Sunday, November 18, 2012

Team Kimchi

Fourteen people gathered on Saturday in our kitchen to make kimchi, the Korean dish of cabbage, peppers, ginger and garlic; a smelly, spicy fermented superfood reputed to repel colds, infections and other assorted health downers.

Our group, a Resilience Team that has been together since 2010 under the mantra of "Share~Save~Support," has work-partied together numerous times - picking apples, harvesting pecans, canning peaches, learning how to use a marine battery for backup power, even making sausage - along with sharing seeds, plants and fruits, and showing each other support in a thousand ways. Never, however, have we attempted to make kimchi as a group.

We planned our escapade using Sandor Katz's recipe from wild fermentation, purchasing our ingredients in bulk from the Farmer's Market, and receiving a nice discount in return for ordering in advance. The members of the group assembled at 4 p.m. ready to slice, dice, and drink wine (after numerous large sharp and serrated knives were safely put away).

Controlled chaos ensued, building to a fever pitch as we hauled out a 5-gallon brewing bucket and donned latex gloves to mix the jalapeno-ginger-garlic paste into the napa cabbage-carrot-daikon radish base. By 8:30 p.m., after just a little work, some dice and cards, and a potluck, each participant had several jars of kimchi to take home, with a helping of juniper-berry sauerkraut promised from one family who created a batch while all others were pursuing our kimchi-making dreams.

Today, the distinctive kimchi odor is already in evidence as the fermentation bubbles along on my countertop. We were perhaps a bit too diligent in rinsing the salty brine out of our kimchi, and so as I pushed the veggies back into the brine I also added a bit of salt. The kimchi should be fermented to my taste in about a week.  After that, I'm looking forward to a winter of addictive kimchi taste adventures, as well as many more work parties and other escapades with our team of resilience-pursuing friends.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The most wonderful (gardening) time of the year

Growing a garden during the regular summer season here in Oklahoma can be a slog of uncomfortable heat and drought. 114+ temperatures, weeks without rain...painful. Without our reliable perennial fruit trees, some of us would grow little at all. Many Oklahoma farmers and gardeners have even begun muttering about giving up completely on the summer garden. But the fall season? Now, that's a different story.

Zone 7 gardeners can start a second round of plants in the late summer for a fall crop - selecting warm- or cool-season plants that yield quickly in September and October. Others plant cool-season crops that will survive through the fall, winter, and spring with the simple, cheap, and low-tech protection of a row cover. In Oklahoma City, the first frost is traditionally between Nov. 1 and Nov. 10.  However, along with much earlier springs, we have also recently been enjoying later first frosts, giving plants plenty of time to get established (and giving us plenty of time to plant).

In the cooler fall temperatures, it's more enjoyable to get out in the garden to plant and easier to water, since evaporation levels are lower. In fact, I rarely have to water after the seeds sprout and the plants get established. Plus, weeds and pests are fewer, making fall gardening a cinch for anyone to try - and succeed.

Here is a short list of some plants that enjoy cooler temperatures:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Carrots
  • Kale
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage / Napa Cabbage
  • Lettuce
  • Peas
  • Swiss Chard
  • Spinach
  • Parsley
  • Turnips
  • Beets

You'll notice that many of these choices are some of the most nutrient-dense vegetables available. Garlic and onions are great immunity-boosters, while all leafy-green vegetables are "super-stars" of nutrition, with high levels of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals.

My two favorite fall crops are kale and garlic. Garlic is tasty, nutritious, stores well, and is absolutely easy to grow. Home-grown garlic has much juicier cloves than the stuff available at the store. The difference is noticeable. To grow garlic, plant individual unpeeled bulbs in the late fall (here in Oklahoma, I usually plant in early October), water them a few times, and forget about them until the early summer, when you notice that they need to be harvested. Dig them up, let them "cure" for a few days, then tuck them away to use throughout the year. Then, re-plant in the fall.

I also love kale. Kale provides an amazingly long, virtually never-ending harvest of leafy greens. Eating kale is like taking vitamins, but in the form of a whole food with extra nutritious phyto-chemicals and fiber to fill you up. Although the taste of spinach (which is similarly green and nutritious) is milder and more attractive to my family, I have a hard time getting spinach seeds to germinate, even after soaking them overnight.  Kale is easier, in my opinion.

Last fall, as cooler temperatures arrived, I planted kale in two locations - one protected by a simple row cover, one completely un-protected. Both survived the mild winter, even as I repeatedly harvested the leaves. They then put on a heroic burst of growth in the spring, giving me early-season greens until April. The kale I planted in the fall performed much better than the kale I planted in the spring.

This year, I am planting garlic, kale, broccoli, napa cabbage, lettuce, carrots, and swiss chard, and I'll plan to protect everything (except for the garlic and carrots) with row covers as soon as frost approaches - or as soon as I notice any cabbage moths.  About half of  my garden space is currently filled with warm-season crops that are still yielding (okra, watermelons, peppers, basil), but in typical fashion, my tomatoes and squash have already withered to the point that they were useless. So I yanked them to give me space for my fall crops.

