Wednesday, November 17, 2010

It Lives

We live in a rural place. We don't have a movie theater, there isn't a decent restaurant for miles, and if you want the NY Times you gotta get to the drugstore early. We have one grocery store and it isn't a good one. In fact, 8 years 5 months ago when I first walked through those sliding doors I held back tears. But all this is easy to deal with. We're a relatively short ride to Virginia Beach and Norfolk where movie theaters, grocery stores, and the NY Times abound. The problem: there isn't a good loaf of bread to be found anywhere. Sure, fake Italian bread is on the shelves next to French-style baguettes that are flown in from La Brea bakery in California. Yes, we can make do with this, but the thing is, we want local.

So I decided to take matters into my own hands. My quest for a loaf began with a container of starter from a friend. This was a type of sour dough starter that my friend had kept going for some time. In fact, she was quite grateful when I shared my desire to bake because her oven had stopped working and she was starting a kitchen renovation and well, she had a lot of starter with no place to go. You see, starter can live happily in your refrigerator for a week but then it needs to be fed. Feeding increases its size and before you know it, your life is Full of starter.

Using her starter, I made white loaf after white loaf. I practiced shaping techniques (learned to make a boule and continue to struggle with a baguette) and oven techniques. But there is only so much white bread you can eat before your system starts to complain, so I started doing things a "little different," as my Uncle Vinny used to say. I experimented with whole grains, oatmeal, flax meal, cranberries, walnuts, and olives. There were many disasters but also a lot of successes. And then one day, I baked all of my friend's starter. It was a bold move, but I felt ready for the next step: Starting my own. My friend looked at me as if I were nuts. "Why do that? My fridge is full. Take it, I can't bring myself to kill it." And then she came over and left me with, oh, six pounds of starter and a bottle of wine.

It took a week of nurturing but I did what Michael Pollan did for his famous local feast, I built a starter from wild yeast. How cool is that? When I first saw signs of life I was blown over. I nurtured the seeds (one white, one whole wheat) until they grew into mothers. I used every ounce of the seed to create these mothers--afraid that if I left any it wouldn't work. Unfortunately, it takes very little starter to make a loaf of bread. Worried that our home would be consumed by these bubbling, gassy mothers I can't stop baking. Yesterday I made eight loaves and prepped for 17 more that I'm baking today. The featured loaves are white and wheat pain au levain. Half of all the loaves were made without any commercial yeast. I am thoroughly enjoying myself. I feel part scientist and part artisan.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Hoping For No Freezer Burn

Thanks to hundreds of these critters, our butternut squash harvest this year totaled four—as in, four squash. Last year we harvested over 125 pounds. Every time someone stopped by the house we'd hand them a squash. Thank goodness I still have some in my freezer. But how do I get rid of these destructive insects?

Maybe next time I will try capturing and cooking, since I understand eating insects is all the range with those favoring sustainability.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

You Can't Rush Mother Nature

This summer was rough for us in Virginia. Not only did temperatures reach and stay in the 100s for days and days, but we also suffered from a complete lack of rain for around six weeks. The ground was like a rock. Several tomato plants shriveled and died. The yard looked like it had been torched—leaving nothing but sharp bits of dead grass that cut bare feet.

Meanwhile, I couldn't stop thinking about our honeybees; I was low on honey as were a lot of my friends. I wanted the golden goo. Against all common sense and Andrew's concerns, I decided that mid-August would be a great time to do a little harvest, so we donned our suits, lit the smoker, and headed in. In spite of the drought, the bees had been busy. Sort of. Okay, not really. We took from them 11 frames of capped honey. I don't know what I was thinking. Even though the signs of drought and the stress of extreme heat were all around me, I thought there would be buckets of honey. Duh. If nothing is blooming, the bees just hang. It didn't hurt the bees that we took the honey (although every disturbance slows production), it just caused us lot of extra work. Lesson learned.

Since then we've had some rain. The fields around us are filled with cotton and soybeans. The bees are back in business. In a few weeks (during our normal harvest time) we will attempt to harvest again. I'm certain the stores will be full and we'll be back in the goo.

Here are the honey helpers spinning the small August harvest.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Civic Duty

OK, caught in the act of snipping the buds off basil while walking through a community garden in DC. I couldn't help myself. Our children were appalled. "This isn't your garden; stop touching!" "Didn't you learn anything in Queens?!" Hey, it was a community garden on federal land or so I was told by the runner who stopped to stretch. So I considered it my civic duty and all that. Besides, it looked like it could use some TLC: lots of weeds and plenty of ripe peppers, zucchini, eggplant, and other treats. How sad, all that food just sitting there. If anyone is interested, the garden is near the Air & Space Museum.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Harvest Recipe #2: It's Da Bomb


When I first saw this recipe in Food & Wine I thought it looked incredibly boring. Cherry tomatoes piled onto a crust with nothing else? Right. But then I read the rave reviews and decided I had to give it a try, besides, the cherry tomatoes were piling up fast.

I modified the recipe a little. For starters, I made individual tarts. I brushed the bottom crust of each tartlet with egg yolk to seal it (a tip from Therese). When the tarts were done, I drizzled some spicy olive oil, a little kosher salt, and a few drops of this balsamic glaze I picked up the last time we were in Cape Town. I then offered a creamy French feta to anyone who wanted it. The tarts were delicious—with and without the feta. The tomatoes burst in your mouth loaded with flavor. Do heed the magazine’s warning: Don’t serve this when it first comes out of the oven. Let it cool a little. The tomatoes are like little bombs and will pop and burn when stuck with a fork.

You can follow their crust recipe or use your favorite. I like Julia Child’s recipe that uses both butter and shortening (gasp, shortening! I know, but it’s PIE we’re talking about). I use it for sweet and savory pies. The recipe (see below) makes a lot of dough. Just wrap leftover dough in plastic or vacuum seal and freeze.

