An Ode to Recycling

Once upon a time, a long time ago, we recycled.  It started with soda cans, then cardboard, then glass, and then one day we were recycling all our trash.  That’s right, allour trash.  For months, our city-issued trash bin stood silent, waiting for someone to deposit waste.  Pretty cool, huh?

The key to successful recycling is having a place to sort and store items.  We had a closet in our kitchen where we sorted and stored trash.  The closet had several shelves that could hold large plastic bins.  Each bin was devoted to a type of recycled item.  That closet was my pride and joy.  I loved showing it off.  Friends and family appropriately ooed and ahhed over our efforts.

Another secret to our success was a local entrepreneur who collected items twice a month.  In the beginning, it seemed like he took everything.  I began purchasing only those items whose packaging or containers could be recycled.  The more he took, the more I recycled.  I envisioned his facility as a Utopia where my trash became recycled treasure, a place where our glass, aluminum, and plastic were destined to become bright and shiny new things.  In reality, he was probably tossing a lot of stuff that we “recycled.” But even if he only had to send 25% of our trash to the landfill, we were successful.

But then we moved.  And there wasn’t a closet devoted to my recycling bins.  Recycling was no longer fun.  It required effort.  And then one day, in frustration, I threw a soda can into the trash.  A few days later, I pitched an orange juice jug.  My family were silently shocked.  My friends were unsure of what to do as they had received merciless training in our recycling program.  Suddenly they began taking cautious steps towards our trash can and walking away with puzzled looks — that I ignored.  Every week, when trash day arrived, I promised myself, “We’ll start recycling again.”

He cooks and he builds!
My beloved has built a lovely new recycling center
that will be incorporated into our kitchen island.

That day has finally arrived!  My beloved has built a lovely recycling center that will eventually fit under our kitchen island.  He was inspired by plans found in The Family Handyman: Get Organized!  The magazine boasted 155 DIY Projects to cut the clutter.  I am convinced that it was published just for us.  The center holds four 13 gallon trash cans that we can slide out and take to the city collection area.  Frankly, I think it’s perfect.

To make sure we re-establish our successful recycling habits, we’re starting with four bins.  There will be one for each type of recyclable our fair city receives at its community collection site.  Will we achieve zero trash again?  My eco-friendly heart hopes so, but until then our new sorting center will help me sleep better at night.

For more information on recycling efforts by the City of Murray click this link.  Also, the next Make a Difference Day is March 17, 2012.

Nourishing the Soul

I love sunny January days.  The crisp air. The white light. Days like today can recharge my soul like nothing else.  Partnered with a walk along the beach, days like these make life worth living.  It is as important to nourish your mind and soul as it is to nourish your body.
I struggled with the concept of taking care of myself until one day I heard a story on NPR.  I was driving down the road, half listening to the radio, when a fascinating story drew me in.  I literally had one of those “driveway moments” that they discuss during fund drives; after I reached my destination, I continued to sit in the car until the program was over.  What was so intriguing? Stress and stem cells.
Simply put, we have billions of stem cells floating along in our bodies.  They are nature’s little handymen.  As we age, we lose the ability to heal because we have fewer stem cells.  However, through good things like meditation, relaxation, naps, and exercise, you can boost their numbers.  Even things like massage, mani/pedis, and listening to classical music can heal your body — naturally.  Healing naturally? I was hooked.
They also discussed how the affects of stress will age your stem cells.  The more stress you have, the faster your stem cells die, leaving you susceptible to illness and aging.  It’s at this point I would like to include that I started walking every day or doing yoga.  But I didn’t.  I did, however learn to manage some of the stress affecting my life. I learned the importance of perspective and acceptance.  I allowed myself to accept that I am a normal human being.
I realized that some things simply don’t matter.  And some things matter most of all — like taking the time on a beautiful January day to walk along the beach with my beloved and my precious niece.  Laundry can wait.  And so can everything else.  After all, how better to eliminate those little lines that have appeared on my face than sweet kisses from my husband?
To hear the story that inspired my driveway moment, click the link below.  (And remember to support your local NPR during its upcoming spring fund drive.)

Ugh! My parents have a blog…

Our teenage son doesn’t understand
his mother’s need to write a blog.

So mutters the precocious 16 year old.  Words cannot describe his disgust and accompanying headshake.  It is an award-winning performance, just for our benefit.  Do we care?  Nope, it spurs a post of its own.

The way we live and the way we eat has been inspired by the teenager who lives in our house. As I’ve mentioned before, complicated lives and a stretched budget led to a compromise on nutrition.  Convenience foods allowed me to simply put dinner on the table.  Full of salt and sugar, without taste, and laden with chemicals, convenience food is the most hideous nutritional offering available in the supermarket.

