Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding Hope: Key to the Mind of the Resilient

Flowers on my “false” shamrock plant, a great reminder for me that Spring weather is coming soon, even when there is snow and wintry weather all around me.  

This week, I wanted to focus on finding hope during challenging times.  Like many of you may experience, the media and many other voices out there are screaming at us.  For the most part, the messages they are screaming are not positive, nor happy.  The focus, more often than not, is negativity, fear, corruption, anger, mistrust, and destruction.  For those of us with sensitive souls, these constant negative messages can be overwhelming and make us angry.  In order to keep ourselves from being completely depressed, we often just try to tune it all out.  We are always trying to “fight” some evil forces out there that are aimed at destruction, and this can wear us out on an emotional and spiritual level if we let it.  There is only so much negativity that the human soul can take, really.   

While there are plenty of terrible things going on in the world (and some of them certainly do need to be addressed, such as issues of social injustice, poverty, and environmental degradation), I believe that there are better ways to approach these issues, and still maintain your sanity and balance.  This is a journey that I am on myself, and I believe that you can be on the same journey as well. 

First of all, we must recognize that with every situation that we face, we can make a choice with how we are going to react and what we will focus on.  More often than not, many of us are on emotional autopilot, and our negative emotions far too often control us.  The key here is to become self-aware as to how we are reacting to a given situation, and to decide whether or not this negative reaction is worth our energy and our time.  Is it really as big a deal as it seems?  Are we just running on an emotional program that we are used to?  Is there another way to look at this?

Secondly, know that you can choose your media input.  For sometime now, I have decided to avoid watching the news (although admittedly, I still probably get way too much negative news from social media sources), since most of it is very negative, and very biased to the agendas that the networks want you to know about and think about (not to mention, spend on, with all of those commercials they broadcast).  And, at least for those of us in the United States, this news rarely focuses on much of anything going on outside of our own country. 

Thanks to social media and the internet, we now live in a world where we can have a lot more access to what’s going on just about anywhere in the world, so that we can be more informed citizens of Earth, and learn about things that are making a positive impact.  I want to encourage you to explore other avenues to get your news outside of all of the typical networks, and to focus on the wonderful, empowering, and positive things that are going on out there. 

I do believe that it is still important to be informed about what is going on in your community, but perhaps there are other ways to get that same information with a far less biased agenda.  Of course, every news source probably has some sort of agenda, but at least you can get a more balanced point of view if you are aren’t reliant upon one single news source telling you what you should think. 

Third, yes, there are many bad things going on in the world, but there are also plenty of good things going on too.  Abundant things…  Resilient things...  It’s all about what you choose to focus on.  What if the nightly news reported many more good things going on in our communities than bad things?  What if they told you more stories about people starting community gardens, helping the homeless, developing resilient local economies, and alternative green forms of energy, instead of all of the horrible things that happened that day?  It might inspire us to be more positive, loving, and trusting toward our fellow human beings, and know that we personally can make an impact. 

Fourth, all one needs to do is to look at nature to know that life is resilient.  There is hope.  For a brief moment, think about all of the environmental disturbance and human construction that we’ve built up during our recent human history.  Although there is still a lot of destruction that does exist, nature is always looking to find some way to help heal the land with whatever resources that are at hand.  This can even come in the form of weeds that are taking advantage of the new environment that is now open for them to grow in.  Many of these “weeds” are helping to hold the soil in place and prevent erosion, bring up nutrients and restore the soil, and in many cases are thriving where the native/non-invasive plant species aren’t doing so well anymore.      

I have always been amazed at the power of life that is contained within a single seed.  I have been reminded of that idea this week, as I have started my first batch of seeds for the upcoming garden season.  From one tiny seed, a huge plant can grow, and that one plant will produce many more of its own seeds.  This is a great metaphor for the power that we have as individuals to make a difference in the world.  Every positive action that we take can have a ripple effect, and it can have a positive impact on many other people.  How we choose to spend our money or not to spend our money, the food that we choose to eat, if we choose to garden and our gardening methods, the values that we pass on to our children, the words that we say, the prayers we pray, and so much more, can have positive impacts on the world, even on future generations.  The skills that you learn and when you start making things yourself can also empower you in your own life, and you can then help to empower others as you learn more and can teach them those skills.  This is powerful, and this is very hopeful. 

