Check out my new book, The Non-Toxic Avenger: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You, available from Amazon.

2012 Silver winner in the Health/Medicine/Nutrition Category of the Independent Publishers Book Awards

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Will work for seeds

YamatoIt's that most glorious time of the year when the seed catalogs start rolling in the mail here in the dead of winter. Okay, we are only a few days into winter but, after 2 weeks of snow, all my unprepared winter crops aren't looking so good. But, I digress.

Seed catalogs. You know you love them. The excitement of planning the next year's bounty is heightened by the glossy nature of the catalog pictures and, since we are far enough away from harvest, we've forgotten all the work that went into it.

If you read some blogs, there's a lot of fear of seed shortages this year since there's been an increased demand in growing your own food. This is due to the obvious rise is food costs as well as a renewed interest of people wanting better control of where their food comes from.

I really don't think anyone will be turning tricks for seeds anytime soon but, that said, you may want to get your orders in early. Just in case. I really was joking about those Yamato extra longs.

Of course, all this assumes that you have already planned out what you are growing next year. I can't say that I'm that well prepared yet, but I have a ton of seeds already.

How about you? Do you have your list of seeds picked out already? Anything new you want to try to grow in 2009?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Circumventing circumcision

Circumcision in EgyptThis really is a taboo topic in our society and, regardless of whatever health benefits are purported one way or the other regarding male circumcision, there really isn't a whole lot of consistent data to back it up.

Some scientists argue that being circumcised protects the female partner from HPV and cervical cancer. Some say that it doesn't affect rates of HIV infection in homosexual men, but it does in heterosexual men. Recent research also shows that being circumcised doesn't affect male satisfaction. All these studies were reported over the last year, yet the evidence one way or the other really hasn't conclusively changed over the last 40 years.

So, what's the scoop then? Is there a "medical necessity" for circumcision even though the benefits in even some of the high risk groups studied can be deemed somewhat negligible? What are parents choosing these days for their children?

I highly suspect that the choice is driven not only by personal experience but by geography. But does it really all come down merely to aesthetics? Do we convince ourselves that there is a medical benefit because it backs up the fact that we, as Americans, prefer a circumcised "style"?

Since we rarely talk about this even among other parents at school, church, etc. I wanted to ask you what you think about circumcision. What do you think of the practice and what is your opinion of likening it to female circumcision? Is it the same thing, but just a different cultural, religious or aesthetic belief?

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Christmas debt

The money treeI heard the other morning that Americans spent, on average, $600 this year on Christmas gifts. Apparently, this is down from $800 in previous years. I don't know about you, but I was absolutely amazed that people spent that much on Christmas gifts!

No wonder we have a credit problem in this country. Unless these people are saving up all year for buying gifts or spreading it out, which is probably true for a percentage of Americans, they are really taking a hit at the end of the year.

I don't think I spent more than $200 mostly because the majority of the gifts I gave were made from scratch. The ones that I spent money straight out-of-pocket were toys for the kids and gift certificates for nieces/nephews out-of-state.

Did you end up spending more or less than you were expecting on Christmas gifts? Or, maybe the question should be, did you end up spending more or less than you wanted? How does it compare to the national average?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Four gardening wishes

Frozen pumpkinsHere are four things that I wish I had done earlier in the fall when I should have but was actually either too lazy (due to bad, cold, rainy or snowy weather) or my back was out. I'm trying not to kick myself too much, but I have these constant reminders every time I look out the window.

1. Take my pumpkins in and process them. I figured I'd have a heck of a lot more time to bring them inside before it got too cold out. Of course, I could do it now, although all 5 of them are frozen solid. Does anyone know if, when they thaw, they'll still be edible or can be processed?

2. Plant my garlic. I am sooo pissed off about this one. I could have planted it in early October, but I wanted to wait until closer to November. By the time November rolled around the weather on the days I had time to plant was pouring rain. On the days when it was nice out, my back was seizing up on me. No problem I thought. It's warm late this year. I can probably push it to early or mid-December. Well, it's been frozen and/or snowing and I can't exactly plant it with a foot of snow on the ground.

3. Plant my wine grapes. Man, I was being dumb about this. I kept thinking I needed to really prepare the area I wanted to plant this in and, because of time constraints, never got around to doing it. Is it too late to transfer them to the ground once the snow melts?

