Friday, July 20, 2007

Factory Formed Fats

There’s a lot of hubbub about getting rid of trans fats, but not much news about what companies are replacing those trans fats with exactly. If you thought healthy, natural fats would replace chemically hydrogenated ones, think again.


Essential Tool for Buying the Farm

I can’t imagine buying the farm, as it were, without getting your hands on one of these. OK, all pathetic attempts at morbid jokes aside, I’m all for doing certain chores the slow and old-fashioned way. It isn’t that I don’t have enough to do in my spare time, or that I don’t value my time, but more about prioritizing minimizing my footprint and actually enjoying necessary daily chores as much as possible. See I never have enjoyed mowing. Most lawn mowers are loud and how much does anyone really enjoy the monotony of mowing straight lines across one’s yard? Are there people out there who truly get out of bed on the weekends eager to give the lawn mower a run? I detest weed eaters. It isn’t that these mechanical devices aren’t marvelous tools for the job, but the noise is like a brick wall, so I have sworn off ever buying such a contraption. I prefer the sound of silence, punctuated by bird calls. What does that leave me with? Well, when I owned a small city lawn (or what was left of it after I had etched out plenty of garden beds) I bought a rather old and rusty reel mower. After a good sharpening it worked like a charm. Those old reel mowers were built to last and I have found they outperform the reel mowers you can buy new these days. The essential parts hold together on the old mowers, rather than falling by the wayside mid-mow as I’ve noticed on the newer models. And you can’t beat buying a solidly built lawn mower for $5.

But back to my main topic here, we just bought ourselves some acreage. 2.5 to be exact. We were dreaming of 5, but by the time we found the right piece of land, land prices had about doubled in our area (in a span of 2-3 years) and so we settled for something smaller. Maybe that’s good. 2.5 acres is a good chunk of land and I’m already overwhelmed with it. Horses had kept the grass sheared up until the point that we put our offer on the property, but by the time we got moved in it became obvious that we would be fighting tall grass. Honestly though, I do like tall grass. I like the way it arches, dries to a light earthy tone, and flowers all feathery and airy. Come fall it will be a decorative asset. But sometimes you need to walk and work in an area without wading through waist-high field grass.

After briefly running over my options in my head – ride-on lawn mower (not!), weed eater (never), goat (maybe someday) – I remembered there was a hand tool designed for just this task and that there are people out there actually practicing the art of using it – a scythe! Even considering using one feels like stepping back into the dark ages, but then I do like to be unconventional. Believe it or not, there is a book that details how to properly use one. I’m considering looking into this book and also maybe purchasing a state-of-the-art scythe. But as a temporary solution, and as an opportunity to experiment, my parents brought me a scythe that they happened to have in their garage. I guess my brother, horticultural wonder-boy that he is, bought this scythe back some time when he was still living with my parents. After a good sharpening, I took it out for a test run and was rather impressed. If you have any tall weeds that you prefer not to pull by hand, this tool will at least temporarily neuter the reproductive stalks. It slices right through blackberry vines too – no need to run to the tool shed for pruning sheers and/or gloves. I had fun sweeping it through the tall grass, and I could see why some people say that the process feels meditative, as the act left me feeling rather calm, but I have to admit to only clearing a small section. I’m not sure what I would report after a day long scything adventure in the back field.
While I was practicing my scything technique, I pondered the contrasts between hay and straw. Not that long ago I didn’t really know what the difference was between hay and straw, only that hay was valued as a livestock feed. Hay, typically dry grass, has no nutritional value to humans, yet is a staple for feeding livestock during the lean months. Straw, or dry grain-crop stalks, is a byproduct of human agricultural crops, and is used primarily as a livestock bedding material. There is a nice synergy there in how these crops provide for both livestock and humans, without waste or a whole lot of competition over resources.


Green Kitchen Tip #14

Green Remodeling

When we first got the idea in our heads of remodeling our kitchen, I began considering how to incorporate “green” materials. I did a fair amount of research before realizing that my choices were going to be difficult. “Green” really comes in many shades of gray. There is no one shining example of green countertop materials, but rather various considerations one must make about what values to compromise. In my own case, I was fairly certain that my countertops should be some material that boasted a long useful life, which lead me to drool over granite and marble, before considering the possibility of permanent stains and the necessity of regular maintenance, which led me to consider engineered stone. I also thought about stainless steel, but even while considering all of these materials, I had to try to justify the high energy input in their production and transportation phases. Fascinated by the lower impact of durable goods, I skipped over the less permanent, yet greener options out there. Now I have a different perspective.

