Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

On Food: Making Yogurt June 12, 2008

I’m on a food bent today.

Do you love really good, organic yogurt but feel like the budget is too tight to buy it? Perhaps you just feel wasteful buying disposable, (or recyclable) container(s) of yogurt every week.

You can make your own yogurt and it is EASY. Really. No laboratory needed, no big sterile environment is necessary. Just you, some milk, some culture and a warm place. Yogurt is one of those things that is as old as man and domesticated livestock. If they could do it, so can we. -and the best thing is you control what goes into it.

I use a 1-quart “Yogurt Maker” by Salton. I got it from Amazon for about $15. I now see that Amazon no longer carries it. However, they do have an individual cup yogurt maker for $29. I’ve often wished I had the options of individual cups so perhaps this is a better option anyway. You can make yogurt without a yogurt maker but I’ve found the incubator is inexpensive and makes the process much more predictable and the product more consistent.

Regardless, the process is the same. You buy milk -whatever milk you desire. I love using whole-milk for my yogurt. If you use homogenized milk your yogurt will be consistent throughout. If you use milk that has not been homogenized your yogurt will have a cream layer on top, (oh, how I love that cream layer!). You heat the milk to 200 degrees for 10 minutes. You let it cool until it is lukewarm. Some people add some dried milk powder at this point but I’ve found it isn’t necessary. Next, you take some live cultures and mix them into the milk. You can either use live culture that has been freeze-dried, (like Yogourmet) or just buy one cup of plain yogurt that has live and active cultures to mix into your milk. You then place the milk/culture mix in the incubator and let it rest for 4-10 hours -until it sets. If you like your yogurt more sour then let it go towards the 10 hour mark, mild let it go towards the 4 hour mark.

You will now have plain yogurt that you can add whatever you’d like into. Save about 4 ounces of this yogurt to start your next batch. You can re-culture your yogurt about 3-4 times with yogurt from the last batch. After this the cultures will be too weak and you will need a new set.

One more thing: The consistency of homemade yogurt is thinner than the kind you buy in stores.  You may find yourself asking, “How do I thicken my homemade yogurt?”  I have worked and worked to find a way to thicken it up, (my family prefers it thicker). After much trial and error I’ve stumbled upon a couple of solutions. The first is to add unflavored gelatin to it before you incubate it. I’m not sure I like its texture this way. It’s kind of like…well…Jello. The second -my preferred method- is to use a product called Instant Clear Jel. It is a pre-cooked corn starch. Therefore you can put it in something cold and it will thicken it almost instantly, (think instant pudding). I have found that you use about 2 TBS to 1 cup of yogurt. Sprinkle it over the top, whisk it in good and let it set in the fridge for a while. Then, go back to it and whisk it again until it’s creamy and thick. My family thinks it’s perfection!

Plain yogurt is also a great, healthy substitute for sour cream. You can also put the plain yogurt in a colander lined with cheesecloth and let the whey drain from it until you have yogurt cheese -which is a lot like cream cheese.

You can make a quart of yogurt for the cost of the milk plus your culture, (which can be simply one individual cup of plain yogurt). Healthy, delicious, nutritious and inexpensive!


On Food: Homemade Chocolate Syrup!

How do you make my 6-year-old climb walls like Spider Man? -Give him something with sodium benzoate. We found out this interesting yet annoying reaction when my oldest son had some “Sunny D” for the first time at an event. -He was about three years old. My husband and I were busy playing for the event while someone else watched our kids. When we finished playing I went to find my kids and I literally found my son hanging from the bleachers. I asked him to get down and he just stared at me with a wild and far-off look in his eye. I spent the rest of the time chasing him from one crazy dangerous act to the next all the while wondering, “Who are you and where have you put my son?!”. When I tracked down exactly what was different in his diet that day I found that it was the kid-appealing, drink-like liquid substance known as “Sunny D”. Never being one to jump to conclusions I tracked some down and gave him some a few days later. -Wild boy returned. That was enough of that. Seeing that it was my job to make sure he lived until adulthood I decided he must never ingest it again. Well, through other experiences and some experimenting I found that the specific chemical that seemed to affect him was sodium benzoate. Then I started reading labels and found it everywhere. Parenting just got more complicated…again.

