Confessions of an EVERYDAY ECOTARIAN

creative, conscious and conserving ideas, thoughts and solutions

Mushrooms, Fungus Among us in the Winter Months January 4, 2010

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 3:19 am
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My first button mushroom!

I love to grow things.  The problem is, in the middle of Winter, there isn’t much I can grow in my climate without producing extra heat and light.  I’m just not into that -too much money, too much hassle too much wasted energy.  Even my cold-frames at this point in the year are very…cold.  So this year, I tried growing something I hadn’t grown before:  Mushrooms!

Not the psychedelic kind.  I grew good old-fashioned Agaricus bisporus, the common button mushroom.   If I was a purist I would have made my own mushroom compost, bought spores and propagated them myself.  However, sometimes I like things to be easy and I always find value in learning things from someone who’s already figured it out.  So, I bought a mushroom kit.  In my mushroom kit box came a bag of composted, sterilized horse manure, (no worries, just fluffy “peat moss-ish” soil) a bag of inoculate and instructions.    I was instructed to take the inoculate and soak it good with water until very sloppy.  Then, I took that sloppy goo and spread it over the compost layer -like a mushroom lasagna, (only before I actually had mushrooms).  After that I was to cover it with plastic and let it sit somewhere cool until I could see spider-web like fungus spreading across the top.    It took several weeks and I ended up having to move it somewhere warmer but it did eventually happen.    At that point I opened the plastic waited for the little tiny white pin-heads to appear scattered in groups across the compost.    Here will be my one word of advice from my vast mushroom growing experience:  watch those mushrooms like a hawk once they start to appear.  Many of mine grew out of control big in only a couple of days!  Our community leopard gecko named Geckie really seemed to enjoy climbing on our overgrown mushroom. Oh, and by “community” I mean that we share him in different seasons with other families.  We have him now because we have a nice warm wood stove that keeps him toasty during the winter.

See the fine "webbing" the fungus makes to the right of the pins? This is the first indicator of mushroom activity

Our community-shared leopard gecko on one of my grossly overgrown button mushrooms.

All in all growing mushrooms was a fun experience.  The kids really enjoyed it and they were able to do the work themselves since it only required occasional misting with a plant mister or spray bottle.  The speed with which the mushrooms mature also keeps kids on their toes and they will check that box everyday for a new mushroom to harvest.  I also found that my kids were especially interested in eating the mushrooms they had harvested. My 2-year-old insisted on munching on them raw.  Then again, I find as a general rule, that kids are very interested in eating things that they help to grow or see growing.  It must be in our nature to want to have that basic understanding and connection to our food in order to trust it and want to

Cute little button mushroom pin heads

consume it.   One other piece of advice.  If you talk to someone who actually grows their own mushrooms then you’d better learn-up on your mushroom varieties and Latin mushroom names if you want to keep up.  They apparently don’t use common names for mushrooms.  I bounced some questions off of a local who grows mushrooms and felt rather uniformed having to ask things like, “Is that the one with the umbrella-thingie on the top?  Do they sell that one in the store?  Are you sure you can eat that one? etc…”.   We can’t all be mycologists, I guess.    In any regard, whether or not you know their Latin names, mushrooms are a great and fun thing to grow in the winter!


Eating Your Backyard (or Foraging is Fun!) November 11, 2009

I, being an obsessively resourceful person, happen to think that foraging for things to eat that grow from the earth without any human intervention is one of the most satisfying things I could possibly do.  It’s a fantastic way to get out into nature and really understand the environment around you, (because if you’re going to wild-forage you have to understand your environment or you could end up dead).   It’s something our ancestors did not all that long ago.   But somehow, in the ever-increasing gap between people and the origins of food many of us have lost our ability to hunt and/or  gather.  Now I’m not going to be talking about hunting in this post, (or probably ever, for that matter).   It’s not something I have any ethical issue with, it’s just not something that I or anyone in my family does.  Well, there was that one time my husband took a deer but it was with a very expensive bullet -his truck.  Being the obsessively resourceful people we are, we did process it and put it in our freezer.  However, I don’t recommend hunting with your vehicle as a great way to put meat on the table.