4. Move my lemon tree inside. Again, it's the back thing. I wanted to wait until after Christmas because, surely, we hadn't even had our first frost where I live until early December! Now that sad little lemon tree is covered in snow, cursing me for not living in Florida and for having no immediate hopes of hanging out with the Christmas tree.

What fall/winter planning items did you hope to get done, but didn't get around to doing this year? If you could go back and do something sooner, what would it have been?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Fertility drugs and cancer

I decided that I wanted to start doing some sort of Science Friday postings based on either something I wanted to discuss or on some science news that I had recently read.

Since we were discussing a few weeks ago whether or not there was an increased risk to women undergoing fertility drug treatment to harvest eggs (both as egg donors and for women undergoing IVF treatment), an article in the December 10th issue of New Scientist, Fertility Drugs Increase Cancer Risk, caught my eye.

Based on this most recently published study, ovulation-inducing drugs seem to have increased the risk of uterine cancer in a group of women who were treated with the drugs over 30 years ago. In a sample size of 15,000 women that had been followed for thirty years, the women in the group who had received the ovulation-inducing drugs had three times the incidence of uterine cancer than members of the group who had not been given these drugs.

For the women who were getting a specific type of drug which tricks the body into making extra eggs by blocking estrogen receptors (clomiphene), the risk was over four times greater. There were also smaller but significant increases in breast cancer, malignant melanoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma associated with taking the drugs.

While it's difficult to draw too many conclusions from this particular study, one thing it does do is bring attention to the fact that more research needs to be done. I think it's also important that the women receiving these drugs be aware of any potential risks so they can be monitored for them.

Now, I am in no way (as I said before in my previous post) against IVF or trying to dissuade women from using IVF as a method of fertility treatment. But, since I have friends who have donated eggs multiple times and my husband worked in IVF for a number of years, this has always been something that has nagged me at the back of my mind: what's the long and short-term risk?

It was one of the warnings on the consent form my friend signed: at the time they did not know what the long-term effects were from the fertility drugs. Mostly the unknown was related to future fertility. So, I wonder if there will be any new information or education (based on this study) given to women receiving ovulation-inducing drugs, or if the results aren't considered that statistically significant to warrant any additional warnings.

Would knowing that you are at a small, but increased risk for a variety of cancers prevent you from using IVF as a fertility treatment if you were a candidate? Would it prevent you from being a donor?

(Image: MBI/Alamy)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Greening your holiday parties

Green for ChristmasSince my son is keeping me busy with his stomach flu, I'm serving up an updated green holiday post for your reading enjoyment.

For many people, food and drink is what getting together is all about. And today's posting is all about how to make your holiday dinners and parties green.

Tableware - Let's start with the foundations. Forget the paper plates and plastic cups. Try to use real dishes if you can. If you must use disposable, try to get something compostable. There are a number of different options. If you must go with disposable, choose bamboo tableware, corn "plastic" or other biodegradable dinnerware.

Table decorations - As with the rest of your house decor, go for the natural. Decorate with bowls of edibles, vases filled with cranberries, etc. For place markings, you can make your own using old Christmas cards or gift tags.

Food - Follow the same guidelines as you used for the Eat Local Thanksgiving Challenge. That is, try to find foods that are local and in season for your area. Choosing organic is even better. If you must have something out of season, look for the organic versions before settling for the conventional. If you eat local, you'll save tons of food miles and if you choose organic you be saving the soil from all those petrochemicals used to grow it.

Beverages - Stick with local or organic wines, local juices and stay away from soda and bottled water. Most people won't notice that the pitcher of ice water on the table contains tap water.

Cocktails - What's a holiday without a little classic cocktail party? Just make sure you choose fruits and juices that are organic, if possible, and try some of the following organic spirits if you can find them:

     4 Copas Organic Tequila
     Juniper Green Organic Gin
     Square One Organic Vodka
     Rain Organic Vodka
     ModMix Organic Mixers comes in the following flavors:
  • Pomegranate Cosmopolitan
  • Citrus Margarita
  • Mojito
  • French Martini
  • Lavender Lemon Drop
New Year's Eve - There are a few organic champagnes out there or you can choose any sort of bubbly organic beverage. Again, keep your tableware to reusable, decorations on the natural or reuse side. For example, reuse silver or gold wrapping paper over cardboard boxes to make silver stars you can hang from the ceiling with leftover silver ribbons or even raffia. Dig out that silver tray for your drinks. Frost some grapes in superfine sugar and egg whites for the table (see directions at the bottom of this page).

