Friday, November 15, 2013

Off Grid Living: Where To Start?

When I first started to write about this subject, I asked myself what being "off grid" meant to me. I imagine it is rather like the family ranch: no electric power (propane is used instead for the stove, oven and gas lights, and a petrol-powered generator for the electric lights), well/spring water instead of mains water (not that it could have had it anyway, as remote as it is), septic tanks for sewerage, wood stoves for heat and cooking, space for growing things, an orchard, a few animals, and the potential ability to be totally self sustaining.

I love the idea of living off grid. However, I am currently unable to (sad suburbanite is sad). I'm not the only one who think it's a good idea to know about though. In fact, I probably wouldn't be writing about this now if it wasn't for my friend Nichole suggesting the topic to me for the Blog-a-thon. So thank you, Nichole! I hope I do it justice for you.

I put out some feelers in various places, asking people what being off grid meant to them. For some, it just meant not being plugged in to the electric grid of a city. Or it meant not being part of the electric, water or sewerage grid. (In that respect, the ranch counted very much as off grid.) After that, being off grid had several levels of self reliance, and then finally, right up to the extreme opinion that being off the grid meant relying only on yourself, your land, and your hard labor, and not on the government, technology or other people. (Sometimes, those arguing for the non technology side of off gridding, do so on the internet. Hundreds of people have died from the irony!)

Nevertheless, they're all valid ways of thinking to the people thinking about them, so if you are indeed considering going off grid, then here are some things you can research when you decide just how off grid you want to be.

Power Sources
When you've decided how off grid you want to be, power will be the biggest consideration. Are you happy with having no power at all (no lights, no electric appliances, etc) or do you still want to have those but not have to rely on the city grid to keep them?

If you do decided you want power, there are a few options you can research:

Solar panels.
Solar

Solar is probably the first power source that comes to mind for off grid situations, provided you have plenty of sunny days a year, and a sunny place to install the panels, inverter and batteries. There are no moving parts, and little maintenance required once they're installed, but the system is expensive, and it can take years before you start seeing a positive return. Something you can consider is having other power for your lights and appliances, and use solar panels to keep your water cylinder powered. I know many people who have done this.

Old fashioned wind mill.






Wind

Wind power is a bit controversial right now. There are some claiming it causes harm because of low frequency sound waves, that they kill birds, that they're simply unsightly. But if you do want to use wind power, it is possible. There are different sizes of turbines, each requiring a certain tower height, and which have a specific wattage output.  Or, you can do something a little different: if you have your land and resources to work with, maybe you can build a "dutch" style windmill, like the ones they used to pump the water to reclaim land. Those work virtually silently, and they look rather stunning provided they're built well and are cared for. The old fashioned windmills might not produce as much if you are using it for electricity (it'd be great for pumping water, or grinding grain) and, like solar power, both modern and old fashioned wind turbines require wind. By all means, though, if you think you can make it work, do it!

A "turbine" in a home made hydro electric plant.
Hydroelectric (Water Power)

Less known than the other options, hydro power is created by a running source of water flowing from a high point to a low point, and turning a turbine at the bottom to create the power. It's said to be a more cost effective way of generating electricity, but does require a year round source of running water flowing at a sufficient rate to make it effective. It won't do you any good if the little creek at the bottom of the property dries up to a trickle in the summer. (The lesson here is "know your land before you invest in big projects".) Some enterprising people have built their own hydroelectric plants (such as the photo displays), so if you are handy with tools and building things, you have a good chance of putting your own together.

Petrol (Gasoline), or Propane

There are, of course, the old fossil fuel stand-bys: gasoline and propane. Gas or diesel generators are the most common (diesel powered machines tend to a little more expensive) but there are propane powered generators as well. There are also some appliances that you can buy and install that use propane, such as stoves, refrigerators, and freezers. You will have to decide what level of off gridding you want to be, and whether you want to go this route. Many people. It is probably by far the cheapest installation cost, but the price goes up eventually as you must buy fuel.

Water Sources

The most common problem Tasmanians have is water. Having land here won't necessarily guarantee you'll have potable water, if you have it at all. The water table is low, and in some places where it is high enough to be tapped, it has enough undesirable "stuff" in it to make it undrinkable (that "stuff" can vary according to area). Many here have land, but require water to be shipped in to fill big tanks that supply the house with drinkable water (hardly sustainable). Many also collect rainwater in tanks to water gardens, but even then, Tassie gets much less rain than other parts of the world.

Before you purchase any land, it is wise to look at the water options. Do you have a surface spring that you can draw from, or do you need to drill a well? You should also inquire about things like how much regional rainfall there is, and whether the creek/river on your property (should there be one) floods in the wet season.

You can (and should) consider rainwater catchment tanks, and a gray water recycling system, to cut wastage down. Always be aware of where you draw your water from though, so that you can place your septic system where it has no chance to contaminate it.

Diagram of a septic system.
Sewerage

Whether you like it or not, shit happens! So, you need a way to deal with it. The classic system is a septic tank, which acts like a fermentation chamber for your waste. Bacteria within the tank break down the waste and the slurry is then filtered out through the ground in a leach field, where it is purified (ideally before it reaches the ground water level). Septic tanks need care though: grease, feminine hygiene products, and other items like that disrupt the system and can clog it, and if you have a habit of cleaning with bleach, you'll have to stop: the bleach will kill off the good bacteria, you'll develop problems, and you really don't want those: septic tank companies charge a lot to pump the tanks.

Another way of dealing with your daily constitutional is through a composting toilet. There are many brands that come in with different price tags and methods of installation, and some people go and just build their own. Not only are you safely disposing of your waste with a composting toilet, you are creating fertilizer for your land. If you are interested in this method, The Humanure Handbook would be an excellent start to your research.

Gray water (unlike septic sewerage, which is called "backwater") recycling is the other sewerage consideration you need to deal with. Gray water is the stuff that results after you've washed the dishes, or had a bath, or after you've washed the clothes. There's generally some soap involved, and probably dirt, grease/oil and food waste if you aren't careful about cleaning your plates before washing up. Since soap is a kind of salt, if gray water is used directly on your garden that salt will slowly build up in the soil, causing soil life disruption and other problems for your plants. You'll need to research how you can filter your gray water to purify it for watering use; this site is as good a place as any to begin.

Food Supply

One off grid idea that a lot of people seemed agreeable about was the ability to be self sufficient (or at least self reliant) regarding food. Growing your own fruit and vegetables in the garden, pasturing animals for your meat consumption, maybe even raising fish (aquaponics systems address this quite handily) are all ways that you can achieve this freedom. It means that you can control what you eat: no pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, etc, and it means that you can reduce or eliminate entirely your food shopping bill.

I also suggest you try looking at it from the permaculture viewpoint: it teaches you how to work with the land and your animals, instead of making the land yield to your demands, which can lead to soil depletion and other issues down the road if mismanaged (which it often is, usually out of ignorance).

Gardening is also good for those who can't be fully off grid, but still want to have fresh, organic food that they've grown themselves. Speaking from the position of an "urban farmer", I love the fresh veggies I get from my yard and the allotments. It means I'm providing lots of fresh food for my family, cutting my food bill down, and I can preserve a lot of what I grow so it can be eaten later. Gardening is extremely versatile, can be done in almost any space, and has a high satisfaction rate to boot, so even if you aren't thinking about going off grid, at least think about having a garden.

