Thursday, December 4, 2014

Travel Mug

Where I talk about coffee to go and the alternatives to plastic travel mugs.

As I read about Plastic, the dangers and how to avoid it in one's life, I see people writing about the alternatives: Stainless steel and glass.

To me stainless steel, though wonderful for cooking, is not the most ecologically friendly alternative.  It lasts a good long time, hard to break, makes excellent cooking pots... however, it has it's draw backs.  Food tastes weird when stored in it, it takes a lot of energy to produce/recycle, and it originally draws from an nonrenewable resources.  Even if we recycle every last scrap of stainless steal, from thumbtack to tractor, there are still is a limited amount of it on the planet, and each time we recycle a pot or a pin, a little bit of the metal would have been lost in the wear and tear.  On top of that, if you use a metal implement in a stainless steal cooking pot, it scratches the surface and removes the virtually non-stick quality a new stainless steel pot has.

More importantly, stainless steel is aesthetically non-pleasing.  Sure, a stainless steel bowl will bounce not break when tossed aside by an angry child, but it is missing that certain something that encourages an arthritic hand to carefully comfort a mug of hot broth to both warm the hands, and sooth the soul.

I have a few stainless steel travel mugs that have been given to me over the years.  Plastic top, but otherwise lovely.  They keep the coffee molten hot for literally hours.  The vacuum insulation makes it so that I can put my piping hot cuppa in the mug in the morning, and it will be almost cool enough to drink that evening.  None of that pesky heat transfer to warm my frozen digits, or that earthy texture that I associate with coffee.

Stainless steel has it's uses, 'though I adore it most for cooking pots and tiffins, not travel mugs.

Glass is the other material the plastic-free communities crow about with great gusto.  They call it less energy intensive alternative to stainless steel.  Which it may be.  Glass has been around for a few thousand years or so, and can be stunning when made by artizan hands.  That's seldom done anymore, but when it is - amazing.

The biggest disadvantage with glass is it breaks.  More than that it shatters into dangerous splinters, or it can unless special (do I hear energy intensive) processes are applied to the manufacturing process.  This takes the art of making glass and transforms it into an industrial science.  But don't get me wrong, I wouldn't be without it!

I adore glass, be it mason jars or milk jugs.  Glass makes the best storage sense and (except for special no-break glass that my local recycling centre won't touch) can be infinitely recycled.

But for a travel mug?  There's the breakable issue, which is fine.  Everything breaks eventually.  Glass travel mugs last a darn sight longer than plastic ones.  Besides, beautiful glass cozies made of cork or knitting gladden the eyes.

The biggest problem with glass is that it transfers the heat too quickly.  Pour the coffee into the glass cup, put my coat on, the travel cup is already too hot to hold comfortably.  By the time I can hold it again, the contents are cold!  There is no inbetween period where I can nurse my brew, cradle it in my hands....

Thankfully there is another plastic free alternative.  One that...

a) is from natural materials
b)  is from local materials (just about anywhere in the world)
c) is traditional
d) is renewable (and to a small degree recyclable)
e) is at it's best when created by artisans!

This plastic free material is called clay!  I'm talking pottery.

Right now I am in love with pottery beyond all shadow of a doubt.  If pottery was a bloke, and had enough money to scrounge together a small gold ring and some land, I would jump the broom with it (that's old fashioned talk for marry it).  As it is, a lifelong common law partnership with pottery is not unlikely.

Pottery, ceramics, clay, earthenware, what have you.  It's all just heated mud and mud can be found almost anywhere.  Pottery has this extreme comforting quality that glass and metal can't imagine.  And that's what I love most about it.

A potter chooses which mud to use, shapes it to their will or whim, drys it, bakes it, lavishes lovely colours upon it, bakes it again... amazing!

Sure, pottery also has the potential to break when wielded by angry children, but it doesn't shatter into dangerous shards like glass can.  When the pottery finally looses it's battle with gravity, it has nearly a hundred uses on the farm for growing food.  It can sometimes be recycled into some other kinds of future clay.  It's amazing.

Like glass and metal, cooking with pottery is easy when you know how.  It's actually quite nurturing and is my go to pot for comfort food.

When it comes to travel mugs, I think this it makes the most beautiful alternative.

