Sunday, December 31, 2006

To The New Year!

2006 has been a good year. I feel like I'm starting the New Year of Light and of 2007 with a new lease on life. I'm starting 2007 Thirty pounds lighter, having learned how to cook better, making our lifestyle even more sustainable and ethical in partnership with Beo, with two happy, healthy kids, with my Dad having survived his stroke and taking care of his health, with two good jobs in the family, three great dogs and a warm house surrounded by beautiful gardens of our own design.

So what's next? In 2007 I hope to focus on continuing to be the change I wish to see in the world, while improving my family's wellbeing. I plan to stay healthy with smart eating and exercise, and keep my family healthy through activity and good organic food. I will continue to support local farms and try to find even more ways to buy local. I'd like to keep up with the gardens more and spend more time knitting. I hope to start a film screening program to help spread the message of some of the wonderful documentaries out there.

My biggest focus will be cutting back on our consumerism, making our impact by spending less money and spending the money we do have in an even more responsible way. My goal is to put nothing on the credit cards this year, barring any unforseen emergencies, and cut back on spending a bit in every area to start getting ahead. I hope to get more use out of our vegetable gardens to cut back on our food spending, and cut back on our gift buying by creating gifts with the talents and resources we have available to us. Instead of just focusing on recycling Sprout and Bird's used clothes, I'm going to expand that angle to trying to buy at least half of their clothing used. When all is said and done, my focus is going to be on working with the many Blessings we have, rather than always looking for The Next Best Thing. 2007 will be about Living Simply so that our lives are more sustainable and our family is carried closer to our dreams. May 2007 inspire you to follow your dreams!

Saturday, December 23, 2006


Pomanders were the air fresheners of the Victorian era. These days, they can be a fun and simple craft. While you can make a more in-depth, long lasting pomander, you can just do an easy short-lived decoration for fun too. That's what the kids and I did--or more accurately, what I did and the kids watched. We made simple pomanders by pressing cloves into the rinds of oranges, and finishing off the look with a ribbon. Please note, this is slightly more difficult than one might think! We lasted a few minutes with me getting a clove started and Sprout or Bird pushing it the rest of the way through, but it's a bit tedious for a 3 and almost-5 year old. Still, the end result was quite pretty and the kids were still proud of the role they played. Bird was thrilled with her "Baby Sun".
May all of you who are traveling have safe, uncomplicated journeys. May you be surrounded by love. May you feel peace and light in your heart. May you have lots of scrumptious goodies.

Happy Holidays!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Happy Solstice!

Merry Yule! Happy Solstice! We started off with a morning lit by candles and spiced with hot cocoa and mocha prepared by Beo. Then gifts, followed by our traditional holiday breakfast of strawberries and waffles. Beo made a beautiful yule log from a birch log that his Dad gave us last year. I'm glad we saved it, it is a beautiful piece of nature for us to incorporate into our yearly celebrations. Tonight, after a dinner of roasted sweet potatoes, green beans with carmelized onions, spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and pecans, and "Veggie Wellington", we did a great ritual using the log. We lit the candles, each choosing something to leave behind in the darkness. At the moment of Solstice, we blew out the candles, and sat in total darkness (not total silence though, we do have kids after all). Finally we re-lit the candles with hopes for the new year. We finished off the celebrations with a gingerbread cake. I feel relieved that I've done what's important to me and to our family for the holidays. So much stress (positive and negative) is gone with this day. Now I can relax and enjoy holiday celebrations with our church and extended family. I'm so glad we've decided to make this a Family Tradition. I hope that you and yours have as beautiful a Holiday as we did today.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Recycled Holiday Love

Happy Solstice Eve! We are planning a lovely day tomorrow. I'm really looking forward to it! This year we made our own tags for our cookie tins. It's something I've been meaning to do for a while. Last year I remembered to save my favorite Holiday cards, so we got started. While I have pages of stickery gift tags, these are so much nicer! As you can see, it's really quite simple. Just choose a card, and cut out your desired tag shape. (They certainly don't have to be square or rectangular, you can get creative!) Use a paper punch to cut out an opening, and tie a piece of ribbon through. We used the back to write our "To" and "From". This is a fun and simple way to be earth-friendly, thrifty, and look clever doing it. Happy Solstice!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

It's For the Birds

This year we've decided to put our Winter Holiday emphasis on Solstice. After all, it fits in much more nicely with our belief system, and darn if it doesn't make things less stressful to spread things out. Beo's Mom wants to have a fancy Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve? No problem, we already had our fancy dinner! We have to travel all day on Christmas? No problem, we already had our special day! You get the idea. I'm hoping this will become a family tradition.

