Cooking with the sun

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I’m excited to share with you the latest step towards energy resilience and reduced fossil fuel use here on our urban homestead: a solar cooker!! There are few forms of alternative energy that would be more appropriate to our location, for sunshine is the one form of freely available energy there’s lots of here in South Carolina. Although solar panels on the roof may still be a distant dream for renters like us, that doesn’t have to stop us from tapping into the power of the sun in other ways.solarcooking-2I’d long been thinking of making a solar cooker myself, and had collected different designs online. At the homesteading festival last October, I met a guy who had done a superb job at this, but he seemed much more tech-savvy than I am and had done things like using a laser cutter to cut his Styrofoam pieces just the right size. Mine would have been a fairly basic cardboard-aluminum foil-glass contraption. In the end, I realized that since we seem to move around so much, any such DIY version would probably not hold together in the long run. And I wanted the solar oven to be durable. Hence, we decided to invest in the All American Sun Oven, which impressed us at the Mother Earth News Fair last year.

The solar cooker is perfect for things that are best cooked slowly, such as stews, soups, and rice. I launched my solar cooking career with this curried lentil stew with squash and kale. A perfect meal for the weekend: I did the prep in the early afternoon, put the pot in the Sun Oven, and there it slowly simmered for a few hours while Dan and I worked in the garden. Occasionally one of us had to adjust the oven’s position in relation to the sun, but that was really all we had to do. It’s virtually impossible to burn anything in the solar cooker; the worst that can happen is that your delicious dish gets dried up. This is good news for anyone like myself who easily gets carried away by another project. By dinnertime, when the sun was already going down, our dinner was ready:solarcooking2The biggest solar cooking hit so far, though, has been this blueberry banana bread. It turned out perfectly moist and we gobbled down one loaf between the two of us right away.

solarcookingsolarcooking-5Solar blueberry banana bread

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2-2/3 cups sugar
3/4 stick butter, softened
2 eggs2 bananas, mashed
blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional)

Mix together the flours, the baking powder, and the salt. Beat the sugar and the butter in another bowl until you have a light, creamy texture. Add eggs (beaten) and banana. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients gradually, and lastly add the blueberries and the vanilla extract, if using. Pour into a greased bread pan (or two small ones) and place in the solar oven until they are golden brown and a matchstick inserted in the middle comes out clean. How long this will take in a solar oven will vary. On a clear, sunny day, mine was done in about 90 minutes.

 

The power of the sun is really impressive… and it’s encouraging that our first solar cooking experiments so far have been such successes. Now I just have to get in the habit of checking the weather report as I plan my meals!

A weekend of local edibles

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The theme of this weekend was local food — both cultivated and wild. Farm-to-fork and, hmm, forest-to-fork food, if you will.

Urban wild food foraging is something I’d already been introduced to when we were still living in Portland. I’ve written here before about my adventures with nettles, dandelion and cat’s ear, and elderflower. Alas, just as I had learned to identify and use a number of the edible and medicinal plants of the Pacific Northwest — and figure out where they grow in my neighborhood — we moved across the country to an entirely different climate and ecosystem. In many ways, I’ve had to start over. The botanical world of the Southeast is truly its own thing.

So when I found out that my friend and fellow permaculture enthusiast, Matt Kip, would be leading a wild edible plants walk in the woods on Saturday, I was immediately on board. As we walked and tasted our way through the woodlands and meadows on the banks of the Congaree river with Matt, I realized I was not in the company of total strangers: I met some old friends such as sweet cicely, chickweed, wood sorrel, and nettle. But I made some new friends and acquaintances as well. wildedibles2For example, I’d seen — and of course smelled — the striking, heavy-hanging purple flowers of wisteria that dot the landscape here as the city bursts into spring bloom, but had had no idea that you can eat them as well. Bull briar (also known as smilax) was another new discovery: the tender new leaves are mildly asparagus-flavored, and for me one of the highlights of the walk. wildedibles3I may be able to remember jewel weed and air potato just because of their memorable names… or recognize May apple, pokeweed, and native mulberry (below) because of their distinct leaf shapes…