Anyway, foraging for me gives me this great sense of awe for the life around me that exists without anything I’ve done to make it that way.  To walk out of a field or the woods with something my family can eat really makes me think about how so much of what we have in all of life we get for free out of no merit any of us have earned.   I think when we are so separated from the origins of food one thing we really loose is the appreciation for what we’ve been given for nothing we’ve done.  When you walk into a grocery store with money in your pocket that you’ve earned from working and buy your groceries it’s easy to feel a sense of entitlement.  I earned the money, I bought the food = I’m entitled to this food.    But I don’t think that’s really all that indicative of reality.  If anything it’s a simplistic and cheapened reality.  Because the truth is, you didn’t earn the money to make the sun shine or the rain fall.  You didn’t plan a training session to teach the micro-organisms to break down the dead and turn it into new life.  The bees aren’t such fantastic pollinators because you’ve done such a great job managing them.  Yet, without these things the food wouldn’t be in the grocery store for you to buy to begin with.   So much of life is given to us and for me, foraging is a great and concrete reminder of this.

Here is a sampling of what I found this summer.  But first, a disclaimer:  Although there are many safe things to forage don’t go out and eat things you’re unsure of.  Make sure you know what you’re doing or are with someone who knows.

“Wild” Apples

These may not be exactly “wild”.  This year I got apples from two different orchards that had been unkempt for quite a few years.  However, in the past I’ve also gathered apples from trees that happen to grow on the side of the road or randomly in the woods.  Often times these apples are misshapen, a little wormy and otherwise just plain ugly.  However, with a little work they are great for applesauce, apple butter or apple jelly.   I’m always constantly amazed at people who say things like, “You can’t eat those apples, those haven’t been taken care of for years!”  Apples are apples, I say and I can eat them wild or not.   Besides, if they’ve grown wild for several years then I know that no pesticides have been used on them.  They are free “organic” apples.  It’s completely worth taking the time to peel them, slice them, clean them up and make them into applesauce.  Applesauce is one of the easiest things to make and can at home.  This year we made over 2 gallons of applesauce from wild apples.

“Wild” Grapes

These can be actual wild grapes or again, grapes from vines that haven’t been used in years.  The grapes in my pictures are Concord grapes that are from unkempt vines.  Wild grapes are smaller and more tart -but often great for juice or jelly.  Unkempt grapes are easy to spot because of their size.  However, wild grapes do have a somewhat dangerous lookalike, the Moonseed plant.  This is a vining plant like the grape but there are a couple of important differences.  Grapes have a couple of small seeds inside while the Moonseed plant has one big crescent-shaped seed, (thus, “Moon”seed).  Birds can eat them with no harm but humans cannot without severe abdominal pain.

Wild Strawberries

This is a really safe little plant.  There isn’t anything else that I know of that looks like a strawberry but a strawberry.  They love to grow in sandy places where everything else seems to struggle for life.  My kids are out picking them everyday in mid-summer.  If you can gather enough they make a great jam.   They are tiny but pack a powerful little strawberry punch compared to what we find in the stores.

Autumn Olives


A few Autumn Olives

Red berries in the wild can be a dangerous thing.  However, as a general rule, it’s a good idea to stay away from red berries on weeds, (like Nightshade) while berries on woody shrubs and bushes are more likely to be edible, (but that doesn’t mean they’ll taste good).  Also, just because you see birds eating a berry doesn’t mean you can.  Watching bats feed will actually give you a better idea of what we can eat.  However, again, it’s not foolproof.  Luckily the Autumn Olive is an easy plant to identify if you know what you are doing.  It’s a woody shrub with silvery elongated leaves that resemble those of the olive tree.  It can grow up to 20 feet.  In America it’s an invasive, (but delicious!) species and can take over a field.  It does very well in poor soils because of the way it fixes nitrogen in it’s root system.  It comes from Asia and was introduced around 1830 as a potential commercial crop.  Why it isn’t a commercial, I’m not sure, because it’s a fantastic and prolific little berry.  It has a delightfully sweet, tart and almost spicy flavor reminiscent of cloves or cinnamon.   I found a field just full of these bushes this year -every shrub with branches heavy with berries.   The juice is a wonderful bright pink color and so is the jelly made from it.  It not only tastes good, it’s absolutely beautiful to look at.   It also happens to be a great source of natural lycopene.