After several years of frustration, I had almost given up on growing broccoli. The darn cabbage moths always got them, no matter how much I picked away the little green worms. But this spring, I tried protecting the broccoli plants with row cover, and they actually yielded a nice harvest (despite a small hole which let some moths inside). So, I'm planting broccoli again this fall.

In short, planting in the cool autumn season offers much higher returns than planting in the spring. It's easier, has a longer harvest, yields some of my favorite crops, and takes less water and work. Trouble-free yields for six months? In my opinion, it's completely worth investing a few dollars and a few hours of planting time.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Where have I been?

Apologies for the long sabbatical. For several years, I've been dreaming of an extended vacation of hiking, beach-combing, and exploring in Washington - specifically, in Olympic National Park, where there are so many varied terrains, including waterfalls, beaches, lakes, mountains, and a temperate rain forest.

Our son is now old enough to travel, so we set out this summer to have some fun - you know, while the airlines are still in business and we still have jobs.  My parents tagged along to spend time with their grandson.  As we live in a different city, they don't see him as much as they'd like. They were treated to numerous games of tic-tac-toe by their grandson.

The Park did not disappoint. Everything was breathtaking. Marymere Falls, Olympic National Park

Starfish, Ruby Beach

I was proud of my son, who hiked several miles a day. Though we chose mostly flat hikes, some had steep stairs, and one had a 700 foot ascent / descent over 3.2 miles - not much for a fit adult, but a lot for a four-year old who had never been hiking before. We took plenty of pictures to prove he made it to the top.

Hurricane Ridge

Sequim lavender fields

Sol Duc Falls

Exposed wood grain of fallen tree, Hoh Rain Forest

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Mighty Dehydrator

I started dehydrating food out of simple necessity. I needed a fast and easy method to preserve the hundreds of pounds of peaches I get from my two peach trees every year. However, I soon became a food dehydration fan, searching out foods to dry to see how they would taste. This year my goal is to stop buying fruity lunch snacks for my son, who loves the dried peaches, bananas, apples, pears, cantaloupes, and even the tart plum chips that I make for him.

Like any food preservation technique, dehydration helps me to eat more local and organic food. I can preserve the tons of excess produce from my garden and fruit trees at the height of summer (picking at peak freshness for best flavor), which enables me to eat locally year-round. I can also take advantage of farmer's market / supermarket specials to purchase foods at low cost and preserve them. At the same time, I'm creating food storage for my family that will last for many months.

Not only does dehydration help me eat more locally and organically, but it also helps my family eat in a more environmentally friendly way, because it reduces packaging waste. Since I can re-use glass jars and lids repeatedly, I don't have to eat food stored in plastic, and we don't need to throw away packaging after only one use. This may seem like a small benefit, but it makes me surprisingly happy.

Although I also can, freeze, ferment, and jam, when I've got a lot of food to preserve, I usually prefer to dehydrate. Why?

1. Inexpensive.
I purchased my Nesco food dehydrator for about $50, and I store my dried food in glass jars found at garage sales. Both the jars and lids can be re-used over and over (unlike with canning, where a new lid is required each time.)  The only other equipment needed is a cutting board and a knife, although an apple corer does come in handy. I don't have to purchase any kind of special extra ingredients to add to the food.

2. Makes great snacks.
Dried fruits are quite sweet even without adding any sugar because the natural sugars are concentrated when the water is removed. Fruit dried at home is cheaper than the organic fruit strips or dried fruit from the store, and without questionable additives or preservatives. In my experience, most dried fruits keep for a year or more.

3. Simple and fast.
Dehydration is great for beginners, because generally, there are no complicated instructions to remember. I simply cut up the food, put it in the dehydrator trays, and turn on the dehydrator. When the food is finished drying, I put it in glass jars and seal it with lids and screwtops. I prefer to get the food pretty dry so that I have no concerns about food safety; I put any food that is still moist in the fridge or eat it within a few days.

4. Takes up less space.
You might be amazed by how much food can be stored in a quart jar after it has been dried. If your pantry or freezer space is limited, dehydration is your best friend. In fact, dried food shrinks up so much that it's a little frightening - but don't worry, the fiber, calories, minerals, and Vitamin A are still in there.

Although dehydrating food is a great preservation technique, there are a few quirks. Dehydrators make noise and put out heat. Therefore, when I am using the dehydrator, I always place it in the garage, up on a ledge. This is especially crucial in the summertime, when I don't want any extra heat in the house.

Preparing food for dehydration does not take much time, perhaps half an hour, although peaches require more time because I first remove the skins. However, the actual dehydration process consumes many hours, and unfortunately, most dehydrators do not have timers attached. I've found that drying times vary according to many different factors. I usually dry peaches for twelve hours; apples, which are much less juicy, for four to six hours. So, if you are trying to preserve a lot of food at once (for example, 160 pounds of peaches or 70 pounds of apples), you might want to purchase or borrow a second dehydrator, use multiple techniques for preservation, or time your preservation so that you can kick off a batch in the morning and then overnight. I use all of these strategies at the height of food preservation season.

