Friday, January 29, 2010

Discoveries in the Produce Aisle

It is late January and snowing in New Haven, and yet another cold front is howling in.

I have turned all the apples we picked in the Fall into sauce. I have cooked all my butternut and acorn squashes. The tastes of Summer I had packed away in the freezer — poached peaches, ratatouille, and bags of Cape Cod cranberries — are dwindling fast.

CitySeed is running a Saturday market in Wooster Square, but only one a month. And the pickings are slim. By no means a locavore, I do try hard to keep my grocery list footprint small. Reasonably local dairy and bread are easy choices, fruits and vegetables much more difficult.

Late last Winter I gave myself a challenge: to scour the produce section of Shaw’s to try to find something from New England (CT is quite small, after all.) And find it I did. Next to the bright orange California carrots were stacked some one pound bags of what looked to be anemic carrot cousins. The something? “Sugar Mountain Fresh Parsnips,” “grown and packed by Manheim Farm, Whately, MA, USA.” (According to Google Maps, 91.4 miles from my address.)

Parsnips were on the short list of vegetables my family never ate. I was clueless, but resolute, and purchased a bag. I turned to The Art of Simple Food and Simply In Season by Cathleen Hockman-Wert and Mary Beth Lind for help. Alice Waters’s advice was to cook the parsnips in salted water until tender and then puree, alone or with other root vegetables. The Mennonites inspired me to try Maple Parsnip Soup — easy to make, thick and creamy, with a wonderful play of tangy mustard against sweet maple (a second New England product.) This success led me to develop my own improvisation— dicing a parsnip and a turnip, and then sauteing them in olive oil before adding to a batch of pea soup. What a nice kick these roots give!

I decided to learn more about these winter wonders. Parsnips, like carrots, are members of the parsley family. From the parsnip chapter of Root Development of Vegetable Crops, I learned that the parsnip has an amazing root system, with taproots commonly extending 8’ down. If you add that to the 17” height of the foliage, that makes a typical parsnip plant nearly 9.5 feet tall, a lot more impressive than what you see in a plastic bag!

Take some time to root around your produce section. Culinary adventures and botanical discoveries await those brave enough to leave their comfort zones.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Transportation Envy

For the first six years of my life, my family did not own a car. I grew up taking public transportation from my “bedroom community” into Cambridge or Boston for lessons, work, movies, concerts. I love leaving my car behind and always use public transportation when I visit a large city. But in New Haven, it’s not so easy to be Green.

Yesterday was my first morning back at Gateway Community College where I have been taking science classes for the past year. The college is on a major bus route, and  it is just one bus, the “Z,” to Gateway if I walk 10 minutes from my house to the nearest stop. The class is at 8 am, and at that time of day, the bus runs every 10 minutes. The lot at Gateway is always full, and there are no bike racks, so taking the bus to GCC is for me a no-brainer. 

I can say with certainty that for most people riding with me, the Z bus is the only way they can get to their destination, and that getting where they need to go takes at least one bus before the Z. I am also sure that for some the fare is a challenge. Many are headed to the Department of Social Services (the next stop after GCC) or the medical center (one stop before). The majority exit at GCC with me. 

By the time class gets out, the buses run every 30 minutes, and the route is not timed to class dismissal. Gateway is 2.2 miles from my house, and an interesting walk back over a new bridge to the train station, to downtown, and then home. I discovered early on that not only was the walk a great way to unwind, but that I would usually pass “my” bus back just as I was arriving at “my” stop. So, I chose to ride one way and walk the other. I was exceedingly lucky and all through the first winter, spring, summer, and fall never encountered a weather situation where this plan did not work out.

The challenges of the bus did not really hit home until yesterday when I exited the college into horizontal rain. Walking home was not an option, so I went back inside to consult the schedule. Just before the bus was due to arrive, I dashed across the busy and flooded Sargent Drive to the bus shelter. (No, the bus does not pull up to the college to pick up passengers.) The shelter is small; perhaps 10 people were jammed in, and at least 30 more huddled outside, getting even wetter each time someone’s umbrella reversed. Two buses arrived and stopped, but refused to take passengers or let anyone out of the rain. A third one, actually “IN SERVICE,” finally parked behind the previous two and opened its doors, a good 10 minutes late. Ten minutes and $1.25 later I was at my stop and a 10 minute walk from home. I do not think I have ever been more wet with clothes on. But I shouldn’t complain. I had heard the chatter on the bus. “I still have two more buses.” “I’m lucky, I just have one.” I wondered how well the bus schedules dovetailed, whether the stops had shelters, and when these bedraggled riders would finally get home.

