Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kale is growing in my yard

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I learned at a free workshop sponsored by the Washington Conservation Corps I attended on MLK Day that I should have cleaned out my garden plot at the end of the season. So last week, I went out there for the first time in months and took a look around. A lot of stuff was growing out there, some of which I clearly recognized as weeds or grass.

Other things, however, looked like veggies. One plant I dug up had roots that looked like carrots--and we didn't plant carrots last year! Two other plants resembled different types of spinach. We did plant spinach, but it went to seed and never produced a crop.

I called the Master Gardeners program and asked about it, and they told me to bring in some samples, which I did yesterday. It turns out that what has roots that look like carrots are peony plants, and one of the spinach-like plants is another flower.

However, the second spinach-like plant is actually kale! After my spinach went to seed, someone suggested I plant kale "because it's easy to grow"--but the kale never sprouted, I assumed because we planted the seeds so late in the season. So apparently, it didn't sprout last summer, but is making a wintertime comeback! Per the Master Gardener's suggestion, I replanted all the stuff I dug up, and we shall see if this kale (there are three kale plants growing now) flourishes enough to produce a crop!

Friday, January 22, 2010

My daughter's skin

I had been wondering if my daughter would have the same skin problems I have, and it seems the answer is yes. The skin on her face has started becoming dry, red and easily irritated.

My next question, of course, was whether what works for me would work for her, being a child. I tried my homemade shea butter/olive oil moisturizer, and she broke out in little pimples. So I tried pure aloe vera gel, and it helped, but didn't seem to moisturize enough.

So a visit to Super Supplements was in order. I have been applying witch hazel to the pimples to clear them up, but I wanted something to moisturize without causing a reaction. A clerk recommended Earth's Best Organics (which makes baby food and products) Calendula Extra Rich Therapy Cream. Calendula is an extract of the marigold plant.

According to the Safe Cosmetics Database, it has a 3 rating (out of 10, with 10 being the most toxic). Most of the ingredients are very safe, and the rating seems to have been brought down by the addition of benzyl alochol, which has a rating of 6. Alcohol, I believe, is used in a lot of skin and hair care products because it prevents the ingredients from separating. (Since I don't use it in my homemade stuff, I usually have to shake or mix them again before use). I have seen several natural products use cetyl alcohol for this purpose, which has a 1 rating on the database.

Since the product seems to be working, perhaps a letter to the company, asking them to find an alternative to the benzyl alcohol, would be a good thing to do.

Healthier sweets

As you may have guessed, I love to cook. I also love to bake, but I have a husband who is diabetic and a daughter, who, like most young children, would rather eat junk than healthy food. And I admit it, I have a sweet tooth, too!

One of the things I like to do is try to make the sweets I bake as nutritious as possible, without sacrificing taste. Here are a few tips I use:

1) Replace half the fat (oil, butter, margerine) with applesauce or pureed fruit. This not only reduces the fat content, it adds vitamins. Good replacements include banana, apricot, or pear. If you use canned fruit, purchase fruit that is no sugar added or packed in light syrup (NOT heavy syrup), and drain before pureeing.

2) Replace half the eggs with egg white, an egg substitute such as Egg Beaters, or soy milk. Generally, 1/4 cup = 1 egg.

3) Replace half the white flour with a more nutritious grain, such as whole wheat flour or oat flour. I also supplement some extra nutrition and fiber by adding a little wheat germ and/or milled flax seeds.

If you really want to get ambitious, drain a can of small beans (black beans for chocolate dishes, white beans for vanilla or other light-colored sweets). Measure out a little more than one-third the amount of flour the recipe calls for--for example, if the recipe calls for 2 cups, measure out 2/3 cup of beans, plus a few extra tablespoons. Mix with one of the liquids the recipe calls for, and puree till smooth. Use the resulting mixture to replace one-third of the flour. This will really increase the fiber in the dish, and once it's baked, you can't taste the beans.

4) Replace half the sugar with a sugar substitute. If you want a natural option, honey and agave nectar are good choices, and can replace sugar on a 1:1 basis. Please note that honey, while more nutritious than sugar, is still high on the glycemic index (a scale that indicates how much a food raises blood sugar levels), while agave nectar is lower on the glycemic index if blood sugar is a concern. Stevia ia also a natural sugar replacement, but I haven't been able to find the ratio of how much stevia to use if you're replacing sugar.

