-60 min.  Bake in a preheated 375 degrees oven for 22-25 min.  Remove the rings while still hot.   

Featherlight Rice Flour Mix
Makes about 3 c. flour

Equal parts rice flour, tapioca flour, cornstarch
1 T. potato flour

Combine all ingredients and store in a container until ready to use.

In case you have any local ingredients still lingering in your crisper drawer, cellar, or freezer now's the time to start using them up because the next season's produce is right around the corner, whether you believe it or not.  I had some cauliflower puree in my freezer and potatoes on my root cellar rack so I tried this recipe last week.

Curried Cauliflower and Potato Soup with Cilantro
Serves 6

Adapted from Fresh From the Farmers' Market by Janet Fletcher.

2 T. grapeseed oil
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. chopped cilantro
1 lb. cauliflower florets
1 baking potato (8-10 oz.), cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 c. vegetable stock
2 T. green curry paste diluted with 1/4 c. water
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 c. coconut milk

Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat.  Add onion and saute until soft, about 10 min.  Add garlic and cilantro and saute 1 min. to release garlic fragrance.  Add cauliflower, potato, stock, 3 c. water.  Bring to a boil, then cover, adjust heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook until vegetables are tender, about 30 min.  Puree in blender in batches and return to pot.  Add salt, pepper, diluted curry paste, and coconut milk.  Reheat to serving temperature.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  

Breakfast Focaccia (Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Egg-Free)
Makes about 8 servings

My in-laws are kind enough to come up to sit for Vera once a month when Ben and I both work on a Friday.  I like to have some kind of breakfast goodies ready for them when they arrive at what seems like the crack of dawn.  Hopefully they will enjoy this choice that I adapted from Bette Hagman's The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread.

Dry Ingredients:
1 1/2 c. Four Flour Bean Mix (see below)
1 t. xanthan gum
1/2 t. salt
1 t. Ener-G egg replacer
1 t. unflavored gelatin
1/4 c. xylitol
2 1/4 T. almond meal/flour
1 t. dried lemon peel
2 1/4 t. dry yeast granules

Wet Ingredients:
1 T. + 1 1/2 t. Ener-G egg replacer diluted in 6 T. water (to make about 1/3 c. liquid egg replacer)
1/2 t. dough enhancer
1/4 c. coconut oil
3/4 c. warm water

3/4 c. fruit preserves (I used homemade peach jam)

Grease a square baking pan.  In a medium bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients, including the yeast.  Set aside.  In an electric mixer bowl, beat liquid egg substitute, dough enhancer, coconut oil, and water.  With mixer on low, spoon in the flour mixture.  (Should be the consistency of cake batter.)  Turn mixer to high and beat 3 1/2 min.  Spoon into prepared pan and smooth evenly.  Cover and let rise 20 min.  In the meantime, preheat the oven.  Bake 30 min., then gently spread fruit preserves onto top of focaccia and return to oven to bake another 10 min. until topping is nice and brown.  Serve warm or at room temp.

Four Flour Bean Mix
Makes 4 1/2 c.

1 c. garbanzo bean flour
1/2 c. sorghum flour
1 1/2 c. cornstarch
1 1/2 c. tapioca flour

Combine all ingredients, use as needed and store the remaining for another use.


Let Nature Do Its Thing

Spring has finally sprung--I think.  This morning was the beginning of my many "therapy" sessions for the next few months--I hung the season's first load of laundry on the line.  It was such a peaceful morning: Ben had already left for work, but Vera had not yet risen and the neighborhood still seemed somewhat asleep.  It was just me meditating as I hung our clothes and the birds chirping with delight at the new day.  I can't wait for it to get lighter much earlier.  Maybe I'll even have a chance to sit down with some coffee or tea and read a chapter in a book once in while on upcoming spring/summer mornings.  To me, that's heaven!  

Natural pea trellises, potato sacks to protect the seeds
The growing season has officially started around here.  A couple of weeks ago I planted my first seeds inside and they are now thriving under the grow lights.  Mid-week I started pruning the mess of grapevines on our southern fence, but still have a lot of untangling and trimming to do.  I seeded several different varieties of tomatoes inside yesterday and also had a chance to get a couple of raised beds started in our yard.  I planted lots of greens--red and green lettuce, mesclun mix, frisee, mustard greens, and arugula in the front yard raised bed, which got a late start last year and was therefore quite unproductive.  I also intercropped peas and red beets in the backyard.  Based on what I know about the maturity of peas and beets, I figured that by the time the peas are done, the beets will be ready to grab more of the sunlight and push through the alternating rows.  I'm a big fan of using natural materials for trellises so for the pea patch I am trying dogwood branches that I rescued from my neighbors across the alley who had them in their garbage can a couple weeks ago (I think they were part of their holiday greenery.)  Afterall, according to Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen in The Urban Homestead, part of the process of urban homesteading is dumpster diving.  So between the laundry and the new seeds outside, today I thought "now it's time for nature to do it's thing."  The wind must help my laundry dry and the air, water, and soil must help my seeds germinate.  