One of the best parts of dehydrating food is that I can listen to Great Courses, Peak Moment TV, interviews on the Energy Bulletin, books on tape from the library, or chat with a friend at the same time. An activity that could have been a chore becomes as fun as watching a good movie or reading a book - but with quarts of inexpensive, tasty, local, organic food storage at the end.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Summer Solar Cooking

Cooking with a Sun Oven is never easier than in the summer months, when the sun is intense and the days are long.  Temperatures inside my Global Sun Oven can easily reach 350 degrees within around fifteen minutes, and so I can cook a wide range of dishes - sometimes several in one day.

Yesterday, I cooked a batch of applesauce with Granny Smith apples that I scavenged with my friends out in Jones, Oklahoma, and I also cooked potatoes for potato salad that evening. The applesauce was so hot that when I ladled it into jars, it caused the lids to seal (not true canning, but I thought it was impressive). As I made dinner later that night, I realized that I could have also cooked hard-boiled eggs and heated up the black-eyed peas for a 100% solar cooked meal.  If only I had planned better! C'est la vie.

Solar cooking is also more worthwhile during the summer months of May through September. There is less wind or cloud cover, and thus less anxiety about whether the Global Sun Oven will tip over or fail to cook a dish completely. Cooking outside also decreases the heat gain inside my house. Since my air conditioner has a difficult time keeping our house under 80 degrees when it is over 100 degrees out (for example, the entire last three weeks), solar cooking saves energy (and money) on both cooking and air conditioning, and is essential for keeping the house cool on the hottest days.

For this same reason, solar cooking is the only way that I bake in the summer.  I just can't stand to add an hour or more of oven heat to my house when it is 105 degrees outside.  So I use the Sun Oven to bake, or don't bake at all.

While there are many, many things that I can cook and bake in the sun oven, (see Cooking with Sunshine, or Sharlene's blog Mainstream Solar Cooking) here's a short list of my "go-to" sun oven items - items I know will cook quickly, easily, and well:

  • Potatoes
  • Corn on the cob
  • Banana bread
  • Rice
  • Ratatouille
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Applesauce
One thing that I have never tried - but would love to try - is canning in the Sun Oven.  I don't have the confidence to do it, because of the health and safety concerns, but I also believe that it would be a truly useful device for anyone who wants to can when it is inferno-level hot outside, or wants to save on energy costs.  So if you know anyone who would be qualified to conduct rigorous canning trials with a Sun Oven, please encourage them to do so and let me know the results!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Peach amnesia

Peach season arrived early, passed quickly, and left me loaded with a bevy of peach goodies. Despite another record hailstorm, which left a bushel of peaches stranded on the ground just a few weeks short of harvest, my two front-yard peach trees (J.H. Hale and Hale Haven) yielded an impressive bounty - this year, ridiculously pest-free. I ended up with 12 pints of dehydrated peach chips, which my son likes approximately as well as candy, a batch of jam, and five pints of peach ice cream topping.

This year, we had quite a few visitors to our peach trees, from the small furry long-tailed variety, to the flying, cawing feathered kind, to door-knocking strangers asking to buy peaches.  "Pshaw, take a handful," I say - to the humans.  The wee beasties never bother to ask.

I always seem to forget the true extent of the work involved in thinning, harvesting, and processing peaches, which requires sporadic work in the spring and then an intense burst of activity in (usually) July. The harvesting and processing takes about two weeks, but the peach taste lingers on in preserved goods for nearly a year. In truth, peaches have reliably been my best crop for the last three years.

Luckily my friends accept "I'm sorry, it's peach season," as a sufficient reason for not participating in activities. This may be because they know they will soon be invited to pick a bucketful of some of the best-tasting, freshest, pesticide-free peaches in the county, which in my humble but not un-biased opinion make store-bought peaches taste like softballs and which place Farmer's Market offerings in the distinctly distant, albeit still tasty, second place.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Hi-tech low-tech fruit protection

Although the peaches on our two front-yard peach trees are not yet ripe, they have changed color from pale green to golden orange, attracting the attention of mockingbirds and bluejays. Rather than net the trees (which we tried a few years ago and had to remove when a bird got caught in the net), we are trying a technique we saw at a nearby farm - hanging old CD's from the branches, where the flashes of light scare the birds away. Our farming friends had attached the shiny discs near their blackberry bushes, and when I saw the blackberries they were ripe, with no pesky birds bothering the fruit at all.

In past years we have let the birds peck at the peaches without worrying too much, since we usually have more than we can use. However, this year the bird traffic seems heavier than usual, and I really want to dehydrate plenty of peach chips for my son, who loves them. After seeing the effective demonstration at the farm, we decided to try this technique.

