Thursday, August 26, 2010


If August were a woman she would be draped in red, with long red hair, and a fiery temper.  I'm pretty sure she just stormed into my house dumped a bunch of tomatoes and zucchini on my kitchen floor, looked at me lovingly, and, just as I was getting used to having her around, said she was about ready to leave.  Sigh.  That is the way of passionate love affairs, I guess.  When it goes that way, you can usually console your self with a zip-up hoodie your fiery-tempered lover has left behind in their haste.  In this way August's leaving me is similar.  She is leaving her bounty for me to savor while she slips out the door and the slow, cool comfort of Autumn takes her place. 
Last year, with the blight, there was scarcely a tomato around.  I bought a box of sauce tomatoes from a local farm and made a batch of ketchup that wasn't very good.  Well, it was good, but it wasn't ketchup.  If you thought of it as tomato spread, or something like that it was alright. But if you sat there with your french fry and thought, "I can't wait to have some ketchup," you would find yourself disappointed.  The spices were too strong and all wrong.    It did, however, make a mean BBQ Sauce. 

This year there are tomatoes! It is very exciting. So far, I have preserved them by:

1. Roasting and Freezing:  Set your oven to 200 degrees, cut Tomatoes in half and line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and place tomatoes on the sheet cut side down.  Roast for 2 hours.  When they come out of the oven, let them cool so you can touch them.  The skins with just slip right off.  Pack a mason jar 2/3 full only! (the jar will crack in the freezer if it's more than that), and pop it in the freezer.  These can be used later for sauce or soup.  The roasting makes the flavor absolutely incredible. 

2. "Sun Dry" (dehydrate):  I sliced the big tomatoes into thirds and dehydrated them in my electric dehydrator for about a day.  The plum tomatoes I sliced in half and dehydrated them for longer.  The manual says it shouldn't take this long, but that's how long it took.  I am still having trouble finding the right consistency.  I know they should be leathery, but when they are they still seem wet, and I don't want them to mold.   So the truth is some of them are a little crisper than usual.  I'll have to soften them in water before I use them.  I have also dehydrated the cherry tomatoes. We had an abundance, and I couldn't figure out what to do with them.  We sliced them in half and dehydrated them (they are doing this right now) and I will pack them in olive oil in jelly jars. 

3. Tomato Jam:  What's tomato jam?  I don't really know.  It seems like it's similar to ketchup bu not as thick.  My two-and-a-half-year-old says, "I yike dis tomato jam, Mama."  I took the recipe from The Big Book Preserving the Harvest. 

4. Tomato Sauce:  This recipe I took from Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.  It is a water bath recipe, which means that it doesn't have to be pressure canned.  It has lemon juice added to boost the acidity so we don't get botulism.  I also boiled the ever-living life out of that stuff.  So hopefully we won't all die from a home cooked spaghetti dinner. 

I am hoping to make some salsa, some real ketchup, and some more tomato sauce.  I don't really have enough right now to make it through winter.  I think more than likely I will be spending the weekend gathering sauce tomatoes and canning.  Which is fine, really.  Now that the summer is coming to an end, my panicky feelings that it won't be enough are (mostly) turning into contended feelings of having done the best I could.  And after last year, I'm grateful for any tomatoes.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Monarch

I love seeing images in field guides of cool, lesser noticed bugs, the really big ones, or the ones that have more colors than most, or even the ones that live for a brief moment in time and then go on their journey into death and beyond.  It makes it all seem something like a treasure hunt.  In all my (relatively) brief years, I have never seen an actual monarch caterpillar.  They are so big and so yellow, that it seems amazing that I've never come across one, but there you have it.

"MOM! Come quick!"
I hear this a lot.  It is usually followed by "See what Hunter did!"
(Her mischievous younger sister)

But this time it was followed by, "See what I found!"
'Lo and behold my daughter had found a bona-fide monarch caterpillar that was huge, and most likely in its last instar before going into it's pupal stage.  She found it chomping away on our milkweed plants right next to the front porch (which is, of course, exactly why we planted them).
Inspired by this momma here, I thought we would make an environment for her and watch this miracle happen.  I had a large glass biscotti jar I got at a yard sale, got some sticks and milkweed leaves, a piece of screen and a rubber band and got to work. I found a lot of helpful information here at the Butterfly School.  Did you know that caterpillars don't need water in their "house" because they get all the water they need from the plants they eat?  Did you know that caterpillar poop is called frass?  Did you know how loud the term "pupa" will make a four-year-old laugh? Well, neither did I. Look how much smarter we are already. 