Those of you in bigger cities, take advantage of your BART and Muni, your CTA and Metra, your MBTA, and your MTA. Believe me, you are lucky to have them, and the fare is a bargain.

I really missed my car yesterday. But I’ll be back on CTTransit tomorrow. I hope the sun will be shining down on me as I walk home.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Cleaning Up/Cleaning Green

1 cup white vinegar + 1 cup hot water + 1 teaspoon borax + 10 drops essential peppermint oil, mixed well and poured into a spray bottle. This variation of a recipe I had downloaded from Women’s Voices for the Earth really works! I put this formula to the test yesterday on a really dirty wooden floor, finished with polyurethane.  So dirty that I rinsed afterward.

I have empirical evidence to back up the Women’s claim that vinegar would cut through the accumulated mineral deposits and grease. When I was finished with my task, the floor was shiny and without film or residue, and the room had a wonderfully pleasant smell. (I had added the peppermint at  the suggestion of a friend who told me that Dr. Oz had added it to his brew on Oprah.) The cost — less than 15¢/ batch, with generic vinegar bought by the gallon. Sold for aromatherapy, the optional oil is the biggest investment. Choose your fragrance, and it will run you about $4/.5 oz. At 10 drops a batch, .5 oz. will last a long time.

The book I mentioned a few posts ago, Green Cleaning for Dummies, is a great resource. It offers many safe, home-brewed alternatives for brightening laundry, washing windows, removing stains — virtually any cleaning task — as well as many other suggestions for running a Green home. The main required ingredients are vinegar, baking soda, and borax — all available at the supermarket. I’m not sure I’m ready to make my own laundry detergent; the machine is too expensive for me to take such a chance. But I am ready to try almost anything else.

If you want to make your own cleaners, but are not ready to purchase a book just yet, you can find many recipes at the Women’s Voices for the Earth site. Just be sure to invest in an industrial strength spray bottle, not a plant mister. It is worth the extra change to get one with strong walls, and a durable spray trigger.

And if you want to embrace the concept of cleaning Green, but aren’t ready to make your own, the Consumer Reports site can help you verify the environmental claims, as well as the effectiveness, of most commercially available products.

For real savings, follow the advice in Green Cleaning for Dummies. You will be rewarded for being Green by getting some extra green for your wallet. A perk for doing a good thing. Who can argue with that?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Chickens in My Backyard?

The City of New Haven recently passed an ordinance that allows residents to keep chickens in the backyard. Debate was contentious. The final ordinance is very strict — up to six hens (no roosters), with many requirements and restrictions covering the size of chicken coops, their placement, and their distance from residences and property lines.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (P.S.)I had recently read Barbara Kingsolver’s  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When I heard this news, I thought dreamily about the prospect of chickens in the backyard. But then I considered the reality of my particular yard.

My yard might not look like Wild Kingdom, but over the years it has been the host site for lots of visitors. The usual city rodents. And the raccoon in the tree who startled me one “trash night,” as he leered at me just inches away when I reached up to fill the bird feeder.

And birds of many varieties. One autumn a flock of cedar waxwings descended on our hawthorn and spent an entire day devouring every last berry. Marsh hawks have lit in the spruce tree and bloody pigeon remains have been strewn over the grass more than once. Down the row a wild turkey paid a visit.

We have had luna moths and migrating monarchs. And then there was the April when we put the fat cocoon plucked from a culled dead limb into a jar with holes in the lid. When a female gypsy moth emerged secreting her pheromones, scores of male moths flocked to the jar, hovering outside it until they dropped dead. The female disappeared into a gross cloud of eggs until she, too, expired. I wonder how many trees this action spared.

But nothing can top the day the hot May day in 2007 when the opossum showed up at the bird bath. After a long drink it decided to wander — around the property, from the back to the front, up the brownstone steps and down, back to the yard, up the fire escape, until finally it meandered next door and beyond, never to be seen again. Animal Control assured me it was most likely a thirsty, pregnant, female.

Now that I think about it, this yard is too wild and woolly a place for a flock of hens. Fresh eggs on the premises will have to remain a fantasy.

Did I mention that my yard is less than 30’ x  30’ and convenient to the highway? Guess that rules out a goat, too.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti on My Mind

This is not the blog post I had planned for today. I have set that post and the theme of “greenness” aside because I can not get the images of the devastation in Haiti out of my mind.