Most pre-packaged, convenience food includes gluten, which is a protein processed primarily from wheat. Gluten is the darling of the food industry. You’ll find it everything, not just grain products such as cereal, bread, crackers, potato chips, and noodles. Gluten is linked with autism and there’s a good reason for it. Many parents of autistic children will tell you that when their child has consumed gluten, a dramatic change occurs.

When our son was diagnosed, I frantically searched for information. How could I help him? How could I combat its effects? Less interested in why or how he became autistic, I turned to sources that could help me deal with the hand he’d been dealt. The internet was full of information and misinformation.  So, like social scientists, we watched his every move for signs of what would trigger a meltdown.

It didn’t take long before we determined that there was a high probability for a meltdown after meals.  Teachers agreed with our hypothesis, afternoons were more difficult for him than mornings.  He ate breakfast at home, which was protein-based.  We started packing his lunch with a protein-based meal rather than letting him eat a school lunch.  Things began to improved.  When we realized that meltdowns occured after eating specific foods, I threw open our cabinets and started pitching food.  Gluten was present in nearly all of them.

I began buying ‘gluten free’ products. Most tasted awful and were expensive. I poured money into health food stores and specialty food aisles.  Nothing really worked, then it dawned on me. As long as I bought processed food that still provided the convenience I thought was needed, I could never control the content of what my family was eating.  That is when we took control of what we consume.  It changed everything, not just what we eat, but the way we live.

Simply described, nearly all of our food is fresh.  We don’t buy food in a box or can.  If that isn’t possible, we only buy food that contains a few, pronounceable ingredients. The less processed, the better.  Do we still have processed food? Sure, but they are no longer the primary contents of our pantry.  We still buy frozen pizza, but its gluten free and does not have a single ingredient that I can’t pronouce.  They taste great and are worth the price. We still buy potato chips, but the bag list three ingredients: potatoes, salt, sunflower oil.  I can live with that.  Sadly, Little Debbie’s snack cakes will never be gluten free and have an ingredients list a mile long. But there will always be a small space in our pantry reserved just for them (for emergencies only!)

Regularly, we look at the remaining processed food we buy, in order to evaluate whether or not we should make it ourselves. Recently, we’ve started growing our own mushrooms.  We can dehydrate them and replace the canned mushrooms that we’ve always purchased.  It’s worth every effort we make when I see my son enjoying life, even when he’s making fun of us for writing a blog.

Seed Catalogs: Porn for Gardeners

Seed catalogs have become so glossy and well designed, I’ve heard them referred to as garden porn.  With their full-color, close-up photography providing lusty views of their latest offerings, it might be an appropriate description.  But they are great resources, especially you’re clueless on where to begin.

Some seed catalogs provide amazing information about how to plant and how to harvest. Others don’t provide anything, except their seed prices. At our house, those are the catalogs that get recycled first. However, there are a few that become dogearred, covered in highlighter, and dirt stained.

My favorite catalogs include a couple porn-esque editions: Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds and D. Landreth Seed Company are beautifully designed and offer incredibly helpful information.  When they arrive in my mailbox during the madness of the holidays, I longingly admire their slick covers.  But I won’t crack open their pages, choosing to save that joy for a snowy January afternoon.  With a simple pat, I place them on our buffet and wait for the appointed day.  New to our mailbox this year was John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, which I already love.  Its delicate drawings and product descriptions are packed with details.

Companies that promote genetically modified seeds (GMO) get recycled immediately.  We prefer organic or heirloom seeds that would have been available when our grandparents or great grandparents were around.  We could buy seeds at our local coop or box store, which we’ve been known to do.  But there’s something about receiving seeds in the mail.  Its like the packets were selected just for me, by the companies who sell them.

Every gardener starts planning next year’s plot, almost as soon as they get seeds into the ground.  Which is why I’ve drawn an our garden on the computer, so I can modify the plan continuously.  Once January arrives and I begin earnestly reading and comparing varieties.  Adjusting my computer layout to accommodate more varieties or potential crops. Finally, when the planting balance is found, the gardening plan is finished, and seed orders are placed, I can set my seed starting calendar.

We’ll start our seeds in about 4 weeks.  I am so excited to get started that its hard to resist the urge to jump start a few things.  What little experience I’ve gained has taught me to be patient.  Spring will be here soon enough and I can get my fingernails dirty again.  Until then, I’ll keep turning those pages of opportunities and dream.