Tart Crust

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour


7 TBS cold, unsalted butter, cubed

1/2 cup cold heavy cream


2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes

2 TBS shredded basil leaves

Butter a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. In a food processor, pulse the flour with a pinch of salt and the butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Add the cream and pulse until the dough nearly comes together. Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead a few times. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes or overnight.

Preheat the oven to 325. Roll out the dough to a 14-inch round. Press the round into the tart pan; trim off any excess. Mound the tomatoes in the shell. Bake for about 1 hour and 40 minutes, until the dough is evenly browned. Let cool. Season with salt, garnish with the basil and serve.

Flaky Pie Dough
5 1/4 cups pastry flour
1 TBS kosher salt
6 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
1 3/4 cups solid vegetable shortening, chilled
1 cup ice water

Mix flour and salt together in a large bowl. Add butter and cut it into the flour until the mixture looks like coarse crumbs. Break up the shortening and cut it in until mixture has small clumps and curds. Add ice water, stirring with a spoon to incorporate. Turn dough out onto a work surface and fold it over on itself a few times. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate at least 2 hours. Dough may be frozen. Defrost in refrigerator.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Peaches Coming Out of Our Ears (Recipes for the Inundated)

When we bought our house in 2002, one of its selling features was a 30 year old peach tree in the backyard that gave off hundreds of fruits each summer. Thirty years, though, is about as long as a peach tree lives, so within three years or so, we had to take it down.

In the meantime, baby peach trees kept sprouting all over the yard, growing from the thousands of pits that fell from the tree. We root them up as religiously as the Little Prince does his baobabs (our yard is about the size of his planet), but Peter left one offspring to grow along the fence, with idea of espaliering it as a decorative tree. We understood that it would not bear fruit; only grafted trees did that.

Well, four years later that tree is yielding us more fruit than its mother ever did. This year we harvested a thousand peaches, and I’m not being hyperbolic. See that picture above? That’s our dining room table covered with over 300 peaches, which have been left to ripen before we process them (unlike other fruit, peaches ripen off the tree). We’ve done this three times now – and there are still peaches on the tree.

It’s been too hot to do much baking or preserving, so I’ve mostly been cutting the peaches up and freezing them for cooking/processing when the temperature goes down. (Turner Classic Movies, Wimbledon,  the World Cup were very helpful to me as I cleaned and sliced my way through a millenium of fruit.) But I have done some baking and preserving – my two stalwart peach recipes that I can make in my sleep. I share them here with you.

The most important thing about cooking with peaches is to start with really good fruit. Mealy peaches make mealy desserts and preserves. Obviously, most of you don’t have peach trees in your backyards, so the best advice I can give you is the buy local peaches in season. And remember – peaches ripen OFF the tree, so don’t worry if they are hard when you buy them (in fact, if they’re soft, you probably won’t even be able to cook with them). If the peaches are local, that means they were picked just a day or two prior to your buying them. Lay them out – not touching each other – for another day or two until the peach flesh gives when you gently press your thumb against the area around the stem and at the base of the fruit. It should also smell like a peach. Now it’s ready to be eaten or processed.

One other piece of advice: I do not peel my peaches. That’s partly a self-preservation strategy: I have over a thousand to deal with, remember. But peach skins have all the pectin, so if you are baking or preserving, the skin is a critical ingredient for thickening and texture. I, however, really don’t like peach fuzz (it actually makes my skin crawl), so what I do is take a damp, tight-weave cotton cloth and gently wipe the fuzz off the peaches (this will also clean them of dirt and residue pesticides if those were used in the farming).

OK, enough preamble. Here are my two stand-by, stand-up peach recipes.

Curried Peach Chutney
(Note that these ingredients are to taste, which is why I give ranges; there is no science to this recipe)
  • 4-5 cups chopped peaches, with skin (I generously fill up my quart-size Pyrex measuring cup) 
  • 1 small to medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 - 1 cup raisins (golden, Thompson, whatever your favorite; you can also use currants or dried cranberries)
  • 1/2- 2/3 cup white wine or apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/2 – 1 cup chopped red pepper
  • 1/2 – 1 chopped jalapeno or other hot pepper
  • 1/4 – 1/3 cup finely chopped fresh ginger (you can substitute a heaping teaspoon of ground ginger if you don’t have fresh)
  • 1 TBSP mustard seed
  • 1 to 2 TBSP curry
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 – 1 cup brown sugar (you can also use white; note that I use WAY less sugar than most chutney recipes, which I think are egregiously over-sugared)
Throw everything but the dried spices and sugar in a large pan and stir over high heat until it comes to a boil. Add the spices and sugar and boil hard for 5 minutes, constantly stirring. Turn down the heat and cook for another 5 minutes or so.

This recipe yields about 3 pints of chutney. If you want to preserve, pour it into cleaned and sterilized jars (fill to a 1/4 inch from the top) and process in a water bath for 10 minutes. You can also make half this recipe just eat it right away. Definitely keeps in your fridge for a couple of weeks. Great with pork, chicken, and lamb.

Peach Cobbler
  • 3 lbs. of peaches, in slices or chunks, tossed in a tablespoon of lemon juice
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar, depending on sweetness of peaches and your taste
  • 2 TBSP of tapioca flour (my thickener of choice; you can buy in Chinese markets) or corn starch. Or grind instant tapioca in a spice grinder and use that.
Preheat oven to 375. Grease a 9x9 baking pan. Toss the peaches with the sugar and tapioca flour and spoon into the pan.

  • 1 1/2 c. flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar (or a bit less if you don’t like too sweet)
  • 2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2/3 cup buttermilk, sour milk, or yogurt (all work perfectly well)
  • 6 TBSP melted butter, cooled.
Combine the dry ingredients. Then beat the egg with the buttermilk and butter. Fold the wet mixture into the dry mixture until combined. Do not over mix.

Drop the topping onto the peach filling in large spoonfuls to cover the surface. IMPORTANT NOTE: Do NOT heap the filling on too high. You may have more topping than you need and if you just heap it on, the batter closest to the peaches will not bake. If you have too much batter, make a personal-sized cobbler in a ramekin.