You can also use artificial sugar substitutes such as Equal or Splenda if you don't mind the baked item being less than 100% natural. If you're using the single-size packets, 6 packets= 1/4 cup. More and more, I have seen half sugar/half sugar substitute options prepackaged in the store (under such names as "Splenda for Baking"), so you can often buy what you need ready to use.

The reason why everything is halved is that reducing the fat/sugar/etc. more than that, in my opinion, begins to sacrifice taste.

Happy baking!

Easy garden composting tips

On MLK Day (the first day the sun appeared in Tacoma, in who knows how long!), the Washington Conservation Corps held several free workshops for the community, one of which was on garden composting and rainwater harvesting. The workshop presenter provided two very easy garden composting ideas:

1) At the end of the season, dig up your garden and clear the debris. Rake your leaves and spread them over your plot in a thin layer, no more than 3 inches deep. Then with a shovel, turn the leaves into the soil and mix it in. Over the course of the winter, the leaves will break down and will help nourish the soil for your spring planting.

2) After planting your garden, lay down two layers (two sheets) of newspaper (no glossy sheets!) between the rows, and cover them with dead leaves. This will prevent weeds from growing up between your veggies and will provide a more solid path for you to walk on as you work your garden, and in the fall, you can turn the leaves and newspaper into the soil and mix it in. Again, this will nourish the soil for the next growing season.

One of the things I realized as I listened was that we never cleaned out our garden plot last year. Duh! I called the U. Washington Master Gardener's program today to ask how you do it. The guy I spoke with said just dig everything up and turn it back into the soil. "Even weeds?" I asked, since quite a few weeds have grown up since then. "It's up to you, you can discard the weeds, or mix it in," he said.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My kid the chef... and what I'm doing instead of composting

My daughter loves helping me in the kitchen. She also loves experimenting. Now, I liked experimenting in the kitchen, too, but I think I began doing so at age 8 or 9, not 4. (It may have something to do with being an only child. With no other playmates at home, she wants to do what the grownups are doing).

She's pretty good at it, too, having a good sense of what might taste good together. A couple of weeks ago, she mashed up two bananas, added a little flour, sugar and milk, and asked me to taste it. I did, and exclaimed, "Hey, this would make a great banana pie!" I made a crust, added her mixture to it, and baked it at 350 degrees for a half hour. Good stuff!

I may have mentioned the sauce she made for salmon, consisting of water, olive oil, rosemary, oregano, parmesan cheese, garlic powder, salt and lentils. We used only part of it the night we had fish, so I told her I'd store it and promised I'd try it the next time we had chicken. Well, last night I cut up and roasted a chicken and my marindade was the sauce she'd made.

I have a great minestrone soup that I make, originally based on a recipe from the Prevention Cookbook, but modified by me over time. I made it earlier this week and my daughter tasted a spoonful while it was still on the stove. "It needs something to make it smell really good and taste sweet, Mama," she said. (Back to Princess and the Frog: this reminds me a little of a scene early in the movie when the princess, as a small child, told her father his gumbo needed more Tobasco). I had saved some orange peels, so I handed them to her and showed her how to scrape the peel with a vegetable peeler. We added the shavings to the soup. The zest of orange gives the soup a really divine taste! Once more, my daughter is showing herself to be a tremendous budding chef.


And speaking of orange peels, I had saved them from an orange my husband ate, thinking that I might be able to use them for something or other. That brings me to my alternatives to composting. I wrote months ago about killing all my worms in my first compost bin. I kept meaning to buy some more worms and try again, but never got around to it. Yet the thought of sending all our food scraps to a landfill is something I didn't want to do. I started trying very hard not to waste food, but freezing leftovers and reusing them in new dishes later on, so food doesn't spoil. And for fruit and veggie scraps (and eggshells as well), I started burying them in the backyard.

I looked this up on the internet, and apparently, it's not a bad option. It's not as good as composting, since it doesn't produce something that can fertilize your garden, and you have to mix it with soil and bury it deep enough (at least eight inches) so critters don't dig it up. But it's working so far. I take only scraps (such as vegetable peeelings and fruit rinds), or fruits and veggies that have started to go bad, and nothing that has had any sauces, oils, spices, sugars or dressings added to them. I let them sit and rot for a while in a plastic container, and then I dig a hole, bury it, pat it down and cover the hole with dead leaves. This allows me to monitor whether anything has tried to dig it up, and so far, nothing has.