It seems that while durability is an important quality to consider when making any purchase, less permanent materials also have esteemable value. It is easy for us to envision our lives continuing along their current courses ad infinitum, especially if we are happy in our situation in life. However life, by its very nature, is all about change, and sudden changes at that. I was a little shocked at how abruptly we uprooted from a home we loved and never wanted to leave, but it happens, and often without a lot of warning. If I had outfitted my kitchen with those pricey engineered stone counters, I never would have realized any benefit from idolizing their durability. The next owner might have found my color choice too conventional and torn them out in favor of something trendier. These things have been known to happen. Actually I witnessed first-hand this haphazard re-decorating effect when I returned to our old home on some unfinished business, only to fully embrace the notion that there is no accounting for other people’s tastes. Not that I don’t have my own unconventional decorating ideas, or am one to talk. My point here is just that there is a value to impermanence.

So if you are thinking about your green remodeling options, bear that in mind. I know I did not.

But what is black and white and green all over? Why recycling of course. OK, there are still shades of gray in the act of recycling – take plastic recycling (not cut and dry), and the necessity of using water resources to clean recyclables, etc. But if you can stand to re-use someone else’s discarded goods, you are in fact recycling and making the world a “greener” place. There are tons of useful and valuable materials being sold on Craig’s list every day. I had never even considered the classifieds as an option for remodeling. I would not have at all (the credit goes to my husband here), if we hadn’t moved into a home that was desperately in need of ANYTHING better than what was there. We didn’t just find “anything” either. We found solid maple cabinets and engineered stone counters, along with the stainless steel under-mounted sink I’d always had an eye for. How is it that we found my dream kitchen, for a more than fair price, and that I can walk away from the transaction without feeling a twinge of guilt about it? Oh, indeed feeling positively beaming inside over it?

Well, it isn’t all sunshine and little drops of chocolate, mind you, because remodeling is still remodeling. Plumbing and venting need to be moved to accommodate the new sink and range placement, and the cabinets need to be positioned based upon what fits where, etc. All in all it worked out to fit our space almost perfect, but the devil is in the details and all.

Side note: Again with my theme of impermanence – the family who originally installed my dream kitchen as their own dream kitchen sold their home shortly after remodeling to a fellow who demolished the house and is currently building condominiums.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Overzealous Zucchini Fruits

For a gardener, moving in the middle of the growing season is about the worst timing possible. Not only must one shun the bounty of green growing things in one’s favorite nursery haunts and try to look past those that taunt you at grocery stores, but further one is between garden plots in which to plant the plethora of seeds purchased way back in the dead of winter. To make matters more desperate, many avid gardeners must find the time and energy to transplant as many garden treasures as they can muster the strength and resolve for, in the midst of packing up everything else. Add to that watering the poor transplants daily, or twice daily, for months into the summer -- because summer is the worst imaginable time to be transplanting anything.

I was very fortunate. My brother has a vegetable garden into which I had recently invested several truck-loads of horse manure (reference “How Does Your Garden Grow” post back in February 07 archive), so he was more than willing to allow me an allotment in his growing patch. I managed to plant some of my seeds there on a drizzly day in May. The obligatory (and adored) pumpkins were planted, along with lettuce, beans, dill, carrots, and zucchini. I had already started tomatoes, basil, and eggplants in pots before we even envisioned ourselves moving, so besides eeking out a miserly existence in their neglected and pot-bound state, all of those crops survived and made the voyage. Oh yes, and the voyage was delightful . . . two full loads of plants in a 25’ long box-truck. Yeah, I was in denial that we had THAT many potted plants to move, but at least we only moved 8 miles away.