Morel Mushrooms

Ah, mushroom hunting.  It can be really fun or really frustrating.  For me it tends to be frustrating but this year I actually found a few.  Morels are fairly easy to recognize.  Although, again, mushroom hunting is not something you should attempt to do unless you are quite confident about your identification skills. The morel grows in the forest, (most of the time, it sometimes makes up it’s own rules).   It pops out of the ground the best when the days are wet and the nights are warm.  They are frustratingly difficult to find due to the fact that they blend in with their environment extremely well.  We usually just eat the ones we find but you can also dry them and use them later or sell them for $50/lb on the side of the road to passing tourists who will pay that much.


Ah!  This one is fantastic!  It grows almost everywhere in the world as a weedy ground cover.  It’s also eaten in most places in the world other than the US.  It has a delightful lemony flavor later in the season, (in the beginning of the season it just tastes like…well, a weed).  It also is one of the highest plant sources of Omega 3 fatty acids.  The type of fatty acid it contains in high levels is similar to the kind found in fish.  You can juice it, throw it into salads, put it on a sandwich, and more.  I actually like it in Tabouleh. In fact, in my favorite cooking book, The Joy of Cooking, it’s actually listed as an ingredient!


This is something else I wild-forage and use in many ways.  You can often find it growing near a stream or a body of water.  It’s easy to tell what it is because it’s…minty.  There are many kids all with slightly different flavors.  I gather mint all through the summer and use it in tea, tabbouleh and the occasional mojito.  You can even store your mint cuttings in water and they will grow roots.  You can plant these rooted stems if you’d like them to take over your yard.  Otherwise, the fact that they grow roots allows for you to keep a little mint alive a long time in a glass of water in a windowsill.

St Johns Wort

This one is an herb.  It’s often everywhere you look and you’ve probably stepped right on it at some point in the year, (depressing, isn’t it?)  It’s a weedy yellow flowering plant.  Gather the plants when they are in full flower and dry them.  At that point you can use the plants for tea.  St Johns Wort tea is often known as “liquid sunshine” perhaps because of it’s bright yellow color or because of it’s stated ability to improve your mood.  I saved some for the long, cold, dark months of winter this year.  I’ll let you know how it works.

Blackberries/Black Raspberries/Red Raspberries

This is another wild plant that is easy to identify because they look like nothing else.  All are found in thorny patches of briars.  Blackberries tend to be low to the ground with huge, leg-gashing thorns while Black Raspberries and Red Raspberries tend to grow higher with more delicate thorns.  Blackberries come off the stem core intact while Raspberries, (black and red) leave the core on the plant and come off the stem “hollow”.   They are usually easy to find and easy to pick.  Don’t pick them all, however, because the wildlife often relies on them for food.  Also, if you happen to be picking where there are bears keep an eye out, they are fellow omnivores who like them too!

There are many, many more plants I could list and perhaps I will in the future.  But for now, some pictures of this summers wild harvest.


Attack of the Tomatoes! October 21, 2009

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 1:32 am
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I’m finally writing!  I’m finally writing!  It has been several weeks of steamy days in the kitchen canning, drying and putting away the summer’s harvest.  On top of that I seem to have found myself doing work of one sort another for 5 different non-profits.


Oooh, steamy!

Needless to say, it’s been busy ‘round here.  To further complicate matters we had a very cold and wet

summer.  This caused our tomatoes to ripen very late.  We then had a hard frostand had to move in the tomatoes from our 70 plants in late September.  We had every surface in the basement covered with ripening tomatoes well into this month.  However, the onslaught of tomato preservation is slowing and as always, we’ve learned a few news tricks this year.