I haven't seen or heard any birds on the trees since we attached three reflective discs to each tree two days ago. I was warned that the reflectors are only effective for a short while (days to weeks), so timing is important. The peaches should be ripe in a week or two. After harvesting ends, I can remove and save the reflectors to hang on the apple trees in the fall. Re-usable hi-tech low-tech fruit protection.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Unexpected bounty - Beauty plums

Beauty Plum tree, after first round of harvesting

Plums destined for jam

I had almost given up on my Beauty plum tree. I ordered this Japanese variety from Burnt Ridge Nursery and planted it five years ago. For the last two years, it has been covered with fruit, until the week when every single plum fell off before ripening. After the first year of the fruit die-off, I thought there might be a problem with pollination and I planted a Santa Rosa plum to help the Beauty out, but again, the plums fell off before ripening. This year, I gave up and did not even bother to thin the plums, knowing that the effort was pointless.

Thus did one branch full of fruit crack and break. Yes, the plums ripened last week! As it was my first year, I did not quite know when to harvest them. I was waiting for fully-colored purple fruit, but these plums are ripe when a red blush appears on the golden background. By the time they are completely purple, they are mushy and fit only for chickens.  

The first round of plums to ripen were full of bugs and inedible. But once those were off the tree, 95% of the plums have been pest-less. It has been lovely not to be confronted with a pest in every plum, especially considering that they are rather small - about four times the size of a cherry. Although small in size, the pits are tiny, so in total there is a good amount of flesh on each plum.  

The fresh taste is sometimes sweet, sometimes tart. I ate a few of these plums fresh, but found that they were a bit too tart for me and decided to preserve the rest. Beauty plums are clingstone, so preserving them is labor intensive (several cuts seem to be required), although their skins do not need removing (unlike peaches). So far, I made two batches of plum jam - one full-sugar, one low-sugar, and I vastly prefer the low-sugar recipe. I added 1/2 tsp of cinnamon to the standard recipe (you'll find one in your Sure Jell box) to add some complexity to the flavor.

Although Beauty Plum is not an Italian (prune) variety, I also decided to dehydrate a batch. After all, you don't see dehydrated peaches too often in a store, but peach chips are fabulous when made at home. Wow. The result is kind of like a plum sweet-tart, but half as sweet and twice as tart. I'm sure I'll eat these, but in the future I may stick to making plum jam.  

Thankfully, the peach harvest from my two front-yard trees is not for several more weeks, so I don't have to try to preserve both sets of fruit at the same time. This is a relief, as preserving the harvest from just two peach trees can take the majority of a week - even when we give away bags to seven or eight friends and family. Usually, my peaches ripen around July 4th, but since most fruit trees in Oklahoma City are ripening up to one full month early this year due to the warm spring, I expect to harvest peaches sometime in mid-June. The fuzzy fruits are already blushing and attracting pecks from birds.

Although both the peaches and plums were moderately damaged by the hail storm that blew through Oklahoma City a few days ago, the harvest of plums was still equivalent to at least nine batches of plum jam (about 75 cups), with a few plums still lingering on the tree.  We've given away three jars of jam already and four bags of plums. In the gardening world, as in many other walks of life, what goes around definitely comes around!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Series of Fortunate Events

In case you are wondering... yes, I completed the Eight is Great challenge, and I do plan to post about it sometime.  In the meantime, perhaps you might be interested in Transition OKC's latest Series of Fortunate Events?  Free Beat the Heat workshop, film screening of Two Angry Moms, and Better Block OKC!
Beat the Heat logo
Beat the Heat in Your Home and Garden
Grow food, save water, conserve energy, build community

 Looking forward to the possibility of another 63 days of 100+ heat ... like last summer? If not, join us at this collaborative workshop with strategies, tips and idea-sharing on how to stay cool this summer in your garden and home.  
Where:  Earth 2 Urban Local Foods Market
1235 SW 2nd Street, OKC
  • Sat., May 5, 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. 
  • Community potluck at 11:30 a.m.
  • Workshop at 12:15 p.m.
Cost: Free. Donations not required, however we will pass the hat for donations to cover our costs, and for every donation of $5 or more, we'll provide a receipt for your tax records. 
RSVP here - space is limited. 

Why are these two moms so angry?
It's lunchtime ... do you know what your kids are eating at school? How
would you feel if you found out it was mostly processed foods, fries,
chips, sodas and pizzas?  

Come see "Two Angry Moms," a documentary tracing the efforts of 
moms around the country working to make sure their kids, and all kids, 
have access to the real, healthy foods they need to grow, learn and 
succeed. PLUS, find out the situation in Oklahoma City schools! 

Sponsored by Transition OKC, EatWise OKC and IAO.
Free film screening
What: "Two Angry Moms" film screening
Where:  IAO Gallery,
             706 W Sheridan Avenue, OKC
When: Sat. May 12 
Potluck - 6 p.m. 
Screening - 6:45 p.m. 
OKC school update - 8:15 p.m.

Better Block OKC 
Planting Garden

Better Block OKC is a community revitalization 
project that demonstrates how to improve an 
area through temporary infrastructure, culture, 
pop-up businesses, landscaping, beautification 
& street life. Presented by ULI Oklahoma.

Transition OKC is creating and installing a temporary 
pop-up community garden for Better Block OKC.