A smart chopper can assist with processing large amounts of veg;
it's also a good non electric tool for the kitchen.
You should also learn about food preservation. Being off the grid tastes a lot better if it's your own canned tomatoes or home smoked bacon. For every fruit, vegetable, and animal you have, you should have a way to preserve them. Hot water and pressure canning, drying, pickling, curing and smoking will all be useful food preservation skills.

Fresh and preserved food all make good barter items, if you find you need to trade for items you don 't have.

Some people would recommend the growing of cereal crops, and if you are interested in doing so you can. Cereal crops are pretty land intensive though, needing large spaces, lots of sun, and plenty of added fertilizer. If you have animals as well, you have to consider the land needs they require, so if you need more space for your animals, your grain growing enterprise isn't going to yield very much. You are almost better off, I'd think, bartering for your flour needs (being gluten intolerant, it wouldn't be very healthy for me to eat grains anyway, so I'd opt to maximize my garden space and just leave the grains out). It's up to you.

Animal Resources

You may decide to raise livestock on your land, in order to make yourself self sufficient in meat, milk and eggs. To have a self sufficient animal herd/flock though, you need to take into account that baby animals don't just magically appear, and that you have to raise and accommodate both male and female animals, and be familiar with their mating and reproductive processes. If you are keen on rotating the animals on your paddocks, a classic example has cows and horses grazing long grass, sheep nipping along at the shorter grass after the cows, geese grazing the grass to a short turf after the sheep are through, and finally, pigs and/or chickens scratching and rooting up the land, fertilizing it, and preparing it for the next crop, for gardens, or for seeding a new paddock. An excellent book for this topic is The Practical Homestead, which covers animal rotation, crop rotation, and other handy things to know.

You should always do your research on what animals will be the best for you. There are specialized breeds for milk and meat and eggs (even lard, if you are talking about pigs), and there are dual purpose breeds, good for meat and milk, or meat and eggs, etc. If you are new to the animal department, keeping chickens is probably a good first step into the livestock keeping world. They are usually very hardy animals, will eat nearly anything, lay eggs consistently throughout their younger years, and then provide meat when they become less productive.

The humble, hand cranked egg whisk.
Tools

To be off grid, you'll need tools. The type of tools depends on how far off grid you want to be. If you're just going without power, you might keep around a wood splitter, an axe and a saw so that you can cut firewood to keep your home warm (likewise, you'd need to install a wood stove). If you are way off grid, you might need a portable saw mill to cut lumber in order to build fences, outbuildings, or even your house. You'll need tools with which to garden with, and may even require mechanized tools to work the land, especially if you are planting crops over large areas, or need animal drawn equipment.

If you just want to save power in the home, however, you can make do with a variety of small, hand powered kitchen tools, such as egg beaters, or a smart chopper, whisks, a good sharp set of knives (which, let's face it, you should have anyway), a food mill, an apple peeler/corer/slicer (which will also do potatoes and to some extent pears), a meat grinder if you are processing meat into mince for sausages, etc.

Some appliances can be replaced too. The electric stove and oven can be replaced with a gas or wood alternative, or if you're going really hardcore, simply an open hearth or bbq pit or oven. Instead of using electricity to dry your clothes, you can wash them (by hand if you like) and then hang dry on a line outside in the sun. if you wish to make or repair clothing, a treadle operated sewing machine (such as the antique Singer machines) can be a most prized possession.

If you are interested in more non electric appliances, online merchants like Lehman's have tantalizing catalogs.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am far from living off grid, but I have thought about these options for a few years now, and have been slowly learning and compiling information if one day I do indeed get to go off grid. These are just suggestions, and it's far from being a very in depth explanation of anything, but if you are truly keen on teaching yourself about it, I hope this blog has offered you some ideas to consider.

I send you off with this bit of advice: Enjoy what you do, try everything, and always do your research!

Resources
http://www.treehugger.com/sustainable-product-design/generating-off-grid-power-the-four-best-ways.html
http://daily-survival.blogspot.com.au/2009/02/off-grid-water-and-sewer-is-part-of.html
http://www.sustainable.com.au/greywater-treatment.html

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Make Your Own Bouillon Cubes

I love using bouillon cubes. Why? Because they add a little extra flavor punch to whatever it is you're making. Unfortunately, commercial bouillon cubes are filled with artificial flavors and ingredients, and I stopped buying them when the last cube was used up (and after I read about all the crap in them).

Fortunately, I am a resourceful type. I was cruising YouTube one morning while avoiding house work (as you do) and I found a video that was about dehydrating your own bouillon. I had a moment where I looked like a really dumb but happily clapping seal, and then watched it. It looked so easy, even a dehydrating newbie like me felt comfortable giving it a try. (Also, thank you BexarPrepper, I love your videos!)

I already knew how to make bone broths, but I was finding them really bulky. I only have a small amount of freezer space, and a lot of that was being taken up by 1 liter containers of bone broth, so I decided to give bouillon cubes a go. (If you've been paying attention to my other blogs, you'd know that I'd already done a batch of lamb bouillon granules; this is my first time just leaving them as "cubes".)

Yummy broth flavorings.
So, let's see what we need to make some bouillon:

Meat: Seems obvious, I know, but I am a carnivore, and I am making meat broth bouillon. Any meat would do, really: chicken, beef, pork, fish, even game meats like venison or wallaby or other animals. Basically, any animal you can chop up and put into a crock pot (vegetarians and vegans are advised that this recipe is not for them.) Use the big marrow bones, use the fatty bits, the cartilaginous bits, the meaty off cuts. All of it is good.

Vegetables: Any veg will do. Pick your favorites. I usually have carrots, onions, and garlic hanging around. Occasionally I add peppers, bulb fennel, leeks, whatever might be around from the garden

Herbs and Spices: Again, your call. I use sage, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and bay leaves, mainly because I'm growing them in my garden. I also use black pepper corns, and sometimes dried chili flakes. You can choose according to the meat. Parsley, tarragon, mint, dill, whatever pleases you. I don't add salt, because I can always add that later.

Water: That's pretty self explanatory.

Apple Cider Vinegar: Optional, but it helps to break down the bones a bit so the minerals can leech out into the broth to make it extra nutritious.

So now we're down to the process. If you are a 5-minute microwave type cook, then you're going to have to break out the "My Superpower Is Patience" tee shirt, because this recipe takes a few days.

Place the meat and bones in a crock pot, add the ACV if you are using it, and cover with water. It must cook for a couple days on high to make a truly yummy bone broth.After the first 8 hours or so, when the meat is falling off the bones, that is the time to strip the flesh off and use it for other things. Leave the bones and cartilage to cook for the rest of the allotted time. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, discard the bones in the compost or give them to the dogs, and pour the broth into a large pot and keep heated. (If there is a lot of fat, you should let it chill, then skim the fat off. You don't want your broth to be very oily.)

If you're like me, trying to de-clutter the freezer by using the broth, melt all the broth in a large pot until it's liquid (seriously; I used about 6 liters of broth for this recipe).