When we first started living the gardening, canning, and ever-evolving ecotarian life 9 years ago we did what many new gardeners do.  We planted everything we could think of, lost most of it to inexperience and attempted to preserve the rest.  That first year we had a particularly good crop of tomatoes.  We thought we’d make all kinds of tomato products:  salsa, all kinds of marinara and spaghetti sauce, diced

All colors of tomatoes ripening in the basement after a hard frost

All colors of tomatoes ripening in the basement after a hard frost

tomatoes, barbeque sauce, ketchup and more!  Although we were somewhat successful we burned ourselves out on canning right away.   We’ve learned a few things since that and now we stick to two rules for preserving the harvest:  1. Keep it practical.  2.  Keep it simple

We found that if we preserve the simplest tomato products possible we can then alter those tomatoes for different uses during the year.  Also, when you can you need to be mindful of the acidity of your product.  Tomatoes by themselves are high acid and can be canned in a simple boiling water bath.   However, when you start adding other vegetables it can lower the acidity too much and cause the need for a pressure canner.   So, because we like to keep things as simple as possible, this year we decided to stick to chopped tomatoes, tomato sauce and dried tomatoes.   Here is what we did:

Roasted Tomato Sauce

In order to make great, smooth tomato sauce you need to do three things.  Remove the skin, remove the seeds and remove some of the water.  I used to cook the tomatoes down in a stockpot before running them through a food mill to remove the seeds and skin.  Not anymore.  I’ve found a much better way to get a great tasting sauce is to roast the tomatoes first.  Simply wash the tomatoes, cut out any bad spots and quarter them.  You can use any kind of tomato for this –even a surplus of cherry, pear or other small tomatoes.  Just to dispel the long-standing myth,


Tomatoes ready for roasting!

Smooth sauce cookin’ away

yellow tomatoes are not any less acidic than red so throw them in there!  Put them on a baking dish lined with foil or better yet a foil roasting pan, (unless you want a huge cleanup job later) and roast them at 275 degrees for about 2 hours.  I even threw a few cloves of garlic in to roast along with the tomatoes.   When the tomatoes are soft and have lost some of their water run them through a food mill to remove the skin


Roasty Toasty Tomatoes

and seeds.  Put the remaining sauce back into the stockpot and cook it down until it’s as thick as you like it.   Then, just can it in a boiling water bath for 45 minutes.   The end result is a lovely, deep and complex roasted tomato sauce.  When you’re ready to use it, open it up and season it with garlic, peppers, onions or whatever else your recipe calls for.

naked maters

Naked little tomatoes

Chopped Tomatoes

Nothing fancy here.  We remove the skins by plunging the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds.

Then we pull them out and give them an immediate dip into an ice bath.  At this point their skins slip right off.  We then chop the tomatoes in our food processor, (the best kitchen tool we’ve ever purchased) for a few pulses.   When the tomatoes are sufficiently chopped we put them into a stockpot and heat them to boiling.  Then, we can them in quart jars in a water bath for 45 minutes.   That’s it.  Then they are chili, enchilada, marinara, even salsa ready!  Just season appropriately when they’re needed.

Dried Tomatoes


Yellow Pear and Cherry Tomatoes

These are great to have on hand.  This year we had a plethora of small tomatoes including little round cherry tomatoes and adorable tiny yellow pear tomatoes.

You can throw them in with your tomatoes for saucebut what we’ve found is that they make lovely dried tomatoes.  We use a dehydrator and simply wash the tomatoes, cut them in half and place them face up on the trays.  When they are sufficiently dry, (You can’t squeeze a drop of moisture out with your fingers) we

“pasteurize” them in a 175 degree oven for 15 minutes.  This helps take car

e of any little organisms that might decide to cause your tomatoes to spoil.


Pretty little dried tomatoes

Store them in an airtight glass jar in a cool, dry place.  Or for fun, store them in olive oil. You can also dehydrate tomatoes in the sun and in the oven.


Pickled Pink! And Other Things of the Summer September 24, 2009

I should have posted something some time ago.  But, the summer has kept me very busy and sitting down to write just hasn’t happened.  So, instead, I’ll recap the summer in pictures.  Then, when the onslaught of veggies to put away for the winter ends I will write again.  I really will.  I promise.