When: May 18 & 19 
Where: NW 7th & Hudson, OKC 
Cost: Free!
Transition OKC: Helping teens get plants off drugs!

Thanks to supporters like you, Transition OKC raised $2,410 for tools, equipment and compost bins for the Closer to Earth youth community gardens, where teens learn more than organic gardening - they learn teamwork, leadership, mentoring and environmental advocacy. Thank you Oklahoma City!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Chris and Antoinette

"Thank God for this job, otherwise I'd be in jail or dead, at the rate I was going."
-Chris, age 17
Some teens find the Closer to Earth youth community gardens through school, some through court-ordered community service. Some are volunteers, but many have been in some trouble with the law, earning them the term "at-risk youth." At risk for what? "Hanging out with gangs, on the street, with nothing to do," says Chris, one of the current interns.

Chris and Antoinette are both interns with Closer to Earth, a non-profit group of youth who wear many hats: community gardeners, composters, native-plant landscapers, growers of fresh veggies for food pantries to feed the hungry. Interns and youth doing court-ordered community service learn how to garden without chemicals, how to compost, make healthier choices, and advocate for the environment.

Schools and courts refer hundreds of youth to Closer to Earth for community service every year because these institutions have found that the safety, education, and responsibility that youth find at this small grassroots non-profit can be an effective antidote to their "at-risk" alternatives.

The group has won several awards, most recently the 2011 Keep Oklahoma Beautiful Environmental Excellence Award in the Youth category. It was founded in 2007 in the Central Park Neighborhood by Allen Parleir, and although Allen may be the facilitator for the group, according to him, "The kids make all the decisions." This is part of a model he calls Growth through Responsibility, and he credits it, along with the close contact with nature, with the success of the group.

Chris and Antoinette spoke with me about how being involved with Closer to Earth has changed their lives and the lives of the juvenile offenders that they mentor.

The transformations range from subtle to amazing. Antoinette, a high school senior, has learned teamwork, speaking skills, and how to be aware of her choices. She has also learned not to judge the juvenile offenders for their past troubles. "I want to start a youth group, when I have the resources. Everyone should have the opportunity to participate in a group like this...I like being closer to nature. I like caring."

For some, the changes are striking. Chris reports, "I used to eat a lot of junk food, greasy fried chicken, McDonald's. Nasty stuff. I used to weigh 298 pounds. Now, I'm down to 225. It's all that hauling the wheelbarrows around that does it."

But he says the changes run deeper. "Before, I was rude. I had a real bad anger problem. I used to work fast just to get things done. Now, Allen taught me how to stay calm. I've learned to take my time, do it right. I lead the check-ins and the group meetings where we have discussions about writing grant proposals. I've learned to be a leader."

What keeps the teens coming back? The nominal monthly stipend helps, but Chris and Antoinette expressed appreciation for working with nature and helping improve the world. For Chris, Closer to Earth is like a family, and he values the opportunity to serve. "I love it. My favorite part is helping the homeless people - feeding them and talking about what we do. I like to see them smile." Antoinette has found that caring for plants and being outside has brought her some peace. "With the simplicity of nature, I can enjoy the little things without needing some other kind of escape. I've learned how to be chill."

Both Chris and Antoinette agree that Closer to Earth's most important activity is working with the juvenile offenders, helping grow community and providing a way for them to stay out of trouble. While these two interns are only seventeen and eighteen, they have the opportunity to mentor and teach the youth who are doing court-ordered community service every Sunday and Wednesday. Antoinette says, "At first, they're very quiet, uncomfortable, shut down. But within a week, they start to like it. They lighten up, get an appreciation for what they're doing for the world. They get a clarity."

Chris reports that the work with Closer to Earth has a real impact on the teens. "It changes their whole attitude. They start to take responsibility. Most of them, when they get through, want to come back and work some more. It's a cool thing, to be able to reach out and touch their lives like that."

Like Closer to Earth? Want to help? You can donate to the youth group, community garden and compost service through Grassroots Groupon until Earth Day, April 22. Transition OKC is using 100% of donations to build compost bins and purchase badly needed tools and equipment for their garden and composting activities. And since Groupon works through the power of the people, please spread the word through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Being a catalyst (aka defying the elevator speech)

Transition Initiatives, the popular community response to the combination of our energy, economic, and environmental woes, are often called "catalysts," a catchy word with an interesting definition.

In simple terminology, a catalyst is a person, organization or thing that precipitates an event.

Yet another, more complicated, definition is more intriguing. In chemistry, a catalyst is a substance that causes or increases the rate of a chemical reaction without undergoing any permanent change to itself. A catalyst can cause a chemical reaction to occur in cases where it might otherwise be impossible (at a lower temperature, for example). A catalyst can also be present at relatively small amounts compared to the reactants.

This definition captures some of the complexities of Transition Initiatives, often small bands of people aiming to create big change. After all, what's needed to address our very big problems, in the end, is nothing less than a revolutionary shift in attitudes, behaviors and systems. The changes coming will necessitate revolutions in the fundamental, most basic, aspects of life: the way we grow and cook our food, heat and cool our homes, get from one place to another, make a living, access water and use energy.