The finished broth; like meat leather.
Once you have your strained broth heating on the stove, add your vegetables, herbs and spices. My faves are carrots, onions, garlic, bay leaves, black pepper corns, dried chilies, and fresh sage, rosemary, thyme, and oregano.

Bring that lot to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are so tender you can mash them with a fork. Strain the lot again, to leave yourself the flavored stock. Turn the heat up on the stock, and boil rapidly. If you so choose to use the vegetables, you can pick out the bay leaves and pepper corns, mash the soft veggies into a puree, spread them on a fruit roll up sheet, and dehydrate. Once dried, you can make a vegetable powder with them, which can be used to supplement your bouillon.

Eventually, the stock you're boiling will thicken and darken considerably. All the collagen and gelatine from the meat and bones will be concentrated, thickening it up nicely into a heavy syrup. If you left it in the pot to cool, it would set into a meat stock flavored jelly. 

But we're not making jellies. We're making bouillon.

Once it starts getting thick, you have to be attentive. Stir frequently to prevent scorching. The consistency should be somewhere between runny honey and thick molasses.

The bouillon "cube".
Once you have reached the right thickness, remove immediately from the heat, let cool slightly (not too much, or you won't be able to pour it), and then pour the syrupy meaty goodness onto a fruit roll up tray. Place in your dehydrator and, on the highest temperature setting, proceed to dehydrate.

This will take a while. It might even take a few days. The goal is to get the bouillon down to a thick, leathery texture. It should peel off the tray easily, and shouldn't be sticky.


Once you have peeled off the leathery bouillon, lay it out on a cutting board and carefully cut it into small pieces, approximately 3/4s to 1 inch in size. These are your bouillon "cubes". They should be stored in a fairly airtight jar (I love my recycled Moccona coffee jars), and so long as they remain dry, they should last for a long time.

Now that you've made your bouillon (hurray!) you can use it. I've figured that one of these cubes equals about 1 and 1/2 to 2 cups of broth. You should dissolve the bouillon in freshly boiled water. It dissolves faster that way. When you use your broth, you can add salt to your taste, as the bouillon is unsalted.

Dissolving the cube into broth.
The broth is fairly flavorful, and because it's all home made, you know exactly what's in it, so there are no worries about possible allergens or artificial junk. It also makes much better broth than the stuff you can buy at the stores. Potentially, this is a pretty cheap way of doing it, if you get the meat scraps for cheap (or from your own animals) and grow your own herbs and vegetables. It definitely allows for more space in your freezer for other things.

I hope you've enjoyed today's little Make Your Own lesson. If you do get around to trying this out, please feel free to post in the comments about your experience.

Happy cooking!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Make Your Own Water Bagels

I spent about a year and a half of my time at college learning in the culinary arts. There were four units you could complete: front of the house (dining room service), back of the house (working in the kitchen), baking and pastry, and beverage service (usually wine and beer, etc). I decided that baking and pastry was my bread and butter *cough* and signed up for all the needed courses for the year and half to two years or so that it took to get the certificate.

Two classes were very memorable, both for the way I had to struggle in them, but also for the amount of knowledge and information I came away with after passing them. Both Production Baking and the Bread Making classes were hard slogs, but they provided me the opportunity to find my center, so to speak, in where I wanted to be (for a while, at least).

Now that I know I prefer a life of gardening, agriculture and self reliance, I no longer feel the desire to be an early morning bread baker rising at 3am to punch dough in the wee hours, but I did come away with some great recipes in the progress.

Back before I realized that I was gluten-intolerant, I loved a good bagel. Plain with cream cheese, with cream cheese, smoked salmon and avocado, with cream cheese and potato chips (yes, I went there), cinnamon and raisin bagels or blueberry bagels slathered with butter and served piping hot, chocolate bagels, herbed bagels.

I liked them because they were chewy, and had a flavor and texture that differed from regular bread, or English muffins. You had so many options to choose from, both when making the bagels and when using them for meals.

The bagel was invented in Poland as a food for Lent, and then remained a staple in the Polish diet (and the Slavic diet in general) for the 16th and early 17th century. They were popular with the Jewish community, and were brought to the United States by immigrant Polish Jews. Bagels were traditionally made by hand, and they used to be displayed in shop windows, freshly baked, threaded on vertical wooden dowels almost a meter in length.

The particularly toothsome texture of a traditional water bagel is achieved by poaching the slightly risen rings of dough in hot water into order to par cook the dough. They are allowed to drain until tacky, before they are loaded on pans and baked until golden. High gluten bread flours are preferred to achieve the right texture, and recipes usually call for a sweetener, such as malt, honey or sugar. Eggs, milk or butter can also be used, and they can be made with either commercial yeast or a sourdough starter. Traditionally, bagels are poached in hot water, but commercial production has introduced the the steaming method instead. The steamed bagels are considered inferior by bagel purists.

Bagels now comes in all shapes and sizes, toppings, textures and preparation and cooking techniques. They are popular across the world, with every region sporting it's own unique take on this tasty bread.

If you are a bagel enthusiast, and you are anxious to try a new recipe, give this version a spin and have fun making your very own version of water bagels.

Water Bagels

3 1/4 tsp dry yeast
1 1/2 c warm water
1 T sugar
2 tsp malt powder (or liquid malt) (or you can use honey)
1 T vegetable oil or melted butter
3-4 c bread flour (although I find all-purpose works just fine)
1 T kosher salt or sea salt

Cornmeal for sprinkling on the baking sheets
Your choice of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, coarse salt or dried herbs for sprinkling on bagels

1. Dissolve the yeast in the water in a large bowl, and give it a few minutes to activate (it will get foamy on top of the water). Add the sugar, malt (or honey) and oil. Stir in 2 cups of the flour, then add the salt. Stir in about 1 1/2 cups more flour, or enough to make a soft dough.

2. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead, gradually incorporating more flour, until the dough is smooth and quite firm, 10-12 minutes.

3. Cover with a towel and let rest for 10-15 minutes.

4. Divide the dough into 12 pieces for large bagels, and 16 pieces for mini bagels. Roll each piece into a rope (10 inches long for big bagels, and about 5-6 inches long for mini bagels). Form bagels by overlapping the ends by 1 inch. Pinch together firmly. Set the bagels aside, uncovered, to rise until slightly puffy, about 20 minutes.

5. Preheat the oven to 450F. Sprinkle a copious bed of cornmeal onto two half sheet pans (or cookies sheets).

6. Bring water to boil in a pot large enough to poach several bagels at once. You can add 2 tablespoons malt and 1 teaspoon of salt to the water, but I don't think that's necessary. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer.

7. Slip several risen bagels at a time into the pot. Cook for 45 seconds, turn them over with a slotted spoon or tongs and cook for 45 more seconds. Drain the boiled bagels on a clean dish towel and immediately sprinkle with any toppings of seeds, salt or herbs.

8. Transfer bagels to conrmeal-dusted baking sheets.

9. Place the bagels in the oven, reduce heat to 425F and bake for 15 minutes. Turn the bagels over and bake for about 5 more minutes, or until golden brown.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Make Your Own Nutmeg Muffins

Looking for a morning treat that a little different from the usual blueberry muffin or toast? Perhaps something with a bit of holiday flare? Then try these nutmeg muffins. They have a warm spicy scent and exotic flavor, and make a great change from the usual spiced flavors of cinnamon and cloves. They can be left plain, served with a dab of cream for a tea, or you can top them with sugar to make them look extra special.

