40 Days of Packaging

May 27th, 2010

We agreed to save all food containers/wrappers for 40 days. This is not a project that should be undertaken by someone with limited space! The first picture shows what we accumulated in spite of having a household of only two, virtually never eating in restaurants, doing most of our cooking from scratch, and preparing meals that are heavily vegetarian. Breakfast and snacks seem to provide the bulk of our wrappers. Clearly, a future goal should be more baking and less purchasing of prepared cookies and crackers. We’d like cereal/cracker companies to help by totally filling their boxes, providing a choice for larger containers, and using recyclable materials for sealing liners–or, even better, combining the box and liner as one item.

We wondered what proportion of our food wrappers were recyclable. The second picture shows the result–items on the left are recyclable within our local village, and items in the bag on the right are trash. Trash is mostly plastic that is not coded for recyclability. The food producers are doing a fairly good job (if this material is truely reclycled at the recycing center). Still, they could do better, as it seems to us that many of the items headed for a landfill could have been replaced by recyclable materials.

We are happy that the 40 days are over, and we can clear this stuff out of the garage!

Barbara Sugden & Ron Vargason

Homemade Granola

May 24th, 2010

A few participants on our 40/40/40 challenge chose using bulk ingredients to make cereal.  Quite a few other participants decided to cut down, or cut out entirely, processed food.  Homemade granola is an easy way to cut out some of those processed foods – you know, the boxes of Tony the Tiger lurking around, or the box of Ego’s hiding in the freezer.  And many of the ingredients for granola are available for bulk purchase, cutting down both the cost of the cereal and the packaging waste.

For as much as I like to sit down to a fancy shmancy gourmet meal, I do prefer a simple cereal.  Nothing overly spiced, not too many ingredients, and balanced on the sweetness.  My favorite recipe thus far is from the Joy of Baking website.  Even with this recipe, I generally don’t add all the seeds listed, and I always use sliced almonds rather than the whole almonds.

For the wet ingredients, I follow the recipe exactly.  Well, almost.  I usually try to eyeball honey when I’m using it in a recipe.  I hate to waste the honey in a measuring cup.  One of the great things about making your own food is being able to control the ingredients.  Honey is widely available now at farmers markets and farm stands, in different grades and from bees on different flower diets.  Each batch has it’s own subtle, but distinct taste.  This producer is a favorite of mine from Wisconsin.

After the wet ingredients have come to a boil, mix with your assemble dry ingredients.  As I said, I keep the dry ingredients simple:  oats, sliced almonds, and some sesame seeds.

After the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, spread the entire batch on a baking sheet.  The recipe says to either butter the sheet or line with parchment – I always line with parchment.  That way, I can lift the granola in the parchment after it’s cooled and easily funnel into a container.

I bake mine closer to the 40 minutes, stirring often.  I like the granola to be crunchy, and the longer it bakes, the crunchier it will be after it cools.  Do be careful to watch it in those last few minutes, though.  The almonds, especially, will start to char.

Oh, and have I mentioned the scent of granola baking in oven?  Heavenly.

The next day, I happily have a simple bowl of simple granola with whole milk for breakfast:

I’m curious as to other recipes out there for bulk cereal.  Anyone have one to share?

- Melissa

No Plastic Bags!

May 21st, 2010

editors note: This was originally posted as a comment to the Share Your 40/40/40 Story page.  I’ve moved it here in the hopes of starting a dialogue.  - Melissa

No plastic bags! That was on of my objectives. No problem I thought. So after about 100 trips back to my car afte standing in line to check out and remembering that the cloth bags were still in the car I am almost remembering every time. But how about shopping at other types of stores? That’s different. So it’s – shop, leave stuff in my cart, go out to car and get the bags, come back to find that some eager employee has unloaded all the stuff I just “bought”. Then shop once again.

I have heard that doing the cloth bag thing really isn’t that big a deal in the larger picture, but let me tell you, it’s a big deal for me – with my mind targeted on why I’m shopping and for what, I am really challenged to bring in the bags.

Anyone else running into challenges with their “promises”?

- Jane Kimball


May 14th, 2010

Get your gardening mojo on in downtown Geneva this Saturday at Gardenology, an all day event focusing on all things home gardening.  Starting or enhancing a vegetable garden, home composting, and moving away from processed foods were three of the most popular choices for participants of our 40/40/40 challenge, and this event looks to be a great way to enhance your skills and strategies in maintaining these commitments long after our challenge is over.

