Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Creating a healthy home - looking for alternatives to plastic!

A friend recently dropped off a book she insisted I should read.  She had initially taken it out from the library, but was so drawn in that she needed to purchase a copy for herself before she was even done reading it.  I'm sure many of you have come across this title and subject already - I had seen the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the toxic chemistry of everyday life affects our health - but I had not yet picked it up to read it.  I generally felt that our family is quite aware of keeping toxins and chemicals out of our household, and this book would not reveal much new information.  However, reading just the first chapter made me re-evaluate this thought, as I started to go over a list in my mind of all the subtle ways toxins creep into even the most eco-minded lifestyle.  First of all plastics (toothpaste tubes, rice milk cartons, tofu and tempeh wrapped in plastic, almost any packaging on newly purchased items, shampoo bottles, children's toys, winter snow suits, shower curtains)...then chemicals (furniture, virtually any new clothing, carpets, car interiors, plush toys).   It has been said that in an average day in North America we are exposed to over 450 toxins, just by eating 3 meals and going back and forth to work.  Of course, all these toxins all build up over time in our bodies to cause a myriad of health problems.

So, how to limit the exposure, especially in our homes?  It seems like you need to start with a serious purge in our homes of many familiar items, and then constant vigilence - difficult to do, and certainly not everyone has the budget to purchase all organic or so-called "eco" home products.  However, by minimizing the prevalence of plastics and toxins in our home we can actually save money, because one easy way to do this is by buying less (especially new items), reusing things or purchasing second hand, and making things ourselves with natural materials.

Here are a few simple ideas on how to reduce the amount of plastics coming into the home.
a) milks, yogurts - buy in glass jars
b) freezer bags - freeze food in glass jars, or can/preserve it in glass jars to avoid longterm freezer storage
c) produce bags - avoid those flimsy plastic produce bags at the grocery store by bringing your own cotton reusable produce bags
d) shower curtains - use natural materials like cotton, or hemp which is naturally anti-microbial
e) toothpaste tubes - a simple and effective toothpaste can be mixed in a glass jar using baking soda and a few drops of pepppermint essential oil or tea tree oil
f) dish and laundry detergents - purchase in bulk and store in glass jars
g) cleaning agents - use baking soda, lemon, and vinegar for effective (and cheap) cleaning
h) bread bags - store bread in old fashioned bread boxes, paper bags, or ceramic containers with lids
i) tupperware, ziploc bags and plastic food wrap - use cloth bags, glass jars, ceramic dishes to store food
j) diapers and disposable wipes - use cloth diapers made of wool, cotton or hemp, and reusable cloth wipes and natural sprays
k) tea and coffee packaging - use loose-leaf tea, or your own garden variety, and purchase coffee in bulk and store in glass jar
l) dishes and glasses - purge your cupboard of any plastics and scour thrift stores for glass cups, ceramic, stainless steel, and wooden dishes/bowls
m) bedding - if you can spend the money, do it here - we average about 1/3 of our lives sleeping, so healthful bedding is important!  use natural materials in bedding, mattresses, blankets like cotton, natural fibres, wool filling
n) clothing - try for all natural materials, or at least non-new clothing items (to avoid exposure to chemicals that treat new clothing)
o) house paints - by now there are lots of non-toxic, non VOC paints at every paint store, and at reasonable prices so these are an obvious choice
p) kid's toys - go for used, or non-toxic, all natural toys (wood, cloth, wool)
q) shampoos - make your own, use shampoo soap bars, or apple cider vinegar rinses rather than plastic bottles
r) food - to minimize plastic packaging when buying food, try to purchase in bulk (bulk flours, beans and grains usually come in brown paper bags), whole foods (e.g. produce at the market or grocery store, CSA, or home-grown), or in glass containers that are refillable (e.g. nut butters, honey, syrup, apple cider, milk, yogurt)