Place the pan on a cookie sheet. Bake for 40 minutes or so until it is golden brown on top and the filling is bubbling. Best served warm with vanilla ice cream.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Living La Vida Localiente

If you’re not on the East Coast, you may not know that we have had a heat wave for the first ten days of July. Do I have to tell you that a hundred degrees in New York City is not pretty? I didn’t think so.

What’s even more worrisome to me than the heat itself, is the fear of a power blackout. Peter and I got off easy in the last one (the Northeast power outage of 2003), but the image of those people who were on the subway when the power went out has never stopped haunting me. (To this day, I travel on the subway – always – with a water bottle and a Maglite.) I just don’t want to contribute to the possibility of that happening again, even in my own small way.

So, in a fit of social responsibility, Peter and I have been trying to live without air conditioning. Because the first floor of our house is slightly below grade, the living room is actually not unpleasant. And as long as I don’t use the oven or stove, the kitchen is fine too. The second floor, with three really powerful ceiling fans and the judicious lowering and raising of blinds, is manageable enough.

When we get to my office, however, which is an extension on the back of the house, that’s a different story. By 1 pm, when the sun has made its arc over to our backyard and is beating down on the tar roof above my head, my fingers start to stick to the keyboard and my entire body is coated in a body paint of itchy sweat.

My way of coping has been to take off the afternoons and go to the movies! I figure that the air conditioning is already on in these places and the more people who partake of it, the more efficiently it runs. (I think that’s called rationalization, but it may be true too.) I saw four matinees last week: I Am Love and Winter’ Bone, both of which I highly recommend; Please Give, which I think is fine and definitely better than sitting in an unairconditioned* office; and Great Directors, a pathetic movie that I can’t believe actually got funded and distributed (the director/producer must have her own trust fund).

Peter has been a relentless urban farmer throughout this humid hideousness, waking every morning at six to hand water (see above; did I mention that we’ve also been in a mini drought?), the result of which has been that we have been eating salads from our garden every day, not to mention peaches and raspberries, and basil by the truckloads. Breakfasts have been peach-blueberry-raspberry yogurt smoothies (made with cantaloupe ice balls that we froze at the end of last summer). 

Not so loco after all, I guess.

*The spell check function in Word does not recognize the word unairconditioned. Is that a cultural statement or what?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Harvest Recipe 1

We haven't had a real rain in about four weeks. But the garden, in spite of looking a bit brown, is producing. We've already harvested about 50 pounds of tomatoes, onions, and all the garlic. Tomatoes on toast for breakfast. Tomato sandwiches for lunch. Gazpacho for dinner. Tonight we feasted on tomato, onion, and cheese tart.

Unlike most tomato tarts, this one is not loaded with pounds of gooey cheese or mayo (both of which make my stomach churn). This is nice and clean. Once the zucchini and eggplant come in massive numbers we'll grill it and layer it into the pie, too.

Tomato, Onion, and Cheese Tart
1 (9 in) deep-dish pie crust
Dijon or grainy mustard
3 TBS olive oil
1-2 large onions, sliced thinly
salt & pepper
6 oz crumbled goat cheese, brie, feta or other favorite cheese
2-3 tomatoes, sliced thinly
fresh basil leaves

Place crust in tart pan with removable bottom or a regular pie dish and prick bottom and sides with fork. Line shell with foil and pie weights or dried beans. Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer or until crust is golden brown. Cool on rack. Brush mustard on cooled crust. Heat oil is heavy skillet and cook onions until golden brown, about 15-20 min, stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper. Spread onions over bottom of tart shell and top with most of the cheese. Arrange tomatoes, slightly overlapping, in concentric circles over cheese. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and bake at 350 until cheese melts, 5-10 minutes. Put foil over edge of crust to prevent over browning. Top with torn, fresh basil leaves.

Friday, June 25, 2010


We started keeping bees about three years ago primarily as a way to repopulate a disappearing community. If we got some honey, all the better, but it wasn't our goal. Of course, now that we have had two successful honey harvests I want the honey, too. Anyway, a couple months ago I needed a work break and stepped outside for a walk in the garden. I noticed a lot of activity around our two beehives and I got nervous. Last year our bees swarmed five times. Each time around 20,000 of the little buzzers took off to set up house on their own (which we always hoped was not in the side of one of our outbuildings). The upside, we were doing our part to help the honeybee by repopulating the community. The downside, we were worried that the queen who was left to reign might not be up to her calling and thus, leaving us with no honey to harvest. Turns out, we were lucky and the bees were successful all around.

But this was another season. Not eager to get back to my desk, I stood and watched and soon realized the bees really were swarming. Not again, I thought. I've grown to depend on the honey as have many people in our community. Who knew what sort of queen we'd be left with (if we were left with a queen at all). Andrew saw things a little differently. He was convinced that once they landed, I could capture the swarm. This was easy for him to say because his arm was in a sling from a surgery and he would be unable to help. He was talking about me catching thousands and thousands of bees. Part of me wanted to let them buzz off, but another part of me was craving excitement and more honey. It just so happened that we had an empty hive body that was built last winter just in case we decided to expand. I gathered the equipment and donned my bee suit while my one-armed husband watched and directed me catching the swarm.

It was a remarkable experience. I walked away feeling like a rock star. We checked on the hive a week later and there was proof that the queen liked her new digs. Larva filled the cells. Now I'm totally buzzed.

Garden Etiquette

I spent this past weekend in Queens, NY, at a family party and found myself wondering what is proper garden etiquette. Say you walk through someone's garden and see a bunch of things that aren't right but could be fixed in a second. Do you say something? Do you take matters into your own hands? Or do you just keep your mouth shut? And what if the garden belongs to a family member?