I'm trying to instill in the kids a sense of the magic and wonder of the season. With how little they are, I'm keeping things simple too. Lights, newness, nature, peace and giving--it's all good. One of the fun things we've done is to make Solstice Gifts for the birds. In addition to a traditional garland of popcorn and cranberries which we draped on the bird feeders, we made these fun little numbers. These were a suggestion from a Veggie Boarder who owns a wild bird feeding store. They're totally simple to make. Just hollow out an orange, mix peanut butter with birdseed, and fill. I had everything ready to go so that there was no need for patience or frustration on anyone's part. The actual activity for the kids lasted all of about three minutes, but they loved it, and enjoyed setting them out for the birds. It's a simple way for them to get to honor nature.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Tidings of Cookies and Joy

I've done it again: completely freaked out some perfectly nice suburbians by being neighborly. It was all entirely worth it. We had the standard unanswered doors, reciprocal cookies, and guilty "You do this every year and we never give you anything!" Yes, that's the point my friend, my neighbor--the joy of giving! Heck, we're neighbors! This year aside from those standards I caught a neighbor in their jammies. He was very embarassed but I don't feel bad because: 1. He didn't have to answer the door, and 2. I totally owed him. It was payback time.

This year I made four kinds of cookies (about 200 I think: iced sugar, soft molasses, dairy-free snickerdoodles, and oatmeal carmelitas), caramels, and truffles. I put together 8 tins: 4 for our nearest neighbors, 1 for the only other neighbors who are neighborly to us, 1 for my volunteer coordinator at work, 1 for the annual family reunion, and 1 for us (We deserve it.). I also put together four plates for the bakesale at church. It was a lot of work, but I really loved every minute of it. That much energy going into building a real neighborhood is absolutely worth it. At best, I make some friends and lighten the mood while connecting neighbors in our suburb. At worse-or maybe even better-is that the kids see the real effort that goes in to the process of giving, from planning, shopping and baking, to packing and delivering the tins. I hope that even if my spark does nothing in our neighborhood, my kids will grow up to see giving to others as a natural thing, and will always believe in creating community where before there were just plain old people and houses.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sugar Cookie Tips

Solstice is coming! I hope to share a few holiday ideas in the next week. None should be as long as this one, so forgive me!

One of my favorite and yet most labor-intensive holiday traditions is baking and decorating sugar cookies. I thought I'd share some tips for these classic holiday treats. I use Betty Crocker's recipe, minus the almond extract. It's a tried and true favorite. The biggest thing with your recipe is to use real butter. I always stock up on Organic Valley Butter when the holidays approach! I also prefer recipes that use cream of tartar. Once you've made your batter, let it chill properly (at least 4 hours) and then set up your workstation. You'll need parchment lined cookie sheets, flour, a rolling pin, and cookie cutters. Preheat your oven. Flour your work area, and divide your dough in half. Put one half back in the fridge while you roll out the other. Try to get the dough to an even thickness of about 1/4". My best tip is to try to make similarly shaped cookies within each cookie sheet. For example: snowflakes, suns, and stars go together at our house. (How Celestial!) It's also a good idea to pay attention to whether the edges of your shapes stick out much--those will bake more quickly. In years past when I've done double, triple, or even quad batches, I've done sheets of just one shape, which works great. (An Aside: Are Reindeer Really Worth It? It probably depends on your cookie cutter. Here we end up with a lot of headless reindeer. Last year, I admit it, I made 9. Having accomplished that feat, this year I made two, just to keep on my game.) You want to try to get as many cookies per rolling of dough not just to save on labor, but also because the dough will become a little bit more tough as it's re-rolled, and picks up more flour from the rolling surface. Make sure that collected trimmings are put back in the fridge. Keeping them cool makes them much easier to roll. I will sometimes put them in the freezer if I'm moving quickly.

Bake the cookies for 8 to 10 minutes. You'll have to decide for yourself whether you want the pure, light colored, cakey cookie, or whether you want to let them get a bit crispier, and brown around the edges. I have a tendency to overdo mine. I like them somewhere in-between, and try to pull them out of the oven when they've just barely started to color at the edges. Again, uniform shapes will help them to bake evenly. I allow the cookies a couple of minutes to cool on the sheets, then move them to a wire rack to finish cooling. (Another aside: Make sure your oven mitt is not wet when grabbing a 350 degree metal pan. If you flinch and your cookies slide smoothly from the parchment paper to crumble on your oven bottom, you may become distraught.)

Once the cookies are completely cool, you're ready to decorate. I generally break this up into two days, because it truly is a lot of work. I find it easiest to lay all of the cookies out at once so that you can work with one color of frosting at a time. I use a simple frosting of butter, vanilla, milk, and powdered sugar. It's not environmentally friendly, but the best tool I've found for frosting is a ziploc bag. Cut a very small bit of corner off, or if you want to use a decorating tip, make a slightly larger cut, and simply put the icing tip inside the bag. Make sure the frosting is completely dry before packing the cookies away. This may take an hour or more. If you have dogs, they will get grumpy at being left outside for so long, so as to present cookie snatching. This is par for the course.