A long list of vendors are participating at sites spread out around Geneva.  Various nurseries and local farmers will be selling plants and will be giving demonstrations on everything from creative planting to worm composting.  Morton Arboretum will be talking trees, and Ball Horticultural Co. will be providing garden consulting with seminars such as “How to Plant, Grow, Eat, Enjoy”.  Kids can start their own seed plantings at the Geneva Library.  Our own Donna Askins will teach you how to grow your own potatoes at the Geneva History Center at 1:00 and 2:00 p.m.  In addition, several restaurants will have food samples available.  I just might be hanging out with my son at The Latest Crave, where we can munch on their special “Gardenology” cupcake.

Oh, and the best part?  This entire event is free.  Come on out and enjoy a beautiful spring day.

The Beacon News has a full article on the event here.

The Gardenology Facebook page can be found here.

Gardenology will take place in downtown Geneva from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.  Maps and vendor information will be available on the courthouse lawn.

- Melissa

A Spring Thanksgiving

May 9th, 2010

We’ve had a Bourbon Red heritage turkey from Caveny Farm sitting in our freezer for a number of months, waiting for the perfect dinner opportunity.  Bourbon Reds are just one of several breeds of turkeys that were popular meat birds in the first half of the 20th century, but fell out of favor once the Broad-Breasted White turkey began to dominate the commercial meat market.  In fact, most of these older heritage breeds were in severe danger of extinction by the 1990′s.  It’s only been in the last few years, with the increased interest in non-factory farmed food, that their numbers have improved slightly.  Slow Food USA has been a major proponent in saving these breeds by encouraging small free-range farms to nurture the turkeys and by getting the word out to farm direct & farmers market buyers.

In order to be classified as a heritage turkey, breeds must meet three qualifications:  they must be able to mate naturally, they must be capable of a long and productive lifespan, and they must have a slow growth rate.  It’s important to note here that these are three qualities that Broad-Breasted White turkeys do not possess.  Industrial farm turkeys reach market weight at 18 weeks, and because of this fast growth rate, their bone and organ structure is usually poorly developed, and would not allow the turkeys to live much beyond their slaughter age.  Also, industrial farm turkeys cannot breed naturally due to their oversized breasts.  Heritage turkeys, on the other hand, can take up to 30 weeks to get to market weight, and are able to breed and live as long as a wild turkey.

A combination of birthday and Mother’s Day celebrations yesterday finally gave us a great excuse to cook up our turkey.  At first, we intended to spatchcock the turkey and roast it on our charcoal grill. However, the weather turned cold and windy, with sporadic rain showers, and so we decided to butcher the turkey into 5 parts for roasting on the gas grill.  The first obvious difference between a heritage turkey and the commercial turkeys available at the local grocery store is in the proportions of the bird:  the leg sections are much larger, and the breast is much smaller.  This particular bird obviously ran around quite a bit at the farm.

The second obvious difference is in the color of the meat.  I find that pasture raised poultry is always more pink in color than industrial poultry, which nearly always has a yellowish color.  But this heritage meat was red – dark red leg meat and slightly lighter red breast meat.  The leg meat looked very similar to duck meat.  There was also a thicker fat layer on this bird – something else that doesn’t have time to develop on an industrial farm turkey.

Once roasted, the breast meat was light in color and very moist and tender.  The leg meat was definitely dark, and was much firmer than the white meat.  We kept the seasonings to a bare minimum – salt and pepper, with a baste of herb butter at the end.  There was no mistaking this turkey for a Butterball; the meat was flavorful, but had a texture more similar to pork than chicken.  Caveny Farm’s website recommends cooking the turkey in parts, and I would agree with that.  Overcooking any part of this bird would be a crime.

Even though we were cooking turkey, I stayed away from other traditional Thanksgiving side dishes; I wanted to keep the entire meal seasonal and local.  We started the meal with cream of asparagus soup, and I paired the turkey with a fresh salad from Erehwon Farm and an asparagus & wild mushroom bread pudding.  Creme brulee with fresh, golden yolked eggs followed for dessert.  All of the ingredients, aside from the gruyere cheese in the bread pudding, were obtained locally.  The bread pudding was outstanding – I combined a recipe out of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle with a couple other online recipes.  My take on the recipe follows.

Asparagus and Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding

  • 1 1 lb loaf french bread, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 1 lb fresh asparagus, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 lb wild mushrooms, any variety, cut into 1 inch pieces
  • 2 TBSP butter, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 lb gruyere cheese, shredded
  • 1/2 cup fresh chives, chopped
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by drying the bread cubes, either overnight on a sheet tray, or in an oven.