There I was, at a party when I was accosted by a cousin from Bensonhurst. Because he's from Brooklyn, I think he thinks he has license to carry on like dere's no tamorrah. If yous gets whad I'm sayin'. Surprisingly, he reads this blog. He called himself "our third reader" and kept referring to me as "the sustainable one" or something along those lines. He complained that I hadn't written anything in a long time but said it was probably because I was spending all my time screeching at everyone for not composting their teabags.

While he carried on, as only someone from Bensonhurst can do, I looked around the party girl's yard. Like Therese and Peter's garden in Brooklyn, my cousin had done a lot with her small growing area in Queens. Her garden held several thriving basil, tomato and pepper plants, and garlic with scapes that were as long as my arms. My cousin was standing next to me and said the garlic came from my parents. Lovely. But what was she thinking? Those scapes should have been cut a week ago. I tried to hide my horror from Cousin Bensonhurst but he was too quick. He caught my gaze. "What's the problem," he laughed. "She didn't compost something?" I wanted a knife. No, not to stab my cousin with, to cut those scapes. I scanned the yard for another cousin—who I know always carries a knife—but couldn't find him. Besides, Andrew was whispering loudly in my ear, "It isn't your garden. What if she wants her garlic to blossom?" I mumbled back, "Clearly, she doesn't know she's supposed to cut them. She's Italian, she planted a sauce garden! Her sauce will be ruined. She needs help!"

I forced myself to look away and focus on her container garden. She had the most gorgeous pot of coriander I've ever seen. The plant was huge, full, and bolting! I couldn't take it. I gently nudged Cousin Bensonhurst out of the way, bent over and snipped. I plopped the stem onto Andrew's plate and moved on to the dill. Caterpillars. Two little guys. I thought they might be baby swallowtails (and would have left them) but I wasn't positive so I snipped the little stem off and brought them over to my father. He took one look, said they weren't swallowtails and then dunked the branch in a cup of red wine. I couldn't take it anymore and was afraid at what else I might spot. I think Cousin Bensonhurst may have bet another cousin that I was going to collect all the food scraps and take them back to Virginia compost. The thought hadn't even crossed my mind. But I did decide that if you like the person whose garden you're in, it's okay to point out little things here and there. Of course, I didn't learn until later that my cousin hates coriander and had actually purchased it by mistake thinking it was parsley, she wanted it dead. Oh well.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Beach Balloon Bingo — A Trashy Story

Peter and I spent our 10th anniversary last month on the South Fork of Long Island, home to the fabulous Hamptons. We had a bit of a mishap with the car we had borrowed from his sister, which caused us to spend a few unplanned hours walking the shore between Westhampton Beach and Quogue, while the car was being fixed. No problem. It was a beautiful weekday, the sun was shining, there was nary breeze, and the beach was empty, except for…

Balloons. We encountered our first washed-up helium balloon fairly soon into our walk. I picked it up, punctured it to get all the air out of it, shook off the sand, and stuffed it into an outer pocket of Peter’s backpack.

We soon ran out of backpack pockets. I happened to have on me my handy-dandy-trusty Chico bag (I carry one in every purse and backpack now), so I started stuffing in it the all the beach trash we found: soda cans, liquor bottles, bits of rubber tires, string, rope, and general marine detritus. But balloons were by far the most persistent trash item we came upon.

And unfortunately, they’re also the most insidious. According to Save the Whales, thousands of marine animals are killed every year by balloons that have escaped birthday parties, baby showers, and the like, and end up in our oceans. “Balloons are ingested by whales, dolphins, turtles, seals, fish and water-fowl, who innocently believe they are food such as jellyfish or squid.”

I knew about the dangers of balloons to marine mammal life before last week, but I never had such a vivid illustration of the pervasiveness of the problem. This beach was relatively pristine — I’m sure the multimillion-dollar home owners who live along it make a point of keeping it clean — so I can’t even imagine how many balloons end up on a really trashed-out shoreline.

I know balloons are fun and celebratory, but Save the Whales suggests equally festive alternatives, such as wind socks, kites, flowers. And if you do use balloons, avoid helium ones and use the old-fashioned kind that you blow up with your own breath. Those have far less a chance of ending up in the ocean than helium balloons.

You might ask what we did to dispose of our collection of balloons and other beach trash. I’m proud (or maybe a bit sheepish) to report that we dumped it in a garbage can of one of those multimillion-dollar homes. I’m sure the owner would have approved.

The way a beach should look (handsome guy included).

P.S. If you want to a see a really vivid portrait of beach trash, check out this online exhibition from

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blithe Impermanence

I've decided that peonies are the best Buddhist teachers. They open in spectacular blooms and then, just as I am getting so attached to them, they start to fade, reminding me that however much I want things to remain as they are — everything changes.

Thunderstorms were threatened for today, so I went out and cut the most vulnerable of the blooms, and brought them inside to protect for another day or two. But even that effort is futile — as I write this, peony petals are falling onto my desk. They're lovely, though, even in their blithe impermanence.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Feels Like Summer

I'm not going to get into a whole thing about global warming and how much Fox News is to blame for polluting our air with their toxic gases, but something is definitely going on with the weather. For starters, we had an unusually wet winter. And then, when we were still supposed to be snuggled in our sweaters in March, we're suddenly forced to expose our blue-white legs because it's 97 with about 120% humidity. The sun beat down on us as if it were August. If it weren't for the garden I wouldn't know it was spring.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Responsible Cruising?

It’s been a good stretch since I’ve last written for Urbal Tea, the reason for which I can at least partially attribute to the month I was traveling with my mother.

Now, one of the topics I’ve wanted to write about for Urbal Tea is sustainable travel, to which Peter and I and Louise and Andrew are totally committed.

I am therefore chagrined to confess that the some of travel I did with my mother was anything but sustainable—I took her on a four-day cruise.