A potential downside (if you can call it that), is that some of these scraps may start to grow next spring. But it might be fun to see if that happens!

Prayer for Haiti

This is close to my heart, not only because of the devastation, but because my husband and I have so many Haitian friends. Boston has a huge Haitian population (and has had a Haitian presence since at least the early 19th century, according to an archaeologist friend who researched it). Two stories have been on my mind:


A friend I'll call Celeste came to the U.S. as a child. Her parents divorced when she was young, and, Parent Trap-style, her father took her and immigrated to the U.S., while her sister remained with their mother in Haiti. (Unlike the Parent Trap, however, the sisters were always aware of the arrangement). In the late '90s, when she was in her twenties, she returned to Haiti to visit for the first time, accompanied by her American roommate who I'll call Karen.

What awaited them was a shock. From the time she was able to work, Celeste sent money to her mom and sister and she knew in her head that they were poor, but she didn't realize the extent of it. IIRC, she and Karen found her mother and sister living in a shack without electricity or running water; water had to be pumped from a well. I can only imagine what that must have been like for Celeste; here she was, educated, working a good job and living in a nice apartment, while her sister lived in squalor, and she knew it was merely chance that she had been the one her father brought to the U.S.

In addition to her mother and sister in this small home, two teenage cousins had lived there as well since the death of their parents, as well as another young man and his family. The young man had been a neighbor of Celeste's mom and sister as a child, and they'd taken him in after his parents died. Now he was a grown man, with a wife and small child of his own.

He was also the only one in the household with a job, given the high unemployment rate in Haiti. He could have chosen to take care of only his small family, but he gladly supported the entire household, because he was so grateful to Celeste's mother for taking him in when he had no one.

Celeste and Karen brought two suitcases each to Haiti, one carrying their own clothes and personal items, and the other carrying clothing and toiletries they had purchased for Celeste's family. When they presented their gifts, Celeste's mom promptly gave everything away to others in the neighborhood. Seeing this so moved them that when they departed, Celeste and Karen left behind almost everything they'd brought with them, returning to the U.S. with only the clothes on their backs, their pocketbooks and their passports.


Another friend, who I'll call Martine, used to ask me to pray often that her son could come from Haiti. Martine immigrated to the U.S. as a young adult, and her "son" was actually the son of her closest childhood friend. Martine had agreed to adopt the boy and bring him to the U.S. in order to give him a better life. It took many years to work out the adoption and immigration process. I think the boy was about eight when they started, and he was fourteen when he finally arrived in the U.S. a few years ago.


As I think about the loss of life and devastation, I can't help but wonder what has happened to Celeste's mother and sister, her cousins, and the young man and his family who lived with them. Or to the mother of Martine's son. And for them and many other friends of ours back in Boston, what has become of their friends and family members who remained in Haiti? My heart and prayers go out to them all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Living in Tacoma

In the early chapters of No Impact Man, Beavan talks about how, despite one of his goals being to try to find greater happiness by living more sustainably, he found himself making other people miserable. His wife, for one, who was struggling to walk 1.5 hours a day to and from work. (Like me, the thought of biking in the city freaked her out). Like his mother and sister, when he told them he couldn't travel to visit for Thanksgiving, given his no-carbon creation rule. Like himself, on occasion, when he started resenting the things he couldn't have because they would create trash or emissions or something. So in the early stages of his experiment, he had to do a lot of soul-searching about the point of the project.

Reflecting on my own happiness, I think I'm just coming to terms with how difficult it has been to move out here, and how much I miss Boston. The weather depresses me. While I don't miss the cold and snow of Boston winters, I loved three out of four seasons there. Here, I only love one of the four seasons: summer. The rest of the year is cold, wet and dreary. Boston had its dreary days, but not weeks on end. I've also learned that rates of multiples sclerosis and cancer are higher here than elsewhere in the U.S., and one suspected cause is Vitamin D deficiency caused by lack of sunliight.

I also really hate living where we're living. As I've mentioned, we are living in the home of relatives who are overseas for three years with the U.S. Army. The house is beautiful and has a gorgeous view of Puget Sound, but I miss being able to walk outside my house and hop on a bus or train to wherever I want to go. Or being able to walk to the store or the park. I hate having to be so car-dependent.