At first the little one ate.

And ate.

And ate some more. 
It was the very hungry caterpillar all over again.

Then it stopped.  I got freaked out and called the Audubon society.  They informed me (without even laughing a little bit) they they don't eat continuously without stopping ever, and that it probably just needed a rest.  She was right.  It ate and ate a bit after that. 
Toward the evening it started to climb up the side of the jar.  This was really amazing to watch.  As she climbed she was swaying her head back and forth, kind of like she was questing for something.  As I sat (the girls were heading off to bed at this point) with my arms folded on the table and my head resting upon them, I saw that she was actually weaving a silky ladder for herself.  It seemed the jar was too slippery for her to hang on without some help.  So she made this ladder, and slept there on the side of the jar.  When my husband came downstairs after putting the kids to sleep, he asked if I was going to watch it all night and that it seemed like it was probably sleeping. 

The next morning we gave it fresh leaves and it seemed to just sort of putz around.  By the next day it was hanging from the screen in the tell-tale "J" shape!  We were headed out that day, and I was so afraid that we would miss the magical chrysalis transformation into the pupal stage (hahahaha). 
When we came home there was a bright green thing coming from the head area, and some liquid dripping.  I immediately thought it was dead.  But after my previous folly into freakedoutedness, before calling the authorities I decided to wait.  And then we waited one more day.  It was dead. 
When I had spoken to the Audubon lady she talked a bit about how sometimes they die.  She said, "People get so fussy about them and monitor their every move.  But sometimes they die.  It's just the way it is."

I was heartbroken.  And I was so sad to have to tall my kids.  Athena asked if we could wait another day, and so we did.  By this time it was beginning to shrivel and dry up.  When I told her it was really dead her response was, "Can I hold it now?" I hadn't let her handle it again since I learned that we have bacteria on our hands that can kill it, and I was afraid her little sister would crush it by accident. 

Her response blows my mind.  She's a really different kind of kid than I was (am).  If I had gone through something like this at her age I would have been inconsolable for days.  Possibly years.  Really, there is still some lame stuff that still gives me pangs.  Like that time I threw my Chatty Cathy Doll off the second story balcony to see what would happen.  It breaks.  (pang).  But Athena just moves on to the next truth. It's dead now, so we can't hurt it, I can hold it.  Just like that.  Don't think she's cold either, she loves all living things, and they love her.  I seriously just watched a lobster fall asleep in her arms the other day.  A lobster. But she has a very matter-of-fact was of looking at things.  She inherits this handy skill from her father, and not from me.  I am still honing my matter-of-fact skills. 
Later that week we were by the tomatoes and I heard, "MOM! Come Quick!"
I hurried over, checking to make sure the little one was in view. 
"Look! Frass!"
She had found a pile of frass identical to the one the monarch left behind.  We rooted around to see if we could get another, but it was long gone. 

So our butterfly adventure didn't turn out the way we (or the Monarch) hoped, but we learned a little.  My kid has a sharper, keener eye for the nature around her, and her momma learned to enjoy the beauty of what is, whether it falls in with my expectations or not.  Thanks, Kid.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


I am on a mission to reduce my consumption.  I have tightened the screws, and as supplies run out, I am looking for less wasteful or reusable ways to replace them.  I have been patiently waiting for the toothpaste to run out completely to motivate me to try out some recipes. 

When I began my inquires to the Internet about how to make toothpaste, I came across a few interesting things.  One was the information that toothpaste usually has aspartame in it.  This is apparently what make toothpaste so sweet.  I am a little embarrassed to say that I had never even thought about toothpaste being sweet, let alone what makes it that way.  Needless to say, I'm glad we won't be having any more of that before breakfast.  Another ingredient in commercial toothpaste is glycerin.  This is also makes it sweet and it gives toothpaste its pasty consistency.  Many natural recipes also use vegetable glycerin.  I had to look up glycerin to find out what it actually is.  I do have some I got at the pharmacy because it is needed in the task of making snow globes (it helps suspend the glitter flakes in the water, making their decent delightfully slower).  I found that "Glycerin is a thick liquid that is colorless and sweet tasting. It has a high boiling point and freezes to a paste. Glycerin's most common use is in soap and other beauty products like lotions, though it is also used, in the form of nitroglycerin, to create dynamite." Oh. Wait, what?!  