Holy Cow! My mom in front of the Carnival Imagination:
Gross Tonnage: 70,367
Length: 855 feet
Beam: 103 Feet
Cruising Speed: 21 Knots
Guest Capacity: 2,052 (double occupancy)
Total Staff: 920

I had never been on a cruise before and was a bit trepidatious about the whole thing, but it’s what she wanted to do and truth be told, it’s a very easy way to travel with an 86-year old woman. It’s also a very easy way to travel with kids, which I guess a lot of parents have figured out: it was spring break week and there were 957 children on our boat—which was less than ideal for an elderly woman and her 50-something daughter (whose idea of a cruise involves Cary Grant, Paul Henreid, or Charles Boyer). But I digress from the point of this story.

Which is the issue of environmental impact and cruise ships. In theory, traveling by boat is far less impactful than flying or driving—it takes a lot less carbon-based fuel to move a person by boat from Port A to Port B than by air or car. But the problem with cruise ships is that they are floating, luxury mini-cities and so whatever carbon emissions you might save by sailing, you more than make up for by all the waste you and your fellow passengers generate on board.

According to (quoting the United Nations Environmental Program), “On a typical one-week voyage a cruise ship generates more than 50 tonnes of garbage and a million tonnes of grey (waste) water, 210,000 gallons of sewage and 35,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water. On average, passengers on a cruise ship each account for 3.5 kilograms of rubbish daily — compared with the 0.8 kilograms each generated by local people on shore.” (In non-metric terms, that’s 7.7 pounds vs. 1.7 lbs.)

I believe it. The amount of food waste alone on our ship must have been staggering. My mother loved the endless dessert tables, but I was fixated on the unfathomable amount of food that was left on people’s trays or that I saw being carted out by waiters after each evening’s dinner.

Add to the fact that cruise ships tend to visit ecologically vulnerable areas, like coral reefs (ours went to Cozumel, for example), where both ship sewage and anchors can harm the fragile environment, and the proposition gets even dicier.

Is there a responsible way to travel by cruise ship? It’s true that lots of cruise ship lines are trying to adopt ecologically responsible practices, like converting cooking oil into diesel fuel (which gets used by farming equipment). And companies like Holland America have programs in which they donate reusable goods (linens, toiletries, dishes, mattresses) to charities.

But honestly, I think these efforts are mere drops in the bucket. asks a really good question: What interests you in a cruise in the first place?

If it’s the chance to visit lots of different places, they suggest a number of far more eco-friendly overland tours that one can take. (Besides, most cruises spend just a few hours at any port of call, which I found absolutely frustrating. Don’t ask me how I found Cozumel because I couldn’t say after a six-hour stay.)

If you’re interested in a cruise because you want take a sailing vacation, again, there are more sustainable ways to be on the water (like renting your own barge to travel the river and canal system in England, which we did a few summers ago).

If it’s the desire to be pampered, have all your needs taken care of while your children have a safe and entertaining environment in which to let loose, there are more and more eco-friendly resorts popping up in the Caribbean every day.

Of course, what I want out of a cruise is to wind up in a stateroom with Jeremy Irons—not exactly a sustainable vacation, at least as far as my marriage is concerned.

P.S. The New York Times did a good article on this topic about a year ago. Here is the link.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Hello, my name is Louise and I suffer from OCSD

Now that Therese's term, obsessive-compulsive sustainability disorder or OCSD, is starting to hit the mainstream as a true disorder (what? a mention in the Huffington Post doesn't count?), I feel it is time that I publicly recognize that I may fall within the spectrum of OCSD sufferers. To be honest, I hadn't realized that I had OSCD until I read that Therese felt cutting open an "empty" lotion bottle was a bit obsessive. I thought it was what everyone did.

I recently came to the realization that I may be deeper into the OCSD spectrum when I spotted a tea bag hiding in the trash and nearly fell over myself yanking it out. I tried to ignore it but couldn't. Yes, I reached in—between the plastic raw-chicken wrapper and used tissues—grabbed the lonely bag, and dropped it in the compost bin. What was Andrew thinking? Was he playing a game? Like he does by loading the dishwasher incorrectly? (Small plates in front, big in back—that's not so hard to remember.) Anyway, after relocating the tea bag I began wondering what else might be lurking in the can but then my nose got the best of me so I just hauled the trash bag out and cinched it shut. There were an awful lot of tissues.

For me, thanks to OCSD, even a perfectly lovely dinner party can be cause for a throbbing, guilt-ridden ache in that large section of my brain devoted solely to agida. And the only one I have to blame for this is me...for inviting guests who just don't get it. Okay, okay, maybe my expectations are too high. Just because we live in a rural community surrounded by farms doesn't mean that everyone should understand the importance of composting (recycling is another thing that gets my OCSD bubbling). I know I shouldn't really expect kind guests who jump up to help clear the table to know that the red bucket sitting in our sink is for food scraps. Those castaways help feed the chickens which in turn produce those amazing orange-yolked eggs that everyone loves. Seriously, guests clearing the table put a damper on my spirits. I hear you thinking: You're a nut! Why don't you just ask them to leave the dishes? I do. But you know how guests are. Or, why don't you just tell them how you'd like the dishes done? Because if I do that they'll think I'm bossy and obsessive. I know, you don't need to say it.

So I let them scrape the dishes directly into the trash, prewash the plates in hot water, and load the dishwasher incorrectly. I thank them profusely for their help—trying my best to sound cool and gracious—but can't stop wondering why the heck they must waste so much? Sure, the first time we had guests over I wasn't so cool. That would be the dinner where I was caught diving into the trash to retrieve the veggie scraps. A guest caught me with a handful of pastalettucebreadpudding and gave me a look of surprised disgust as she backed away and went searching for her coat. I felt awful. She was a guest after all and I didn't want her to feel bad for helping. I just couldn't help myself. But that was then. I've developed various coping mechanisms since. If they don't take my cue and insist on helping, I wait until they leave before scooping out what I can from the trash and rearranging the dishwasher (ask Andrew about that).

Of course, there is still the problem of how to handle myself when I go to someone else's house and volunteer to help with the dishes. I find myself searching for a composting bin. If they don't have one, I can't stand it. But what can I do? I'm not about to preach to anyone other than my sister (really now, she should know better; we grew up in a house with a compost bin permanently located next to the sink). Instead, I keep my mouth shut and mutter to Andrew about the unnecessary waste of it all. And when I return home, I make myself a cup of tea.