Winter sprout garden

We've planted seeds in the greenhouse and cold frames already, in hopes of harvesting some late winter greens.  Today we started our indoor winter sprout garden.  All this really meant was pulling out the wide mouth mason jars, finding mesh lids for them, and soaking several batches of seeds.  We love the sprout seed mixes from Mumm's in Saskatchewan - like spicy lentil crunch, sandwich booster, spring salad mix, brassicas blend, ancient eastern blend, etc - but of course you can simply buy organic seeds and mix your own variations together.  It's best to blend seedsor beans that are of similar size, so they germinate at a similar rate.  You can also sprout individual kinds of seeds, like the common alfalfa sprouts, mung beans, pea sprouts, wheat grass, or sunflower shoots.

It was fun for our 2-year old to help with this "garden" project, and she happily mixed and watered seeds, stirred them in their jars, and helped set up the draining station (we drain the jars propped upside down on a slight angle, supported in a wire dish rack).  She can watch the progress of these growing seeds, which are satisfyingly quick to sprout and ready to eat in only a few days!  We are already looking forward to our next winter picnic with homemade bread, hummus and fresh homegrown sprouts!

If you live locally and want to learn more about sprouting, check out our workshop on Wheatgrass/Sprouting, coming up on February 12.

Holiday gifts - peach lime jam

Our little one and I made a batch of peach-lime jam today, using organic peaches from our freezer.  This is a favourite jam in the house and people love getting it as a gift as it's a burst of summer flavours in the midst of winter.  And, how nice to warm up the house with a canning project on a cold day in December (rather than July when I made my other batches of jam!).  As I've learned, the way to make canning possible in a busy household is to do it in small batches.  The recipe for this jam comes from our favourite canning/preserving book entitled Small Batch Preserving.

Healthful holiday treats - raw vegan nanaimo bars

At our craft sale on Saturday I noticed a woman eating what seemed to be a massive slice of nanaimo bar. She caught the eye of several other customers around her, who were also ogling the dessert and asking where she got it.  It wasn't something we were selling here, and she said her friend had made it - and that it was raw!  This made me obsess about how to create my own version of a raw nanaimo bar, so last night I finally had the time to experiment.  I had been looking for more vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free treats to make for friends over the holidays. Wow!  This raw nanaimo bar is incredible!  In general I like the idea of nanaimo bars, but usually find them far too sweet and lose interest in them part way through eating one.  Usually pure confectioners sugar (powdered icing sugar) is what makes up a large portion of the mid-layer.  I have tried vegan versions successfully in the past, which are delicious but still very sweet.  I wanted a three-layered sweet that resembled nanaimo bars, with nuttiness, coconut, rich creamy filling and smoothe chocolate topping.  This raw recipe is by far the best nanaimo bar I've ever had. It's a variation on several recipes I gleaned from these sources - Gone Raw and Raw BC - as I did not have all the ingredients they called for.  Here's my version of the recipe - I'll see if I can remember exactly how I made it as there was some guessing and estimating going on.  Enjoy in small portions, and share with friends!

Raw Nanaimo Bars

Layer One
1 1/2 cup nuts (walnuts, almonds, cashews) soaked for 8-12 hours ahead of time
1/3 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
8 dates, pitted
1 Tbsp agave nectar or maple syrup
1 Tbsp raw cacao powder

Layer Two
1 cup raw nut butter (we used almond butter, plus some ground cashews)
3 Tbsp coconut oil
3 Tbsp agave or maple syrup
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 tsp pure vanilla

Layer Three
1/2 cup coconut oil
1 cup raw cacao powder
1 avocado, mashed
1 tsp pure vanilla
1/2 cup maple syrup

Combine each layer separately in food processor.  Then press into an 9x9 inch pan and chill.  When firmly set, cut into small squares.  Can be stored for several days in refrigerator or frozen for longer storage.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Healthful holiday treats - Raw gingerbread recipe

We've been doing a lot of holiday baking around here lately.  I've been creating and testing healthful variations on our favourite holiday sweets, like vegan shortbread made with barley flour, raw chocolate truffles and macaroons, and gluten-free sweets.  One of our newest holiday favourites is the following recipe for raw, gluten-free, vegan gingerbread people, made with pecan flour, ground flax, and fresh ginger, dehydrated rather than baked.  For all of you who are looking for a special sweet treat or gift to make for those on your list with gluten allergies, these are easy to make (kids will love helping!), beautiful and delicious - enjoy!