Stay away from fireworks and throw confetti instead. Preferably something recyclable. You'll save yourself from toxic chemicals and spare your lungs from air pollution.

Host an Eco New Years Resolution Party where each guest commits to a resolution to do something new and green in the New Year. Make a list of green ideas for party goers to choose from.

Ambiance - If you want to light candles, go for the soy or beeswax ones to eliminate breathing in petroleum byproducts from paraffin. If you want to
roast your chestnuts by an open fire (especially if you're Freezing Yer Buns) then choose a Java Log or other eco-friendly firelog instead of a Duraflame. The Java Log burns hotter and higher than the average firelog, diverts coffee grounds from the waste stream and produces far less emissions.

So spend some time this season planning to green your holiday parties. But just remember to eat, drink and be merry!

Monday, December 15, 2008

The pets in your pet food

Yummy, downed meat filled kibbleI ran across this information while I was researching something else, but I thought it was important to share this with you. With the recent melamine scare in our pet foods, this should help bring to light what also is in your pet's food.

Most commercial pet food ingredients all start at the rendering plant, where carcasses of various dead animals are rendered into a by-product that is used primarily for animal and pet feed. What goes into this mix? Well, downed farm animals, dead laboratory animals, what's left over after slaughter of meat and hide animals (such as heads, hoofs, bowels, diseased parts, tumors, bones, contaminated meat and the like), road kill, euthanized or dead companion animals (aka pets), restaurant grease and garbage, and pastries and meat past their pull date from grocery stores.

Given that the amount of money spent on the rendering process does not allow for simple processing of the inputs into the plant coupled with the volume being dealt with, things like flea collars, metal tags, plastic bags, pesticide ear tags from cattle, and the Styrofoam and wrappings from bad grocery store meat all get thrown into the grinder. This is also not to mention the quantities of Sodium Phenobarbital in the bodies of euthanized animals and how that survives the rendering process. I can't imagine these things can be good for your pet in any amount.

When you see the upscale "real meat" stamped proudly on the side of your bag of pet food, they are not referring to the happy chunks of meat that are shown on the packaging and in commercials. Real meat, as defined by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO), is anything but that.

What you are getting in "real meat" is the "flesh derived from slaughtered mammals and is limited to that part of the striate muscle that is skeletal or that which is found in the tongue, diaphragm, heart, or esophagus; with or without the accompanying and overlying fat and the portions of the skin, sinew, nerve, and blood vessels that normally accompany the flesh." Meat by-products are pretty much what's left that wasn't included in that list. Basically, anything listed as "by-product" or "meal" is generally bottom of the barrel material and probably inedible, at that.

As for what is listed as "lamb" or "chicken", the AAFCO allows the rendering plant to call whatever the dominant amount of animal is in that run. Say, for example, that 20% of a run consisted of lamb parts, 15% chicken parts, 15% beef parts, 15% cat and dog carcasses, 15% grocery store refuse, 10% roadkill and 10% waste kitchen grease, that run can be legitimately called "lamb".

And it will be sold as "lamb" and packaged as such on your pet food ingredient list, even though it contains, as you can see, pretty much everything and the kitchen sink. And I'm not including the excrement and trace bits of plastic and garbage that got ground in there as well.

Finally, not all of this rendered material gets exclusively sold for pet food. It also gets sold as livestock feed used to feed the animals that are raised for human consumption.

Now, before we get into a major cracker grinding session here, let me also point out that rendering plants provide an extremely useful service without which there would be tons of rotting animal carcasses spreading diseases far and wide. So, how do we deal with the issue at hand? The rendering plants reduce the carcass burden and turn it into something less of a public health threat - at least directly. The pet food industry fills the gap of what to do with the rendered product. I can't say I could, in good faith, feed my pets this output since I've read this, but what do you do with all this junk?

Essentially, humans are mostly at fault for the necessity of rendering plants. If we didn't raise farm animals, own pets or buy meat from restaurants and grocery stores, there would be no input into this system. Any roadkill or animals dying on their own could be buried or decompose in the wild. In other words, the volume would be considerably less and more manageable.

So, is the very act that we demand meat and companion animals creating this burden on the other end that, literally, feeds back into the system? Rendered products feed livestock and pets which is turn get rendered into feeding more livestock and pets, ad nauseum. It's easy enough to say that we should demand that our livestock and pet food be human quality feed, but then what do we do with the output of the rendering plants? The only way I can see a solution to this problem is to reduce the inputs.