On Sunday, I traded my hiking sandals for dressier ones as Dan and I joined a number of other foodies to sample the locally sourced fare at the Slow Food “sustainable chefs showcase” potluck and party, an annual event that kicks off the Indie Grits Film Festival here in Columbia. Organized by Slow Food Columbia, this event challenges local chefs to create a dish that uses at least one locally grown, sustainable major ingredient. Guests can also bring a potluck dish to share. It was a feast, and such a fun way to celebrate our local food scene. Dishes that made me go for seconds? The Thai tea and lemongrass doughnut holes, the warm kale and miso salad, the chilled asparagus soup served in dainty little cups, and the feta-and-kale spanakopita rolls with sweet onion jam.slowfoodslowfood-2 slowfood-3 slowfood-4 slowfood-5And just in case you were curious to see behind the scenes of this local food culture… this short documentary, Agri+Culture narrated by Erin Eisele, follows food “from farm to fork” in the Midlands of South Carolina. It’s great to see it highlight the very people who produce our eggs, dairy, and some of our vegetables — as well the advocates who, together with these farmers, are working hard to strengthen the small farms and local food movement in this state. Click below to watch and enjoy! 

The front yard garden

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We’re transitioning away from being backyard gardeners: we’ve now become people who grow vegetables in their front yard… and on other people’s land. On a street where no one else seems to be growing edible plants — our neighbors’ idea of gardening is ornamental bushes and lawn — we’re putting our labor, our veggies, and our commitment to growing some of our own food boldly out there for everyone to see.

The reason for the shift was not to make some statement, though. It is simply that, because of the gorgeous tall old trees, our backyard is quite shady for most of the year, and whatever we’ve planted there has not thrived. We even considered moving to a different house that would have a yard better suited for gardening. And then we realized there was a much simpler solution. Following the permaculture principle “make least change for greatest effect,” instead of moving our entire household, we simply moved the raised beds to where they do get good sun — namely, the front yard. frontyardIn fact, we built two new raised beds there, in addition to the numerous large containers we already had. If I had my way, we would have sheetmulched the entire area and planted directly into the soil, but the landlord only allows us to garden in boxes and containers. Which is fine, really. Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve watched everything pop — brassica plants and other greens, peas (here freshly trellised), carrots and beets, various kinds of lettuce and herbs. There’s no end to the curious questions, comments and compliments we get from passers-by when we’re out there working.

And we didn’t stop there. I had noticed that the thin sliver of lawn between our driveway and the neighbor’s house gets consistently good afternoon sun for most of the year. Somewhat nervously, I approached our neighbor to ask if he’d be willing to let us expand our garden there. It turned out he had nothing against it. So… woohoo: more room to grow!! The raised bed in the foreground currently has lettuce, onion, fava beans and emerging summer squash in it. The one in the background is dedicated to dye plants — Japanese indigo, woad, and hollyhock.frontyard1frontyard-4Fava beans and summer squash emerging…frontyard-3The fuchsia-colored flowery bush (not planted by us) provides a striking backdrop against which only veggies as colorful as rainbow chard and romaine lettuce stand any chance.

 

 