All of this to lead into a great recipe I found. One thing my kids adore is chocolate milk, (especially chocolate goats milk). Unfortunately most chocolate syrups have sodium benzoate on their list of ingredients. -Amongst other things, (and often a lack of actual chocolate). You can find brands that have simpler ingredient list. AH!Laska Organic Chocolate syrup for example, (Organic Evaporated Cane Juice, Water, Organic Cocoa (Non-Alkaline), Xanthan Gum (a Natural Fiber Thickener), Organic Vanilla, Citric Acid). -But even on Amazon it’s about $4 for a 22 ounce bottle. I can do better than that. Here is a recipe for great, easy, homemade chocolate syrup

  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa
  • 1 cup tap water
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla

In a 2 quart sauce pan mix the cocoa and water with a wire whisk or fork. Heat the chocolate water over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and continue to stir until the sugar dissolves. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil. Reduce the heat to medium low and boil for a full 3 minutes. Remove the syrup from the heat.

Add the salt and vanilla, stirring to blend. Pour the syrup into a clean pint sized canning jar, or any container you would like to use. I use one I can “squirt” the syrup out of. Store it in the fridge.

You can use organic, fair-trade sugar, or substitute the sugar for honey. I would use about 3/4 cup honey for each cup of sugar and then reduce the water to 3/4 cups. Also, you can buy really good cocoa powder and have a really nice finished product. One that you just may eat by the spoonful right from the fridge…not that I recommend that, (well, every once in a while).

One other thing I do is substitute a vanilla bean for the the vanilla extract. I just take a bean, split it and scrape the seeds into the cocoa mix before I heat it. I throw the bean in there too. I leave it in as the mix heats and boils and then take it out before I put it in the fridge.

That’s all there is to it. You can have your very own wholesome chocolate syrup for a fraction of the cost.

I’m going to make some now!


On Food: The Musical Fruit June 9, 2008

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 1:14 am
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The Musical FruitOh how I love beans! Kidneys, pinto’s black, white, cranberry, garbanzo and so many more I don’t have time to mention. They’re cheap, versatile, (did I mention musical?) and nutritious. Mixed with a grain you have a complete protein. What could be better?

Beans are a staple food in our home. They are actually one of those foods we can buy organic almost as inexpensively as non-organic. We belong to a very local buying club that orders from Country Life Natural Foods. Their prices are great. We can buy a variety of dried beans for $1.10-$1.35/lb. You can also find them fairly inexpensively in the bulk section of many health food stores. So, if you’re trying to buy organic and want to save money in the process choose dried beans over canned.

“Wait!” you say, “They take too long to cook and I don’t think that far ahead!”. Either do I. I’m great at whipping something up out of whatever I can find, (even weeds or berries from the backyard). Forethought and food, however, do not often go hand in hand for me. So here is what I do to have ready-made beans on hand for any occasion, (and what an occasion it will be!)

Now, before I start you should know that there is all sorts of controversy over how to correctly cook beans. Soak or not soak? Use the soaking water or throw it out? Salt the water or leave the salt until later? I say, they’re BEANS for pete’s sake. If you want to get some expert advice on bean prep go to the Central Bean Co. I guess that’s all I have to say about that. Anyway, onward.

Have a bean cooking day. Soak whatever variety of beans you’d like to have on hand the night before in room temperature water. They should be softer and ready to cook by morning. Then, drain the soaking water off of the beans, put them in a pot that will hold them and cover them with new water by about and inch or so. Do not salt the water. I have found that it interferes somehow with the cooking process and causes the beans to be crunchy. Get the beans to a simmer and cook for 1-1.5 hours. Drain the beans well. Start the second batch/variety of beans on the stove. Meanwhile, take the cooked and drained beans and prepare them for the freezer. There are a few ways to do this, here are the two I’ve had success with:

You want the beans to be frozen somewhat individually so you can scoop out as many as you need for a recipe. So take a towel and carefully dry off each bean, place it gently in the freezer…just kidding. Really, it depends on how you want to store them in the freezer. If you want to store them in plastic freezer bags then put them in the bags and stack them flat on the freezer shelf so they are not in a clump but a thin(ish) layer. When they have completely frozen you can give the bag a good whack on the counter and they will break apart into separate beans and manageable clumps. If you are averse to plastic you can also store them in tempered glass jars in the freezer, (like canning jars). To do this you will want to freeze the beans on a cookie sheet first, scoop them off when frozen, put them in the jars and back to the freezer.

Now you have beans all ready for a recipe. I usually scoop out what I need, (sometimes let them thaw a bit depending on the recipe) and I’m ready to go. I’ve found that since I’ve started doing this we eat beans on a more regular basis.

I will close with this very interesting use for beans. I got this idea from a friend. Try substituting the butter for beans in a cookie recipe. Mash the beans really, really well, (white beans work best but any will do) and mix them in the dough instead of butter. It sounds crazy, but it really does work. You get higher protein, lower fat cookies with a few extra anti-oxidants. Try it!


