When life gives you lemons, make marmalade

We’ve been quiet on the blog front for a while, but a lot has been happening on the personal front. The biggest change for me has been with work: as of September, I am no longer spending half my life in Asia — and my carbon footprint has shot down to human proportions.

Meanwhile, thanks in part to our ratty neighbours and compost challenges, Bonnie Lee has gone on a quest to create a local composting solution for multifamily dwellings, which has led to two things: she is working with LA Compost to bring a solution to Palms, and has become a member of the Palms Neighborhood Council Green Committee.

We’re also both members of the Technology Innovation Council which the USDA asked the folks at Food Cowboy to set up.

With all that going on, maybe we can be excused for having allowed two lemons to start looking a little dry — two lemons for which we had no immediate plans. We also had a big, sweet navel orange sitting around, so decided to try our hand at marmalade.

Home made marmalade

‘Twas lovely with breakfast

Orange and lemon marmalade (about 3 cups)

Ingredients

  • 3 small lemons (two of which were looking a bit, but not overly, dry)
  • 1 large Valencia orange
  • 3 cups water
  • 2.5 cups sugar

Directions (in pictures)

Future marmalade

1. Cut each piece of fruit into 8 wedges. Remove the seeds and drop wedges in a pot. (Tip: hold each wedge up to the light to make sure you got all the seeds.)

What the bells of Saint Clemens said

2. Cover with water, and boil for five minutes.
3. Turn off heat, and let sit covered overnight (for at least 12 hours)

Boiling away

4. Remove wedges from liquid (and leave the liquid in the pot — you will need it).
5. Cut each wedge crosswise into thin slices, and return to the pot.
6. Boil for one hour.

Testing

7. Add sugar to boiled fruit mixture. Basically, you should be adding the same volume of sugar as you have fruit mixture, but we used a little less. We had 3 cups of mixture at this point, and used 2.5 cups sugar.
8. Continue to boil, occasionally spooning some of the mixture onto a plate, letting it cool to room temperature, and running a spoon through it. When you get something with the consistency shown in the picture above, you’re done.

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Rats!

I know its been a long while, but I’ve not been myself lately. Firstly, I am now more involved with the community–attending my Neighbourhood Council’s Green Committee, signing up to become a member of Ocean View Farm, and seeing what other local steps we can take to help stop food waste from an individual consumer’s perspective. I stepped away from the computer and, more alarmingly, out of my home.

I was also mulling on a new problem: how to create a zero-waste kitchen when all signs point to a serious rat problem in our new neighbourhood. No, I am not being paranoid. We saw them.

First, on moving day, Pyx (one of our cats) and I were enjoying our new view when two brown/grey rats started frolicking in the patio below. I texted Jean-Francois and asked him to keep the compost bin in the garage, until I learn more.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

This is the garden view from our balcony. Several birds, butterflies, squirrels, and rats call this space home.

Two nights later, Pyx is going nuts, asking to be let out and staring intently into the darkened air. Her fur ruffled, and tail fully puffed. Our Japanese Bob Tail was clearly excited.

Three weeks later, Jean-Francois and I saw nine rats playing in the garden below. NINE. Nine, happy, fat, playing rats. Some brown, but most were grey. Clearly, pets and vermin had formed a colony. And the colony was thriving.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

This is our view of the garden below. The corner that the rats enjoy. Note the lovely garden on the other side of the fence. That is the home of the squirrel-whisperer.

It turns out, one of the other tenants feeds the squirrels. The rats benefit by eating what’s left. And we lose our composting option. Lest anyone suggests keeping the bin in the garage, it is not in the lease. I also suspect we might offend neighbours if we bring food scraps to a bin before our car as part of a nightly ritual performed by greenie-types who have gone off the deep-end.

Before we resort to scaring our new neighbours, we need to control the rats and find a better way of saving our scraps from the bin.

Hence I became civically active and started making friends with local groups. Santa Monica used take food scraps in bins, but they had to stop because of contamination. Apparently apartment dwellers are BIG liabilities–we are temporary residents with a weak connection to common goals. Elected officials work with the easy, visible winning programmes and blame tenants for failures. We are not invested enough, it seems.

Yet, there are options. Inconvenient ones, but solutions that do show commitment. You see, it turns out, that people in downtown Los Angeles have chickens and gardens and want food scraps to keep both happy and healthy. I learnt this at the Mar Vista Farmers’ Market. And, my mind raced. There are possible solutions that will require keeping our kitchen compositor, only, we will need to find a new home for our beloved (now dormant) worms.

The lesson I learnt about being more sustainably pro-active: Answers come when you step out of your door and start talking to your neighbours.