This is one of the recipes that's a go to favorite from my culinary arts days; when I make muffins, these are usually the easiest. They used to be baked for the morning display case at the Brickyard Center where I trained in baking and pastry, but now they pop up now and again to grace my kitchen with sweet goodness and lovely aroma.

Because I don't want this to be a totally fluff post though, I'll do a little mini education session. Since there is a lot of nutmeg in these, why not learn where nutmeg comes from?

About the most I knew of nutmeg is that it was a seed, that it came from a tree, and that it was two spices in one, the seed being nutmeg and the lacy, orange/red seed covering mace (which was usually removed from the nutmeg). I also knew that it is a component of pumpkin pie spice, and that I really enjoy its flavor.

What I didn't know is that it's an evergreen tree that grows in tropical regions. The most common commercially used nutmeg is the common nutmeg, which is native to Indonesia, but it is also grown in Malaysia, the Caribbean and India. Other species of the same family grow in Papua New Guinea and India.

The most common use for the nutmeg is culinary, with the nutmeg and the mace both ground into a powder, but the tree also provides essential oils, resins and nutmeg butter for other commercial uses. Trees produce 7-9 years after planting, but it takes them about 20 years to reach full production.

Fun fact: It is the only tropical tree that provides two different spices.

If you're wondering what the difference between nutmeg and mace are, they aren't too different; both have a similar flavor, but the nutmeg itself is sweeter and more pronounced, whereas mace is more delicate. Mace is often used for it's bright orange color, which resembles saffron, but nutmeg is used in a wide variety of dishes, both sweet and savory. It is used in many cuisines around the world. It is best if freshly grated, but ground is just as effective (provided you use it in a timely manner, of course).

In Medieval Europe, nutmeg was an extremely expensive and highly prized spice. It was said that it had to be guarded almost under lock and key (if not actually under lock and key) because one nutmeg seed could buy a man a house and land if stolen and sold off. Like much of the spice trade, nutmeg has a bloody history, with the English and Dutch fighting over control of it's trade.

Nutmeg fruit, with the mace (red) and the nutmeg (dark brown) visible.
It has been used medicinally since at least the seventh century, and was reputed to be good for a number of ills, including the plague, which caused a spike into demand and price, and was even used to cause abortions, which led to a rise of nutmeg poisoning cases.

In low doses nutmeg is harmless to humans, but in large doses, freshly grated raw nutmeg contains a substance called myristicin, which can cause convulsions, palpitations, dizziness, dry mouth, eventual dehydration and body pain, and even delirium and hallucinations. Fatal poisonings from nutmeg are rare though; only two cases have ever been reported.

Now that you've gone and gotten yourself all educated about nutmeg, you can try the recipe below and see how you like it! :D

Nutmeg Muffins

4 c all purpose flour
1 1/2 c sugar
2 T baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 T ground nutmeg
5 oz butter, melted
1 1/2 cups cream or (or plain Greek yogurt)
1 1/2 cups whole milk
2 eggs

Optional Finish:
3 oz butter, melted
1/2 c sugar
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 325F. Lightly butter 14 muffin cups (or use muffin pan liners).

2. Sift together the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

3. Warm the butter, cream andm ilk until just lukewarm, then whisk in the eggs.

4. Using a wooden spoon or a flat spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the liquid ingredients until just mixed.

5. Spoon the batter into the muffin tins and bake for 15-20 minutes until risen and lightly browned.

6. Turn the muffins out onto a rack.

7. Serve plain or dip each muffin top in melted butter, and then roll it in the sugar mixture.

Variation:

Substitute 2 tsp ground cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, a 1/4 tsp ground cloves for the 2 T nutmeg in the above recipe.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Funky Fibers, Part 1: Animal Fiber

Fiber weaving has been a known art to humans since the Neolithic era (some say quite possibly the Paleolithic), with textiles discovered in ancient dwellings in Switzerland. In Egypt, flax was used, and in other parts of the world, the wool from animals was taken and turned into clothing, rugs and other much needed objects.

If you are anything like me though, you're curious about fibers that come from something other than a sheep (the most obvious source), so I took the liberty of looking it up. Turns out that if you are a weaving hobbyist, you have a lot of choices!

I'd like to thank my friend Nichole for suggesting this topic to me, and this post and the next (about using sheep fleece) are dedicated to her.

Common Fiber Animals

Merino Sheep
Sheep

Sheep wool is quite possibly the most common weaving or yarn crafting material that I know of. It's distinguishable from hair or fur because its crimped, elastic and grows in clusters (called staples). Thanks to the characteristic crimp in sheep wool, spinning is easier, because the fibers "grab on" to each other much more easily to create a stronger yarn. Wool fabrics tend to be bulkier, and because the wool traps air, it makes a great insulating layer. Felting of the wool (when it is mechanically agitated in some way) causes the little hooks on the fibers to latch on, created the felted product.

Not all wool is created equal though. The fineness of the wool is determined by the number of crimps in the fibers. Merino wool (a very fine, excellent quality, and expensive wool, I might add) may have as much as 100 crimps per fiber, whereas other, coarser wools may only have 1 or 2.

Long and short hair wool
Wool working project quality (wow, I really know how to make up phrases) is determined by the amount of kemp (sheep hair) to wool. Since kemp is hair, has little scaling and no crimp, it's a poor fiber for turning into yarn as the fibers won't bind together. A wool worker should be aware of the kemp to wool ratio in regards to which craft it might suit best (spinning, felting or carding into batts).

There are long wool, medium wool, fine wool, and hair sheep breeds, each with their own use and quality of fiber. This website is very informative (don't you love it when people find these things for you?) Sheep 101: Wool Production

Goat
Cashmere Goat

There are two types of goat fiber: Angora and Cashmere.

Angora goats grow long, wavy coats, usually of a white color, but there are some colored breeds. The fiber is called mohair. The entire coat of the angora goat is mohair; there are no guard hairs as typical of other breeds (the guard hairs are very coarse, hard to spin and won't dye very easily, making them much less desirable). Both adults and kids (baby goats, obviously) produce wool, with the young goats fiber being much longer and finer.

Cashmere goats aren't a breed, they are a type of goat that produces fiber of a certain thickness (less than 19 microns thick which is... really thin I guess.) They are bred to achieve this fineness of coat. Most goats have softer down close to the skin (for insulation) and longer guard hairs. Since the most desired for the industry is the down, the cashmere goat was bred to create it commercially. If the Angora breed can be shorn twice a year with a 10 pound average yield per year, then you know why Cashmere wool is so expensive: they are shorn once a year, with just a 9 ounce yield for the entire animal for that year!

There are also two experimental breeds too: Pygora (a cross between a Pygmy and an Angora) and the Nigora  (a cross between the Nigerian Dwarf and the Angora). They work to create animals that are small, easy to manage, that grow colored wool, and are dual purpose.