Does anyone have any other ideas on how to solve this problem? Has this changed your perception of the pet foods you purchase?

Additional reading:
Food Pets Die For
Protect Your Pet

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Freeze Yer Buns check-in

Freeze Yer Buns Challenge 2008Holy smokes, people, we are having a cold snap and, as such, we are freezing our buns off! We are supposed to have the lowest temperatures that we've had in twenty years over the next week or so.

We are still sticking to our pledged temperature ranges, but we are using space heaters in the living room and the kid's bedrooms where the central heat doesn't exactly work very well (just to heat them up in the morning and right before bed). The rest of the house is kept relatively cool.

I've been pretty much using my cherry pit bed warmer every night since the beginning of the challenge. I tell you, I love that thing. Nothing makes me more happy than snuggling up to a hot cherry pie. Okay, maybe a few things, but not when I'm cold. Every night my husband has been using one of the microwaveable rice bags that I made for Christmas gifts last year (I had a few left over). So his side of the bed smells like rice pilaf. It's a regular culinary delight at night, I tell you!

I'm also totally impressed at how many people have signed up for the challenge so far. I know a lot of you haven't exactly hit cold temperatures yet, while others have been consistently freezing their buns for a few months already.

That said, how are you guys faring? Have you been able to keep to your temperature pledges? What are you doing to keep warm?

By the way, I've been seeing a lot more articles in magazines and newspapers this year about people keeping their heat low and trying to push their limits. Who knew that it was cool to keep the heat low?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My favorite comment of the day

From yesterday's post (regarding stripping the Endangered Species Act and further endangering polar bears, wolves and a whole host of flora and fauna to serve industry):

Actually global warming is a farce!

http://www.globalwarmingisafarce.com/

Oh and if nature is limiting/killing animals...why would we try and save them? Nature is taking into action it's own population control...so we don't all get eaten...

Comments on this analysis, anyone?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Farewell to Bush fantasy

Polar bear vs. PresidentI was just reading about how President Bush is limiting the protections on polar bears as he makes his way out of office. Basically, he is denying America’s vanishing polar bears some desperately needed protections under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). And then later in the day yesterday, he finalized new ESA regulations that cut huge holes in the safety net that protects wolves, polar bears and other animals and plants in danger of becoming extinct.

According to the Defenders of Wildlife, polar bears are drowning and starving to death as the sea ice they need to survive disappears. Scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey say that polar bears could disappear from Alaska within the next 50 years.

So, while I was looking at the accompanying pictures of these beautiful polar bears, the thought occurred to me: wouldn't it be kinda fun to put George Bush together alone with a polar bear? And wouldn't it be interesting if somehow the bear knew what he had done and just see what happens? Kind of like a Polar Bear vs. President Bush cage match.

I know this sounds horribly cruel and petty and I know at least 5 of you will comment on how childish I am, but, hey! It's my fantasy! No one's getting hurt. Only, in real life, the polar bears are getting decimated. That's what's horribly cruel and petty.

Anyway, since this is a moderately entertaining thought experiment, I thought I'd open it up for you to submit your favorite fantasy with President Bush. And I'm not talking about bondage or anything that will make me want to hurl. No, really, a lot of you have some bad vibes about the outgoing president. What would you subject him to in your fantasy, based on what he's done in office?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Giveaway winner: How to Store Your Garden Produce

How to Store Your Garden ProduceThe winner of the book, How to Store Your Garden Produce: The key to self-sufficiency, by Piers Warren is:

Green Mama

Congratulations! Send me an email with your mailing info to crunchychickenblog@gmail.com.

I hope that this book gives you some new ideas on how to store next year's produce!

Caramel covered homemade marshmallows

Williams Sonoma versionFollowing the theme of recreating Williams Sonoma food gift ideas, I wanted to share with you our latest knock-off. It's the caramel covered marshmallow treat. Also called Modjeskas, these candies were purportedly named after a beautiful Polish actress by an admirer. Shouldn't they be called Pavell's instead?

Anyway, they look a heck of a lot more complicated to make than they actually are. These make great gifts wrapped in wax paper. Especially when you aren't paying $27 a pound for them!

To make the marshmallows:

Ingredients
1 cup confectioners' sugar
2 tablespoons plus 2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1/2 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup hot water (about 115 degrees)
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla

Directions
Oil bottom and sides of a 13 by 9 by 2-inch rectangular metal baking pan and dust bottom and sides with some confectioners' sugar.