That day that I sowed my seeds in my brother’s garden, I had every intention of visiting them regularly and especially of harvesting the zucchini in a timely fashion. Nothing is more universally groaned at, by those in the know, than an over-sized zucchini fruit. Culinarily inclined gardeners probably all cloister them secretly into the heart of their steaming compost piles and forget about them. Those of you who grew up with a gardening parent, probably suffered through more than one preparation of monster zucchini. In fact, one of the stories my husband told me while we were first getting to know each other, and which stirred adoration in my heart, was a tale of his father’s run-away zucchini patch. See, his father was a minister with three kids to feed on a modest income. No food went to waste. Monster zucchinis were not harmlessly recycled back to the earth . . . they were painstakingly consumed. To the point that once my husband reached young adulthood, he decided he’d had enough jumbo zucchini goulash. One afternoon when he was home alone after school, he paid a visit to the zucchini patch with a bottle of ammonia in hand, and proceeded to pour liberally. Needless to say, his father was absolutely dumbfounded about what earth-scorching blight could possibly have struck his zucchini patch with such sudden and relentless wrath.

I resolved at an early age, that if ever I managed my own zucchini patch (and I never thought I would, by the way), that I would never unleash such a vegetative monster upon the dinner table. I was even convinced, as of this spring, that I would find the time to nip such behemoths in the bud, or rather when they were still of a servable size. But my dear brother recently brought me a bundle of my produce, since I haven’t made it out to his garden in months, complete with just such a specimen. What I haven’t mentioned, until this moment, is that our family finally found a way to enjoy, yes I said enjoy, these green giants.

It all happened when we were on summer vacation. My parents got it in their heads that we should drive cross-country, into the northern heart-lands of America. Among the proposed tourist destinations were places like Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, and Mt. Rushmore. As we were just beginning to get a taste for all-day driving sprints, restaurant dinners, and spontaneous hotel choices, and while we were already growing road-weary, we found a site in Bonner’s Ferry Idaho featuring a string of detached cabins that had vacancies posted. It seems that we got a sniff of something sweet and chocolaty baking in an oven behind the clerk at the desk, so we enquired what it might be. That was the moment we acquired the recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Cake. It wasn’t very long before we realized the true beauty of the recipe – that it accommodated over-grown zucchini respectably.

When faced with my recent defeat against the notorious mammoth summer squash, I realized I only had one option, and I did not hesitate. Especially since I was recently suffering from an excruciating chocolate cake craving. Chocolate zucchini cake has got to be one of the easiest chocolate cakes you can throw together. The addition of clove is distinctive. This cake is exceedingly moist. In fact, I thawed some that had been in my freezer for probably several years (I know, I know, bad form for a foodie) and it did not suffer freezer burn at all. It was, in fact, divine! The chocolate chips sprinkled on top add melt-in-your-mouth interest, so that you won’t feel a whim to whip up any goopy frosting. The best part – you can make it in one bowl and bake it in one pan. Even better, for those cooking in half-baked (gadget deprived) kitchens, as I am at the moment, I easily managed to mix it up with just four commonly-used utensils: one large spoon, a set of teaspoons, a single half-cup measurer, and a grater. Life is good.


In a large bowl, cream together:
½ cup softened butter
¼ cup oil
1 1/3 cup sugar

Then add:
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup buttermilk
2 cups unsifted flour
4 Tbsp cocoa
½ tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp cloves

2 cups grated raw zucchini – I grated my large zucchini straight over the bowl

Pour into a greased 9 x 12 pan, or into muffin tins.
Sprinkle with:
¼ cup chocolate chips – I usually use more, a couple of handfuls

Bake at 350° F for 40 to 45 minutes.

Best served at least one day after baking. Freezes well.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A lot of catching up to do

This is a photo of a tulip that was blooming in the midst of our home's time on the market. I did get around to downloading this image, but only now had a moment to share it. It is amazing to me to see how lush everything was not that long ago. Spring flew by and I hardly had a chance to take note of it. I remember grumbling, at the time I snapped this, about how I didn't really even have a moment to spare to photograph my tulips.

Actually, we are only now just getting started. After all the work of putting our house on the market, keeping it in show condition, making it through inspections, boxing our stuff up, boxing our stuff up, and yet more boxing our stuff up, we have henceforth carried all our earthly possessions to our new abode, set them down with as much organizational forethought as possible, and have proceeded to gut the new living quarters. And I thought a kitchen remodel was a nightmare. Silly me. Try keeping your kitchen in boxes in your car (where they will stay reasonably dust-free), cooking on a camp stove, and dining regularly with the mosquitos.

We are just glad it is summer and the living is supposedly easy.

More when I get another breather.

Is anybody actually still out there reading this neglected blog?