To become resilient in the face of changes, we need to focus on what we can do as individuals and to become personally empowered.  Know that your actions and the choices that you make really do make a difference, whether or not you see the immediate impacts.  There is hope my friends.  Will you choose to embrace it and make it yours? 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Celebrating St. Patrick, All Things Irish and Cultural Food Traditions

Our "Iron Cross" Oxalis plant, botanically classified as a "false shamrock."  Still looks super cool though, don't you think?

Ah, St. Patrick’s Day!  The day when all of us, whether we are Irish or not, can celebrate Irish heritage and “be Irish for a day.”  Irish heritage is something that we have celebrated in our house ever since I first got married, as my husband has a primarily Irish ancestry.  He loves to claim that I am “Irish by marriage,” despite the fact that I am mostly of Dutch ancestry.  However, I recently learned to my surprise that I, myself, may even have a little bit of Irish ancestry, or at least possibly Celtic.  So this St. Patrick’s Day, I have a new ancestral perspective to celebrate.

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I made an “Irish feast” yesterday, and we’re going to enjoy more of its abundance tonight for dinner.  This tasty Irish meal included gluten-free soda bread, a fresh herb salad with parsley, an Irish stew made with locally-sourced pasture-raised lamb, and a gluten-free chocolate cake with homemade green mint frosting (the only time that I use food coloring in my cooking).  To wash it all down, we enjoyed more of our homemade ginger beer that we refrigerated a couple of weeks ago.  It was all extremely delicious!!! **

I wanted to share this with you, not only to show you another example of how you can enjoy any holiday even if you are gluten-free or have other food allergies, but also to encourage you to explore many of those tasty ethnic food traditions from our ancestors.  This processes helps to connect us with another culture, and it connects us with traditions and the people that those traditions come from.  It also helps to remind us that we are all one human family. 

These cooking traditions are even better (and I think taste even better, as well as being more nutritious) if you cook them using more traditional cooking methods.  Give them a try, even if it’s just for special occasions like St. Patrick’s Day, which will make those celebrations even more enjoyable and memorable. 

I baked my gluten-free soda bread in the oven using a cast iron skillet.  Despite using my cast iron skillet on my stove top many times before, I had never used it to bake anything in the oven.  Man, did the bread ever turn out awesome!  I also used my Dutch oven to slow cook the Irish Stew for about two hours, and it was the best!  Buying this type of equipment is well worth the investment, and they should last you for the rest of your life and can be passed down to your children and grandchildren, if they are well cared for.  

After cooking this Irish feast, I have been inspired to create even more tasty meals using these two pieces of traditional cooking equipment.  As I’m sure many chefs will tell you, the right ingredients and equipment can make all the difference in the world when creating tasty things in the kitchen.

The gluten-free Irish Soda Bread, cooling on our counter after baking in the oven in my cast iron skillet. 

The Irish Stew, ready to be cooked for two hours in the Dutch oven on our stove top.

Our stew, tasty and ready for eating!  The leafy greens on top is chopped fresh parsley.

Our Irish feast!

I have always been drawn to Celtic culture and music, with its mystical qualities, and with my own faith, I can really appreciate the work of St. Patrick.  I think that it’s important to see past the modern traditions of the day and remember the reason why St. Patrick’s Day is actually celebrated: he helped to bring Christianity to a culture on an island that at one time did not recognize Christ.  This can be easily forgotten with all of the commercialism and noise in our world today.  I recognize that this does not resonate with everyone, but it’s a great reminder of how all of us can bring light into a dark world. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone!    

Here are a couple of music videos from my favorite Irish band, U2.  Enjoy!


I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

**In case you are interested in the recipes for the Irish Soda Bread and the Irish Stew, I found them in a couple of cookbooks that I own, so I cannot give them out here on the blog.  However, you can find the Irish Soda Bread recipe in my favorite gluten-free cookbook, 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes by Carol Fenster, and the Irish Stew recipe can be found in The Irish Heritage Cookbook by Margaret M. Johnson.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Biodiversity in My Popcorn Bowl

Last week, I made some popcorn on our stovetop, popped it in virgin coconut oil, and added lots of melted organic butter and sea salt (and oh, a little bit of cayenne pepper for bite too!).  I know that this does not sound very noteworthy, but in a way it was for me, since my popcorn kernels were of many colors.