Raw Gingerbread People
1/2 cup ground flax seeds
1 1/2 cup ground nuts (pecans, walnuts) finely ground in coffee mill
3 tsp freshly grated ginger (finely ground) or more to taste
2 Tbsp dark agave nectar
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/8 cup water, or more to adjust proper consistency

1) Blend all ingredients together in large bowl.  Add more water as needed to create a consistency that sticks well when shaped into gingerbread people or shapes with cookie cutters.
2) Roll out using light dusting of flour (use flour such as rice flour if you want them to be gluten-free).
3) Make sure you roll out dough to same thickness for all your cookies or you will have different levels of "done-ness" from dehydrating.  Cut into desired shapes, aprox. 1/2 inch thick.
4) Decorate with raw seeds, nuts, cacao nibs, dried fruit like goji, cherries or cranberries, etc.
5) Dry in dehydrator at aprox. 110F for 8-24 hours, depending on whether you want cookies to be slightly chewy or crunchy.

Makes aprox. 18-20 mid-sized gingerbread people.

Craft Sale Success! Thank you!

What a full house today!  From morning until late afternoon friendly crowds found their way through our little home, supporting the local artists/crafters that filled four rooms in our house, and socializing with friends and neighbours.  It was an incredibly busy day with more than 250 people who dropped in, and the assorted boots and shoes piled at the front door made it feel like an all day house party.  We thank everyone who came out - including our wonderful vendors, as well as the customers and visitors.  Now it's time to settle into the rest of December, hopefully at a slower pace.  Wishing you all warmth, peace, friendship and good food over the holidays and for the new year ahead.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Don't Miss - Sat, Dec 11 - A Little Bird Told Me Craft Sale, 10 am-4 pm at Little City Farm!!

December is here, and it feels like the festive winter season is upon us!  We want to wish everyone well for the holiday season, the coming Solstice, and longer days that are ahead...

If you are local, please drop by to say hello during our annual  
A Little Bird Told Me Craft Sale, this Saturday, December 11, from 10 am-4 pm.  We'll have 9 vendors, beautiful works of art, handmade one-of-a-kind gift for everyone on your list, and lots of socializing while you are here! 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Teas and more teas

This week has seen our kitchen and dining room turn into a loose-leaf tea production site.  We had harvested and dried about 20 kinds of medicinal herbs from our garden over the spring-summer-fall season, and now have packaged them into bags for sale.  We were surprised that we filled more than 150 bags (weighing in total aprox. 5 kg) worth of dried herbal loose-leaf blends that we had grown ourselves on our little plot of land designated to herb gardening!  And this was not even the full harvest potential, as there was plenty more of the mint, calendula, yarrow, anise hyssop, sage, raspberry leaves, tulsi, and nettle, among others, midway through the season when life got too busy and I wasn't able to keep up with the regular harvest as often as I could have.  As well, these numbers don't take into account the other medicinal herbs such as arnica, skullcap, feverfew, burdock, comfrey, etc that we are growing for tinctures and salves.  We did have to purchase some extra chamomile, red clover blossoms and lavender from a local organic source, so these are three herbs I'd love to make room for in some underused sunny patch in our yard (but where?  maybe the front yard?  or maybe a neighbouring yard?).  And, although we grow both nettle and rosehips, some of these herbs in our tea blends are wild harvested (carefully) around the city, again due to limitations in our backyard space. We used the greenhouse to dry much of the harvest, and will have to rig up more storage shelving and drying racks for next season.  For now, all in all, I am very much satisfied with the end result of this year's herb harvest! 