An Undefeated Feast with Friends

Our Undefeated Feast in the Enoch’s kitchen.
(Which is one of my favorite all-time kitchens!)
Photo by Larry Enoch

In case you’ve been living under a rock that doesn’t care about college basketball, our hometown team, the Murray State University Racers, are undefeated.  Currently at 18-0, they are one of three teams that are undefeated this season.  Right now, they are the darlings of college basketball media.  But then, we’ve always loved them, so we’re pretty excited that they are getting such well-deserved attention.  Since the tickets were sold out for yesterday’s game, we joined our dear friends Larry and Teresa Enoch to watch the game on ESPNU.  For an evening filled with sports, we needed a undefeated feast worthy of the our Racers.

The Undefeated Pie
Toppings:
1 c Sausage (pure guess, we used breakfast leftovers found in the freezer)
1/2 small yellow onion
1/2 c Green Peppers
1 can pieces and stems mushrooms
1/2 c tomato sauce (Roasted Tomato & Garlic Soup)
2 c mozzarella cheese

Roast Tomato & Garlic Soup by Mrs. Wheelbarrow
Mrs. Wheelbarrow is one of my favorite food/canning bloggers.  I’ve been a faithful follower since hearing her story on NPR’s Morning Edition.  This recipe is the amazing, called ‘soup’, its perfect for any tomato sauce/soup based recipe.  Each summer I can several dozen pints, which for us is just right amount.

Homemade Pizza Dough
Vince made homemade pizza dough using the Kitchenaid Recipe guide (under “Care and Support”).

Ingredients:
1 c warm water
2-1/4 tsp active dry yeast
1/2 tsp sea salt
2 tsp olive oil
2-1/2 to 3-1/2 c organic unbleached all-purpose flour
cornmeal

Warm mixing bowl with hot water, then dissolve yeast in warm water in bowl.  Add salt, olive oil, and 2-1/2 c flour.  Mix on low speed for about a minute.  Add flour in 1-tbsp doses until dough forms clinging to hook and cleaning sides of bowl.  Turn into a buttered bowl, rolling to coat all sides of dough ball.  Cover and let rise in a warm place (slightly warmed oven) until doubled in size, around an hour.

Meanwhile, coat a pizza pan, pizza stone, or other oven pan with olive oil.  Sprinkle with enough cornmeal to cover the bottom of the pizza (cornmeal gives the crust a nice texture).  When the dough has risen, punch it down and turn onto your cooking surface.  Spread by pressing out from the center to a 15-inch diameter.  Roll up the edges to hold your toppings.

Preheat oven to 450°.  Top pizza crust with a thin coat of olive oil.  Spread tomato sauce over entire pie.  Add toppings and finish with cheese.  Cook for about 15 minutes or until cheese is melted and browned to your preference.  Remove from oven, cool, cut, and enjoy!

We’re Crazy About Meatballs

We love meatballs. They are little treasures that can be popped into your mouth as a snack or deliciously smothered in pesto.  There’s simply no way to screw up dinner when meatballs are the star of the show.  There are thousands of recipes out there, so I won’t embarrass myself by sharing my “secret recipe.”  For one thing, there would need to be a secret recipe, which there’s not.  Because most of the time, I don’t measure anything.  Nor do I use the same ingredients twice.  It drives my beloved crazy.  But for me, the adventure of cooking begins by opening the pantry or freezer, then imagining the possibilities.

A few things to consider the next time you make meatballs.

1)  Walk on the Wild Side.  Don’t simply use ground beef for your meatballs.  My world changed when I added sausage to the mix, in order to make a batch   s  t  r  e  t  c  h.  Using a 1:1 measure for beef to sausage, it adds a spicy kick that we love.  But you could use any meat: chicken, turkey, or game. Get curious and try something new.

2)  Mix it up.  I used to mixed up the ingredients for meatballs by hand.  Now our Kitchenaid mixer does the work.  I’ll never freeze my hands off again.  The Kitchenaid is strong enough to handle whatever I pitch in the bowl.

3)  Fill the freezer.  When I make meatballs, I like to make big batches, so that I can fill the freezer.  This afternoon, I made just over 100 meatballs in a couple of hours.  Freeze them on trays for a couple hours, then bag them up.  Now anytime we need a quick solution for dinner, we can grab a bag of balls, make fresh pasta, and choose the sauce.  Some nights its tomato sauce, other nights it’s pesto.  Either way, it’s quick and easy.

Putting Bread on the Table

When we were dating, I was continually amazed at Mary Anne’s ability to throw a dinner party with a pack of pasta, a pound of ground beef, and whatever was in the fridge.  Her refrigerator, by the way, was much better stocked than mine.  I had typical guy stuff: milk, coffee, butter, bologna, and pimento cheese.  I may have kept an egg carton for appearances.  I don’t remember it always having eggs in it.