In bowl of standing electric mixer, sprinkle gelatin over cold water and let stand to soften.

In a 3-quart heavy saucepan cook granulated sugar, corn syrup, hot water, and salt over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon, until sugar is dissolved. Increase heat to moderate and boil mixture, without stirring, until a candy or digital thermometer registers 240 degrees, about 12 minutes. Remove pan from heat and pour sugar mixture over gelatin mixture, stirring until gelatin is dissolved.

With standing mixer beat on high speed until white, thick and nearly tripled in volume, about 6 minutes. In a large bowl with cleaned beaters beat whites (or reconstituted powdered whites) until they just hold stiff peaks. Beat whites and vanilla into sugar mixture until just combined. Pour mixture into baking pan and sift 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar evenly over top. Chill marshmallow, uncovered, until firm, at least three hours, and up to 1 day.

Run a thin knife around edges of pan and invert pan onto large cutting board. Lifting up 1 corner of inverted pan, with fingers loosen marshmallow and let drop onto cutting board. With a large knife trim edges of marshmallow and cut marshmallows into roughly 1-inch cubes. Sift remaining confectioners' sugar into a large bowl and add marshmallows in batches, tossing to evenly coat. Marshmallows (without caramel) keep in an airtight container at cool room temperature for 1 week.

To make the caramel:

Ingredients
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 cup cream
1/4 cup water
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp salt
16 marshmallows (see recipe above)
Wax paper

Directions
Cut the wax paper into 2 inch x 3 inch wide strips. You may need to adjust the size of your wax paper depending on how big your marshmallows are.

Place the sugar, water, cream, and corn syrup in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the butter until it is melted. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally until the caramel reaches 238 degrees, then remove from the heat.

Stir in the vanilla and salt. Allow the caramel to thicken and cool for 10-15 minutes until it cools to about 175 degrees.

To dip the marshmallows:

Using a fork, drop a marshmallow into the caramel and turn it over until it is completely covered. Remove the marshmallow from the caramel, letting excess caramel drip off. Place the marshmallow on a piece of wax paper.

Continue dipping with the remaining marshmallows. If the caramel becomes too stiff, place it over the heat for a minute or two until it becomes easy to work with.

Allow the candies to set fully at room temperature before wrapping. Store excess candies in an airtight container at room temperature.

Related posts:
Chocolate peppermint bark
Holiday gift basket
White chocolate raspberry jam

Repurposing wool into critters

Wool crittersDo you have some old wool sweaters or skirts you don't know what to do with? How about some pillows that you'd like to recycle but don't know how?

Well, here's a craft project that takes that wool and pillow stuffing and makes some super cute stuffed animals to give as gifts.

Now, I really can't stand Martha Stewart for a variety of reasons, but I have to admit, she does some cool stuff. Basically, for this project, all you need to do is felt the wool you are going to use (essentially washing it in hot water - 100% wool works best) and cut out the pieces based on the templates from the website. You then stitch the pieces together, stuff with your old pillow polyester filling or other batting and you are done!

Another fun idea is to make mini Christmas ornaments out of the templates by shrinking the templates down to a smaller size before you print them. You'll most likely have to handstitch the critters since they'll be so small, but think of the fun menagerie you'll have on the tree! Just don't forget to stitch in a ribbon for hanging. You can also attach the mini ornaments to gifts to help share the repurposing love.

If you don't feel like giving these barnyard friends away, they can easily double as pincushions (especially the pig). Just size them accordingly when you print out the patterns. Finally, if you have kitties, you can also make these critters mini sized and fill them with catnip to keep your furry felines happy for the holidays.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Giveaway: How to Store Your Garden Produce

How to Store Your Garden ProduceIn the book, How to Store Your Garden Produce: The key to self-sufficiency, author Piers Warren contends that, with less than an acre of garden, you can grow enough produce to feed a family of four for a year.

However, without the proper storage, most of it will go to waste since much of the produce ripens simultaneously in the summer. So, this book teaches you simple techniques for storing your produce so you can enjoy your home grown produce year round.

Piers starts out by describing the various methods of storage beginning with basic methods and covering the whole gamut including clamping, freezing, drying, vacuum-packing, salting, canning and fermenting and ending with pickles, relishes, sauces, jams and jellies. In the second part of the book, the author goes into detail on how to preserve various kinds of produce from fruits to vegetables - including such unusual items like chicory and salsify. Celeriac wine, anyone?