Angora Rabbits

Angora rabbits are one of the oldest breeds of domestic rabbit. They originated in Turkey (much like the Angora goat and, apparently, the Angora cat). They are bred for their wool (duh) which can be obtained by shearing, plucking or combing.

English Angora Rabbit
Four breeds are recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA), the English, French, Giant, and Satin, but there are other breeds too: the German, Chinese Swiss, Finnish, Korean and St. Lucian.

Angora rabbit hair is super soft and silky and, at 11 microns in thickness, is finer even than cashmere wool. It is much warmer and lighter than wool due to the hollow core of the fibers, and can come in a variety of colors: white, tan, grey, brown and black. The fiber felts very easily, and can be excessively warm. It is usually blended with wool to add elasticity, as the angora fibers are not naturally elastic.

The rabbits are usually docile creatures, but should be handled with care, and they need to be groomed regularly to prevent matting of their hair and wool block (an intestinal blockage caused by excessive hair in the digestive tract due to the rabbit grooming itself; plenty of hay, pellets with high fiber, a salt lick and water should be provided to keep the animals healthy.)

Angora rabbits usually moult every 4 months or so and are plucked, resulting in a fairly high quality of wool. Some, however, do not; those that don't must be sheared every 3-4 months instead (resulting in a slightly lower quality of fiber, due to the inclusion of the guard hairs).

Rabbits do not seem to cause allergy reactions, can live 7-10 years if well cared for, and can be raised indoors.

Bison,Yak and Qiviut (Muskox)

Bison bull.
Bison/Buffalo wool is actually quite rare, as most of it is sheared from slaughtered animals (although some is collected from the wild). There are five distinct types of fiber on the bison, but the most prized is the downy undercoat. The down hairs are solid, don't shrink or felt, and are usually used to make carpets and outer wear. It's strong, soft and warm; so warm in fact, you should spin it thinly, otherwise it will be excessively warm to wear. And at the price it goes, a thinner yarn will definitely go a long way.

Tibetan yak cow (a nak)


The yak is a shaggy bovine that was domesticated in Tibet. Like many other fiber animals, it has a coarse outer coat and a softer downy under layer. The coarse outer hair was used for items such as blankets, tents, bags and ropes. Yak down is actually a much more recent addition to the fiber market. It is soft, with a good crimp, and felts well.

A muskox; producer of quiviut.





Quiviut is not another name for the muskox, but is the name of the downy under layer of their heavy coats. It is a fine and exotic wool for weaving, but takes some skill to work with, because unlike sheep wool, it has no scales to assist in adhesion, making it very "slippery". It's a very short fiber. it is reputed to be very soft against the skin. It comes in grey-brown, dyes easily, and is often blended with other fibers to make it easier to spin.

Camelids

The camel family includes camels (duh), alpaca, llamas, vicuña, and guanaco. For the sake of simplicity, I'll stick to camels, alpacas and llamas (more readily available fibers, both in your local shops and online).

Bactrian camel
There are, of course, two types of camel: the one humped dromedaries (found in the Middle East and Australia), and the two humped bactrians (native to China and Mongolia). The bactrian camels provide the soft, fine down that associated with quality camel products. The dromedaries also provide down, but much less of it, due to living in warmer climes. When they shed their coats, it is collected and the coarse fibers and down are separated, the former used for rugs and outer garments, and the latter can be spun very thinly into a fine yarn that makes warm clothing. It is very soft, but does not felt well.

Alpaca
Alpacas and llamas are camelids that evolved in South America. Alpaca fiber ranges in thickness, but anything under 22 microns is considered luxury. They were bred to have little to no guard hair, so their wool is almost all undercoat, whereas a llama has more guard hair, and a coarser coat all together. Their wool is still very soft though, and is comparable to a much finer wool, such as Merino. They are very good spinning fibers, and clean easily if you are working with raw fleece. Alapaca fleece comes in 22 recognized colors, but you can dye it as well to create some very lovely colors.

Other Animal Fibers

If you are looking for other animal fibers to play with, think outside the pile of sheep fleece, and try these options:

Horse

Horse fiber (or horse hair, to be more precise) is used for making upholstery brushes, the bows of musical instruments, a hard-wearing fabric called haircloth, and for horse hair plastering (in case you felt you needed to plaster some walls). It can range in texture, from very stiff to fine and flexible. Mane hair is often softer than tail hair, and the breed and care of the horse can influence the state of the hair. It can be dyed or colored with the correct colorants, and it can be felted, but not very easily. It is often woven with cotton or silk to make fabric, and are very durable.

Chiengora

Chiengora is dog hair. Spinning dog hair into yarn isn't a new art form, with examples existing from pre-historic Scandinavia, and in Navajo textiles. In fact, it was the most commonly used fiber in North America before the Spaniards introduced sheep. It is not a very popular or well known fiber now though, and it usual spun by hobbyists who have a dog as a pet. It is much warmer than wool, but it's not elastic, so it's often blended with other wool to make it more workable. The best breeds to use for chiengora are the "Northern" breeds, such as Newfoundlands, Chow Chows, Samoyeds, etc.
A silkworm caterpillar and cocoon.

Silk
 
Silk is a natural fiber, but you might not know the origin of it. For those of you squeamish about bugs, it could be your worst nightmare: cultivated silk is most commonly harvested from mulberry silkworms (Bombyx mori). Actually, I can say from experience that they make interesting pets. They are silky white caterpillars with some darker markings around their head, and they eat the leaves of the mulberry tree (this is the advantage of having a science teacher for a parent). When they are ready to metamorphose, they spin a cocoon of white silk around themselves, and finally turn into a large, chubby, furry white flightless moth, whose sole purpose in life is to breed, lay eggs, and then die. Unfortunately, when the moth chews it's way out of its cocoon, it breaks the silk fibers (when silkworms begin spinning their cocoons, they don't stop, and use a single long thread. To prevent this, they usually drop the sealed cocoons into boiling water to kill the occupants, and then unwind the thread in one long piece.

Textile silk is usually from the silkworm above, but other insects also make silk, such as other species of larvae, webspinners, and the raspy cricket, as well as bees, wasps, ants, silverfish, mayflies, thrips, leafhoppers, lacewings, beetles, flies, fleas and midges, and of course, the shudders inducing spiders.

If you are interested in taking your fiber obsession even further, keep your eyes peeled for Funky Fibers, Part 2: Plant Fiber, which will be written and posted in the near future.

I hope this bit of fiber porn has satisfied your curiosity for the normal and the exotic. Have fun, experiment, don't go broke (you people know what I mean) and enjoy exploring the world of natural fiber!

Resources
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_fiber
http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/7/688/plant-and-animal-fibres1.asp
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Weaving
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wool
http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/choosing-goat-breeds-for-fiber.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goat
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angora_rabbit
http://www.spin-knit-dye.com/exotic-fibers.html
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horsehair
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiengora
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silk

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why You Should Be A Prepper Too

A few months ago I found myself commenting on a subject that I think is very important, but that which stigma, ignorance and reality TV has given a bad name indeed: prepping.

Don't go away. Hear me out. This is something everyone needs to think about, regardless of their situation.

It was an episode of Bones, which normally is good tv, if you don't mind turning off your common sense detector (if you are even paying attention to it in amongst ogling David Boreanaz), but sometimes the show makes some really irritating assumptions, like how all preppers must be crazy, doomsday types living in a bunker with some goats and chickens and a stockpile of MREs, guns and ammo.