The moral of my story: Be annoying and persistent. It works.

Radio Programme: Food and “The World”

Starting today, PRI’s The World is looking at food production and consumption around the world. Those interested in finding sustainable solutions for food production as our global population soars, check out “What’s for Lunch?”. This news feature should run all summer, with different regions getting time in the spotlight.

The first episode looked at technology that will help Singapore break its dependence on Malaysia and other nations. They are working to produce more food locally, indoors, and on the vertical. According the report, these high-tech A-frame gardens are 10 times more productive and use fewer natural resources than regular farming. Next time I am in Singapore, I will try to get a closer look.

http://www.theworld.org/2013/06/to-increase-local-food-production-crowded-singapore-goes-vertical/

The hassle of microwave popcorn?

Continental breakfast?

Americans are off microwave popcorn. At least that is the gist of a story in the Los Angeles Times yesterday that left me shaking my head. No, we are not embracing simpler, healthier  ways of popping corn. We are buying already popped and bagged corn. It seems microwaves, air poppers and stove top approaches to popping our kernels are fraught with risks.

The few comments on the story are insightful.

wdwpixie writes: “How about the fact that there’s been health issues associated with the microwave popcorn?  Every time I make a bag here at work I have to hear about it from a pharmacy associate….it’s not a lazy factor, it’s a possible health risk, plus the pre-popped can be put in a lunch bag or taken on the road as a snack.”

And, Xalm1983 says she’d “rather buy ready-made popcorn because it just tastes better and doesn’t stink up the apartment if burned.”

justdoit1 seems to prefer the limitless bounty of flavours that manufacturers add to pre-popped corn.  S/he argues that “The already made comes in various flavors, which is hard to do at home without opening up 10 different packages.  most (sic) people buy it because it’s cheaper in bulk than buying 10 different flavored popcorns.”

The thought that popping corn is easy and very inexpensive seems not too have occurred to these commenters. And I think I understand way. They’d rather pay for the convenience (and the waste that comes with it) than take that extra step in their own homes. I mean, is it really easier to buy pre-popped corn with additives to preserve freshness and flavour than air pop some kernels and top them with salt, olive oil and grated cheese?

We consume rather than create. And this focus on consumption that “saves us time” is helping us avoid the larger issues surrounding food waste, hunger, and obesity. And it couldn’t be more disappointing.

On 20 May, Jean-Francois and I “Got Wasted” with a remarkable group of people (both in the audience and on the Panel) and talked about the problem of food waste and hunger in Los Angeles. It was a motivating event that generated a lot of talk on Twitter. You can link to the audio recording of that discussion and Twitter feed below:

(BTW, we’ve moved, unpacked, found computers and plugs, and calmed our cats. And, I have finally found my rhythm in the new place…so I hope to post more regularly.)

One way to reduce food waste: Campus Style

UC Davis Dining Commons Demonstration of what college kids waste for Love Food, Hate Waste in January 2013.

Two days ago, I saw a headline in my news feed that I nearly passed over. It read: “Elimination of trays decreases food waste in dining halls.” All I could think about were the opportunities to trip classmates struggling to carry their milk and dinner plates to a table. And then I decided to read on, and learned that in just two years Manchester University has saved:

  • 15,000 pounds of food from becoming waste, and
  • 200,000 gallons of water.

How? They removed trays from the dining halls. They removed convenience, and judging from the article it wasn’t a popular solution. But its makes a lot of sense.

If you drive to the supermarket, grab a big shopping cart, and have a lift to carry your groceries from car to home, then it is very easy to just pile unnecessary food into your life. If you have to think about how you are going to carry it all to the car and into your home, you probably make different choices.

I like that one simple decision has changed how an entire community consumes. It would be interesting to see if that same choice also helped students maintain weight. I mean, if not using a tray helps that freshman not gain infamous 15 pounds that many do gain in the first term, wouldn’t they willingly embrace the idea?

If the same could be said about using smaller shopping carts to lose weight, would people be more willing to embrace a small change?

Composting–one year later

About one year ago, Jean-Francois and I adopted a small colony of red wrigglers, following a sustainability session at the Natural History Museum. As proud parents, we immediately set about finding the best bedding, bins, and strategies for keeping our new arrivals happy. The biggest challenge for us, as apartment dwellers in a large complex with strict rules, was finding a bin that would pass as patio furniture. (Since we don’t consider compost trash, we assumed that the rule about trash did not apply.)