The popcorn kernels that can typically be found at the grocery store are ordinary yellow ones.  Even most organic popcorn kernels that you will find are yellow.  The organic popcorn kernels that I recently purchased at my local natural foods co-op were a variety of colors, and I thought they were actually quite beautiful- for corn, that is…

Once the kernels popped, they popped into popcorn of several different colors.  While some popped as the expected white, some of them popped a natural yellow color, even before I added any butter:

This tasty treat really made me think, not just about how organic popcorn is better than conventional popcorn since it has no genetically modified organisms (GMOs), has been grown organically, and has a tastier flavor, but also about how important biodiversity really is.

With our current globalized agricultural system, there has been a huge push for the uniformity of crops.  There are many, many problems with growing crops this way, and I could probably write many posts for many days about this (maybe someday I will…).  However, right now I want to focus on the fact that with the global push for the uniformity of crops to only a few varieties of each type of fruit, grain, vegetable, etc., we stand to lose most of the varieties that traditional people groups have grown for generations, unless people continue to save their seeds and grow them. 

Many of these heirloom varieties of food plants have been grown by different people groups throughout history, and those varieties became adapted to the particular conditions and places that the people that grew them lived in.  Many of the heirlooms have great flavor that are unique to that variety, and most of them will never be available in stores, since most of the commercial varieties have primarily been emphasized due to their disease resistance, ease of shipping and storability.  The commercial varieties have not generally been selected for their flavor, and certainly not for their nutritional qualities.  That is why if we want to have a tastier and more nutritious tomato, for example, we have to grow them ourselves, or get them from someone else nearby who is growing them.

While growing hybrid varieties may be warranted in some cases for disease resistance and other issues, I personally believe that it is especially important to grow heirloom varieties as much as possible.  By their very nature, heirloom varieties are not genetically modified, which is very important in today’s world when corporate bioengineering and agribusiness interests are looking to patent and control all agriculture if they could. 

It is also important to grow heirloom varieties in your garden to keep their seeds circulating out there.  If people don’t grow them anymore, these varieties will essentially become extinct.  We stand to lose the diversity of our food plants if people stop growing them.  We probably have lost quite a bit of that diversity already.

Plus, heirloom varieties tend to be extremely tasty!  I imagine that families would never have continued to pass them down from one generation to the next if they didn’t taste good.  I grew an heirloom tomato variety (Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the variety, since it was unmarked when I bought the starter plant; it was only labeled as an “heirloom tomato plant.”), which was literally the best tomato that I had ever tasted before!  Granted, last year was my first garden season so I haven’t had much experience tasting the many different heirloom tomato varieties out there.  But, I can tell you that the heirloom tomatoes that I grew were light-years ahead in taste compared to any store bought tomato that I’ve tried before.

So, give growing some heirlooms a try this year, save the seeds, and then give some to a friend, or two, or three!  If you are used to growing hybrids, I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised at all of the cool heirloom varieties out there once you start looking at them.  If you need to locate a source of heirloom seeds, you can check out Botanical Interests, Heirloom Organics, or Seed Savers Exchange.

I gratefully enjoyed my organic popcorn with a bottle of my homemade ginger beer.  You just can’t beat the tastiness of that!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Brewing Ginger "Beer"

This week, I finished another fermentation project: brewing ginger beer.  It’s quite tasty, and actually pretty good for you, since it has many of the health benefits of live lacto-fermented foods and beverages.  It’s also a great alternative to commercial sodas since it is a healthy homemade beverage, and by the end of the lacto-fermentation process, most of the sugars have been consumed by beneficial microorganisms (however, if you need to watch your sugar consumption, please do your own research to determine whether consuming homemade ginger beer is right for you).

Despite the name of ginger “beer,” the drink is considered to be non-alcoholic, unless you let it ferment for a longer period and allow the sugars to covert into alcohol.

The brewing process consists of a number of steps that can take several weeks (brewing time varies based upon the room temperature, with cooler conditions lending to a longer fermentation time), beginning with the creation of a “ginger bug.” The “bug” acts as your starter culture from which the ginger beer will brew and will help to control what microorganisms thrive there.