I'm not sure if I'd use many of the recipes included in the book (the British have an inordinate fondness for gooseberries), but if you are wondering how to preserve a certain type of fruit or vegetable, this book gives you some good suggestions. And, even though this book is a little light on in-depth techniques, you'll still want to cuddle up with Piers in bed this winter to learn about and plan how you'll store next year's garden bounty.

If you are interested in signing up for this book giveaway, add your name to the comments of this post. The giveaway ends this Thursday, December 11th at 6:00 pm PST. I'll be doing a random drawing and announcing a winner shortly thereafter. If you've won a book (or blanket) from me recently, I haven't forgotten about you... since my back went out I haven't been able to lift the boxes to take to the post office, but I'll get them out this Friday.

Related posts:
Fresh Food from Small Spaces
Preserving food for the winter

Monday, December 8, 2008

American population control

As somewhat of a follow-on to last week's post, I wanted to discuss the issue of demographics and population control outside the emotional considerations made in last week's comments.

Given that Americans use, by far, considerably more resources per capita than any citizen of any other country in the world, should population control measures be introduced (a la China) to acquire better control of environmental and resource impact? Since Americans seem rather unwilling to substantially lower their carbon footprint on their own, perhaps controlling things on the other end of the coin makes more sense.

By controlling the number of Americans on the planet, or those living a high impact lifestyle, do we achieve the same goal of resource preservation and reduction in environmental degradation? In other words, by advising (or requiring) that Americans only reproduce at the replacement rate of approximately 2 children per mating couple (that is, maximum two offspring per person), can we mitigate disaster? This is sometimes called a birth permit system (1.05 permits per person, where each couple gets 2.1 permits), thereby essentially allowing a cap and trade system on reproduction.

I know that many will argue that the biggest upcoming threat to the environment are developing countries such as China and India, but the reality is that the individuals in those societies use far less resources than Americans do. And, when you stop to consider it, a large proportion of pollution generated by countries like China is due to demand of manufactured goods by Americans.

Our demand for cheap products drives the industries that pollute. For us to turn around and complain that this pollution is unfair is really, actually, unfair. The Chinese individual, for the most part, does not benefit from the cheap Elmo toys and dollar goods being generated. Quite the contrary, they suffer immeasurably due to polluted air and water. You can argue that the demand is providing jobs, but given the pittance they are actually getting paid for that labor, it is an arguable benefit at best.

So, what's the solution? If we don't voluntarily and drastically reduce our per personal carbon and resource consumption, is population control of high impact societies a realistic alternative? Would you support a restriction on reproduction?

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Greening your holiday decorations

Green for ChristmasToday, I'm serving up an updated green holiday post to get you in the spirit. This post covers everything you wanted to know and then some about greening up your holiday lighting and decorations.

Outdoor Christmas lights - I live in an area well-known for it's Christmas lights and yard decorations. In fact, we actually have tour buses come through the neighborhood. It's a bit insane and the pressure is intense. Last year I went on the hunt for LED lights (since we didn't yet own any outdoor lights), but they were hard to come by. So, I'm happy to see that this year more stores are carrying them. They are still more expensive, but you save money because they are soooo much cheaper to run since they use a fraction of the electricity (10% of incandescent) and they last forever. I'm not going to replace our new bulbs due to the cost, but I will be running the lights less this year. Eventually I will replace them with LED when the old (new?) ones wear out.

Christmas trees - If you can, make sure you get a fresh Christmas tree from a sustainable source, like a tree farm. Choose organic if you can find one. You can make getting a tree a family tradition by going to a U-Cut tree farm to select and/or chop down your own tree (see the Puget Sound Fresh listings if you live in Western WA). If you do get a fresh tree, look into the tree recycling options in your area. Or rent a wood chipper and make you're own mulch - just be safe and stay out of it yourself.

Artificial trees consume significant energy and petroleum-based materials (and lead!) during their manufacture and transport, but a one time purchase that gets used for years and years and years may make up for the gas spent in transporting that fresh Christmas tree as well as the chemicals used in growing the trees. In my mind it's a bit of a trade off if you can't find an organic tree. You might want to see if you can find a used artificial tree - you may even be able to find one on Craigslist in your area.

Wanna see the details on the Christmas tree debate? Well, the real winner is not having one at all, but like the picture above says, you don't have to be the Grinch to be green for Christmas and I don't think many people will budge on this one, so go organic if you can.