This mug is created by Ann Coleman at Yunomi Studio, an artizan with great skill and infinite patients for the clay curious individuals who flock to her studio (aka, she doesn't get annoyed when I constantly pester her with questions).

The coffee is poured into the centre hole which is then plugged with a plastic-free stopper (a cork).  You then drink the coffee through the vampire-bite holes on either side.  It comes out just the right speed, thanks to the holes on the opposite side stops a vacuum from forming inside the mug which prevents the coffee from coming out at a consistent rate (like my stainless steel mugs).  Cleaning is a bit tricky, but a quick rinse after each use keeps it happy.  A bottle brush can be employed for more stubborn mess.

I tried to get Ann to write a few words about what inspired her to create such gorgeous functionality, but all she said was "I don't like drinking from plastic".

The beauty of this mug goes far beyond it's function and elegant appearance.  It's in the texture, the balance and heft of it when filled with liquid, What's more, it keeps the coffee warm for just the right amount of  time, the heat slowly oozing out into the clay and to the hands that embrace it.

Clay makes the perfect Transition material because it is everywhere.  In an over simplified point of view, all you need is mud, fire and the will to transform the world.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Fermented Holiday Season starts now

It's that time of year again, time to start thinking about Holiday presents.  This year I've decided that all the adults are getting homemade gifts, mostly food.

It all started with the most recent batch of chickpea miso - best batch so far! - and I thought, this is the type of miso I would be proud to serve my friends (as opposed to my learning batches of miso which were a little taste like practice).  If the miso tastes this good, I wonder what other yummy treats I can make.

So here's a list (because these particular friends don't read this blog) of some of the delicious fermented foods I hope to have ready in time for Christmas.

Sweet Miso takes about one month to ferment, but it can be as fast as 3 weeks if I increase the ratio of koji rice to other ingredients.  I have one batch of Chunky Chickpea Miso ready, and plan to put up a batch of Black Turtle and Adzuke Bean with Barley Miso later today.

Kimchi!  Kimchi is awesome in so many ways.  For starters, it is by far the best way to clean out the crisper drawer in the fridge.  You can put (almost) anything in kimchi.  In this case, I used half a daikon, two su choi cabbages, chilis, excessive amounts of ginger sliced thin, Cauliflower, carrots, and anything else vegi related that needed eating up.  Kimchi takes about one week to ferment.

Cultured Butter is easy to make in advance and keeps for ages.  I'll probably start making this a week or two before the Holiday dinner.  Takes one day to culture the cream and the next day to churn it = two days.

With the leftover buttermilk from churning butter, I will bake some bread.  Sourdough Bread loves buttermilk.  With the added dairy sugars the bread will often rise to be lofty and soft, as opposed to the more dense country loaf I make for every-day purposes.  Takes two days to make a great loaf of sourdough, but can be done in one.

Speaking about dairy. my dream is to eventually make my own hard cheese.  Wouldn't it be lovely to give the gift of Cheese?  Even a soft farmhouse style cheese mixed with dry herbs dressed in a beautiful jar or clay pot would be a good addition to a gift basket.  Soft cheese takes a couple of hours, a hard cheese on the other hand can take years.

Of course, you could always spice up your relationship with some hot sauce.  Fermented hot sauce takes about one week, or this one which is ready in two days.

Last but not least, my personal all time holiday favourite:

Cranberry Mead!

The biggest advantages of fermented vs the baked gift, are that fermented gifts last longer, are generally more affordable to make and are a refreshing change from over-indulgence.  They are also an excellent way to use up the last of the harvest.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Going plastic free - or very nearly. A beginning

The goal: to reduce my use of plastic in my life, with a focus on the kitchen and food related plastic.

Why?  I've had a lot of failed attempts at writing why; it all tumbles into long rants about the world going to shit and how we each need to do our part.  My part begins here.

Inspiration:  Began with a book I accidently borrowed from the library called Plastic Free by Beth Terry (a book that the library had kindly coated in plastic to preserve it from the excessive use they anticipated it would get - libraries are funny like that, and apparently not the only ones to plasticize the plastic free book).

Generally, I'm interested in reducing any negative environmental impact I create and moving towards plastic free would be a huge step in this direction.