We settled on the Worm Factory 360. It looks enough like a Japanese Stone Lantern that it could be argued that it is decorative. We supplement our system with a bamboo compost pail for the kitchen. And, we spend an evening making our worms comfortable.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

A snapshot of our colony on feeding day.

Our worms get regular doses of coffee grounds and tea leaves, toilet paper rolls and scrap paper and linens. They also get a lot of egg shells, banana peels, okara (when I cannot find a use for it in time), and bread that goes mouldy.

And they are thriving. Sure, we are still trying to figure out the right mix of brown and green (see pdf below) to add to the mix, but we are learning.

This pdf is useful for helping us determine what browns and greens our worms needs.

At six months, we even expanded our bin by adding a new layer. All winter things moved along fine, albeit a bit slowly. But as Spring set in, so did culture shock.

  1. Our worms were reluctant to move to the new layer.
  2. Worms were escaping both the bin and the balcony.
  3. Other bugs started to appear.
  4. The worm castings on the second layer were WET. We could not get them to dry.

We are now trying to manage moisture, bugs and a growing ickiness-factor (at least on my part, Jean-Francois seems to enjoy mucking around in the compost). And, we have no way to share our worm tea or our beautiful worm pooh with gardeners. The grounds here are landscaped by a company that has no interest in going green.

Any thoughts on how apartment building and condo dwellers can help urban gardens and communities by composting? We are moving to a street lined with apartments, and I’d love to find a community solution that we can advance. It may also be a way to help people eat better and waste less food BEFORE it goes to the compost.

I am not alone either. Others have written about the challenges facing us Urban Composters and some offer solutions. If you are square foot challenged, and lack a green thumb, but really want to try composting, here are a few resources we have found useful:

BTW, I would not recommend the bamboo pail. It looks old and beaten up after two months and is also too soft a material for life on our kitchen counter.

7 April: World Health Day

Yesterday Danielle Neirenberg sent me an email telling me that 7 April is World Health Day and that the focus for this year is high blood pressure. Her email had me thinking all day about nutrition, our health and the food we eat. Let me be clear: I have never met or spoken with Danielle, but I always read her emails when they grace my inbox because she and her organization, Food Tank, have a mission. She wants to feed every person on this planet. No, “feed” is the wrong word–she wants to nourish each and every one of us.

The distinction is important. Her email explains why. Our food is not as nutrient laden as it once was. High yield agriculture and other practices (like sending food to landfills rather than composting) have altered the “nutrient life-cycle”. Her email came a few days after I read “Modern chicken has no flavour” in Salon–which laments the sad reality of high volume food production. It robs our tongues of pleasure by stripping our food of its sensuousness and its purpose.

Rooster profile

The Salon article talks about the science of additives to make our food taste the way it should, often using vegetable by-products to increase nutritional content and flavour. Which, if you think about it, is doubly wasteful. I mean, why not just eat the vegetables and let the flavourless chickens live?

Danielle’s concerns are different. She argues that what we are feeding ourselves is making us sick, harming our planet, and making it harder for us to nourish the 7 billion people who live on this planet. In her email, she outlines nine things we can start doing today to be healthier and kinder to ourselves, our neighbours, and our planet.

This is what she recommends:

  1. Eat more fruits and vegetables.
  2. Encourage farming practices that keep essential nutrients in the soil.
  3. Learn how our food nourishes us. (How many sources of calcium can you list?)
  4. Eat whole grains.
  5. Eat at home more.
  6. Opt for organic produce whenever possible.
  7. Support family farms that are more likely to produce foods that are more nutrient rich than commercial farmers.
  8. Choose meats from grass-fed, pasture raised animals. (Anyone know where I can find pasture-raised fish?)
  9. Support farms that cultivate indigenous, heritage, and heirloom plants and livestock.

Okay, so none of this is a surprise. But the question buzzing around in my head is: Are we starving ourselves by eating processed foods and could that be one of the reasons for the alarming rise in obesity we are seeing in developed nations?

The spice of life

Aside: Thanks to the Salon article, I plan to read Pandora’s Lunchbox next week. If anyone has read it, I’d like to hear your thoughts about this book and any others that have been published recently about the quality of our food supply.

Jars of Shame: An Uglier Side to Food Waste

Food shopping is one of our greatest indulgences. Whether browsing the wares of the shops and stalls at Atwater Market in Montreal or the produce on display in groceries and markets in Japan, Jean-Francois and I enjoy the hunt for new tastes and flavours.

To be honest, we used to horde ingredients. Jean-Francois would chant “In-Greeed-i-ants!” like a possessed madman in a bad horror movie as we shopped. Along the way we  amassed large numbers of jars, bottles, plastic bags of spices, sauces, and other flavours that delighted our tastebuds and encouraged our multicultural gluttony.