Last night, we had another dinner party. Lovely time all around. Although I'm not sure how Andrew and I managed to dirty every single plate, the good news is that our dear friends volunteered to help clear the table. I made my noises, blahblah, some listened, but others cleared and chatted away as the plates were carried into the kitchen. Guess what? The plates were scraped into the composting bin without me saying a word. Talk about fast learners, I mean, good friends.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Some Recent Additions to Urbal Tea

Book Recommendations:
Various friends have been recommending books to us, which we've added to the Urbal Tea Store. Check it out in the sidebar at right.

Animal Factory, author David Kirby 
Yet another terrifying exposé of CAFO (and much more)

Slow Death by Rubber Duck, authors Rick Smith and Chris Lourie
A thorough exposé of chemicals in our every day lives

Resource Links
We've added several links (in the sidebar at right) to resources that readers might find useful:

The Red, White, and Green: Caring About the Environment is Patriotic: written by a green advice columnist for The Huffington Post (Eco Etiquette), this site offers up everyday green living tips and explores matters of environmental ethics and policy.

Grist: A Beacon in the Smog: Provides interesting articles on the environment, survival, etc and includes the useful column: Ask Umbra

Eco-Brooklyn: We've included this ONLY because they often post interesting articles and videos; when Mr. Eco-Brooklyn, himself, sounds off in his posts, it's probably time to turn this off.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Eating as a Sustainable Act

In January of 2009, my husband and I returned from a 4-month trip to Australia and New Zealand, where, in spite of the fact that we ate and drank our way across both land masses, we hiked our way as well, and therefore returned strong and fit.

Through a succession of colds and flu, and getting out of the habit of walking (which is our primary form of exercise), yet eating and drinking as if we were still the intrepid hikers, I put on a good 10 pounds over the course of the year. Peter put on at least that much.

January 2010 comes along and it’s diet time.

Now, I’ve done this before. After we got married, we turned into fat honeymooners that required a year’s worth of Weight Watchers to take off the 25 or so pounds we acquired through our love-food fest. And a few years ago, we did the South Beach diet to take off that biennial creeping 10. So I know diets “work” — in the short run. But in the long run, they don’t work — at least in the sense of keeping the biennial 10 at bay.

So this year I decided to do it differently. Yes, I did Phase 1 of South Beach religiously for three weeks (for Peter and me, it is a very easy and rewarding diet), which dropped a good six pounds right there. But I did something else as well – I decided that eating sustainably is as important as any other sustainable act of living.

Why do I need to consume more food than I need? On occasion (and I mean, occasion, like a birthday) that’s fine — in the same way that I allow myself to buy strawberries occasionally in winter. But day in and day out, why do I have to eat more food than my body calls out for? I’m against over-consuming things like plastics and gasoline. Why is food different?

I don’t think it is. I realize that the second pork chop that I might forego is not going to end up on the plate of some starving child in China (as my mother tried to get me to believe when I was younger). But I am part of a country that over-consumes food—and the truth is that if we stopped doing that, we’d not only be healthier, but we’d be able to farm our land in more sustainable ways. For instance, if we just limited the amount of beef we eat (not even give it up altogether) we could substantially cut back on the 96 million methane-producing cattle we currently graze. We’d not only use that land more productively, but put a substantial dent in greenhouse gasses as well. (Check out the Meatless Monday movement here.)

So I started paying attention to what and how much I eat. (I meditate and a book on mindful eating by Jan Chozen Bays from my friend Shell was extremely helpful here.) I started taking what seemed like a reasonable portion of food—I’m not into starvation after all — and eating it slowly and mindfully, letting my brain register my satiety. I found that I usually didn’t need or want seconds, and if I did, I took seconds of vegetables.

I also started paying attention to my hunger, and like everything else in life, I noticed that it changes. HUNGER, I have learned, is not some static state THAT MUST BE SATISFIED. For example, I work at home, so I’m just steps from my fridge. For this experiment, when the usual 10:30 a.m. hunger pangs came around, instead of responding to them, I chose instead to watch them. And sometimes (not always) they went away. They didn’t really need attending to. I didn’t have to eat.

I also started noticing the emotions attached to my hunger. One time I was out doing errands and when I felt a little bit of hunger, I noticed that I also felt panic. “What are you going to eat? When? How?” my mind started hissing with conspiratorial urgency. But instead of reacting to the panic, I just watched it—and saw both the panic and the hunger dissipate under inspection.

The upshot is this: I’ve lost 10 pounds since January 4 and – more important – I eat a lot less. Not because I am on a diet. I’m just a mindful eater now. I’m mindful of food’s impact on me and I’m mindful of my impact as an eater on this Earth. And you know what? I feel good about both.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Simplicity Can Work

I agree with Mary's comment  that we should be concerned about what we put on our skin, as well as what we put in our mouths. I ran my lotions and beauty potions through the Cosmetic Database (of doom). I discovered that it is highly likely that under one of those purple crime-scene lights I will glow a brilliant green.

Why are these products loaded with toxins we don't need? Do we really need all these ingredients to help us look and feel good? For years, people worldwide have used natural oils, such as olive, coconut, marula, and argan, as moisturizers and hair elixirs with great success. I'm not sure why we've moved so far away from simple. I'm just as guilty as the next person, until I travel, and then I use next to nothing. For instance, this past year, my family and I were on the move for five months. I took along a product we made using beeswax (from our beehives) and olive oil. It's a thick, rich balm.

It was exciting to use something made from only two ingredients (the fact that we made it was also key). Not to turn this into some sort of infomercial for our balm, but the Cosmetic Database has brought this all to mind so I feel like sharing. Our balm (so far I haven't read anything that says it wouldn't pass government regulators) works and, according to friends and family, its basic ingredients are working wonders. One friend used it to rid her baby of a small patch of eczema. Another shared it with a family member who is going through chemo; the simple ingredients are the only thing her ultra-sensitive, very dry skin can handle. Seasonal drying and cracking of skin around fingernails, heels, elbows, and lips have all been relieved by the balm. I'm tickled by the feedback. Simplicity works.