Another source of inspiration came from digging in the garden last spring.  I noticed when digging that there were hundreds of plastic fruit stickers in my soil.  These are the stickers that grocery stores put on their fruit to make life easier for the till workers.  Always before, these stickers use to disappear into the soil after a few months, but here I was digging in a section of the garden where no new compost had been added for at least 4 years, and there they were, an excess of plastic.  It was such a little, everyday thing this digging in the garden, but it struck home the realization that plastic is forever.

So what am I going to do about it?  

I am starting with simple observation.  I want to know just how much plastic is in my life right now; more specifically, how much plastic do I waste?  I am taking The Plastic Challenge.  For a week I am collecting up all the plastic that I would otherwise toss in the trash or recycling, taking a photo of it, and documenting how much plastic do I waste in a week?

The goal of this week is to develop a baseline for my personal plastic use.  I'm not trying to change anything at this stage, in fact, it may be an overrepresentation of my plastic use as we are going through a major cleaning phase in our life right now.

Here it is, one week worth of plastic:

Week 1 plastic pile
 My theory was correct, almost everything here is food related (or related to raising food), except for the shampoo and mail.  All in all, it weighs in at 3/4 pound.  According to the book Plastic Free by Terry, the average American uses 4 pounds of plastic a week.  

I sorted it into two piles:  Unavoidable and Might Be Able to Do Better.

Things like the envelope with the plastic window in it is necessary.  For starters, I am not convinced that e-communication actually is less eco-damaging than paper letters, but even if it is, I still prefer the paper trail when dealing with official documents.  Apparently this makes me evil - so be it.

This blue string, it's called binder twine.  It is used to bind the bales of hay together so that they are easy to use and transport.  We feed the hay to the animals, so it is a necessity in life.  Unfortunately it's made of a nasty-give-me-blisters plastic (a bit like coarse fentex).  Until relatively recently, binder twine was made of jute or sisal (plant based fibres) which are strong, biodegradable over time, and what's more, supported many third world economies.  Now, short of moving to a tropical climate and growing the jute myself, I don't know where to get natural binder twine.  That's a shame, because each day we cut at least 12 feet of plastic twine off the hay.  The twine goes into a bag where it sits until we can use it for things like tying together hurdles (temporary sheep fencing), which is what this pile of twine was reused as before meeting it's end.  Even though we re-use the twine before sending it to the landfill, we don't use it as fast as it comes in (anyone want an armful of bright blue plastic twine?).

So those are the kinds of plastic waste in my life that are currently unavoidable.  However, there are a few items here that I might be able to do better on.

For example, this tea bag wrapper.  The company brags that the teabag is compostable (which it is, I tried it) and the box is recyclable as well as made from recycled materials.  However, this individual sachet has a plasticized coating on the inside, which I assume is to help keep the tea fresh.  It might not even be a plastic, who knows?  But it feels like plastic and has yet to compost in my worm bin, so it goes in my plastic pile.  The solution, buy another brand of tea, or better still, drink more loose leaf tea.

Plastic bread bags also fall under the 'might do better' title; although, I'm currently stumped as to how.  I'm quite proud of my bread baking abilities, especially the ability to bake a loaf that will last at room temperature for two weeks (or more) before going moldy - using only flour, water, and salt!  One of the elements to this long lasting bread is the bag it's stored in.  Wrap it in a towel and it either goes hard or soggy, but either way only lasts a couple of days before we toss it to the chickens.

I wonder, how can I store bread without plastic bags?  Another question that taunts me is how to freeze bread without plastic?

Re-using plastic bags, even washed ones poses problems.  There are fancy things about chemicals leaching into the food, but more important to me is that the cleanliness of the bag is one of the factors that helps preserve the bread.  It's impossible to get a bag completely clean with home-washing.  Besides, the goal is to keep my bread fresh without plastic, not to re-use plastic.

One of my biggest sources of inspiration for finding solutions to this and similar problems, is to look at history.  What did they use to do before plastic was ubiquitous?  Could I use a bread box or wrap my bread in paper for example?  These are things I'm just going to have to try and discover for myself.  I'm looking forward to the experiment.

For more information on going plastic free, have a look at this blog: My Plastic Free Life, written by the same author that wrote the book I mentioned at the beginning.  I'll also be joining the discussion (I hope) at the Plastic Trash Challenge.