Seriously? They took an important, vital way of looking at life and degraded it like that?

Since I am very interested in the subject, I've decided to address the matter.

To get the ball rolling, lets open with the end of the world. The end of the world is going to be all dramatic and terrible, and simply MUST involve nuclear fall out, zombies, or asteroids, right?

WRONG. This is the real world, not Hollywood. While there is a chance of nuclear disasters and/or asteroids, the chance is much smaller than you might expect. Come back to us, and allow me to point you in a more realistic and far more personal direction.

Try these situations on for size:

-Job loss of primary breadwinner(s)
-Injury, illness or death of primary breadwinner(s)
-Injury, illness or death of child, spouse or other dependent relative
-Economic troubles, rise of food and fuel prices
-Natural or "man made" disasters resulting in loss of home and/or property

Are those scenarios starting to sound closer to home now? Like maybe, just maybe, you might be a little concerned about how your stay at home wife (or husband), kids and yourself will get by if you are laid off without warning? Or if a flood or bush fire damages or destroys your home? Or if your child or spouse is diagnosed with a serious illness requiring expensive treatment or medication, or you are injured and cannot work for an extended period of time?

Have I got your attention now?

What's in a name?

What actually is the definition of a prepper? Urban Dictionary had a couple, one a scathing account far too long for me to bother posting here, and then a shorter one:
prepper
Someone who focuses on preparedness, generally for various worst-case scenarios like peak oil or armageddon. Sometimes used to avoid the more loaded term survivalist.
Now, that's all well and good, but I think it misses the most basic point of this matter and injects a level of paranoia into the subject, so I reject that persons reality and substitute my own (to shamelessly steal a famous Mythbusters quote...)
Prepper
A person who is prepared, or striving to be prepared [for incident, natural disaster, etc]
See? It's simple. A prepper is not some crazy guy living in his basement counting shotgun shells (I dunno what that guy is). A prepper is a person who has assessed the potential problems (such as natural disasters) that may affect them and their family, and who has taken steps to guard against damage to life, limb, or property.

Doesn't that sound like a good plan?

Okay, so it's not crazy. Now what?

I advise everyone reading this to do a few things to assess what may potentially threaten your home or family. And I'm not going to suggest you carry guns either. You can do that if it suits you, but you have to figure that out on your own.

First, get to know your home.

I live here, you say. What's there to know? Well, do you know where your meter box is? The circuit breakers? Where's the water and/or gas mains? Is there a crawlspace, basement or attic? What's in those anyway? Do you know where your septic tank is (if that applies), or where the underground lines/pipes run through your yard? Do your kids know these things?

Your home is your castle, so it's only right you know every nook and cranny. I grew up in California, and in case of major earthquake emergency, my mother kept heavy wrenches by the gas valve and water main in case we needed to shut them off. Even though we've never had to turn off the gas, we have had indoor plumbing problems that required the main to be shut off until we could repair them. It's not a serious emergency, but it's serious enough when you're standing in your undies in front of the bathroom sink, in a pool of water starting to soak the hall carpet, under a shower of cold rain as you try to deflect with your hands the unstoppable power of the water geyser gushing at the ceiling on a school morning because the handle of the tap had just fallen off when you turned it on. (This happened for real folks. I am not joking. That person was me.)

So please, do yourselves a favor, and take your whole family to explore the house so you can all find and point out the important things. Because you may very well need to find your circuit breaker in the dark (but if you're prepared, you'll at least have a flashlight with working batteries!)

Second, get to know your community.

I stress this with everybody: Community is its own kind of wealth. Do you know your neighbors? Do they know you? Can your kids recognize them and know which house they live if they encounter them on a bike ride in your neighborhood?

All the village jokes aside, a strong community can really help if there is indeed an emergency. Or even if there isn't an emergency. Ever go on holiday for two weeks and wanted someone to water your garden or pick up your mail? Maybe your neighbor once helped you fix that slow leak in your tire, or helped to install lights on the garage. Perhaps you just had way too many zucchini last year, so all your neighbors got some. Whatever. Knowing the people sharing your environment ensures that, if there is an emergency (or non-emergency), someone's got your back.

It seems that we've gotten out of the habit of getting to know our neighbors. There used to be block parties, bbqs, fun nights, kids playing together in the street. Now it's like everyone is just hunkered down in their homes, getting all paranoid about "those people" who live around them.

Instead of being paranoid, be proactive in knowing who you are sharing the neighborhood with. Go knock on some doors and say hi, talk to people in the street, have a chat when you see them in their front garden. Welcome the new people moving in, maybe offer to help them move a sofa. As my sister so often said to her son: Use your words. It won't hurt, and if you're nice about it, they'll remember you.

Want some more incentive? If you know and recognize everyone on your block (and vice versa) you are more likely to foil crime. A burglar is not going to have much of a chance casing a joint if he knows three guys can spot him in a line up.

Third, get to know your area and it's disaster potential.

If you are snowed in, are you prepared?
I lived in California. Earthquakes were never too far from peoples minds. Sure, it's mostly speculation about when an earthquake will hit, but it's why my parents made sure we knew where the mains were, and where the safest place in the house would be if we had to ride an earthquake out.  My science teacher even sent us home with a check list of things we should learn about and do in the case of an earthquake. I live in Tasmania now, where the chance of earthquake is very much lower, but the chances of storm winds, bushfire and flooding are much higher.

So look into your area's disaster potential. Snowstorms/blizzards, windstorms, torrential rain, flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, fire hazards, avalanche, mudslide and landslip hazards, earthquakes, etc. Look up online, at the library, or ask you city council how you can be prepared for these disasters (many city councils have advice in that regard). If you need certain supplies to be prepared for those events (many annual), consider stocking up on things like batteries or wind up flashlights, candles, firewood, or whatever applies to your situation.

If an emergency means you have to leave your home in a hurry, put together a go bag: have food, water, important papers, updated medications, ID's and passports, a whistle, flashlight and batteries, entertainment for the kids, etc together in a backpack. Have one for each member of your family and keep them somewhere handy, such as a hall closet. Keep a similar kit in your car. For more information, Google "bug out bags", "go bags", "72-hour kits" or other variations to find links dedicated to building your bags at home.

I've done all those things. Now what?

I see a lot of people complaining about bills, food prices, gas prices, yadda yadda yadda. These are, of course, legitimate concerns to many, but I have some ideas that might help you think outside the bill envelope.


Do I really need 600 tv channels?

Seriously. Who needs 600 cable tv channels? Do you even watch a quarter of them? Why do you need to listen to music on the tv, when radio is free? When a cd is about 10-15 bucks? Hell, when iTunes is .99 cents? Some people even take it further: Why have tv channels when you can watch nearly anything you want online nowadays?


Take a look at your entertainment package and really determine whether you need it or not. You may find that paying that ungodly amount can go away if you choose to change the package into a simpler one. Imagine all the extra cash you've just saved for your food and gas bills.

Use this same procedure with your internet (well, maybe not), and phone bills. What changes can be made to these services to save you some cash? Most companies will work with you if they know you'll stick with them, but if you have to, shop around for cheaper deals.