Ecologically Speaking: Wet Feet June 8, 2008

Filed under: Ecologically Speaking — adm @ 8:22 pm
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First carbon now water, what’s next? Well, in a rare opportunity to read an article in Discover magazine I was introduced to the idea of a water footprint. I’ve been taking strides towards water conservation for a while now. Ok, to be really honest I’ve been taking strides toward cash flow conservation for a while now and when the water is running the pump is also (we have a well) and I swear I can hear the electric meter happily spinning away. Regardless, however it happens, as long as it happens it’s a good thing. I take shorter showers than I used to. I turn off the water when I brush my teeth and instruct my children to do so as well. I only run the dishwasher when it’s absolutely full, (which, consequently, in my house is almost every evening). I’ve even gone to making exactly as much coffee as I’ll drink in a morning, (with my lovely little Bodum french press). But apparently there is more to it than that. Great. There is this thing called “virtual water”, (if things are virtual are they things at all? -wait, must stay on topic, getting distracted…). For example, did you know one little apple actually has a water footprint of about 18.5 gallons? About 10.5 gallons of water goes into producing one slice of wheat bread. And a whopping 4,100 gallons of water has gone into the production of a little over 2 pounds of beef. How does this work? Well, the apple tree and the wheat need water to grow. Same story with the cows but water used to grow the cow’s feed and water used in farm maintenance also goes into this equation.

Now my husband, ever searching for opportunities for sarcasm, asks what the water footprint of a salmon would be since they need the whole ocean. How dare he challenge the doctrine of the Green?! He’s got a point though. Sometimes this water is produced in nature. I’m sure there isn’t going to be a lot of irrigation going on in orchards that receive plenty of rain. I know a lot of farmers and they’re not going to spend money on anything that will fall out of the sky for free.  Would you?  However, I suppose we should ask ourselves what the heck we are doing  raising cows for beef if we live in a place that is parched for water. Maybe the lesson is really to grow things that don’t require as much human intervention to thrive in your area. It’s not the best idea to grow cherries in Arizona or prickly pear fruit in Alaska. I wanted to make my own Tequila but my agave garden just isn’t happy with 7 months of snow…

What if you don’t grow any food? Well, generally eating less meat lowers your water footprint a great deal. Animals take much more water to thrive then plants do and end up with much less of a net food yield. There are certain animals, however, that do need less water, -chicken, lamb and goat for example. Don’t tell my goats.

It’s something to think about. Check out the site below and see what your footprint is. There is an option for a rather generic estimate and an option for a quite detailed one. That is if you have the time and inclination. I have the inclination -not the time. Alas.


Gray Matters June 7, 2008

Filed under: Introduction — adm @ 2:03 am
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Somewhere between black and white there is an infinite series of shades collectively and rather nondescriptly known as gray. Gray is that place that cannot be defined as either here nor there. It is that place that is both a comfortable happy medium as well as a place full of opportunities to wrestle with the truth. At some point I began to realize that constantly struggling for the truth is part of my identity. Perhaps you are discovering the same. As I’m sure you are well aware, we live in a world that is highly fragmented by issues. -A world that often sees in terms of black and white. However, I don’t think this is representative of reality. We may see issues as black and white but the truth is most of us are just trying to do the best we can with what we have. Although I am not talking about moral relativism I think there are times, because of our backgrounds, resources and experiences that our solutions to problems may differ. What’s best for me may be a detriment to you. To be quite plain, there is a substantial amount of gray. It was in this wrestling with many of the issues and problems of the day, (personal to global) that I settled on the term “ecotarian”.

It’s a relatively new term to join the urban vocabulary scene. Wikipedia has this to say about it:

“When ecotarians make a consumption decision, they consider the impact on the land of growing the product, the impact of transporting the product from where it was produced, and the labor conditions for the people who grow the product.”

Why should we limit this term to our relationship with food? We are consumers of more than just what we eat. Why not expand this term to all areas of consumption?

My quest in taking on an ecotarian view is to make conscious choices in how I interact not only with the physical world but also the people around me. How does the food we eat affect our family, the farmers, the earth? Where do our clothes come from? Where does our trash go? What am I teaching my children through my habits and actions? How is the way I’m carrying myself in this world affecting the lives of others? It may seem like an impossible task -and it would be if things were black and white. But the good news is in between the black and white there are infinite shades of gray and you don’t have to be on one side of an issue or the other. Remember, like so many other things, taking on an ecotarian view of the world should not be all-or-nothing. It should be a journey. We shouldn’t let the (seemingly) clear-cut sides of the “issues” make us feel inadequate about where we are right now. We just need to keep moving, keep searching and keep wrestling.

So, I hope you’ll join me in discovering what it means to be an “everyday ecotarian”. -And journey with me to a place somewhere amongst the paradoxes of this world. -Somewhere between a content happy medium and an uncomfortable but necessary wrestling with the truth.