A farm in the city: Visit to City Roots

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Just down the street from us is one of the coolest things this city has going for it (if you ask me): the urban farm known as City Roots. Since 2009, Robbie McClam and his crew have been farming these less than 3 acres of land and, in addition to growing local produce for Columbia residents, have become a real hub of community life and sustainability in the city. You can count on them being there at the weekly farmer’s market. If there’s a community-building or educational event taking place, City Roots is likely to be behind the scenes either organizing, hosting, or supporting it. And they are great neighbors. When we first moved here a few months ago, Dan and I picked up a truckload of compost for a dime from them — compost made out of the vegetable scraps they pick up weekly at our neighborhood grocery store and local restaurants. That’s just one example of how they keep nutrients and resources cycling in the community. During my recent visit, I got to walk the grounds with farmer Robbie and pick his brain about what they do and how they do it. cityroots-2The entire farm is essentially a demonstration site for environmentally friendly farming practices. The main retail and educational space, known as The Barn (above on the left), is passively cooled and built to meet LEED standards.cityroots barnThe farm also demonstrates how to grow food while caring for, rather than depleting its soil: practicing sheet mulching and crop rotation, minimizing tilling, growing cover crops such as winter rye (left) and clover (right) in the image below.. and of course, managing the large-scale composting operation from which I myself have benefited.cityroots2 cityroots chickensAnimals are incorporated into the system. The farm’s chickens are not only egg producers, but farm workers as well, scratching their way through the weeds under the blackberry and blueberry bushes and fertilizing the soil as they go. The bees in the apiary do the pollinating. The extensive vermicomposting system has worms turn more organic scraps into beautiful fertilizer. What’s particularly impressive, though, is the aquaponics system in one of the greenhouses: in a 3,000 gallon sunken-down tank, they’re presently growing about 700 tilapia fish and circulating the tank water through a system of beds devoted primarily to watercress and nasturtium (used in their salad mixes), which functions as a biological filter to clean and aerate the water before it goes back into the fish tank. And apparently the plants love the water fertilized by the fish. Have you ever seen nasturtium exploding like that?cityroots-4cityroots-7The farm is currently heavily focused on microgreens. Two large greenhouses are pumping out nutrition-packed seedlings of broccoli, radish, beet, snow pea, sunflower, mustard, the gorgeous red amaranth etc. to be sold at farmers’ markets and through the farm’s CSA program. This allows year-round production. I tasted quite a few of the microgreens while making my way through the greenhouses, and loved the variety — and especially the surprising punch of some of them.cityroots-3cityroots-8The story of how City Roots started is as inspiring as seeing the farm in action. Robbie McClam was trained as an architect and was working in the construction business when he heard an NPR interview with Will Allen of Growing Power. The next thing he knew, he’d signed up for the organization’s Commercial Urban Agriculture program and had set his mind on starting an urban farm in Columbia. What he says now of his new vocation compared to his earlier, extremely complex job of managing construction projects is, “Farming is much harder.” The land he leased presented big initial challenges: the soil was mostly compacted sand, the lot turned out to be zoned as industrial land. But the City Roots farmers persisted, bringing compost from the city’s composting program to cover the entire lot and getting some fertility going that way — and actually managing to change the zoning! cityroots-9I think you see by now why I’m so proud to have these folks in my neighborhood…

Nesting for a baby with a small (carbon) footprint

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Long before this soon-to-arrive baby of ours had even entered our hearts and minds and hopes as a possibility, I’d decided that if I ever have a child, I’d try my utmost to still hold on to the same values I try to honor in all other areas of my life: material simplicity, low consumption and environmental responsibility. Starting with nesting for the newborn.

Well-meaning friends who themselves had children would smile knowingly: “Oh, just you wait…” One of them told me how, while pregnant with her first child, she swore she would only get “the essentials” for the baby, only wholesome, natural, non-toxic toys — and definitely not plastic anything made in China. Less than three months into parenthood and sleep-deprived to the point of insanity, she caved in and bought whatever vibrating swing, bouncer, or other plastic contraption from China would put her baby to sleep.

I realize that that may be me in a few months. But for the time being at least, let me give this parenting-in-simplicity thing a try. The truth is that I have thoroughly loved this period of nesting and preparing for the baby’s arrival, and I have particularly loved trying to find ways to do it in a way that feels right for me, rather than what the big box stores are telling me it should be. The nest I’m preparing is low-tech and low-cost, woven out of as many recycled and handmade and organic things as possible. Just in case some other mama or papa-to-be out there is looking for ideas for how to avoid excessive pre-baby purchasing, here’s what’s helped me:

Question mainstream lists of “must-haves”. A popular maternity website will tell you to budget $ 6,500 for baby gear for the first year. For how could you have a baby without brand new nursery furniture, a special nursing glider, a play center, and a thousand dollars’ worth of baby clothes? Now contrast that with the approach of the frugality blogger Mrs. Money Mustache, who actually asks: What do newborns really need? The list is not long, it turns out: a place to sleep, diapers, some clothes, milk, a car seat, and love. The Money Mustache couple got their gear mostly free from friends, or used from Craigslist, spending a total of $ 320 (and made most of it back by selling them again when no longer needed). Our budget is certainly going to be closer to the latter example. Breastfeeding and cloth diapering are key to keeping both costs, and the environmental impact, low.

Say yes to used. This is easy to do: as the word spreads that you’re expecting, offers of hand-me-down baby clothes and other things will automatically come in from all sides. Given how fast babies grow, many clothes have only been worn once or twice, so they’re as good as new. Even if you don’t happen to have family or acquaintances who can help out in this way, there are now so many consignment and other used baby item stores popping up everywhere, including online, that buying everything new in the store just doesn’t make sense. All you’ll do is waste your own money and support the “buy and discard” mentality of the industry.