The teas, including Winter Flu Fighter, After Dinner, Less Stress, Sweet Dreams, Mama's Milk, Women's Blend, Strawberry-Rose, 6-Mint Medley, will be available from us, as well as through Bailey's Local Foods in Waterloo and in holiday gift baskets at Golden Hearth Baking Co. in downtown Kitchener.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

First snow at the urban farm...

First real snowfall came overnight!  Fortunately, the hens have had most of their feathers grown in by now (2 weeks of molting) but they are still huddling on our back patio in the warmest sheltered corner they can find.  This is actually good, not just because we want them to keep warm - we've also seen the neighbourhood hawk circling around our property the past week, and we'd prefer the hens to keep out of eyesight!  As some of you might recall from a much earlier post, we lost one hen (Neko) to the same hawk last fall.  This is the cycle of life though.  Now that winter is finally here, we have to make sure the hen's always have access to unfrozen water and extra food (as their foraging season is now over), and have insulated their coop with strawbales.  The heat lamp will be installed again soon.

Today's snowfall also gave us opportunity to play - and a little snow lady appeared.  She has a carrot nose, plucked from the garden of course; eyes made of little round black eyed susan seed heads, and long dried queen anne's lace hair - topped with a handknit hat she made a lovely attendant at our garden entrance. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sneak peek for upcoming craft sale - new artists pencil rolls, organic teethers and cuddle dolls

A few more items hot off the sewing machine - I'll be adding them, with the organic play quilts, to the usual line-up of soaps, herbals, vegan baking and loose-leaf teas at our Dec 11 craft sale...

....linen pencil rolls for young artists (also good for organizing knitting needles, crafting tools, sewing supplies, crayons, etc); simple all natural "teething carrots", and cuddle dolls made from the softest organic cotton, stufffed with wool (I'm finally using up that fleece I started carding more than a year ago!).  My two-year old helped me to stuff the cuddle dolls with wool and sat beside me at the sewing machine into the late hours last night to see the dolls materialize.  She gave them the snuggle approval, hugging each one as it was completed.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Free-spirit baby quilts, holiday craft sales, and Buy Nothing Day!

I have been taking a computer/internet hiatus, and putting any spare time aside for sewing and soap making. Generally this means late-nights given how busy life with a 2 year old is.  There are several holiday craft sales coming up which we'll be a part of, and there is a lot to prepare!  I finally took a few photos of the baby play quilts I've been making - they are made of the softest fabrics and quilted with all natural unbleached cotton batting, perfect for all manner of playing, sleeping, picnics, cuddling, snuggling, cozying in the stroller, etc.  They are made of reclaimed or organic fabric, each one completely unique.

Last week we had our first holiday vending opportunity at the local La Leche League's annual November garage sale.  There were several other vendors, including two friends who have recently opened their own home-based businesses, Sarah's Kitchen Gardens, and The Aurora Forest.  Coming up in early December, please visit us at the Stitch'n'Kitsch Sale on Sat, Dec 4 in uptown Waterloo, and then the A Little Bird Told Me Sale, here at Little City Farm on Sat, Dec 11.

Is this the time to mention Buy Nothing Day?  After all the above self-promotion, I should note that although I highly endorse supporting local crafters or fair trade goods when buying gifts, the best thing to do is to make something yourself, or consider not giving gifts at all.  There are many creative ways to celebrate the holidays with your loved ones, and obviously the giving of "stuff" doesn't need to factor into that.  Buy Nothing Day, which typically falls on the first Friday after American Thanksgiving, was organized as "a day for society to examine the issue of over-consumption".  It is not so much about having one day where nothing is bought - rather, it is about radically changing our attitudes and lifestyles of consumption and waste.  It is a chance to critically examine how and what we purchase, and the impact these purchases have.  Check out the Buy Nothing campaign for some interesting alternate ideas, actions, carnivals, and other events taking place around the world (and even in your own city) on November 26.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Vegan Baking Workshop