And another thing: are you wasting a lot of water sustaining a lawn you are spending too much of your time taking care of? Help cut some water and time costs by ditching the lawn and growing food in your garden... or at least putting in a low to no water cost garden. Apply this reasoning to your heating and air conditioning systems, and hot water usage.

Remember: "Keeping up with the Jones's" is silly, social brainwashing, and not worth your money, house or family. Even if it was healthy to "keep up", you can't do so if you're broke.

I'm using a lot of gas just driving around town. Have you SEEN those prices?

Find the local city bus schedule, and map out the route that would take you from home, to work and back again. Then do the same for your local supermarket. Or, pump up the tires on that bike you wish you had more time to ride. Or walk. Or carpool. There are a number of ways you can work out to save using the petrol in your tanks. Be creative.


Canning and preserving extra food will save you money in the long run.
Food is so expensive! How am I going to afford healthy food for my family?

Well, hopefully you've freed up some cash doing the things I just mentioned above, but if you're looking for more tips, think about food storage.

It's a sad fact that most households nowadays may have only a weeks worth of food or less in their cupboards. If there was a real emergency where you couldn't leave the home (such as a snow storm) what would you do if that lasted more than a week? If you lost your job today, do you have enough food in your larder to keep your family fed until you can provide a new income?

I suggest you look at what you have in your pantry. Is there a lot of pre-made, processed stuff like Hamburger Helper or Mac N Cheese? Cans or bottles of soda pop or other sugary drinks? Are you feeding the kids cereal every morning before school?

These are all items that I'd reduce or switch out for other options. They are deceptively cheap items, can cost you your health in the long run, and provide very little nutrition. Instead, turn the money you've saved doing the above and look at the prices of things like plain white rice, plain pasta, split peas, dry soup mixes, and dry beans and lentils. These are all items that store well, and can be stretched out over several meals, and they provide a much denser nutritional profile (this is assuming, of course, that you are not gluten sensitive, in which case, replace the pasta with the other items... I'd even go so far as to say ditch the wheat all together).

Vegetables like onions, garlic and potatoes store well if kept in cool, dark places. This is also where you might consider breaking out grandmas old canning pot and jars (or buying your own), or that dehydrator that you got as a wedding present and have only used once to make banana chips. Fruit and vegetables on sale make great food storage if they are dried or canned to preserve them.

Instead of soda pop or other sugary drinks, milk, water and a few favorite fruit juices should be kept around, and kids really shouldn't be eating cereal if you expect them to do a good job in school. A couple eggs, some ham or bacon, and a glass of whole milk will give them much more fuel to power their growing brains (seriously; do not put your child on a low fat or fat free diet; that is, in my opinion, child abuse, and there is plenty of evidence out there telling you why. Do your research.)

Are you buying your lunch at work or buying your kids lunches through the school? Perhaps it's time you thought about brown bagging it. That's right: pack your food to take with you. It's healthier in the long run, because you control what goes in your lunch, and you're not spending money on costly cafe food. Likewise, ditch the Starbucks, and get yourself a good coffee mug or thermos to make your java travel friendly.

Green beans and chard, freshly picked.
Last, but definitely not least: have you got time on the weekends? Have you got some sunny space for pots, or a lawn that's eating your resources? Then you can grow a garden. Growing your own food means you can control what you eat much more easily than if you buy it at a store. You end up with the freshest veg available, because you know those tomatoes on the shelf at Safeway weren't picked 5 minutes ago, but those bright red, sweet-as-candy cherry tomatoes growing in the pot on the front porch were. Growing your own vegetables also provides essentially free veg, because once the initial cost of the seed packets or plants is put down, you can collect seeds and continue next years garden from those, thereby having no need to buy more. For more on seeds and seed saving, see my blog about it here: Saving Seeds

Gardening is something you can chat with all your neighbors about, and get the community involved in. You may even go so far as to make a plan to trade excess veg around. It's up to you and your neighbors.

If you are wondering how on earth you'll find the time for all these things, I can assure you: if it's important, if it's really that important to you and your family and your very existence, you will find the time. Once you see the improvements those changes are making in your life, and the peace of mind had knowing that, no matter what happens, you can take care of your household, you will lead a much happier existence. 

You may even find yourself looking at keeping bees, chickens or goats in your backyard... but one step at a time, eh?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Greener Cleaners: Jumping Off The Chemical Wagon

There used to be a time where the smell of Clorox Bleach meant clean to me. It wasn't a nice smell, but I knew that A) My whites were whiter, B) it killed things that made bad smells, and C) It left dishes sterilized (I worked in a commercial kitchen, and standard practice was dipping each dish in bleach water after washing and rinsing. Yum.) And window cleaner? Well, the blue stuff featured often in my house during cleaning skirmishes. Mm, all that ammonia, and streak free windows. Oh, and those cleaning wipes you used for surfaces, those were fun. And those Glade infuser room scenter things? Those were brilliant. So was the smell of laundry detergent that stuck around for days on your clean laundry, giving you the clean laundry smell for far longer than you needed it.

It wasn't until I had an encounter with some lemon aerosol furniture polish that left my throat and eyes irritated for hours that I realized maybe all this use of chemical cleaners wasn't a very good thing. I started to realize that I really didn't like my clothes smelling so strongly of detergent, and that rooms could smell clean without the use of artificial scents. (Somewhere in there I read about those room infusers actually coating your nostrils with the scent so you couldn't actually smell anything and got grossed out.)

That was about, oh...2009 or so. (Yeah yeah, shoot me. I was late to the green party.) It was simple. I worked in a store that had a range of interesting looking "natural" products, and started with a laundry detergent that had little scent and was nontoxic, and a room spray scented with lemon balm and mint, and a all purpose cleaner that smelled like cucumber (that last one I didn't enjoy so much.)

Now that I'm interested in being self sufficient, and because I'm curious about all things DIY, I have decided to share with you what greener cleaners I've put together, from scratch, to keep my home fresh and clean, and what I've learned along the way.

Household Cleaners

One of the first things you think about when spring cleaning is "Look at the state of the kitchen benches!" (Was for me anyway...what?)

What you need is a nice all purpose cleaner for surfaces that's easy to put together, smells pretty good, and does the job. I came up with a water and vinegar spray that smells good because I add multi-purpose eucalyptus oil to it.

All Purpose Cleaner

1 cup water
1 cup white vinegar
1 tsp multipurpose eucalyptus oil
Other essential oils optional

Mix together in a spray bottle, and shake well before each use. Spray on a surface, let sit a moment, and wipe off.

It's smells vinegary for a bit, but goes away, leaving the smell of the essential oils, and your counters very clean. It also works well for mold and mildew that can occur on windows, window frames, and in bathrooms (I cleaned the ceiling in my bathroom and it did a wonderful job). I also use it to freshen the toilet, and it seems to cut the grease on the stove top quite well. I also use it to clean out the kitchen bin.

My reasoning behind this mixture: The acid in the vinegar makes surfaces a little hostile to molds and mildew because they want a more neutral pH, and the eucalyptus oil acts as an anti microbial, which good for kitchens, toilets and bathrooms. You can even craft the essential oils to your needs based on their properties.