We let family and friends know that we’d welcome, and in fact prefer, used items for the baby. Instead of a traditional baby shower, my close friends organized for me a baby blessing party to which guests brought baby clothes, toys and baby gear that were either gently used and recycled, or handmade. Thanks to the generosity of family and friends, we have received—for free—

  • cloth diapers and baby clothes to see us through at least the first three months and much of the first year
  • a changing table, a crib, a stroller, a high chair, a baby carrying backpack
  • an assortment of blankets, receiving blankets, bibs, swaddle cloths, baby carriers, books and toys
  • almost all of my maternity wardrobe

nesting-2Do it yourself. Some of the most precious gifts for the baby are handmade, such as the little woolen things knitted by my grandmother and my aunt, and this awesome elephant quilt made by Dan’s aunt. nesting-3I’ve made a few things for the baby myself. My main project has been a co-sleeper in which the baby will sleep for the first few months. I wanted to avoid the flame retardants and nasty plastics that are in most commercial co-sleepers, but also didn’t want to spend the money on the few, pricey eco- and baby-friendly bassinets that are commercially available. The solution: a sturdy cardboard box elevated on a wooden trunk; organic cotton for draping; and an organic mattress. It fits snugly between our bed and the wall and is completely secure. I can share the process of making it in a later post if anybody is interested.nestingIf you’re going to invest and buy new, invest in safety. I can count with the fingers of one hand the items we’ve gotten new (apart from small things like bottles), and all of them were decisions made based on safety: a car seat (received as a gift) — although I would have accepted a used one if I knew for sure it hadn’t been in an accident; a baby bathtub that’s free of BPA plastics, phthalates, etc.; an organic changing pad (received as a gift); and an organic bassinet mattress for the co-sleeper.

Apart from the car seat, what I mean by “safety” is minimal amount of toxins in baby products. The Mindful Home’s incredibly thoroughly researched guide to non-toxic, eco-friendly baby gear has the scoop on the toxic chemicals that, incredibly enough, most baby gear seems to be pumped full of — and how to avoid them. They have two excellent recommendations. Firstly, try to avoid plastics altogether in baby products. And secondly, “if you are going to do just a few things organic/toxin free, it should be the bedding, mattress and sleepwear.  All of them are loaded with flame retardants, and mattresses have a slew of other things to be concerned about, like PVC and phthalates.” I followed that suggestion — hence the DIY co-sleeper with an organic mattress and bedding. Ideally, one would be able to find all the non-toxic items on The Mindful Home’s list used on Craigslist or the equivalent, but I haven’t had such luck. In fact, I find that the biggest challenge in eco-friendly nesting is making choices that meet both criteria: a) don’t involve new purchases, and b) are safe for baby. The majority of consumers who are passing their used items on seem to have taken the big box store, made in China, cheap and toxic route.

Any other ideas for keeping the carbon footprint of a baby as small as her actual footprint?

A rain catchment system, again

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We’ve had an unusually cold, but also rainy, winter here. Dan and I have been kicking ourselves for not having set up a rainwater catchment system earlier. The main thing that held us back — apart from the fact that we didn’t know how long we’d be staying in this rental house — is that the house has no gutters. Looking around, I see that that’s the case for at least every other house here. Is that a Southern thing?

Now that we’ve committed to at least another year in this house, and have planted a fairly sizable garden all around the house (more about that later), we decided it was time to get some water self-sufficiency going. Instead of the main house, we’re using the roof of our backyard shed for collecting the rainwater. It has a simple, rectangular shape, which makes installing gutters easy. We used the 55 gallon barrels we had brought with us from Oregon, where we had an identical setup. The barrel that is higher up gravity feeds into the lower one when it gets full. This is where we hope to get most of our garden irrigation water this spring and summer.rainbarrelsFor this project, my husband gets all the credit — these days, it’s not really a good idea for me to be climbing ladders with power tools in hand, so I was more than happy to let him do the work. I got to just come outside for afternoon tea and scones and admire the finished work, and those splashes of color — blue as in water, yellow as in daffodils, green as in a new spring.