I was looking forward to leading this workshop all year!  On Saturday we had the first vegan baking workshop here at Little City Farm, something I've been meaning to teach ever since we started hosting workshops here three years ago.   I love baking!  I've been vegetarian for more than 20 years, and experimenting with healthful baking for nearly two decades....beginning with Frances Moore Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet back in the late 1980's (when it was nearly impossible to find ingredients like soy milk or tofu in the small town I was living in); then as I moved to a larger city where I worked with food co-ops and frequented vegan cafes, discovering Uprisings: The Wholegrain Baker's Book (which features best recipes from a huge range of worker co-op bakeries across North America!); then living on an organic farm where the diet was largely macrobiotic, learning about macrobiotic desserts through Michio Kushi's book; then living in K-W where I was baking vegan and wheat-free treats for several cafes and health food stores using influences from the slow food and local food movement, sourcing local organic whole grains and locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, and more recently trying out more gluten-free baking because of the large number of requests I get for wheat-free gluten-free custom baking...and by now my shelf of baking cookbooks, vegan and otherwise, is stacked high with well-worn copies and ear-marked favourite recipes.

As for most vegans or vegetarians (or foodies for that matter), we all have interesting food histories that shift as we discover new research and experiment with what works for our bodies, our ethics and of course our budgets!  During the vegan baking workshop I talked about how to stock a vegan pantry - the kinds of staple ingredients you might want to consider, and weighed the options based on how versatile they are and how much they cost.  A sweetener like agave nectar might lend a luscious light flavour to a vegan truffle, but maple syrup is a local, more cost effective replacement.  Organic sundried sour cherries are divine in a vegan shortbread cookie, but cranberries can make a nice substitute and are a fraction of the price.  Organic coconut oil creates a creamy buttery flavour and is a non-soy product, but often simple oils like sunflower and olive can work just as well...and the list goes one. 

Then we did our tasting portion of the workshop, which was focussing on holiday treats - I had made 11 different vegan treats (I admit it was just too difficult to narrow down the recipes), to demonstrate examples of egg, dairy, butter and wheat substitutions.  There were lemon bars using silken tofu as an egg replacer; almond thumbprint cookies using arrowroot as an egg replacer; a shortbread variation using tahini in place of butter; raw cacao truffles using agave and maple syrup; raw gingerbread people using pecan flour and flax "eggs"; "ultimate" brownies and blondies that used brown rice syrup to sweeten; and the most decadent offering, a cashew cheesecake where cashew "cheese" (made with soaked cashews, lemon and nutritional yeast) replaced cream cheese and xantham gum added to make a rich creamy filling. 

Great websites and resources for these recipes:
Flying Apron's Gluten Free and Vegan Baking book

Soapmaking Workshops in the new year

Who doesn't love a beautiful bar of handmade natural soap?  And to learn to make your own, well the possibilities are endless and soapmaking is definitely an addictive kind of craft.  I am constantly trying new batches with different essential oil combinations, clays, natural pigments, sea salts, herbal infusions, medicinal oil infusions, botanicals and more, because I just can't stick to a set of standard recipes.  It's more of an artform for me, with the benefit of a very functional, versatile, healthful and biodegradeable end product.  I get many requests to teach soapmaking classes, and will be offering several sessions again in the new year.  Little City Farm's updated schedule of 2011 "sustainable living" workshops will be posted on our website and this blog within the next few weeks, and soapmaking will definitely be on the list.  At this point, I'll be offering two small group sessions on introductory soapmaking - one in mid-January, and one in mid-November.  For those who can't make it to these soapmaking dates here at Little City Farm, there will be two other options:
* Get a group of 4-6 friends together, and I will lead a custom soapmaking course for you!
* Join me at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery on March 12, for an intro to soapmaking workshop!