I've also discovered this very interesting Canadian based online store called Life Without Plastic which, as you guessed it, focuses on plastic-free alternatives for everyday items.  I have had a great deal of fun bumming around their site and feel very hopeful that there are possibilities available, if a bit beyond my price range.

  A final thought, this is a great challenge for Transitional groups like Transition Victoria, who dedicate themselves to gathering skills for living in a post-petroleum age.

Recyclable on the left, destined for the landfill on the right :(

The goal of going plastic free brings up a lot of questions, especially regarding food storage, preservation, buying, &c.  I feel that in most areas of my life, I use a darn sight less plastic than my peers, but I really want to cut down my kitchen waste.  That's why I'm writing about this on my food blog and not my (currently sleeping) yarn/life blog.  Let me know if you find this interesting or better yet, inspirational.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review: Feeding Change Chickpea Miso

I was delighted the other day when I found another company making soy-free miso paste.  Feeding Change makes a Chickpea Miso paste that is "soy-free", "gluten-free" and (most importantly) "GMO-free".   It also claims to be 100% certified organic (awesome!).

Feeding Change's Chickpea Miso paste is smooth, sweet and salty tasting, and very delicious in cup of soup.  It's a sweet miso, meaning that it has a short (less than a year) fermentation period.  The website says it's a 60 day process, which is more than double most sweet miso ferments.  It's packaged in glass, with a plastic label and plastic lined metal lid. (Why the sudden interest in plastic in packaging? More on that later this week).

This miso paste is also Unpasteurized, which has it's advantages, and disadvantage (I'll get to that).  It is also Vegan Friendly.

After trying this paste in a few things, including my favourite breakfast cuppa-miso (I put some miso paste in a cup and pour hot water on it), I've come to the conclusion that there are definitely some aspects of this miso paste that I adore, and some serious room for improvement.

The thing I like best about Feeding Change Miso is the taste.  It's sweet and salty, has a smooth miso flavour, but not overpowering; has a smooth chickpea flavour, but again, not overpowering.  How to describe it?  The flavour is suitably strong, but not so aggressive that it can't be drunk on an empty stomach.

"Miso Happy There's No Soy", a slogan from Feeding Change's website.  With my sensitivity to soy and growing concerns about the sustainability of agriculture, having gmo-free, soy-free alternatives like this make my day.

Their website also claims that this chickpea miso paste is made (or at least hand stirred) in wooden vats - way to go for using traditional and renewable materials in production.  What they mean by double fermented, however, I don't know.  Unless they are referring to the koji growing part of production as a fermentation.  The word fermentation has so many uses these days, it's becoming quite the catch all.  But koji is a vital part of making real miso, so I'm glad they are including it.

Feeding Change Chickpea Miso is also a few dollars less than other chick pea miso(s) on the market right now. Every penny counts these days, and the only way I know to get a more affordable soy-free miso is to make it yourself.

And now for the needs improvement part of the blog post.  As much as I am enjoying this product, there are some areas the company can improve on.

First, the packaging.  Kudos to Feeding Change for using glass jar.  Not only is plastic touching food an increasing health concern, plastic waste (as I'm learning) is a major environmental issue and could doom us all if not dealt with soon.  However, plastic label on the jar indicates to me that they didn't think the plastic-free packaging all the way through.  The plastic on the inside of the lid is (more or less) unavoidable, and it's better than having the metal corrode into the food.

Next, I noticed that when I got the jar home and went to open it, there was an immense amount of internal pressure in the jar.  The lid shot off the top and landed on the far side of the room.  As startling as this is, it's not a health concern (like it would be in pasteurized food), it simply means that the miso paste has continued to ferment in the jar.  Being unpasteurized has major health advantages, however, it also means that the ferment will continue to 'breath' and gas build up is not uncommon.  I'm grateful that the jar was strong enough to contain the pressure, but I wonder how much longer it would have lasted before exploding.  Perhaps the miso paste was subjected to a prolonged period of un-refrigeration (or whatever the proper word is to describe being room temperature) during shipping or storage?  It certainly wasn't out of the fridge long enough on the journey home from the store to explain it.

As it was when first opened fresh from the store.
Not the tidiest presentation.