You can absolutely freeze these cookies, but they are better unfrozen once they've been frosted. If they are stored in a totally airtight container, they'll became a bit soft, so I prefer loosely draped plastic wrap. Yes, I know they're "just" sugar cookies, but up until now they're one of the few holiday traditions I felt was "mine". I may only eat two or three, but I love the look of the rows of lovingly crafted, good ol' fashioned iced sugar cookies.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Pumpkin Muffins

A recipe post is long overdue. These have become one of my favorites. Muffins, when made the right way, can be a healthy and filling food when you can't seem to make yourself sit down for a meal. They're also a great snack to grab when you are filling up the house with Holiday Goodies, in preparation to do the neighborly cookie gift tins! This recipe was adapted from Isa's recipe on The PPK, which can be found here. It's a fabulous recipe to work from. The original recipe is vegan, simply by using soy yogurt instead of the Stonyfield I have in my fridge. I also cut the fat by subbing apple butter (applesauce works too) for half of the oil.

Pumpkin Muffins (Makes 12)

1 3/4 cups flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/2 teaspoon allspice

1 cup pureed pumpkin (I use fresh but you can also use canned)
1 tablespoon vanilla yogurt
1/2 cup soymilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup apple butter
2 tablespoons molasses

Directions: Preheat oven to 400 F. Grease muffin tins with vegetable shortening or spray on oil. Combine dry ingredients. In a seperate bowl, whisk together wet ingredients. Pour wet into dry and combine. Fill muffin tins 2/3 of the way. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

A Tale of Two Cabbages

I've been meaning for some time now to write about the vilification of Whole Foods, and how thoroughly I reject that vilification. The Omnivore's Dilemma is a very valuable book that explores food issues well in some areas, however I took great issue with Michael Pollan's characterization of Whole Foods and it's role in the Industrial Organic world. (As an aside, I don't necessarily have a problem with Industrial Organic, but that's not the point right now.) Pollan cited the lack of local organic produce, and chose extremes like out-of-season organic asparagus from South America to illustrate his point. As it turns out, Pollan didn't even bother to contact Whole Foods about his book. Pollan claims that he was trying to take a purely consumer perspective, and didn't want to get too journalistic about it. If this is so, then it was terribly shortsighted. (See Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's letter to Pollan, and follow their exchange, here.)

Pollan had obviously never been to my Whole Foods. If he had, he might have been impressed. Generally there are at least a few dozen varieties of local organic produce being offered. The number of local selections is advertised daily, and it's often more--I've seen it as high as the 70s. When we worked on a small organic farm southwest of Milwaukee, we learned that the CSA sold excess produce to the Whole Foods. We were very impressed, since they are a relatively small operation. Our Whole Foods carries a number of items from Tipi Produce, a farm just about 20 miles away, and I've seen one of the farm owners at the WFM dock, unloading their truck himself. Apparently not all Whole Foods are this good about stocking local produce, and I suppose it depends on the availability in their area. My personal feeling is that every local item they stock is a huge boon to that local organic farm, and rather than blighting Whole Foods for not having more, we should praise them for what they do have. To me, even the Iowa zucchini or Washington pear is better than the conventional alternative at Pick n' Save--and do we think Pick 'n' Save is going to have local choices? I can assure you, they do not.

Today was a shining example in favor of Whole Foods. Our Farmer's Market goes indoors for the winter. While there's still an impressive selection of veggies available, most of the booths are now crafts or meats. Even my favorite feta artisan was missing today--a sad day indeed. Our favorite booth still had a great variety of root crops, but no cabbage. I have a cabbage dish planned, and so searched thrrough all of the booths, and finally came back to the only one I had found. The box of cabbages was labeled: "$1 each". I asked the farmer if they used sprays. "Sprays? Yeah I use sprays. 'Course these have been in storage for a long time, and I haven't sprayed since September." I'm not sure what that was supposed to mean. Had he harvested before he sprayed? I don't think so. Did he think the pesticides had worn off with time? I grimaced, then handed him a dollar and selected a cabbage (see the cabbage on the right above). I still hadn't decided if I'd actually use it. Next we went to Whole Foods for our remaining groceries. I selected a locally grown organic pumpkin, passed up some local organic white mushrooms for crimini, and picked up a pound of organic Wisconsin cranberries. As I searched for (and found) local organic leeks, I spotted some gorgeous cabbages. I searched for their sign above, and lo and behold, they were local and organic (see cabbage on the left). Understand, I found a better choice at Whole Foods Market than I did at our incredible Farmer's Market. Besides the produce, I found locally (in-town) produced veggie burgers and baba ghanouj, milk (Organic Valley, but still-produced within an hour or two drive) and local yogurt, whose maker was handing out samples right there at WFM. Upon returning home, I saw that our favorite farm stand at the Farmer's Market sells to WFM too. (In fact, click the link to see the guy who sold Beo his 25# of sunchokes this Spring!) I think I had a better local haul at Whole Foods then at our farmer's market, which I consider one of the best in the world. Perhaps my Whole Foods is one of the best in the world too, and I've simply lucked out. Either way, it's part of the Whole Foods company, and it deserves to be recognized for the wonderful role it is playing in making small organic farms sustainable in Wisconsin.