Yet despite our large goals, Transition groups don't usually aim at the heart of large institutions. We don't agitate for political upheaval - we are non-partisan and avoid political fights. We don't even claim to have all the answers to the questions we raise, because the answers will be different for different communities and individuals, different over time, space, and circumstance.

Instead, we are trying, by raising awareness, engaging in dialogue with communities, making resources available, and connecting existing structures and organizations, to catalyze a series of chemical reactions that will result in a stronger and healthier community super-structure, one that will be more sustainable and resilient, more readily able to withstand the shocks that are traveling toward us in waves.

The chemical definition of catalyst captures the diversity of strategies of the Transition group in Oklahoma City. If you look at our 70+ activities and events over the last three years, you might see a disorganized, messy, scattershot approach to our mission of transitioning OKC to local resilience. Our activities range from film screenings to presentations and panels, networking events and permablitzes, retreats and trainings, extending to large events like Oklahoma's first full Permaculture Design Course, Moving Planet OK and the Local Food Meet & Greet. So are we about local food, permaculture, health, the environment, sustainability, solar panels, biking, composting, community gardens, or what?

Yet peering through the lens of the catalyst, Transition OKC has a collection of catalytic strategies with a clear goal. We connect people and organizations to each other and to needed resources, expand the reach of existing health and sustainability groups, and raise the profile of concepts like re-skilling, permaculture, and going local. All the while, we model zero-waste events by composting and recycling, demonstrate social equality by our non-hierarchical approach to partnering, and remind people that we need community and a local economy to thrive. It's hard to capture this range of activities in an elevator speech, but lucky for us, the word catalyst exists.

What's the next catalytic step for Transition OKC? Expanding the support and capacity of composting and community gardening in Oklahoma City. Look for details coming soon - we're raising funds through Groupon the entire week before Earth Day. Find out more on April 16th.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Bees, butterflies and beneficials

Not only do flowers provide nectar for bees that pollinate my fruit trees and crops, and beneficial insects that help control unwanted pests, but they also make my garden a beautiful place to water, weed, plant and harvest. In my front yard, they create a welcoming pathway for visitors and they make my edible landscaping (persimmon, peaches, apples, watermelons, squashes and peppers) more attractive.

However, it's not the typical large flowers that attract the bees and beneficials. Instead, I plant a variety of perennials, annuals and shrubs with small flowers that bloom from spring to late fall, and I let some plants (like kale) flower and set seed in my garden, so my bug buddies will always have something to eat. In order to use a beneficial bug strategy for insect control, I don't spray pesticides, which would kill the beneficials along with the pests.

I'm not expanding my garden this year - much - but I've noticed several spots that could host herbs and flowers to provide habitat for beneficial insects that help control unwanted garden pests. I plant marigolds, sunflowers, and lantanas in my garden beds, but I tend to choose perennials for landscaping because they don't need re-planting every year. (In fact, my bright pink salvia is already in full bloom in March). I try to select varieties that need little water once they are established and have a long bloom period.

This year, I plan to plant some combination of the following:

Coreopsis - bright yellow flowers bloom all summer
Catmint - spreads, interesting odor, purple flowers bloom in spring and again in fall
Purple sage - edible herb, purple foliage until frost
Butterflyweed - drought tolerant, yellow/orange/red flowers attract butterflies and ladybugs
Sedum - fall blooming, tough
Yarrow - ferny foliage, attracts a wide variety of beneficials
Tansy - bright yellow flowers, tall herb, multi-use, attracts a wide variety of beneficials
Thyme - evergreen in my area of Oklahoma, tough
Golden marguerite - small chamomile-like flowers, attracts a wide variety of beneficials

For a much longer list of plants that attract beneficial insects, see this Mother Earth News article. What flowers are you planting for your bees, butterflies and beneficials? Have you used a beneficial bug strategy to control your pests, and has it worked for you?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The first two weeks

Challenge check-in time! Thanks to those of you who have shared comments and ideas over the last few weeks. I appreciate your stories and suggestions.

So how have I been doing with the Eight is Great challenge? Looking back over my log, I have eaten the full eight servings of fruits, beans, or vegetables 16 out of 18 days, and two days I had six servings. On one of those days I went to an evening meeting and on another I went to a party, which threw off my eating schedule. I'm finding that, of my eight servings, I eat about half fruits and half vegetables, with a bean serving about every other day.

Positives I've noticed: I've been much more attentive to the amount of nutritious food I'm serving the family and myself. I like my serving log; it helps me focus on what we're eating without feeling deprived. After all, this is not a calorie-restricted "diet" but an effort to choose healthier foods.

I've enjoyed experimenting with recipes to find interesting vegetable sides - kimchi (more on that in another post) and some new carrot, cauliflower and turnip dishes.

The biggest plus: I haven't been sick since the time I completed an easier version of this challenge last year (four or five months ago I did a "Plus Five and Thrive" challenge that I didn't blog about at the time). I picked up several healthy habits at that time, so I've been eating more fruits and veggies since then.