Ben and I also transferred the winter basement compost bin outside yesterday.  It's a dreaded task, but only takes about 5 minutes of our time.  Knowing what I can comfortably press with my legs and back at the gym these days, I'm guessing the compost bin was at least 150 lbs.  Whoa!  It's very tricky to get it up the basement stairs without spilling any of the worm juice in the bottom tray in the process.  At one point I was losing my grip, which caused a laughing fit because I thought I was doomed to get coated in vermi-goop, but I kept pushing, regained composure, and eventually made it outside with just a few minor scratches and welts.  Hopefully I'll find time this week to spread the compost from the outside bin onto the remaining unseeded raised beds and transfer the basement compost into the outside bin.  It's always a tricky time of year to get the nutrients into the soil while still getting seeds in there as early as I hope.

Purple Pancakes!
Filling a squeeze bottle with "purple batter"
I realized today that this may be a challenging summer, garden-wise, because Vera is even more mobile than last year and rather fearless when it comes to trucking around the backyard.  Just this afternoon she got into some seed packets I had on my garage gardening shelf and--according to her--"planted" a whole packet of peas basically all in one pile.  Fortunately these are rather large seeds so I was somewhat easily able to pick them up by hand and return them to the packet.  But I can picture little bits of chaos like this happening in the garden this summer.  I'm wondering if giving her her own corner to plant and tend will keep her from being so interested in mine.  It will require a lot of patience, but whatever happens it's sure to be a learning experience for both of us.  In the meantime, we've spent what I'm hoping are the last few cool days inside doing art and cooking projects.  Last week we made a mid-morning snack of purple pancakes--gluten-free, vegan pancakes with a little cherry juice subbed for the almond milk.  They were more like a gray, but to V they were a fine shade of purple.  She had fun helping me--very carefully--squeeze Mickey Mouse, worm, letter, and flower shaped plops of batter onto the hot griddle.  That same morning we did some finger painting to create some spring greeting cards for our family.  It was fun to see V wearing my painting shirt as a smock--an old flannel button down from my Grampa.  

The fun lasted about 10 minutes...oh well.
Re-used takeout condiment containers,
perfect for leftover paint.
Today V and I walked to a salon in our neighborhood to participate in an event for children and women of childbearing age to get their hair tested for mercury levels.  The Sierra Club sponsored the event and Vera may just be on the news tonight.  I recently read Sandra Steingraber's story in Orion magazine; it was both depressing and terrifying and got me thinking more seriously about the issue of chemicals in our environment.  A mama friend of mine from the local chapter of the Holistic Moms Network told me about this event and invited us to give samples. We'll get the results in a few weeks.  I can't wait to learn our toxicity levels.  I'm hoping this issue gets some local media coverage and makes people question the environmental safety of our area's coal-fired power plants.    

On that note, I continue to think critically about our family's daily impact on the environment.  Right now I feel stuck between my dedication to buying local and my "needs" to use certain very un-local ingredients (like coconut oil and "exotic" flours) as substitutes in my current diet. I'm trying to at the very least purchase those items in bulk because the project at hand is to purchase fewer items with packaging--at least those that are highly non-recyclable.  I'd like to cut down on that kind of waste altogether.  Last week I took my tote of Mason jars to the co-op where they gladly gave me the tare weight of them all so that I could directly fill them in the bulk section and bypass even reused plastic bags.  It worked out well.  

And on this same note, as I previously posted, I've been trying to make more of own our body care products as well.  The mouthwash is great so last week I decided to tackle B's shave lotion, which was on the grocery list.  He'd been using a brand that I found wasn't rated very safe on the cosmeticdatabase.com site so I decided to try something homemade--also much cheaper.  We'll use the same pump container once the other stuff is gone so he can still have an easy-to-use product and I don't have to worry about whether that plastic container will actually get recycled.  

Homemade Shaving Cream
Makes about 1 pt.

Don't let this happen to you!
Adapted from a recipe from Bright Hub.  Fortunately I had all of these items on hand from various projects so I was ready to go.  I used peppermint castile soap b/c we have it in bulk amounts around here.  It adds a nice tingle, perfect for shaving.

4 T. sweet almond, jojoba, or apricot kernel oil
2 T. moisturizer such as pure cocoa butter, beeswax, or shea butter
1 3/4 c. purified water
1 t. baking soda
4 T. castile soap
1/2 c. aleo vera gel or honey
Essential oil--I suggest clove, pine, thyme, or bergamot for a "manly" scent.  

Heat the oil and moisturizer over a double boiler at a low-heat.  Stir until the mixture is clear, then pour into a large bowl and let cool.  In another pan, heat the water, then add the baking soda and castile soap, stirring until completely diluted.  Add aloe vera gel or honey to this solution then stir.  Pour soap mixture into the bowl with the now room temp. oil and moisturizer.  Add essential oils if desired.  Blend everything well in a blender or pulse on a food processor (keep an eye on it regardless of method, the soap can foam over.)  Store in an airtight container (such as a Mason jar) in a dry, cool location.  Can be stored for about three months.  