My darling’s dinner parties were Events.  They were the candlelit highlight of the week.  She’s the only person I’ve ever met who can throw together a tuna casserole, a salad, a cheese plate, and a pan of brownies all while chatting with guests and keeping their wineglasses filled.  I may be a competent cook, but I have a one-track mind.  She’s a wonderful, creative hostess who always had our friends lined up outside her door wanting to know what was for dinner.  Sometimes it was something I’d never heard of.  Sometimes I think it was something she’d never heard of.  But it was always delicious, and no one else had linen napkins.  We had an absolute blast entertaining.

After we got married, I got a dinner party every day (when I wasn’t underfoot in the kitchen, at any rate — I have an unnatural talent for getting in the way).  Finally, I think in desperation, she told me to go make rolls.  Now, I should have been able to make rolls.  My mom could make rolls.  She made some of the best rolls I had ever eaten.  Sadly, when I asked Mom how to make them, I got her recipe: a dollop of butter, some milk, “enough” flour, and yeast.  Oh yeah, and “enough” warm water to make the dough rise.  (“Enough” again!  How the heck much was “enough?”)  My mom was a wonderful cook who taught me all about seasoning with bacon drippings, but I could never follow her directions.  My first attempt at rolls produced objects that I think the Nashville Predators could use in practice sessions.  Certainly no one could actually eat them.

So, since I couldn’t make rolls, maybe I could make loaf bread.  When I was a kid, I had helped Mom and Dad make bread, and I knew that there is simply nothing quite so satisfying as good, warm bread fresh from the oven.  I made bread a few times after the rolls, but unfortunately it was messy and took forever.  Usually, I destroyed the kitchen in the process.  Since I didn’t really have three hours to spend whenever we wanted a loaf, homemade bread went by the wayside.  I did, however, keep an eye out for a quicker method and eventually came across a recipe designed for elementary school kids.  Best of all, the sloppy bit was done in a zipped plastic bag, which cut down considerably on my mess-making potential.  It wasn’t an unmitigated disaster, but it wasn’t the best thing ever made, either.  The search for a better bread recipe continued.

Fast forward twenty years.  We gave each other a new Kitchenaid mixer for Christmas to celebrate our new kitchen.  There were several bread recipes in the instruction book that looked good, but it felt a little strange.  I mean, it essentially said “Attach the gizmo using the bolts provided.  And now you’ve done that, here’s some nice food to make.”  On the other hand, I’m a guy.  What could really be wrong with cooking from an equipment manual?  (When I mentioned this, Mary Anne pointed out that Kitchenaid has a whole staff of chefs whose job is to create recipes that make their equipment look good.  It was probably foolproof.  She was right.)

So I’ve started making bread again.  It’s still time-consuming, but it’s also very relaxing and loads of fun.  We use unbleached organic flour, real butter, organic milk, organic sugar, and sea salt.  It’s as healthy as we know how to make it — and we can pronounce all the ingredients.

Homemade bread fresh from the oven.
Homemade Bread
(adapted from Instructions and Recipes for Your KitchenAid Stand Mixer, 2009)
1/2 cup whole organic milk
3 tbsp organic sugar
2 tsp sea salt
3 tbsp butter
4-1/2 tsp active dry yeast
     (2 packets)
1-1/2 c warm (about 110°F) water
5 or 6 cups unbleached organic all-purpose flour
Melt butter, sugar, and salt in milk over low heat.  Stir until butter melts and sugar dissolves.  Set aside to cool to lukewarm.
Meanwhile, warm your mixing bowl with hot water.  Dissolve yeast in the bowl in 1-1/2 cup warm water, then add the milk mixture and 4-1/2 cups flour.  Mix on low speed for about a minute, then add flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough forms (it will cling to your dough hook and clean the sides of the mixing bowl).  It may take a couple of minutes to reach this stage.  Note that you may not need all 6 cups of flour.
After dough forms, let the mixer run for another couple of minutes on low speed.  You want the dough to be smooth and elastic.  While the dough is kneading, butter a clean bowl.  Turn your dough into the bowl, rolling it to coat all sides.  Cover with a clean cloth and set in a warm (around 85°), draft-free place to rise until it doubles in size (about an hour).  A very slightly warmed oven works well for this.

While dough is rising, butter your loaf pans; mine are 9×5.  When the dough is ready, punch it down and cut into two pieces.  Shape each half into a loaf and place in a loaf pan, turning to coat the entire surface.  Cover and let rise until doubled in size again (about another hour).  Then bake at 400° for about a half hour or until golden brown.  Cool in wire racks.  Or, better yet, grab some butter and cut a slice to enjoy while it’s warm.