Similar to cabbage when making sauerkraut, ginger roots naturally contain the microorganisms that will grow into an active starter culture when making ginger beer.  Once you get used to the process of making ginger beer a few times, you can branch out and make many other flavors of lacto-fermented sodas using your ginger starter “bug” and infusions of many other fruits and herbs, including strawberries, pears, cinnamon, elderflower, sassafras, and more.  I haven’t yet tried to make any other type of lacto-fermented soda other than ginger beer, but I’m hoping to experiment with that in the future.

To make my last batch of ginger beer, I used a hybrid combination of the recipes and directions from both The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Katz, and Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.  I like the general recipe from Sally's book, but I prefer the open fermentation method given in Sandor's book

You may find that you prefer the jar method from Nourishing Traditions, but the particular method that you choose really comes down to personal preference and the equipment that you have on hand.   Just make sure that whichever method you choose to use, your hands and your equipment are very clean to reduce contamination with other microbes.  I ran my baletop bottles through my dishwasher prior to bottling, and had my bottle tops sitting in hot soapy water for a couple of hours to ensure that they were all clean prior to use.

Due to the pressure that can build up in your containers after bottling, you are going to want to invest in some sort of bottles that are intended for the storage of fermented beverages, such as ones that have wire-held corks or stoppers.

A Word of Caution: Always keep an eye on the fermentation of your ginger beer.  Keep it at room temperature during the brewing process, and not in a particularly warm place such as on top of your refrigerator.  With very warm conditions, you can have a lot of fermentation that happens quickly with a lot of carbonation pressure building up, and your bottles could explode!  I don’t want to scare you away from trying ginger beer brewing, as many people (including myself) have made these things quite successfully without any issues.  Just know that this can be a possibility, so please just use some common sense during the process.  I also recommend learning more about the brewing process by checking out Sandor's or Sally's books.

Ginger Beer
Makes about 8 quarts

Ingredients needed for the entire process:
  • 14 teaspoons ground ginger
  • 14 teaspoons white sugar (non-white organic sugar works okay too, but may take longer to ferment than white sugar does)
  • Filtered water
  • 3 cups Rapadura, sucanat, or organic non-white sugar
  • Juice of 4 lemons


The equipment and ingredients needed to make a "ginger bug" starter culture

1.  First, you will need to make your “ginger bug” starter culture.  White sugar is often recommended for this process, since it encourages the best fermentation for the microorganisms naturally present in the ginger.  Although the fermentation process might not be quite as efficient, I personally chose to use an organic non-white sugar to make my bug, since there has been a lot of bad press lately about sugar beets being genetically modified.  It is recommended that if you wish to avoid consuming genetically modified sugar, you can use cane sugar. 

Grated ginger, organic sugar, and filtered water used to create my ginger "bug."

To make your “bug,” place 
1½ cups filtered (non-chlorinated, non-fluoridated) water, 2 teaspoons ginger, and 2 teaspoons sugar in a clean jar.   Cover the jar with a tight lid, shake everything well, and leave it to sit for 24 hours undisturbed at room temperature. 

My ginger "bug" ready to ferment for 7 days

2.  “Feed” your bug every day with 2 teaspoons of sugar and 2 teaspoons of grated ginger every day for 7 days, continuing to keep it at room temperature.  After adding your sugar and ginger each day, you can gently stir the "bug" mixture with a non-metallic spoon or other utensil to mix it together.  Supposedly, metal utensils can somehow negatively interfere with ferments, so you should avoid using them throughout the fermentation process. 

My bubbly ginger bug after about a week of fermentation, ready to be added to a ginger and sugar water solution.

3.  After your ginger bug has been fermenting for about 7 days, it should contain bubbles.  If it has developed mold, throw it out and start a new ginger bug.  Also, if it has not developed bubbles by this point, the fermentation was unsuccessful and you’ll need to throw it out and start the process over again (go ahead and compost the "dud" materials if you like). 

Another view of my ginger bug.


4.  Peel and finely slice or chop your ginger, about 2-6 inches (5-15 cm) of ginger root for every gallon/4 liters of ginger beer you plan to make.  Add this ginger to a cooking pot filled with filtered water in the amount of half of the total volume of ginger beer that you plan to make. 