About a month ago, several nasty viruses and colds made the rounds; one flu incapacitated my husband and son for four days. I didn't come down with the plague then, which was so helpful (and unexpected) since I was caring for the rest of the family. I've also noticed that my allergies seem much better than they have in previous years. I can't definitively attribute the virus-avoidance and reduced allergy symptoms to the increased amount of fruits and veggies in my diet, but it seems possible that the additional phytochemicals and anti-oxidants have boosted my immune system.

Negatives I've noticed:
My stomach feels full pretty often, leading me to think that I may be eating more calories than usual. I'm not always substituting good food for other calories, instead, occasionally I'm adding a whole extra fruit or vegetable serving to try to get the full eight servings. I may have miscalculated the calories and servings that I need for my height (5'2")/weight/activity level.

I am spending more time looking for recipes and cooking, probably an average of ten minutes per day. The amount of time and mental energy I spend on cooking should decrease as choosing fruits, vegetables and beans for my meal planning becomes more of a habit.

Strategies I'm using to get the full eight servings:
- Starting the day with orange juice and 1/2 cup of fruit in my oatmeal or parfait
- Snacking on whole fruit, dried fruit and nuts, or hummus and carrots
- Cooking extra vegetables at dinner to use in lunch meals the next day
- Cooking vegetarian meals several nights per week
- Often skipping the "starch" part of a meal, instead eating a small protein portion and two servings of beans and/or vegetables
- Choosing quick veggie meals on days when I need to cut cooking time (sweet potato quesadillas or veggie omelets, for example)

For me, the benefits have far outweighed the small additional effort needed to eat more fruits and vegetables. I feel positive about setting a good example for my son and helping him develop healthy eating habits. I've also found several new vegetable recipes that my son likes.

I'll continue this challenge for the full month, when I'll decide what habits to keep for the longer term. I hope the rest of you are seeing some positives from this challenge as well - feel free to share your experiences and tips!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Immunity superstars

One reason I took on the Eight is Great challenge is to try to boost my immune system. Over the last five years, I've had several colds, and I hate the possibility of getting my little boy sick. There's no way for me to take time "off" unless I'm lying on my bed near death. Also, as I've passed my twenties, I've become more aware of the effects of aging and the threat of cancer, heart disease, and arthritis.

There are many factors that affect susceptibility to illness. We all know how important it is not to smoke cigarettes and how critical it is to wash our hands during flu season. Healthy food choices are just one more way, albeit an important and often overlooked way, to build a robust defense system. So as I choose my fruits, vegetables and beans every day, I'm also trying to choose foods with immune-boosting effects: foods that have been shown to have high nutrient density, high fiber, and anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

The fruits and vegetables with the highest health-boosting scores across a range of factors appear to be:
Greens (+ cruciferous vegetables): Kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, romaine lettuce
Onions and garlic
Mushrooms, including the white button mushroom
Berries and cherries: Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries
Tomatoes, including tomato sauce and salsa
Beans: Black, kidney, pinto, garbanzo
* Note that this list is primarily sourced from Super Immunity by Dr. Joel Fuhrman cross-referenced with 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth by Jonny Bowden. They have compiled extensive stacks of research on this topic.

While I'm not about to limit my diet to these foods, each research article and book I read makes me more motivated to include these immunity superstars in my meals whenever possible. Luckily, many of the immunity-boosting fruits and vegetables are cheap or reasonably priced. I can even grow several of them in my garden, including carrots, the greens, onions and garlic, and tomatoes. Well...maybe tomatoes.

I've seen most of these choices on various nutritionist "Top Ten" lists over the years. One surprise of my recent research is the health benefits of the common white button mushroom. In the past I'd had the impression that shiitake and other pricier mushrooms had a nutritional edge on the cheap-o, easily available button mushroom, but in fact the white buttons seem to have important anti-cancer effects.

The research on these foods has spurred me to find ways to include at least three choices from this list in my meals every day as part of the Eight is Great challenge. Frozen blueberries have easily become part of breakfast and the occasional smoothie. I eat various kinds of beans at least three times a week as hummus, chili, bean salad, taco, or a simple side. Onions and garlic can be included in almost any dish (whether they are actually in the recipe or not). Carrots and broccoli, beloved by my son and thus also by myself, have become part of the regular meal rotation.

The two foods that I have challenged myself to include more often are kale and mushrooms. Kale grows rampantly in my garden, seemingly immune to the cabbage moths that plague other cruciferous vegetables, and so it is incredibly easy to run out and harvest a handful every day - even through the winter. The ultra-nutritious high-anti-oxidant kale just continues to grow back. Lately, I've been sauteing kale with olive oil, salt and lemon as a side dish. As for mushrooms, I've been able to incorporate them frequently in omelets, pasta sauces and piled high on veggie pizzas.

Strangely enough for someone who is trying so hard to eat vegetables, I haven't been eating many salads. While I like salads, and they are highly recommended, they seem like an extra effort to make. Perhaps my failure to eat them, while still being able to get eight fruit, bean and vegetable servings per day, just demonstrates that salads are only one way to get vegetables. There are many other possibilities for including veggies, and their immunity-boosting benefits, in your diet.