So, I read more.  Basically, glycerin is a chemical that is derived from the soap making process.  It comes from fats which can be vegetable or animal.  It's sweet, syrupy, and pulls moisture to itself, which is why it is used in a lot of lotions.  Now, without making my degree in fine arts and not in science painfully clear, I will try to explain why it is controversial.  I read some information that suggests the reason why it hydrates the skin so well is because it is actually pulling the moisture from your own skin's deeper layers, drying your body from the inside out.  It also is a dubious toothpaste ingredient because it appears to leave a film on the teeth for days, preventing remineralization of the teeth.  

When in doubt--Leave it out.  So I did.  

Don't even get me started on fluoride.  Seriously, I don't want you to think I really belong on a compound in Montana with a sniper rifle strapped to my back.  But, "The fluoride added to 90% of drinking water is hydrofluoric acid which is a compound of fluorine that is a chemical byproduct of aluminum, steel, cement, phosphate, and nuclear weapons manufacturing.  Such fluoride is man made. In this form, fluoride has no nutrient value whatsoever. It is one of the most caustic of industrial chemicals. Fluoride is the active toxin in rat poisons and cockroach powder.  Hydrofluoric acid is used to refine high octane gasoline, to make fluorocarbons and chlorofluorocarbons for freezers and air conditioners, and to manufacture computer screens, fluorescent light bulbs, semiconductors, plastics, herbicides, -- and toothpaste."  I don't want fluoride in my toothpaste either.  

So what did I do instead?  I made m'self some toothpaste out of coconut oil, baking soda, peppermint essential oil, and stevia.  
See? This stuff comes from the kitchen.
Why these things?  Well, apparently we don't need much more than flossing, gentle brushing and a mild plaque-sanding abrasive to keep our teeth healthy (not to mention plenty of dark, leafy greens filled with calcium).  The baking soda is the abrasive, the stevia is to make it a little sweeter (it's a plant extract you can use as a calorie-free sugar substitute), the peppermint is to freshen your breath and hide the unpleasant taste of baking soda, and the coconut oil is to make it pasty.  I saw a lot of recipes that included things like hydrogen peroxide and tea tree oil.  These ingredients would be added to kill bacteria, but that's a little too much chemical for me.  Tea tree essential oil is natural and everything, but it's pretty serious.  I was thinking of adding a little bit of sage tincture to the toothpaste, but I ended up just adding it to my mouthwash instead.  Sage in an anti-viral and had been used to treat gingivitis, so I figured I was in good shape to use this.  
But back to the toothpaste.  First I used equal parts coconut oil and baking soda (2 Tablespoons each):

Then I added 1 more tablespoon of  baking soda:
Then a little more....
Then one more.
In the end I used 2 tablespoons coconut oil to 4 tablespoons baking soda.

Then I added 35 drops of stevia to the mix.  Stevia has a sweetness equivalent that is something like 2 drops stevia to 1 tsp sugar.  it's pretty sweet, but it has nothing in it to rot your teeth, add pounds or cause cancer in lab rats in the state of California.  After that I added about 10 drops peppermint oil.  Both of these ingredients are about personal taste. 

It came out pretty good.  My oldest daughter loves it, my youngest, not so much.  But they both use it.  We have been using it for maybe a month now, no problems.  Except the dispensing. I tried to get a small squeeze bottle but it didn't work.  Someone somewhere on the Internet had the idea of taking an empty toothpaste tube, cutting off the end, filling it that way and using one of those toothpaste pushers to seal the end.  This seems fairly brilliant and I plan to try it out just as soon as I get my hands on one of those things and an empty toothpaste tube.  For now we just kind of scoop a little bit out of an amber glass jar.  Not ideal, but it works.  

This is my final recipe:

2 Tbsp Coconut oil
4 Tbsp Baking Soda
35 Drops Stevia Extract
10 Drops Peppermint Essential Oil

Mix.  Brush.  Feel Free. 

Monday, August 9, 2010

It's Busy Here!

Summer is in full swing and things have been moving at a quick pace.  I haven't had a moment to sit down and write about the projects, recipes and adventures we're having, but they are happening none-the-less. Here is a sneak preview in pictures of some of the things I've been up to.  Details to follow....
Caterpillars and Worms

Toothpaste and Tinctures
Art Spaces
 and dubious parenting (that's right, she's asleep standing up)