Blanch the asparagus in boiling water for 1 – 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the stalks, until the asparagus is bright green.  Drain and place in an ice water bath.  Set aside.

Heat the butter in a saute pan and add the mushrooms.  Cook until tender and the moisture has evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes.  Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Whisk together the eggs and milk.  Drain the asparagus well.  In a 9 x 13 baking dish, layer 1/2 of the bread cubes, followed by 1/2 of the asparagus, mushrooms and chives.  Sprinkle 1/2 of the cheese and pour 1/2 of the egg/milk mixture.  Sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Repeat with a 2nd layer of all ingredients.  Let sit for about 20 minutes, occasionally pressing down on the casserole to submerge the bread in the custard.   Bake for 45 minutes until the pudding is puffed and set, and the top is golden and crusted.

- Melissa

Dr. Malcolm is still right.

May 4th, 2010

One of my favorite lines in the movie Jurassic Park occurs during the scene where Drs. Grant and Sattler are suffering through the presentation of the biology behind the cloned dinosaurs. While the group gazes upon a hatching velociraptor, Dr. Wu reveals how the scientists at the park control the population: the dinosaurs are all female, thus preventing natural breeding. Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Malcolm, disagrees:  ”If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it’s that life will not be contained. Life breaks free. It expands to new territories, it crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is!….I’m simply saying that, uh, life finds a way.”

Any gardener knows that weeds are a season long battle.  Those of us that garden organically deal with weeds the old fashioned way – usually by pulling them out by hand and using earth-friendly mulches.  One of the major problems of industrial agriculture is the overuse of the herbicide glyphosate to kill weeds, more commonly known as Roundup, and the genetic modification of corn, cotton and soybeans that allow these crops to withstand the application of the herbicide.

Putting aside for the moment the potential implications of consuming genetically altered food, some agriculture experts have worried about the eventual resistance to glyphosate that would build up in the weed population. After all, it stands to follow that if we can alter the genetics of corn and soybeans artificially, natural selection would do the same for weeds.  The invention of glyphosate & companion genetically modified seeds by agribusiness giant Monsanto allowed industrial farmers to greatly increase crop yields, resulting in extremely low corn and soybean prices (which are propped up by the government, but that’s a whole different subject).  Fields with weeds run amok will reduce those yields, and could impact the prices of nearly every food item in your local grocery store.

Well, according to the NYT, apparently that time has come.  Roundup-resistant weeds are sprouting up in 22 states, and the problem is growing.  And the solutions proposed to fight resistant weeds are not good:  spraying more Roundup, mixed with other herbicides – some of them more dangerous than Roundup.  Add to that the possible need for increased tilling, which increases soil erosion and runoff of all those additional chemicals, and the picture is bleak.

Life finds a way to live, whether we want it to or not.

Of course, organic farming does not allow for the use of herbicides, or the use of genetically modified seeds.  Purchasing organic products lowers the demand for industrial farming.  Until the whole unsustainable system of industrial farming implodes – and at some point I believe it will – buying local and/or organic products are one small way we can buck against the world built by Monsanto.

- Melissa

Elgin’s Green Expo

May 3rd, 2010

UUCE is an official exhibitor at Elgin’s Green Expo on Saturday, May 8th.

This indoor/outdoor extravaganza is being held at The Centre of Elgin from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m..  There will be tons of exhibits, kids activities, a native plant sale, a farmers’ market and much more.  Hope to see you there!

Ethical Restaurant Discusion

May 1st, 2010

There is a good discussion taking place on our “Share Your Story” page.  Check it out – and please add any additional suggestions for restaurants in the area that focus on local and/or organic foods, or eco-friendly practices via the comments.  It’s nice to hear what other people have to say about their experiences at restaurants!

Cream of {insert vegetable} Soup

April 28th, 2010

I make a lot of soup.  Soup accomplishes a lot of things, all at once: it’s usually pretty quick and easy to prepare, it uses up a lot of those extras or straggler ingredients hanging about in the fridge, it lends itself to large batches, and it freezes well.  In short, it’s a pretty economical food.  I used to have a few standard soups that I would prepare; however, when I joined my first CSA back in 2007 I found that I regularly had an abundance of vegetables that needed to be processed into something, and soup became a weekly adventure.

Of course, that abundance in vegetables occurs mostly in the summer and fall.  During the winter I still make soup out of lingering winter squashes, but by spring, I’m no longer making soup regularly.  My stash of soups right now in the freezer is depressingly low after months of lunches and last-minute dinners.