The Ecotarian Family: Easing the Constant Battleground Between Kids and Food July 23, 2009

I was recently contacted by a writer of a natural parenting section in a UK magazine called, “Junior”. She had questions that many of us who are parents often have about kids and food. How do we best feed our kids keeping in mind the environmental and social impact? How do we teach them to be mindful of this and will attempting to do these things only make the issue of food more of a battleground than it already is?

This summer's early lettuce crop

This summer's early lettuce crop

Anyone who has kids knows that feeding them can get exceedingly complicated and frustrating. One week they like something, the next they can’t stand it on their plate. What’s a parent to do? Is there anyway to get your kids on board with the big picture of ecotarianism without making things even more complicated? I think there is. In fact, I think there is an advantage in using ecotarian ideas to help kids become more adventurous eaters. So with that, her questions and my answers below, (or you can check out the article in the April 2009 article of Junior…it’s the world’s finest parenting magazine).

How do you get your kids involved in your ecotarianism? Is there stuff they can do with you to get them on board?


First of all, answer their questions. Kids have a natural, (if not somewhat obsessive) desire to ask “why”. Combine that desire with their innate desire, (seemingly equally obsessive) to pick apart and examine everything they eat and you have a natural lead-in to talking about where food comes from. Does your child ask, “What is this?” when you put dinner in front of them? First breathe and count to ten and then see it as a teachable moment and actually start answering that question. It’s not only a great way to get your kids on board with what’s for dinner but also on board with the understanding that food comes from somewhere and it’s important that we know how it got to our plates.

Use every shopping trip as a teachable moment.
Talk about where the food comes from, how it was grown and how it got to that market. If you don’t know, ask the farmer or the store clerk. Sometimes there will even be information printed at the stores. Get your kids thinking backwards -not just where will this food end up (at dinner) but how did it get here. Ask your kids to help you shop. As they get used to the dialog you have with them about their food ask them to start “helping” you to make choices about what you buy. Let them choose a fruit or vegetable they’ve never tried before. Show them a banana and a local strawberry and tell them you would like a fruit that didn’t have to travel very far and you need their help. Tell them how smart they are when they get the answer right!

Wild Strawberries

Wild Strawberries

Grow something! Grow anything! Find a container, a garden, a plant or a seed, some dirt, water and a sunny spot and grow something. Find someone who knows more than you to bounce questions off of. If you cannot find anyone, there is a wealth of information on the Internet on just about problem you may run into. Even if you can’t bring your tomato plant to fruiting maturity, your kid’s will at the very least, see how something grows and what that tomato looked liked when it was merely a sparkle of potential in a tomato seed. You can even harvest a seed from many store-purchased tomatoes! From my experience, even the pickiest eaters will walk into my garden at the end of the summer and eat a fresh and sun-warmed plum tomato off of the vine. If you are successful with your growing endeavor and do get some fruit for your labors make sure to get some generic matching produce from the store so you can do a one-on-one taste comparison. Then start asking a ton more questions about why your produce tastes different than what you purchased at the store. Some vegetables that are easy to grow in somewhat small areas are tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, (a short variety) and leaf-lettuce. Leaf lettuce is especially easy to grow and harvest . ­Just pick and eat when the leaves are big enough. Strawberries also grow quite nicely in containers and small spaces of earth. One of my favorite places to get seeds is Seed Savers. They have hundreds of varieties of heirloom plants and seeds from around the world as well as a beautiful and garden-inspiring catalog.

Visit where the food begins. Many farmers are happy to help young children understand what they do. Let your child see you pay the farmer for their products or even better, let your child give the farmer the money. Use this to begin a conversation about paying people fairly for their work.

Make something from scratch.
We are often extremely disconnected from our food. Make bread, noodles, peanut butter, yogurt, cheese, (fresh ricotta is superbly simple ­besides, then you can sing “Little Ms. Muffet”) or a delicious desert from the very basics. Then when you have other foods start asking your children what ingredients they think are in them. Make it a guessing game. Ask, “Who knows which of the things we are eating has flour in it? Where does flour come from?” “What else do we use flour for?” or even “Who knows which of the things we are eating had to travel the furthest?” My kids have become pretty good at figuring this out and it makes for great dinner-time conversation!