Sweet Home Chicago

"The Bridge to Nowhere"
Though I've never called Chicago my home--unless you count the few months I spent down there as a pseudo-transient when Ben and I were dating--but B hails from the environs of the big windy city.  To celebrate his parents' milestone birthdays this year (and last) we all gathered there this past weekend and ate, ate, ate, took in a show, visited, walked, walked, walked, and had a lot of fun.  A great time was had by all.  I haven't done all that much dining out since my allergy diagnosis--a great thing for my pocketbook, but it hasn't done much for my on-going desire to explore new foods, cuisines, and restaurants.  It's not easy to find an eatery with an allergy-friendly menu, especially not when there are multiple offending foods.  And having worked in restaurants for more than the past decade, I know that--especially in fine dining--a chef doesn't always look favorably upon leaving something out of a dish that he or she has spent time to imagine and lovingly prepare.  So our dining experience on Friday night at Chicago's well-known regional Mexican restaurant, Topolobampo, exceeded my expectations.  Before I could mention it, our server asked if anyone had any food allergies then spent time discussing my "special needs."  She provided a menu adapted for my restrictions and I proceeded to indulge in an intense, almost 4-hour dining experience with the rest of our party.  Whoa!  It shows that not only are people more in tune to food sensitivities these days, but they're committed making sure every diner has an equally enjoyable experience.  It's instances like this that make me wish I was a fine dining server once again.  The following days at our hotel's restaurant for breakfast and brunch I was just as easily able to pick out something suitable from the menu.  I love telling the server my concerns about dairy and eggs--as if I'm vegan--only to then order a huge plate of breakfast meats.  Don't know how I'd ever go without bacon!

In conjunction with this trip I developed a recipe for some gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free vanilla cupcakes last week.  While preparing a thank you treat for my Chicago friends who babysat for V on Saturday night, I was also working on developing a vegan cake recipe for a former employer.  I used honey though true vegans would make a substitution--I suggest agave nectar or brown rice syrup, though the latter may impart a different flavor.  Add some chocolate frosting and you have a yummy don't-even-miss-what's-not-there dessert.

Very Vanilla Cupcakes
Makes 10 cupcakes

Adapted from The Gluten-Free Almond Flour Cookbook by Elana Amsterdam.  One could sub. agave, brown rice syrup, or even maple syrup for the honey to achieve a vegan cupcake.

1 T. Ener-G egg replacer diluted w/ 4 T. water (equiv. of 2 lg. eggs)
1/4 c. grapeseed oil
1/2 c. honey
1 T. vanilla extract
1 T. lemon juice
2 1/2 c. blanched almond flour
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. baking soda

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare muffin tin with either silicone muffin cups, papers, or pan spray.  In a medium bowl, whisk the diluted egg replacer with oil, honey, vanilla, lemon juice.  In a separate bowl, combine almond flour, salt, baking soda, then mix into egg replacer mixture.  Scoop batter into prepared muffin cups.  Bake 30 min. until tops are golden brown or a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.  Let cool in pan about 30 min., the center will sink just a bit which is normal.  Frost as desired.

Chocolate Frosting
Makes 1 1/2 c.

I prefer coconut oil in this recipe; I love the added flavor.  But grapeseed would be perfectly suitable as well.  If you want more of a ganache-like "glaze" for the cupcakes (see photo), freeze for the lesser amount of time then whip slightly.  Any leftover frosting/"glaze" makes a wonderful "chocolate bar" once refrigerated.

I can almost see my reflection in that shiny frosting!
1 c. vegan, soy-free chocolate chips
1/2 c. coconut oil (or grapeseed oil)
2 T. honey (or agave nectar)
1 T. vanilla extract
Pinch of sea salt
Decorating sugar
Additional sea salt

In a medium saucepan over very low heat, melt chocolate with oil until smooth.  Stir in the honey, vanilla, and salt.  Place in the freezer 10-15 min. until cooled.  Remove and whip with a mixer until thick and fluffy, 1-2 min.  Use to frost cupcakes then sprinkle with decorating sugar and just a bit of salt to complement the sweetness.  Store in a glass container, keeps a week or so (if you don't eat the rest first!)

Brassica seedlings
I just peaked at the forecast for this week and it looks like rain rain rain!  I guess that's a sign that spring might actually be here so I won't begin to complain.  But I'm really itching to get outside and throw some seeds into the ground.  The brassicas I seeded indoors last week have germinated and are now cheerfully standing tall under my newly installed grow lights (Thanks B!)  This is my first time using these lights, though I've had them in my possession at least the last couple of seasons--it was a situation of extreme  procrastination.  I finally realized how easy they are to use; it just took a little time to hang the lights, which B placed nicely over his workbench for now.  These lights were handed down from my grandfather after he passed.  The story is that in the winter and early spring he always had them set up in the basement laundry room with tables of flower seedlings (I remember marigolds, impatiens, and ageratum.)  Of course, not being an avid gardener then, I--along with my family--thought he was a goofy old man just trying to find a pass time.  He may not have been an expert, but he knew more about starting things from seed than I did--and he tended a beautiful urban flower garden with prized roses and all.  So I'm glad to have these lights and I think about Elmer every time I turn them on.