Cooking from the pantry

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Once upon a time, my meal planning looked like this: I’d decide what I wanted to cook, made a list of the ingredients, and went to the grocery store to buy them.

These days, it tends to look more like this: I look around in the kitchen — especially in the pantry — to see what we already have, and then plan a meal around that. Often, especially when it’s harvesting season in the garden, the trip to the grocery store can be skipped altogether.

I love cooking from the pantry. I love the sense of food security that rows of large glass jars, filled with staples such as whole grains and beans, can bring. I love being able to reduce food packaging waste by buying in bulk, in bags we rotate, and to reduce plastics leaching into our foods by storing food in glass instead. I love the fact that this habit quite naturally makes us eat primarily whole as opposed to processed foods. And yes, I’m lazy enough to love not having to go to the grocery store multiple times a week to pick up a can of beans one day and a box of rice the next. Oh, and did I mention that we’re also saving money this way?pantry

Here are some of my favorite meals that have their basis in our pantry:

At the Antique Mall

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Craigslist and Freecycle are great, but when it comes to finding used things in a way that I actually enjoy, I much prefer a Saturday afternoon spent casually touring antique stores. A lot of the time, I don’t buy anything. Wandering around, looking at strange objects of forgotten purposes and unknown stories, trying on silly vintage hats is its own reward. This weekend, I spent some time doing just that at two of my favorites in our town — the Old Mill Antique Mall and the Columbia Antique Mall.

I’ve made some great finds over the years — not the really fancy, ornate antique furniture, but the simpler, rustic kind that now gives our home a lot of its character. Other things I particularly like to keep an eye out for: large enamel pots useful for canning and dyeing purposes… antiques-7old wooden crates that we stack and use as bookshelves — and what one might find inside them…antiques-9cast iron cookware (we scored our Wagner cast iron pan from an antique store, several decades old but restored and ready to go)antiques-11more enamelware…antiques-2old technologies for our post-petroleum future, such as washing boards, real irons for clothes ironing, old-fashioned bathroom items (I’m only partially joking)…antiques-6antiquesantiques-10

and random treasures…antiques-5antiques-4antiques-3

Permaculture talks this month

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As regular readers of Gather & Grow know, I’m a permaculture designer and enthusiast. Permaculture is simply the approach to sustainability that most resonates with me — or to be more clear, knocks my socks off — and restores some hopefulness in me about the future of this planet. Completing my Permaculture Design Certificate at California’s Regenerative Design Institute in 2011 was nothing short of life-changing, and set me firmly on the path that I’m now on.

This month, I’ll be giving two free introductory talks on permaculture here in Columbia. I’m so fired up to get to share this amazing, down-to-earth, thoughtful and fun design methodology with others. Come join us if you can!

  • Tuesday, March 4, at 6:30-7:30pm at Richland Library St. Andrews
  • Tuesday, March 18, 6-7pm at Richland Library Cooper

ouroboros

Fermentation February: Ginger beer

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This month of fermentation projects comes to an end with some bubbles! Since I’m not a drinker, I haven’t ever experimented with the brew-your-own beer, mead, and wine side of homesteading. But I admit I’ve been secretly wanting to line up nice shiny bottles and put caps on them with a bottle capper — I’m a girl who likes her tools, you see, and there’s something so satisfying about that snap sound of a sealed bottle.

With ginger beer, I’ve found the perfect project to do just that. Ginger ale is the one and only soft drink both Dan and I like to drink and regularly have in our fridge. I, in particular, like the kind that has a real ginger-y kick to it. Now, with homemade ginger beer, I’ll be able to make exactly the strength I like.gingerbeerMaking ginger beer is one of the easier fermentation projects out there. All you really need is ginger, sugar, lemon, water — and time (2 weeks or longer). Simply follow the instructions in Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation or, if you prefer visuals, take a look at this video by Stacy. In addition, though, I also highly recommend reading carefully what Katz says about bottling fermented drinks in his Art of Fermentation. With carbonation, pressure does build up in the bottles, so if you are using glass bottles you’ll want to be safe and minimize the possibility of a bottle explosion. I followed his advice and ended up with a safe, bubbly, tasty drink a few weeks later. Highly, highly recommended.gingerbeer3gingerbeer4gingerbeer2

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