Survivors are stepping over dead bodies in the streets. I have never seen more than one body at a time, and only then decked out in funeral finery. I can not comprehend the numbers being thrown at me. Tens of thousands dead? One hundred thousand? I live in a city of 110,000; I grew up in a town of 28,000; each summer I visit one of 2,000. I try to imagine everyone in my city gone, or in 4 hometowns gone, or in 50 tiny Illinois towns gone. I simply can not wrap my head around these numbers.

I have always had a tremendous fear of earthquakes. I am not sure why. In our lifetime perceptible ones have been rare in New England. I felt one only once, and didn’t even realize it was a tremor until it was reported on the news. My son felt two last week in California, the greater of the two magnitude 4.1. Later that week there was one to the north with magnitude 6.5 which caused quite a bit of damage, but I believe no loss of life. The one in Haiti was 7.0.

That doesn’t sound so different, so why did it kill so many? In the Richter Scale, by which earthquakes are most commonly measured, each whole number increase in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in amplitude on the the seismograph, and each whole number step in magnitude corresponds to the release of 31 times more energy. Thus, the one in Haiti was 5 times the magnitude as the one in northern California and  15.5 times more powerful. And the Richter scale does not factor in such data as building design and construction, distance from the quake’s epicenter, and geology.

Haiti’s buildings were not built to withstand earthquakes, even the most modern and the finest of them. Hence the trapped tourists in the luxury hotel, and the loss of so many UN officials, as well as the leveling of the shanty towns and neighborhoods of small homes. Haiti, land of so much suffering, was apparently a disaster waiting to happen.

The people have no homes, no food, no water. There is no power. The overcrowded prison collapsed, freeing the prisoners. I realized as I walked home from the gym last night that I had more belongings in my gym bag than many people in Haiti now own. And I was headed to a warm house filled with good food.

I think when I walk. The thought was: “If I were a doctor, I would go there, now. But I’m not, so what can I do?”

This is one of those cases where the best answer is to send money. Consider the two groups I mentioned a few posts ago, Oxfam or Doctors Without Borders. Both groups were already working in Haiti at the time of the quake, and both have sustained severe losses but are doing their best. There are other good choices as well, but you need to be aware of scams. I have added a gadget above my ads. It will direct you to legitimate information if you are so moved.

Today I am thinking back to the first person I ever met from Haiti —  an extremely shy boy named Clarence Poisson, who was in my high school French class. He recited in a voice barely above a whisper and was always being corrected on his Creole pronunciation. He was the most polite and respectful student in the school. I was a senior, he a sophomore, and this was the only time we shared. I do not know how he came to be in my town, nor where his life has taken him since then.

I was mentally composing this post before my mom called last night. Many of the aids who help her with her daily tasks are part of the Haitian diaspora; several had family members in Haiti they could not reach. My mom was distraught about what to do, where could she send money. I am sure she is also praying.

Donations. Prayers. The people of Haiti can use all you can send.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Green Drinks

By this point some of you probably picture my road to greenness as an unpaved gravelly path travelled only by determined people wearing Birkenstocks and being serious all the time. But if you just let me tell you about one of my favorite discoveries in the past year, you may change your mind.

The discovery? Green Drinks. There is a chapter in New Haven, organized by now-Alderman Justin Elicker and Debra Lombard, LEED AP which meets every third Wednesday in a different local bar, featuring reduced price drinks, free appetizers and a special guest. How cool is this — meeting over local brews to discuss things Green?

The first Green Drinks was held in London in 1989. There are now 656 chapters in 62 countries. The Green Drinks International website promises: “These events are very simple and unstructured, but many people have found employment, made friends, developed new ideas, done deals and had moments of serendipity. It's a force for the good and we'd like to help it spread to other cities.”

At our first Green Drinks we were met outside the door of the Anchor Bar by the local unicycle club, which was hoping to drum up some new members. OK, perhaps a little scary. But it was a hot summer night, and a cold brew would taste soooo good. The bar was crowded. The program was called to order by a person who could mimic the sound of a police siren and thus invoke silence for a fleeting moment or two. We had gathered to learn about solar panels. There was no elbow room and the speaker could hardly be heard over the din, but he was enthusiastic and persistent and had a panel with him for show-and-tell. We stayed a long time and indulged in some terrific sweet potato fries, got to handle the panel, and made some new friends. We were hooked.

At other Green Drinks, we have heard about Smart Growth, local honey and single-stream-recycling, as well as the theory that those in power are actually aliens who are trying to guide us to Mars.

For those in New Haven, note that I am posting far enough ahead that you can actually plan to attend the next Green Drinks, Wednesday, January 20, 6-8pm at the WestSide Bar & Grille in Westville.