Sliced ginger that will be added to my cooking pot to make a boiling ginger infusion

Sliced ginger in boiling water
 5.  Bring the water with the sliced ginger to a boil, cover, and then simmer gently for approximately 15 minutes.  You can experiment to figure out how strong you like your ginger solution by adding different amounts of ginger.  Start with a smaller amount of ginger, taste it after you boil it, and if you want to have a more potent ginger flavor, add additional ginger and boil for an additional 15 minutes.

Straining off the sliced ginger from the hot ginger water.

6.  After your ginger water is done boiling, strain the cooking liquid into whatever fermentation vessel you are using to ferment your ginger beer in.  You can use many different types of containers for fermentation, including crocks, wide-mouth jars, or food-grade buckets.


7.  Add your remaining sugar, rapadura, or sucanat to the hot ginger water, and stir well.


 8.  Add the remaining amount of filtered water to reach your desired volume in your fermentation vessel.  This should cool your ginger-sugar water down quite a bit.  You want to make sure that for the next step, your solution is no longer hot to the touch, essentially no warmer than body temperature.


My fermentation bucket.  A regular food-grade bucket would also work fine.


9.  Add the juice of four lemons to the mixture, being careful to remove any lemon seeds prior to adding.  Stir well.


Adding the lemon juice with seeds removed to the ginger-sugar water.



Straining the ginger bug before adding the liquid to the ginger-sugar water mix

10.  Once your ginger-sugar water mixture is cooled to room temperature, you can add your ginger bug.  First, pour off the liquid from your bug and add it to your ginger-sugar water mixture.  Stir well.  Reserve about half of the sediment from the bug’s container to make your next “ginger bug” from. 

Adding more sugar to the ginger bug to start the process for the next batch of ginger beer.


To make your next ginger bug, take the reserved sediment, add 1 ½ cups water and feed it with 2 teaspoons sugar and 2 teaspoons ginger for 7 days, just as you did before.


Stirring everything together prior to fermentation.


 11.  Cover your fermentation vessel with a cloth to keep flies and other insects from getting in, and leave it to ferment, stirring from time to time until the ginger beer is visibly bubbly.  This can take anywhere from a few hours, a few days, to over a week or more, depending upon how warm your room is and how potent your ginger bug was.  

 You can periodically taste the fermenting ginger beer to find out how it is coming along.  The ginger beer should taste less and less sugary as time goes by, and develop a slight sour taste.  The more experienced you get with this brewing process, the more you’ll get to know when it is ready for bottling.

My bubbly ginger beer.  The bubbles did not appear until the ginger beer was stirred.

12.  Once your ginger beer has bubbles, you can go ahead and put it into bottles. 

Getting ready to fill the baletop bottles.  The stopper lids for the bottles can be seen in the clear glass bowl.

My husband, filling the baletop bottles with ginger beer to prepare for the carbonation stage.  I have found that a ladle, a funnel, a glass bowl or other container to catch spills while filling, as well as keeping a towel underneath are all helpful things to use during the filling process.  The bottles can get quite sticky, so you’ll want to wipe down the outside of the bottles afterward.

The longer the ginger beer ferments, the greater the opportunity is to develop a more alcoholic brew, so you be the judge, based upon your personal preferences.  Check your bottles daily to gauge how much your brew has become carbonated.   

The ginger beer in the baletop bottles during the carbonation stage.  The plastic bottle at the front is used to gauge the level of carbonation of the batch.

You can check the level of carbonation by filling one plastic soda or plastic water bottle with ginger beer and seeing how much resistance you get when you squeeze the bottle with your fingers.  According to Sandor Katz, when the plastic bottle no longer yields easily, it is carbonated.  

When your ginger beer is carbonated, put your bottles in the refrigerator to cool them and to prevent further carbonation.  The ginger beer will continue to ferment and pressurize, albeit very slowly, in your refrigerator, so you will want to drink them within a few weeks.

I’m learning that gauging the level of carbonation is somewhat of an art form, and one that I haven’t quite gotten down yet.  This last batch that I made could very well have fermented for a little while longer, since it didn’t turn out as bubbly as I would have hoped.

From start to finish, the batch of ginger beer that I made took me about a month to make.  This is about twice the time that it typically takes for me to make kombucha from start to finish.  As previously mentioned, the time that it will take you to make ginger beer will vary, based upon the temperature of your room that you are brewing in, and the potency of your starter culture.