Essential oils are useful if you know their properties.
Shower Cleaner

I both love and hate tiled surfaces. They look pretty, but you have to clean the grout, which usually involved a toothbrush and elbow grease. Now that I'm older and more mature (ha ha) I have come to realize that a little hard work doesn't hurt if you want a good result (I'm pretty sure people who know me are now looking for pods).

Normally I'd use vinegar for everything thanks to it's acidity, but grout poses a unique problem: it's usually calcium based. Calcium is readily dissolved by acidic substances. You can see why it'd be a problem if I used my vinegar spray, right? Yup.

So, instead of vinegar, you can use hydrogen peroxide. It offers some bleaching and disinfecting properties, and kills mildew (which is what you are fighting with most in showers and bathrooms), and won't dissolve your grout. If you add essential oils, you get their properties as well.

1 part water
1 part hydrogen peroxide (3%)
Essential oils optional

Mix in a spray bottle. Shake with every use (especially if oils are added). Spray on your shower tiles, leave for an hour, and wash off.

If the problem areas are especially stubborn, there's good old elbow grease: use some baking soda and an old toothbrush, and start scrubbing.

Drain Cleaner

I used to work in a commercial kitchen environment. One of our daily tasks was cleaning the floor drains. But because it was also a retail bakery, with underpaid, disgruntled employees, some of these things got left for a while, and the drains was one of them. And, oh, the result was not nice. I can remember standing in front of the espresso machine making a coffee for a guy chatting to me over the top of the machine, and it was everything I could do to keep from turning my head in disgust, because I thought he had the worst halitosis in the history of the universe.

I maligned the poor guy, unfortunately. Turns out, the floor drain the espresso machine drained into was the culprit. It was so horrible, we refused to go near it for days more, but I finally said enough was enough, and I got down on my very valuable hands and knees scrubbed it hard with baking soda (it was gunked up, and I wanted the abrasive effect), poured hot water down it to rinse, and then finally hit it with bleach. Then I did this for every other drain in the bakery, just so we could prevent this from happening again in the near future.

If drains are blocked really badly, people tend to break out the big guns, like Draino (a component of which is caustic soda) or bleach (like me with the drains at work). But I propose a gentler method that's used more often in a maintenance regime.

Drain Cleaner #1

1 cup baking soda
1 cup white vinegar
1 liter boiling water

Pour the baking soda down the drains in question. Pour the vinegar after, and then plug or cover the drain. Leave for an hour or so. Unplug the drains and pour the boiling water after.

Drain Cleaner #2

1 cup plain, live cultured yogurt
Water

Pour the yogurt down the drain and leave for a while. It's said the bacteria latch onto the gunge in your drain and eat at it to break it down. I suppose this is a similar action to the enzymatic drain cleaners you can find on the store shelves. After you've given it some time to work, just rinse with water, or follow up with drain cleaner #1.

Last but not least, get a little brush and scrub the mouth of the drain with baking soda to clean up the stuff that builds up there. Rinse, and know that your drains will not be stinky for at least a little while. If you do this at least once a week, you might not have to worry about smelly drains ever.

Soaps

Soap is a great subject, and one that I've gotten into recently with a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction. In fact, it's such a great subject, that I've already written to other posts about it, but I'll reiterate them here for you. You can also click the links and check out the original blogs.

Laundry Soap

Remember I said that I decided I didn't like the fragrance of laundry detergent? It's because it sucks, and it makes my nose itch and my throat feel funny. I'm not allergic to anything fragrance wise, it's just how cloying the scent is. My husband uses Cold Power, and it's nasty. It's also very vague about its ingredients. I decided that it'd be better to make my own and know what was in it than trust a big company to do it for me.

After reading a bunch of stuff about people who were making their own laundry soap, I decided to have a go. At first I just used the store bought laundry soap bars which, unfortunately had a scent (that was dumb, I know; but the scent was at least less powerful, and didn't stick around on the clothes afterward). This particular recipe is good for those who only wash clothes with cold water (though I imagine it works just fine with hot as well).

Mixing up a batch of laundry detergent
DIY Laundry Soap

For a single batch, you need:

1 cup washing soda

1 cup Borax
1 bar of soap, grated (approximately 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
Eucalyptus and Tea Tree oils (other oils can be used if you so desire)

Mix all the ingredients together, breaking up the lumps as needed. Add as much of the essential oils you feel the batch needs to smell the way you like. Mix in well to incorporate the scent throughout the dry mix. Store in an air tight container (in my case, a wonderfully re-purposed Moccona instant coffee jar). I keep it in the wash house, on the shelf above the washing machine with a Tablespoon measure scoop in it.

To use, use 1T for a lightly soiled load, and 2T for heavily soiled clothes.


Bar Soap

Now that you've got the laundry soap down, you might think about what bar soap you're using. You can easily buy Ivory, Fels-Naptha, Zote, or other brands of laundry bar soap, but if you want to have a go at making your own, I suggest this simple lard soap recipe for both laundry and other cleaning purposes.

Fresh cut lard soap.
Make Your Own Soap

Simple Lard Soap

Ingredients

450g of lard

171g water 
60g lye

1. Melt the lard in a saucepan over medium-low heat.

2. While the fat melts, weigh the water in a pitcher (make sure you zero the scale with the empty pitcher first!) Sprinkle in the lye, and gently swirl to dissolve. (Don't breathe the fumes.)

3. Allow the melted fat and lye water to cool for a while, until you can touch the sides of the containers without burning yourself.

4. Pour the lye water into the saucepan. Place an immersion blender in the pan until it touches the bottom. (This first batch of mine was actually mixed by hand, with a silicone dipped whisk. The stick blender is much better.) Turn on the blender on the lowest speed, and beware of splashing (do this in the sink or put down several layers of newspaper). Blend until you see a "trace," which means until it's thick enough that you can kind of see where you've been and drips stay visible on the surface for a second or two. Think of the consistency of cake batter, or perhaps pudding.

5. Pour into a mold of your choice (in my case, the plastic lunchbox with a lid).

6. Let it sit for at least 8 hours, or over night. Then you may carefully loosen the block of soap with a thin knife, and pop it out onto a cutting surface. Cut into bars, and store in a cool, dry place to cure for a couple weeks before use.


Now that you have made your simple lard soap, you have a basis for which to build your soap making experience. Why? Because commercial bar soap can be just as loaded with fragrances, detergents, chemical additives and who knows what else, that's going directly onto your skin (the largest, most absorbent organ of your whole body). I personally have come up with a blend of lard and coconut oil that makes for a very nice soap that lathers well, and a totally divine oatmeal and honey soap which is made with a blend of olive and coconut oils. Have fun coming up with new fat and oil combinations, additions, and scents when making your bar soaps. The sky is the limit (and maybe the bank account!)

If you want to learn more about soap making, head on over to SoapCalc and start today.

I hope this post helped you to think outside the can or bottle or box of chemicals that our every day lives seem to be so inundated with. My hope is that, if enough people can be shown how easy and cheap it is to make their own products at home, it would encourage the big companies to realize that their chemical laden toxic sludge is dangerous and that know one wants or needs it. Sadly, this is just a fantasy of mine, but hey, a woman can dream!