I could go on and on with ideas but the biggest thing is questions, questions, and more questions. Kids are born wanting to ask them so use this opportunity to indulge that desire a little and get them really thinking. Help them develop the patterns that they need to continue asking important questions about more difficult issues later in life. To take on an ecotarian view of the world, you have to be comfortable wrestling with the often complex ideas of how, when, why and where when dealing with consumption.

Baby goat nursing, (we use the extra milk)

Baby goat nursing, (we use the extra milk)

What are your words of wisdom to other parents who would like to take the ecotarian plunge but may feel a little overwhelmed?

First and foremost, try not to view ecotarianism as a series of black and white issues. Sometimes the decisions may be easy and sometimes the decisions may be very gray. Our food system did not get to where it is in just a short while and it will take time, effort and a lot of small changes on the part of individuals and systems for it to change for the better. It may seem as though we have a lot of choices at the grocery but in reality, our food system is not set up in a way so that we can even know a lot about the origins of our food. We have a lot of information about our food ­but often not that kind of information. So, in reality, if you are trying to take on ecotarian principals, your choices are quite limited. These two things combined, our existing food system and lack of pertinent information at the store, can definitely leave you feeling overwhelmed. So take it slow and give yourself time. Find something you can start with. Local produce, honey and dairy are often the easiest to find, (and delicious as well). Also, we, as consumers, can begin asking for that kind of information and transparency with our food. With a little pressure, we’re sure to get it.

Don’t let this issue make you feel guilty, (as if we need any more guilt as parents). Guilt is a terrible motivator and it doesn’t often lead to real change. We also cannot afford to make this a platform on which we can place ourselves so that we can judge how others are doing. That is completely missing the point. It’s not about keeping up with the Jones’s, it’s about making informed food choices that in turn make this world a better place to live in and keeps our families healthy. We are all coming to this from different places in life with different sets of resources. That will change the way in which we can approach ecotarianism. Some may be able to throw out their entire pantry and start over. Others will have to take it a piece at a time. Some may be able to till up an acre of their land and plant a huge garden. Some may have the power to advocate for rooftop gardens on commercial buildings. Others may be able to grow a garden plant in a windowsill of an apartment while others try to make their produce purchases at a local farmers market. Starting anywhere is good. To change the system we have to change as individuals. We can’t afford to waste time and energy judging each other on our progress. We should spend that time and energy encouraging the changes, big or small, we see in each other!

And for parents where food is already a battleground with their children – is taking on the principles of ecotarianism going to make life even more complicated?

I find that taking on the principles of ecotarianism is actually much more simple. Simplicity can in some instances, be quite complicated. However, on the issue of “food as a battleground”, I think it makes matters much easier. I really believe, from my own experience with my children and others, that kids are willing to eat good food. A strawberry in the middle of the winter shipped from thousands of miles away doesn’t taste as good as a sun-ripened local summer strawberry. Any child will know that even if they can’t express it. You might find that a child who “doesn’t like” tomatoes really doesn’t like tomatoes that have been grown a distance away and were not allowed to ripen on the vine and develop the natural sugars and sweet taste. Good for that child! He has a great natural instinct for good nutrition! Will this child be hesitant to try any other tomatoes if his first tomato experience was tasteless and out of season? Of course. Initial food experiences make a big impression on kids. However, give them several chances to try that naturally grown produce and you may be pleasantly surprised when on one occasion, they finally eat it. With that, I think it is very important that our children’s initial food experiences be good. ­And that means as natural and as flavorful as nature, (not agribusiness) intended. There is no better way to do this than taking on ecotarian principals, (fresh, natural, local) while choosing food.

Wild Foraged Morel Mushrooms

Wild Foraged Morel Mushrooms

I really think what makes a toddler suddenly pick through something he’s been eating fine for months is a developing awareness of his food. He wants to know what he is consuming. Isn’t that what ecotarianism is all about? Use that, (sometimes irritating) trait for good. When kids know more about their food they are more likely to “trust” it again and often more willing to try new things. If we train our kids to love fresh, natural, local foods, if we also impress upon them that farmers are valuable and need to be compensated fairly they will be more likely to refuse the impostors in the food system as they mature. That, in turn, will lead to real change in how our societies eat.