Since one of my challenges is to make large batches of healthy, sustainable meals so that I can restock my freezer, it figures that I will be making a few batches of soup in the coming weeks.  I picked this challenge because, although I am in the habit of making and freezing food during the summer and fall, I usually don’t cook as economically in the spring.  At this time of year, my attention usually turns to gardening rather than cooking.  And it’s bad enough that I don’t have the convenience of reaching into the freezer for an easy meal, but it also means that I waste energy with more frequent trips to the store, and my freezer certainly isn’t working as economically being half empty.  I’m using this challenge to get me back on track.

And, just as luck would have it, the perfect vegetable has come along to rescue me from the navy bean/butternut squash soups of winter: asparagus!  Blending asparagus into a soup is one of the few ways I care to eat it long after the local season has passed.  I will be buying copious quantities for the next few weeks.

The following recipe is based on my general recipe for vegetable soups.  At different points in the year, I will switch out the asparagus for other seasonal produce.  Different vegetables get their own herb pairing: asparagus and broccoli with thyme, zucchini with rosemary, fresh peas with mint.  I always use homemade chicken stock as the base, but a good quality vegetable stock can be substituted to fit into a vegetarian diet.  And although I’ve never done so, silken tofu can be added in place of the cream for a vegan soup.  Also, for this soup, I add in a small additional quantity of chopped asparagus for a texture contrast.

Cream of Asparagus Soup

  • 2 pounds green asparagus, rough chop, plus 4 or 5 additional spears finely chopped
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 boiling potato, peeled and cubed
  • 5 to 6 cups chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • Salt & pepper to taste

Begin by sauteing the onion in a bit of olive oil in a 4 quart heavy pot over low heat until soft, stirring frequently.  Add garlic and saute for 1 minute.  Add the potato and asparagus and cook while stirring frequently for about 5 minutes.  Add the stock and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat until soup is at a simmer, cover, and cook for about 20 minutes, or until asparagus is very tender.

Puree the soup by blending in batches, or by using an immersion blender.  The soup should be smooth in consistency.  Return to pan if using a blender, add thyme and cream, and bring to a slow boil.  Add finely chopped asparagus pieces and simmer until the pieces are slightly tender.  Taste for salt and pepper and adjust accordingly.

- Melissa

My Story So Far: Breaking the Fast Food Habit

April 26th, 2010

I have never “blogged” before as people refer to it.  But I am eager and excited to share really goods news about one of the pledges I made which is no fast food.

For some this may be really easy but for me and maybe a few others this is actually really hard.  Before the 40/40/40 challenge came up I had already cut back considerably on my fast food intake this year.  What I consider fast food is anything with a drive through.  I am still torn as to what to classify Subway and Quiznos.

I added up receipts from last year in the fast food category and was very sickened as to how much money I was spending monthly, not to mention disgusted in how much bad calories I consumed.  You really do not realize it fully until you look back on it.  But $3, $8 and $5 increments add up really fast.

So in February I did not go through any drive through at all but in March I relapsed twice and in April by the 17th I relapsed twice again.  I then signed up on the 18th for the 40/40/40 pledge.  So I am grateful that this 40/40/40 thing came up to get me back on track.  It is way easier (at least for me) to be accountable to others than to be accountable to myself.

So that is the background and now here is the exciting news:

We just got back last night from a road trip to Tennessee visiting David’s family.  We ALWAYS go through a Hardees drive through at least once if not twice.  Once on the way down and maybe once on the way back or vise-versa.  There are none in our area but they are all over I57.  Anyways, I packed a big paper bag full of fruit, sandwiches, veggies and protein bars for the way down.  We didn’t go through a drive through at all on the way down.  On the way back David was craving Hardees and I told him about the pledge I took.  I said if you really want to I will be strong and not get anything.  He then decided not to do it either.  This is really huge for us because it is like breaking a tradition.  Yes it is nasty and tasty tradition all at the same time. So I figured I would share because, who knows, this may help someone else who made the same pledge.

When you go on a road trip across America fast food is SO easy to get.  You really have to plan and prepare if you choose not to go that route.  This is not an easy pledge for me because it has become an unconscious habit.  Two if not three times last week I had to consciously stop myself from going through a drive through.  When I have a day that keeps me out and about all day the drive through is so convenient and cheap.  But it does all add up in more ways then one!!!!

I hope others share their experiences because I like reading about them.  Good Luck everyone in your pledges!

- Debbie Caruso