The lack of sidewalks and streetlights, not atypical of suburbia, also drive me crazy. Recently, I was driving my daughter to daycare at about 7:15 in the morning, and it was still pitch-black out. Suddenly I saw a kid walking in front of me. His clothing was dark, he was in the street (no sidewalks) and no streetlights meant nothing illuminated him. I'm sure he was walking to school. Beavan points out in NIM that U.S. auto manufacturers made concerted efforts to fight against public transportation and encourage sprawl in order to increase sales. So what are we left with? Communities where you can't walk anywhere, or if you do, you're at risk like the kid walking to school in the street, in the dark.

My other big challenge is that I don't make friends easily. My husband never met a stranger, and my daughter thankfully has her father's gregariousness, so it's been easier for them. (Although my daughter does frequently ask when we're moving back home, mostly because she misses her cousins).

In the meantime, we are making friends with some other "orphans" (folks like us who are transplants to the Northwest, with no other family around), and having a yard has helped me garden. Having stores around like Value Village and Super Supplements have helped my sustainable journey, since I can buy so much second-hand and can purchase the ingredients for my skin and hair products inexpensively. So there are some good points. But I have a way to go in finding happiness and contentment out here.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Reading "No Impact Man"... and straightening my daughter's hair

Bear with me, they're connected!

When my sister, who lives in New York City, told me a couple months ago that she had attended the book signing of Colin Beavan's No Impact Man, it just didn't occur to me that she might purchase a signed copy for me! I was surprised and thrilled to receive the book as a Christmas present from her.

One of the early lessons of Beavan's "No Impact" experiment that he highlights in the first few chapters is that living sustainably should not be about asceticism. Instead, Beavan asked whether or not our consumerist, throw-away lifestyle is making us happy, and if not, could he and his family find a way, via low impact living, to become happier and more fulfilled?

Armed with these thoughts, I spent the day after Christmas... at the mall. I have mentioned before that my husband is 6'7", and thus can't generally find clothing his size second-hand, so we went as a family to see if he could take advantage of the post-Christmas sales to make some purchases he needed.

While hubby shopped, my daughter and I strolled the mall. I can't even remember the last time we went to a mall--it's been well over a year. My daugther, like many children her age, is into the "gimme" stage, but the item that caught her fancy the most surprised me. We stopped at several of the kiosks in the middle of the mall to check out their products, and at one, a woman selling high-end flat irons straightened out a lock of hair on each of our heads.

My daughter was delighted and wanted me to buy the flat iron. At the post-Christmas 50% off price of $120, it was still well our of my price range. But daughter knew I have a similar item at home, and asked if I would do her hair with it when we got home. I promised I would.

I haven't used my flat iron in the past year since I stopped relaxing my hair, and I've never used it on my daughter's hair. Of course, mine is a rather low-end version, so it took several go-overs to straighten her hair. She loved the final result, however, asking me if her hair would stay like this.

"No," I said. "It will last a couple of days, or until it gets wet, whichever comes first."

"But Hannah's hair stays like this all the time!" she objected. (Hannah is her best buddy from day care).

"Well, Hannah has a very different type of hair than you do," I explained. "But let me tell you a little secret: people LOVE your hair. People pay lots of money to have hair like yours."

Maybe it's not such a secret: she gets complimented on her hair almost every time we got out. Like her mother, she has super thick, super-curly hair in an unusual color: a honey brown with dark brown, auburn and platinum highlights. Add that to her beautiful face and she's very striking. My hair was something I hated as a child, because it was hard to comb (although thanks to my homemade detangler, it's getting easier to comb both our heads), and because it made me different. It took years of hearing hair dressers say to me, "Boy, I wish I could bottle your hair color/texture and sell it," for me to believe my hair was beautiful.

I hope that my daughter will grow up appreciating her hair, and yet I want her to have the flexibility of styling her hair different ways, even straightening it if she chooses, in ways that are non-chemical and non-toxic. In a variation of No Impact Man's musings, I don't want her to be an ascetic about her hair. I want her to feel like she can have fun with her hair, try new things, etc., in ways that are healthy for her and the planet--AND while being proud of herself the way she is, as a young black girl (and someday, woman).

I remember reading a NIM blog post in which Beavan's daughter, who is the same age (4 1/2 years old) as my daughter, asked if she could eat meat like her friends. Beavan and his wife are vegetarians. He said, "Yes"--because he wants her to choose for herself. She tried meat and didn't like it.

So like Beavan, part of my journey has to be about setting an example for my daughter, but letting her choose for herself.