Kefir: The other Yogurt July 19, 2009

Filed under: On Food — adm @ 7:17 pm
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I recently had someone ask me about Kefir and I thought the topic would make a lovely post.

One of my first experiences with true homemade Kefir, (pronounced “Keh-feer”) was at a neighbors house.  They have a nice little Jersey cow that was producing milk.  -And when you have a cow in milk you have a LOT of milk.  They began making Kefir as a way to use some of it.   They took the Kefir made with the very high butterfat milk of their Jersey cow and blended it with dark maple syrup created that spring from the maple trees on their property.  It was blended until it was almost frothy.  The Kefir was sweet, a little sour , slightly carbonated and very, very creamy.  It was delicious.   I took a little home to start my own batch of Kefir.

Kefir Grains

Kefir Grains

Kefir, like yogurt is a cultured milk drink, (unless you make water kefir…but that’s another post).  It originated in the crossroads of Russia, Europe and Asia.   According to Wikipedia it was first made in a skin bag and hung in a doorway so that it would be hit, (and thus mixed) every time someone entered or exited the door.  Although it does have similarities to yogurt it is also quite different.  Yogurt is made with a variety of milk-loving bacteria the most popular of which is Acidophilus.   Other species can make appearances  but as a rule yogurt is a big milk-loving friendly bacteria party.

Kefir.  It’s a different kind of party.   In a batch of Kefir you will find a variety of bacteria as well as yeasts.  This lends the end product a different flavor and feel in the mouth.  Because of the yeast you get yeast by-products.  As the little yeasties eat the sugar naturally present in the milk they create a little alcohol.  That’s right.  Alcohol.  Just a little bit.  Made at home and fermented a little longer kefir is around 1-2% alcohol.  Industrially, where the fermentation time is often shortened, it tends to be around 1%.   Another by-product of yeast in the mix is carbon dioxide.  This gives it an almost carbonated feel and is why Kefir is often referred to as the “champagne of milk”.  This blend of bacteria and yeasts give your body even more health benefits than yogurt.

Also, Kefir is much easier to make at home than yogurt.  Really, it’s easier!  With yogurt you need an incubator or something to keep it warm for 4-10 hours.  If you go over that 10 hours you have a really sour yogurt.  If you keep it too warm you end up with cheese.  If you keep it too cool the bacteria are not warm enough to culture the milk at all.  Kefir, on the other hand,  is a room temperature fermented milk product and in my experience is much more fool-proof.  All you need is a container, (I like quart or 1/2 gallon glass canning jars), milk, (raw or pasteurized), Kefir grains and 12-24 hours.  Kefir grains are little cauliflower-looking, jelly-like globs of bacteria and yeast.  You place the Kefir grains in your room-temperature milk and set it somewhere dark and well…room temperature…for 1/2 to an entire day.  Then, you use a strainer to strain the Kefir grains out, (who have now procreated and multiplied…some party!) and then drink your Kefir.  Here is a more in-depth tutorial, (because why make one if it already exists?)

One last piece of information.  You may be wondering where to get Kefir grains.  Start by asking around.  You may know someone already making Kefir.  If you can’t find any locally then you will find a plethora of options with a simple Google search.  After you start making Kefir you will not be lacking for grains again.  They multiply like rabbits.  You will be begging your friends to start making Kefir.  You can also strain the grains out, rinse them in water and dry them for later use, freeze them for later use or just blend them up in the blender with the Kefir and eat them.

That’s about it!  Enjoy your Kefir!


Ecotarian Factory Food July 13, 2009

Kids. You just can’t please them.

We have fresh free-range eggs and milk right out of our back door. Our kids can wander through fields of wild

My daughter's original and unprompted watercolor

Factory Food: My daughter's original and unprompted watercolor

strawberries and eat to their hearts content. They can spend the morning grazing on sweet, crisp snow-peas out of the garden or dig a carrot or potato from the ground and bring it to me to prepare for lunch. They get fresh mozzarella cheese and homemade wheat rolls made for them by their father every week. I make them whole milk yogurt and top it with local maple syrup or honey and freshly made granola in flavors like vanilla bean pecan or caramel cashew.