Christmas tree trimmings - Again, go with the LED lights and string up strands of popcorn or cranberries (if they are local). Use old craft paper to make paper chains. Of course you should reuse all those old tree trimmings but ask yourself if you really need more. If so, make it into an annual family event where each person picks out a new decoration. At the thrift store. Or better yet, take old knick knacks, jewelry, pins or other suitable things that you don't want anymore and convert them into something you can hang on the tree.

Home decorations - Attach those Christmas cards you get in the mail onto a long ribbon with double sided tape (or reusable small safety pins) and hang on the wall. Get creative! Collect scraps of fabric, old cards and boxes and get your family and friends together to create decorations that will have more sentimental value than anything you can buy. You can do pretty much anything with non-toxic paints and glitter.

If you need ideas, check out 101 Ideas for Christmas Decorations. Note - they aren't all environmentally friendly, but you'll get the idea. For a more natural looking home (think Pottery Barn), decorate the mantel with fallen branches and pinecones. Trim some of that overgrown holly and ivy from the yard and put it to good use.

Instead of buying another poinsettia this year, decorate the table with an arrangement of rosemary, sage, thyme or other woody herbs. Or you can fill a vase with pinecones or cranberries. Put out a bowl of edibles such as fruits and nuts - whatever's in season in your area. And, if you use candles, make sure you choose soy or beeswax candles over the petroleum-based ones, they are better for you and the environment.

If you still want more decorations, check thrift stores and garage sales for recycled decorations.

Crunchy's holiday gift basket

Okay, since I'm actually busy this weekend trying to squeeze in making all the handmade things that will go into the holiday gift baskets I'm giving away for Christmas (nothing like waiting until the last minute!), I don't have time to write a super thoughtful post for today.

So, instead, I'm going to tell you what's going into the gift baskets. I'm including links for how to make the items yourself if you want to know how I'm doing them:

1. Peppermint bark
2. Spiced nuts
3. Homemade, dried pasta (if I have time)
4. White chocolate raspberry jam with coffee liqueur

5. Candy cane sugar scrub
6. PiƱa colada whipped body butter
7. Silk lavender eye mask

I had so much lavender that I dried from the garden over the summer that I really wanted to make something to give away. I'm not sure if I'll get around to making the sleepy eyes on them, but it's a cute idea.

I'm trying to go for a mix of things that will appeal to both genders (food for the guys and pampering for the gals). I still have a few things left over from last year (like microwaveable rice bags and bath scrubbies that I knit) that will go into gift bags for those who didn't get them last year.

I'll also be including a cheat sheet with the gifts to explain how to use certain items and include ingredients instead of trying to write individual tags for them. Call me lazy, but I think it will be easier and I can spend my energy on the gifts themselves instead.

By the way, for the Candy cane sugar scrub I ended up doing colored layers rather than a swirl since it was much easier that way.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Candy cane themed holiday gift ideas

As promised, here are a few easy to make homemade holiday gift giving ideas. I've included one food item and one beauty care item in case you prefer one or both!

Layered peppermint barkI suspect I'm not the only one being bombarded by Williams Sonoma and Crate and Barrel catalogs all sporting delicious tins of chocolate peppermint bark. I've had the stuff from Williams Sonoma and it's mighty tasty, but for about $30 a pound, I knew I could do much better (Crate and Barrel's is something like $15 for 14 ounces).

So, even with using high quality Callebaut chocolate (on sale this week in the Seattle area at Town and Country Markets for $4.99 a pound) it's much, much cheaper to make it yourself.

Peppermint Bark

Ingredients

16 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
12 ounces high quality white chocolate, chopped
6 candy canes, coarsely crushed (about 6 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon peppermint extract

Instructions
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper or foil.

Melt bittersweet chocolate in double boiler until it is melted and smooth. Stir in peppermint extract. Cool to barely lukewarm, about 5 minutes. Pour bittersweet chocolate mixture onto cookie sheet. Using a spatula, spread the chocolate so that it is about 1/4 inch thick. Chill for about 15 minutes or until it is set.

Meanwhile, melt the white chocolate in a double boiler until it is melted and smooth. Cool until it is barely lukewarm (about 5 minutes). Pour the white chocolate onto the cooled bittersweet chocolate, using a spatula to spread out the chocolate to cover the first layer evenly.

Immediately sprinkle top layer with crushed candy canes. Let it sit for about 10 minutes and then chill just until firm, about 20 minutes. It can be broken apart or cut into rectangles. Store in an airtight container in a cool place or freeze. Allow it to come to room temperature before serving.