For the rest of you, check out the website and search for the branch nearest you. There are active chapters in Pittsfield and Framingham, MA; in Philadelphia, PA; in suburban Chicago; in Palo Alto, CA; and in Copenhagen, to name but a few. If you do not find your city, the website has guidelines for setting up your own chapter.

At Green Drinks you never know what old friends you will see, what new ones you might meet, or what new idea you might encounter. But you can be sure that if you arrive there with an open heart and open mind, you are likely to come away with an expanded vision of the world, and it won’t just be a consequence of the drinks.

Have no fear, the drinks aren’t really green. (Unless, perhaps, your chapter happens to meet on St. Patrick’s Day.)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

The Practical Christmas

2009 was the year of the useful gift — the year that practicality prevailed. Chalk it up partly to the economy, but in large part to the acute awareness of almost everyone we knew that we were all acquiring way too much stuff. We had our nomadic kids’ unclaimed belongings. We had our own years’ worth of detritus. And we had all recently helped a loved one to downsize (and inherited a few things in the process).
iTunes Gift Card - Silhouette - $25
We were practical in our gift choices — clothes, yak traks, iTunes gift cards, cooking utensils, socks, artisanal soaps and lotions, chocolates — not a single wind-up, supersized, realistic-looking cockroach toy in the bunch.

We also shipped practically, subscribing to the USPS’ clever “If it fits, it ships.” campaign. We planned gift lists thinking about how they would fit into the post office’s flat rate boxes and were amazed at the speed at which things travelled from East to West. (A hint: This is a great way to ship out something like a doorstop. The heavier the item, the better deal for the customer.)

And we received practical gifts in return. There were edible gifts: homemade cookies, a coffee cake, roasted mixed nuts, smoked oysters from Maine where friends had vacationed, fair trade chocolate. Useful gifts: pajamas, a MOMA pot scraper, a calendar, a clever picture frame. And a most practical book: Green Cleaning for Dummies gifted by a friend who works for the City. Recommended by a contractor who is helping New Haven go green, it has numerous tips and very simple recipes for setting up and maintaining a green household. Plenty of projects of all sizes for the year ahead. Check it out.

It’s too cold to think about washing the windows, but I guess I could get those cleaners mixed up and be ready for Spring. Add large amounts of white vinegar to your shopping list.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A new day. A new year. A new decade.

Last week columnist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman dubbed the past decade the “Big Zero” and declined to bid it a fond farewell. Few would dispute that it was not the best decade. For many of us last year was not the best of years. But I look back at 2009 and note some hopeful signs.

We have a new president. His words are taken seriously by the citizens of the world.

On October 24, people in nearly 200 nations united to call for action on climate change in Copenhagen, the result of an amazing organizing effort by visionary Bill McKibben and his group The day’s activities made headlines around the globe, including the front page of the New York Times. No binding treaty was signed in Copenhagen in December, but our president and other world leaders came together to acknowledge the existence of global warming and to announce some dramatic steps to stem the rise of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, including establishment of a $100 billion climate fund to address the climate change needs of developing nations.

At home in the US, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act extended many consumer tax incentives originally introduced in 2005, including home energy efficiency improvement tax credits. And many, including my family, took advantage of them. We sealed leaks with rope caulk and installed two storm doors. Friends did windows. The credits last through the end of 2010, so adding insulation will probably be up next. I am hoping the makers of the very Green denim insulation will offer a choice with a higher R value.

All over the country people swapped incandescent bulbs for compact fluorescents. Federal rules will be phasing out the incandescent energy hogs between 2012 and 2014, so why wait for the inevitable when we can all be saving energy? Even more efficient ways of home lighting may soon be in our future.

Even in the midst of this recession, in many ways life in the City of New Haven is looking up. With the help of Yale’s Urban Resources Initiative and the hard work of spirited volunteers, parks continued to be reclaimed, new ones continued to pop up, and trees were planted.

There were many breakthroughs on the transportation front. You can now walk or ride your bike all the way from downtown New Haven to Cheshire on the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail (over 14 miles). The bike racks on the city buses are being used with greater frequency. The zip car came to town. After decades of talk, commuter rail service between New Haven and Springfield, MA (with connecting service to Bradley International Airport) has been included in the CT DOT Master Transportation Plan.

And single stream recycling should be instituted in all New Haven neighborhoods by the end of the Spring.

With so much good on the horizon, “Let’s all pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work”* in this new year.

I spent the first day of 2010 in the organizing mode — sorting, cleaning, getting ready. I made soup. My New Year’s resolution — to waste less and do more. I’ll keep you posted on how that does.

Happy new decade!

*President Barack Obama, Inaugural address, January 20, 2009