Which brings me back to my question: Why is it necessary to include so many ingredients (and if the Cosmetic Database is to be believed, so many toxic ingredients) in these beauty products? Shelf life? Antibacterial properties? I don't know. I just know that our little tins, containing two nontoxic ingredients, are showing results. Is all the extra stuff gimmick? And do we really need cleansers, toners, exfoliators, scrubs, and specific lotions for every body part before capping it all off with a collection of makeup products? When we think about what is good for our bodies (inside and out), the environment, and our wallets, it may be a good idea to step back and think about what we really need. Maybe if we did use fewer of these products we would be suffering from fewer allergies, skin problems, and the like, not to mention that our wallets would be fatter. I'm certainly guilty of falling for the claims—it happens every time I walk down a store's beauty aisle or flip through a magazine. I want my hair to be less frizzy and my skin to look like it did when I was 20. Fat chance. Yet, I know that, when I step away from it all and travel, my skin and hair tend to look pretty good. Of course, there was that one bus ride in Ecuador when I looked positively green, but that's another story.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Truth in Labeling

Louise and I were having an email exchange about how not all organic milk is created equal, when she sent me a link to an article claiming that there was no nutritional difference between organic and non-organic milk, with the note "I'm hoping it isn't true."

I was intrigued, because I've seen studies from Denmark and Great Britain (among other places) that show that organic pasture-fed milk has more fatty acids and is higher in antioxidants, beta carotene,  Vitamin E, and other nutrients than conventional milk. Now, if you're comparing factory-farmed dairy cows that are fed organic grain (and barely pasture-fed) vs. factory-farmed dairy cows that are given conventional grain, then maybe there is little nutritional difference. That's why pasture-feeding is so key to the definition of organic dairy and why organic/family farming organizations like the Cornucopia Institute put up such a fuss when factory-farms claim to be organic yet barely show their cows what a pasture looks like.

Nonetheless, even if the nutritional values of the two were the same, non-organic milk contains antibiotic residues, which scientists believe contribute to antibiotic resistance, a serious health problem in this country. Non-organic cows are also fed synthetic growth hormones, called bovine somatotropin. This bST, as it is sometimes known, and another hormone it produces (an insulin-like growth factor called IGF-1) have been shown to be present in milk. I don't care what the FDA says about "safe levels": Does anyone really want to feed their kids synthetic bovine growth hormones?

I got curious about the website Louise had linked me to, Stop Labeling Lies, so I looked at it in a bit more depth. [Note that I am not going to provide links to any of the sites mentioned below. You can reach them through About Us page on Stop Labeling Lies if you really want to visit them.]

One of its "participating organizations" is the important-sounding Center for Global Food Issues, whose motto is straight out of Monsanto's mission statement: "Growing More Per Acre Leaves More For Nature." They are associated with the conservative think tank, The Hudson Institute, and have stories on their web site like "Greenpeace Opts for Millions of Blind Kids." (Those villains! That's the last time I'll give them money in the street!)

Another is the objective-sounding American Council on Science and Health, which has an article on its web site that says: "The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) has now firmly established itself not as an institution for higher learning, devoted to educating students about the science of preventing premature disease and death, but instead as a hotbed of pseudoscience and political agitation..." (Yes, we know all about those Harvard public health Trotskyites.)

Something called the Food Security Network is also a sponsoring org, the link to which leads one to a very bizarre web site whose focus is really hard to suss out. I did appreciate one of their food security stories: "Hormel premium sliced deli meats are now packaged in a clear flexible pouch with an integrated Hefty Slide-Rite closure system, supplied by Pactiv Corp., that helps the meat retain its fresh flavor even after the package has been repeatedly opened and closed." (Well, I feel much safer now.)

Another sponsor: "The Competitive Enterprise Institute is a public interest group dedicated to free enterprise and limited government." It was called by the Wall Street Journal "the best environmental think tank in the country." (And the climate-change-denying WSJ should know!)

Anyway, I'm going out on a limb and guess that Stop Labeling Lies is a front for mega-food-agribusiness companies and their political allies. Labeling lies, indeed.

P.S. If you want to know if the organic milk you drink is truly pasture-fed and meets other high standards for organic dairy, the Cornucopia Institute has a scorecard for all dairy companies that claim to be organic. Interesting reading.

Our brand, Natural By Nature, got 4 out of 5 cows on the Cornucopia Institute's scorecard.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Obsessive Sustainabililty (Plus Beauty Tip)

I've worried a bit about our blog — that we seem too obsessive, too preachy, too extreme in our attempts to recycle, reuse, etc., etc. I've decided that people who are super-sustainability types are probably not just motivated by altruistic desires to save the planet, but perhaps a little guilt (that would be me) or maybe it just plays into their compulsive tendencies (that would be Peter).

Granted, Peter and I are not as extreme as some (we haven't given up on toilet paper after all). But I have a feeling people may roll their eyes at some of the things we do (like make soup stock out of table scraps).

Nevertheless, I've decided that OCSD (obsessive-compulsive sustainability disorder) is OK. In fact, it's more than OK. Because for every compulsively sustainable thing we choose to do now, it might mean that it's one less compulsory sustainable thing our grandchildren will have no choice but to do in the world they are inheriting.

That leads me to my latest OCSD act. Which is also a beauty tip! (I like to leverage my ideas across platforms.)

I read in some beauty magazine years ago something that may be hooey, but I have accepted as true:  moisturizers don't add moisture to one's skin—they only keep in the moisture that's already there. So the article recommended that when you put moisturizer on after a shower, you do so before you've fully dried off, when your skin is still damp. That way, you're keeping more moisture next to your skin.