However, I must confess. When my 6-year-old daughter is especially pleased with something her father or I have made what does she say? Is it “Thanks mom! This is so deliciously wholesome!” or even “Wow, this is better than any restaurant!” No, our daughter’s gold standard, her highest compliment is this:

“It tastes just like it came from the FACTORY!”

We’re not sure whether to cry or to laugh (and we tend to laugh). It is funny. It’s really funny. It’s partly the nature of kids. If your mom fed you Fruit Loops you probably wanted granola, if your mom fed you granola you probably wanted Fruit Loops. That’s just the way kids operate, right? It’s also the insane amount of marketing targeted towards kids. Outside of making them live in a bubble their entire lives we just can’t get away from all of it. Although like many things, it’s something we should work to change we also need to realize its part of the world we and our children are living in right now.

Now, we’re certainly not purist parents. Somewhat ironically, the thing that makes me think like an ecotarian is the same thing that makes me see the big picture in everything I do. I know that if there isn’t some kind of moderation, if I don’t let my kids experience fast food or junk food every now and then it’s likely to hit them all at once later and they won’t know what to do with it. They won’t know how to moderate themselves. I have nightmares of my 7-year-old son sitting in front of the TV all day in college eating french fries for every meal. The kid will watch anything on a screen. Even golf. He’s been captivated by television since he was a baby. My other two kids not so much. Anyway, my point is that as parents our ultimate goal is to help our kids see the big picture, make good choices and moderate themselves when a choice isn’t so black and white.

And that might mean “factory food” once in a while. But, there is a silver lining and a huge teaching opportunity in these experiences. Here is what I love to do. Make something “factoryish” from scratch with your kids. An apple pie is a lovely example with easy ingredients. Have them pick the apples from the store –or better yet, from the tree. Have them mix the dough and roll it out. Put it together and bake it. Then, when it’s time to serve it put it next to the most tasteless pre-made apple pie you can find from the store. Let them try each one and ask them what they think. I tend to believe that kids enjoy things that taste real. Then talk about the ingredients a little. Ask them what is in your apple pie and where the ingredients came from. Then look at the ingredients in the store pie. Are they the same? Different? Do you know what they are or where they came from? At the very least it’s an exercise in being conscious about what we eat.

So, I’ll finish with a couple of “factory foods” that we re-created at home: Donuts and Marshmallows. Both are really fun to make. Also, when my daughter finished her first test marshmallow she told me, “Now mom, to make the BEST s’mores ever we have to make homemade graham crackers and chocolate! Do you know how to make those?!” Now that’s more like it. I told her no, but we could certainly figure it out!

Homemade Marshmallows (from

Homemade Marshmallows

Homemade Marshmallows

.75-oz unflavored gelatin (3 envelopes of Knox gelatin)
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cups light corn syrup (I used homemade vanilla syrup)
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract (or one vanilla bean scraped into the mixture)

Line 9 x 9-inch pan with plastic wrap and lightly oil it. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, sprinkle gelatin over 1/2 cup cold water. Soak for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, combine sugar, corn syrup and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a rapid boil and boil hard for 1 minute.

Pour the boiling syrup into soaked gelatin and turn on the mixer, using the whisk attachment, to high speed. Add the salt and beat for 12 minutes. After 12 minutes, add in the vanilla extract beat to incorporate.

Scrape marshmallow into the prepared pan and spread evenly (Lightly greasing your hands and the spatula helps a lot here). Take another piece of lightly oiled plastic wrap and press lightly on top of the marshmallow, creating a seal. Let mixture sit for a few hours, or overnight, until cooled and firmly set.

In a shallow dish, combine equal parts cornstarch and confectioners’ sugar, (I also think they’d be fantastic in equal parts cocoa powder and confectioners sugar…or toasted coconut). Remove marshmallow from pan and cut into equal pieces with scissors (the best tool for the job) or a chef’s knife. Dredge each piece of marshmallow in confectioners’ sugar mixture.

Store in an airtight container.

Homemade Donuts

Homemade Donuts

More Marshmallows...

More Marshmallows...