But, unlike hoards of books and magazines and trinkets, our collection required regular purging before the refrigerator burst. And we poor hoarders agonized over the forgotten meals, lost experiences as each jar was held up and we asked “What have we used this for recently?” and then poured the insides down the drain.

True, we are better now. We make most of our sauces from scratch, but we occasionally lapse back into bad habits. I took these photos today to show you what I mean.

JarsofSin

37 colourful jars of tasty, wasteful flavours

Just the top two shelves of our refrigerator have 37 jars of our most essential ingredients. They include: maple syrup (used weekly), birch syrup (used three times), rice vinegar (daily), ponzu (weekly), cider vinegar (weekly), two types of soy  sauce (often), 3 tomato based ketchups (often), 3 mustards, two jars of horseradish (??), two salad dressings that we loved in Japan, soup base for emergencies, and a host of chili sauces and chutneys.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

The top two shelves, laden with ingredients.

A chutney, one horseradish, and a few of the smaller jars have exceeded their best before dates, but the remaining bottles are still youngish. Still this is food waste, and it is a part of the food waste problem that we rarely think about. And considering the distance travelled by these jars to please our pallets–I am ashamed of us.

This week, it is time for us to rethink our need for ingredients. Just because we miss eating Okonomiyaki with its special sauce, doesn’t mean we need to run to Little Tokyo and buy a plastic bottle of it (as we did a few weeks ago). I googled. I learnt. We can make some with soy sauce, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. We can even get fancy with sugar, dashi, and cornstarch. All of which we have in the pantry.

Starting today we are going to renew our efforts to reduce our refrigerator’s burden. We will not buy another sauce, mustard, ketchup or jarred treat until we have:

  1. Googled to make sure we cannot make it ourselves.
  2. Found enough creative food ideas to use the sauce up in less than two months.
  3. Asked each other if we really need to feed the nostalgia itch.

And, because temptation can be tricky, we will never shop for new ingredients alone.

Blogging and deterministic non-linear systems. And butterflies.

Once upon a time, I made my living doing mathematics – and one of my favourite mathematical truths is this: deterministic nonlinear systems are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. You may know that truth as the butterfly effect.

It’s an amazing thing, when you think about it: if you take two identical planet Earths, and change one little thing in one of them – one little puff of air – you nudge it down a whole new path.

You can change the world right now if you want to: all you have to do is put your lips together and blow.

Go on, you know you want to.

Butterfly

The world you just created looks very similar to the one that would have existed had you not blown – but eventually, the differences between them will become bigger and bigger. Storms will happen on different days; people’s life paths will be altered; different people will be born; different people will die.

Anyone who’s ever told you that you couldn’t make a difference was wrong.

When people ask me why I bother to reduce food waste in my life, and why I blog, I tell them about non-linear systems and butterflies, and about the power we all have to nudge ideas and culture and behaviour in any direction we want. I tell them that those small nudges make a huge difference … eventually. And, if I’m feeling particularly lyrical that day, I tell them that that’s what a soul is: the consequences of our actions, rippling through time, forever magnifying, and forever reshaping the world — no matter how small we were in life.

Given that, you may not be surprised to learn that I’ve been disappointed that I haven’t been able to attend to this blog much in the past couple of months – but work has taken over most of my evenings and weekends, and it promises to keep doing that for at least a few more months.

The good news is that Bonnie Lee has agreed to step in to help pick up the slack, and keep those little puffs of 222 million tons wind flowing out into the world. I’ll add in my two hundred and twenty-two cents when time allows, including some overdue comments on the blogs I follow.

Butterflies

When you’re trying to change the world, two butterflies are better than one.

And now, back to work…

A Simple Hi-Tech Solution to Retail Food Waste

Reblogged from Food Cowboy:

19 days.

That’s how long it will take food companies to waste as much food as they donate this year.
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In all, they will throw away 34 million tons of good food – including enough fresh produce to feed 50 million elementary school students every day of the year. But don’t blame them, blame us.
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Unlike consumer food waste, which is a behavioral issue, commercial food waste comes down to logistics: Food is expensive to move. If it can’t be sold, it can’t be transported far.
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Supermarkets reject thousands of deliveries of wholesome but cosmetically imperfect food every day because they know it won’t sell. Truckers who get stuck with them don’t have time to search for food banks – and food banks, with their forklifts and 18-wheelers, are not well equipped to go out and get them. That task is better left to small food pantries and “food rescue” groups that can take the food right to where it is needed. But they can be hard to work with, especially for national retailers.
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