I've been doing this for years now, and while I can't say that it has kept me looking younger, it has meant that I buy a lot less moisturizer. With this method, you need a spit of lotion to cover your face and neck. So a 4 oz. bottle of Neutrogena lasts me about a year. That means I'm buying less— both saving money and saving the number of bottles I throw out a year.

OK, so here's where I get a bit OCSD. You know when you think the bottle is empty. You push the pump and all that comes out is a sputter of air and lotion vapers? Guess what? You have about two months worth of moisturizer left in there. I kid you not.

I did an experiment with my last bottle of moisturizer. I stored it upside down in my medicine cabinet, and in the morning, I'd take the cap off, and there, coagulated at the neck of the bottle, was a huge glob of moisturizer. So, I'd take the tiny amount I needed, put the cap back on, and store it upside down again. And so it went for about 6 weeks, until there was no longer a critical mass of lotion gathered in the neck.

But wait, there's more!

I found that I could stick my pinky in and get a morning's worth of lotion off the sides of the bottle, as well as wipe down the pump straw where some lotion had also collected. I got about 2 more weeks worth of morning moisturizer doing the scrape method (always storing the bottle upside down).

I saved that bottle from going into the landfill (and having to buy another) for an additional two months. Now, I can't do the carbon imprint calculation on that, but I don't need an algorithm to know that less waste is good.

Try it yourself. It really works (and maybe it's even better for your skin). It will save you money. But most important, it means that landfill we're handing down to our grandchildren will have fewer bottles in it. 

Now, if I were truly OCSD, I'd cut the bottle open and scrape off what's inside. Peter would go that far, but I have my limits.

Meat the Frankenbirds (part 2): A Photo Essay

Text by Graham
Photos by Katharine

Dad seizes a chicken!
The first to meet his handcrafted cone of silence.

Dad puts the chicken in the cone head first.
Then he pulls the head out through the bottom of the cone.

The chicken's legs (and his head at the other end)
are the only parts that stick out of the cone.

Next, we boiled a pot of water to dip the
dead chickens in to loosen their feathers.

After the chickens' feathers were loosened,
we brought them over to a makeshift table to pluck them.

We made sure every feather was off the bird.

Now the chickens were ready to be gutted.

Some of the "delicious" innards. Yum!!!! (he's kidding)

He tried to escape but we put a lid on him.
Chicken foot soup (okay, we just used them to make stock).

After hours of work, Mom prepared the chicken for the grill.
We can't wait for a taste.

A silly image of Katharine enjoying her favorite treat:
Grilled chicken feet.

Beautiful me. Beautiful bird.

Chicken liver pate.
This was so good!

Am I going to be next?

Please note: My mother didn't help with any of this (except for preparing the bird for the grill).
I think she's too chicken to face her chickens.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Love and Imperfection

Christmas was a blessedly quiet event this year. Peter and I gave one another just a few gifts, one of which from Peter to me was Bill Buford's Heat, which he bought for me thinking it was by Bill Bryson (whom I love), and then felt sheepish about giving it to me, only to learn that I had been wanting to read the book. I spent, in fact, two dark and rainy days on the couch inhaling the book (with a few interruptions, like a visit from our youngest granddaughter, on Christmas morning).

Paloma, Christmas 2009 (with her Ebee gifts)

Not sure why I was so interested in the book. It's the tale of Buford (founding editor of Granta and former fiction editor of the New Yorker) going to work in professional kitchens, including Mario Batali's much beloved downtown eatery Babbo (where I sadly have never been; too expensive for us). Which means it's a tale of slave labor, humiliation, inhuman levels of stress, flesh burning, flesh slicing, kitchen rage, and basic insanity. Why anyone would choose to subject themselves to this environment is beyond me. Having experienced restaurant life from the front of the house, as a waitress in and right after college, was enough exposure for me. I will say that I am very impressed how restaurants manage to shield their patrons from the outsize macho culture that exists behind the swinging doors.

In the book, Buford asks Batali what he will learn interning at Babbo, and Batali says: the difference between being a home cook and a professional cook. When you work in a restaurant you have to make each dish exactly the same each night—patrons come back to experience the exact pork shank they had last time, and if they don't get it, they don't come back.

Luckily, we home cooks don't live under such tyranny. There's no such thing (at least in my kitchen) as making the same thing exactly the same way each time. Sometimes the difference makes a dish better. Sometimes not so better. Take my minestrone for example, made with my compost stock. I have to admit it was outstanding. I used the beans we grew in our garden and put up for the winter. They had amazing texture for home frozen vegetables. And the purple cabbage thrown in at the end made for such a beautiful palette.

I made a lot of the minestrone, so I froze the rest, which we just had this past week for dinner. Not so good. The broad beans got sort of mushy and tough at the same time (don't know how I managed that trick). Edible, but they'd never serve it at Babbo.

Then there's latkes—I only make them once a year, for Hanukkah, so I follow a recipe. It's from a guy named David Firestone, featured in Molly O'Neill's New York Cookbook, which has really terrific New York "neighborhood" recipes (I make, for instance Curtis Sliwa's Aunt Marie Stacey's chicken soup, the recipe for which is on page 47 of the book). This year I added some celery root to my latkes, inspired by a recent article in the Times. But mostly I just stuck to the recipe. And, as it turned out, they were pretty darn gorgeous and delicious.

But they could have just as easily been a mess. Latkes are scary things—not enough egg, too much matzoh, not enough oil, left in the pan too long... The list of things that could go wrong is terrifyingly long. Which is why I only do them once a year. (That and the oil they cook in stinks up the house for days.)

When things do go wrong in the kitchen, I have to admit that I get depressed. I'm not as hard on myself as a chef is on his line cooks, thank goodness, but Peter does get exasperated with me when I'm moping after a flopped meal. "So what?" he says. He's right, of course. On a rational level.

But maybe cooking isn't a rational act. Maybe because it's an act of love, and love is never rational. You always want to get it right. Like my Christmas paella for our other grandchildren. Now that was a downright righteous act of love!