Another aspect of the packaging they need to improve is the size of the jar.  The jar is far too large for the product size which can lead the customer to feel short changed.  Though, I did check, that the weight of the chickpea miso paste (without jar) is as it states on the label (it is).  Still, having all that open space inside the brand new jar of miso has that negative psychological impact.

Again, as it was when first opened.
Notice the gap in the top and the large air bubble in the bottom right.

But that's not the biggest problem with the packaging.  Like the now defunct Organic Lives Chickpea Miso, another company with good ideas and lots of potential out of Vancouver,  There are a lot of air pockets in the miso.  When miso is packed with air pockets, it leaves it open for the possibility of mold growth.  Considering that koji (an essential ingredient in miso) is mold, the problem isn't one of safety.  The potential problem is two fold.  first, the  perception (so much of selling something relies on perception) that all mold is bad for us - not true - but still a prevailing meme in our society.  The other problem with mold growing in pockets of air is that it causes the miso around that pocket to develop a musty, unpleasant flavour.

These problems in packaging are very amateur and the company should have figured this out with the minimal research.  The Book of Miso talks a lot about this, and that's pretty much the go to English language book for learning how to produce miso both at home and commercially.

I'm confident as the company grows, they will find ways to improve their packaging.

One final thing, and please forgive me, I'm just being nitpicky here, however, the website brags that the Chickpea Miso paste is grain free - yet, the last time I checked (and every time before that), rice, a main ingredient in miso, is a grain.

Am I going to buy this again?  Yes, I think I will, especially if they fix how it is packaged in the jar.  Feeding Change is off to a good start with this product, and I can't wait to see how they evolve.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Talking about Craftsy Class, Favorite Asian Dumplings from Scratch with Andrea Nguyen

Today is the day we gave up Television in our house.  With The Ancient (a great fan of Jeopardy) in long term care at hospital, and not likely to return home soon, it didn't make sense to keep the idiot box hooked up.  So we took our cable gadgets down to the company and said - thank you, no thanks.

Aside from my daily dose of Columbo, I don't think I'll miss it.  There are so many other exciting things to do, like cleaning the house (okay, that one's not exciting), trying new recipes, sewing bags, playing with yarn, reading books... and so on.  How do people get bored?

And when it happens that I do miss TV, I can always borrow a film from my local library or better still, watch videos online of people telling us how to cook stuff (which doesn't happen on TV much these days anyway - reality cooking competitions are repetitive).

Not long ago, I signed up for one of Craftsy's promotional deals and decided to take a couple of their classes.  I started with knife skills, and it made a huge difference to my confidence in the kitchen.

The Craftsy classes include in depth videos, usually some sort of instructional document, and a question and answer section where you can discuss what you watch with the instructor and other students.  It's quite clever really, and long over due.  Finally, a place that gathers together some useful expertise and makes it available (for a price) to an Average Jane like me.

They are suppose to look like a nurse's cap

The Favorite Asian Dumpling class by Andrea Nguyen has inspired me greatly.  For some reason, I didn't even imagine that people could make dumplings in their own home.  Why this never occurred to me, I don't know, it's just one of those blind spots I guess.

This class has been so inspiring.  Nguyen has great enthusiasm for her cooking, and lots of little tips to share about how to improve your technique.  What I like best is how easy she makes it look, but what amazing results she creates.

What's even more amazing is that it really is that simple.

This is the shrimp wonton soup.  It took me about an hour the first time I made it, but most of that was getting over my trepidation at trying new techniques.  Second try was considerably faster.

To be honest, I found shrimp dumplings a bit bland on their own, so I decided to add some finely diced pickled ginger to the second batch - much better.

And look, I got a new steamer!  I have a big project coming up where I need to steam a few pounds of barley, so I took a trip to China town and brought home big and little steamer sets.  The little steamer is for practice, and the big one for ... well, big steaming.

Apparently dumplings overcook really quickly in a steamer and get chewy.  Now I know something new.

Is it affordable to make dumplings?  I think it depends on the filling.  4 servings of dumplings took 200g of prawns, which comes to about $10 here.  Plus another $1 for the rest of the ingredients (plus $5 for the soup).  But a different filling (like pork or kimchi - recipes and videos also included in the class) would be a lot more affordable.

On the whole I'm thrilled and am eager to try some of the other recipes included in the class.