You can pack the bark in glass jars that are decorated with red ribbon and candy canes for a sweet touch.

Candy Cane Sugar Scrub

Crushed candy canes are really just sugar right? So, why not add them to a sugar scrub to make a super festive beauty treat?

Ingredients
1 cup granulated white sugar
6 candy canes, finely crushed almost into a powder
1/2 cup sweet almond oil (or olive oil)
1/2 teaspoon vitamin E oil (optional - used as a preservative)
1 teaspoon cocoa butter (optional)
6 drops peppermint essential oil

Instructions
Mix all ingredients until well blended. Place into a clean glass jar with a tight lid and add a fancy label. I highly recommend the 1/2 pint wide mouth canning jars and wide mouth plastic storage lids.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Handmade holiday gifts

Over on Simple, Green, Frugal Coop they've been discussing lately about what they would like to give away as handmade holiday gifts. Heather did a bang up job with her Homemade Laundry Soap gift bags (run, don't walk, to steal this great gift idea). It looked a little complicated to me, but I'm still wary of making your own laundry soap and using it in a front loading, low-water washer. I really don't want to break my overpriced piece of equipment, but I'm in love with her gift bags.

Paul's starterPaul, God love him, also presented something that, in theory is a fantastic gift, but in practice, comes off a little creepy. His Homemade Sourdough Starter would, frankly, scare the crap out of any recipient I know. I can only imagine their surprise when they open up this gift and discover a jarred frothy swish of Paul's, um, starter.

Now if you read his post you will find that he started it from packaged yeast and its been fermenting a long time, most likely intermingling with wild yeast native to where he lives, but how do you explain this gift?

"Hey, yeah, no, let me explain. My husband's been working on collecting that for about a year and a half now and we wanted to share it with you. No, really, he says that it 'only tastes better with age!'. I hope you like it."

Okay, Paul, I sure as hell hope you have a good sense of humor. You know mine is two steps left of disgusting. Anyway, if I had the huevos, I think it would be great to pass these out, adding a little gift tag with the origins of the starter yeast:

This sourdough starter has been in our family for over 25 years. The original yeast was collected from the unwashed stomach folds of my 350 pound grandmother during one of the hottest summers in Mississippi right before she passed away. It is considered a family heirloom and I'm glad to share it with you. Each time you bake using this starter, I hope it reminds you of my grandmother's good cooking.

Alrighty then. Congratulations if you made it this far. Tomorrow, I swear that I'll share with you the recipe for an easy homemade holiday gift.

In the meantime, what's your favorite handmade gift to give away?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Homemade clay mask

Clay mask ingredientsWell, after yesterday's rousing post I thought I'd do something a little more inert today. I wanted to share with you how to make your own homemade clay facial mask.

People have used clay masks for thousands of years to help clear pores, slough off the dead outer layer of skin and soothe and calm inflammation. It's really very simple to make at home and you can get the clay at a natural foods store.

In this recipe, the lactic acid in the milk (alpha hydroxy acid) helps slough off dead skin cells, the clay helps to clear out your pores and the honey helps to soothe.

3 - 4 tablespoons whole milk
2 tablespoons clay (Green or French Clay and White Kaolin are good choices)
1 teaspoon honey
4 drops essential oils (optional)

Clay and aspirin maskMix the ingredients together adding more milk or water if the mask is too dry. Apply evenly to face (and neck if you want) avoiding the eye area. Leave on for 15 minutes or until dry and rinse off with warm water. I usually wash my face following a mask just to ensure that I've removed all of it.

Now, my favorite facial mask is an aspirin scrub that I use in conjunction with a clay mask. This works well only if you have oily skin that is not sensitive. Essentially, the salicylic acid in the aspirin works like any commercial product in helping clear out your pores.

What I end up doing is dissolving about 3 uncoated aspirins in a very small amount of water and mixing it into the clay mask. It acts as a scrub when you put on the mask. Leave it on for the same amount of time and voila! Clear skin.

Related posts:
Hand Rescue Cream
Sugaring hair removal
Coconut oil hair conditioner

And the (Amazon) winner is...

The winner of the $75 Amazon gift card giveaway is:

Equa Yona (Big Bear)

Congratulations, Roger! Let me know what email address you want the gift certificate sent to!

Now, let's see here. That's 4 male winners in a row. What's going on with you ladies? Did you do something to piss off the random generator?

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