* Note: Information provided is educational in nature, please consult your physician or nutritionist for advice about your particular situation.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A little nutritional wrinkle

As you may recall, I have a four year old boy, which makes my Eight is Great challenge a little more...challenging. Although cooking for a child can restrict my meal and food choices, it also helps keep me inspired. I hear constantly about the childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics, along with the increase in many other childhood ailments, and the number and amount of medications prescribed to children, and I hope that better nutrition will help him avoid some (or all) of those problems.

I generally don't cook separate dinners for my son, preferring that he eat the meal I cook for the family, and trying instead to include some vegetables that I'm sure he'll like. Luckily for me, he's not extraordinarily picky. He eats most fruits, except for strawberries. This means he usually eats two or three servings of fruit per day. However, getting him to eat enough vegetables is harder - though he does like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, sweet potatoes, okra, beans and hummus. He's definitely not fond of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers, turnips, and greens.

Therefore, many of my dinners have a definite kid-friendly component. Although this doesn't mean serving chicken fingers or Goldfish, it means that for my son's particular preferences, I have to avoid spiciness, hide onions and tomato chunks, and concentrate my meal-planning on the vegetables that he does like.

Here are some of the ways that I try to encourage my son to get enough servings of vegetables:

1. Include beans

Beans are very versatile. I put them in soups, chilis, salads, hummus, tacos and quesadillas, and serve them alone as a side. Because they are high in protein, fiber, vitamins, and anti-oxidants, and because I was a pescatarian for nine years, I cook with them quite often. Technically, they are a legume, but they are nutritionally very impressive, much like vegetables.

2. Blend it up

In this, the immersion blender is my good friend. In prior days, I avoided any kind of pureed soup or stew due to the trouble and extra clean-up involved in transferring the soup. With an immersion blender, I can blend onions and tomatoes in with the rest of the soup, chili, or pasta sauce, and my son isn't bothered - it's only the texture of onions and tomatoes that he doesn't like, not the taste.

The immersion blender is also helpful in making other dishes that he likes, including cauliflower mashed "faux-tatoes," hummus, and smoothies.

3. Rotate

My son does like several vegetables; I just have to remember what they are, and rotate them through our dinners. This can be as easy as including a roasted okra side, sauteeing broccoli with lemon, making sweet potato quesadillas, or serving carrots and hummus as a snack.

We try to eat seasonally, so sometimes this can pose a challenge. He likes many cold-weather vegetables, but not as many warm-weather vegetables, so we compromise, erring on the side of more nutrition, and less local food. I buy broccoli and carrots almost every week even when they are not in season.

4. Explain and involve

Jonny Bowden's book The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth has been helpful in encouraging healthy choices by providing an easy way to talk about nutrition. The book is nicely divided into specific foods, with pictures, and research citations for every food. I'm fairly sure my son doesn't understand what an anti-oxidant is, but he likes to eat "star foods" (Mr. Bowden's designation for super-extra nutritious foods like blueberries, kale, garlic, etc.) and we'll count the star foods included in any meal. Although his "star" designations may or may not be based in any rigorous scientific study, he also includes Top Ten foods lists from fifteen other nutritionists and doctors, for a variety of perspectives.

My son also likes to help cook and help with gardening activities like starting seeds. I think that including him in these activities will help ground him in healthier choices, in the long run.

Having a young boy to cook for makes getting eight daily servings of fruits, vegetables, and beans slightly more challenging; but having a plan, and the right tools (thank you immersion blender!) has made it much easier than I might have anticipated. For the first several days, it has not prevented me from meeting my quota of eight.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eight is Great Challenge

"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
- Benjamin Franklin

I always treasure my normally good health the most immediately after a bout with illness, and it was right after a nasty cold that I first decided to find out how well my diet measured up to the standard recommendation to get about eight daily servings of fruits and vegetables (for someone of my size).

According to many sources, consuming more fruits and vegetables helps boost the immune system. I've become much more concerned about ensuring optimum immunity as we've seen the repercussions of the financial and economic depressions echo throughout the health and insurance systems. Not only do I want health for health's sake, but also because I'm coming to believe that the health system may not have the resources to treat the illnesses that are running rampant in our society - heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other casualties of our toxic, sedentary and nutrient-poor lifestyles. The system is already staggering under the load of our poor health. And even if the system can treat these diseases, we may not be able to afford the treatment.

So how do we achieve optimum health and immunity? There are several avenues, but one key is consuming fruits and vegetables, which corresponds with lower risk of stroke and heart disease, protection against some kinds of cancer, improved digestion, better overall health, even protection of our vision. Many nutritionists believe that these same benefits cannot be achieved from consuming multi-vitamins and other supplements - our bodies don't absorb pills the same way, and the combination of vitamins, minerals, fiber, anti-oxidants, and phytochemicals inherent in the whole food is important.

With all the evidence, the benefits are clear and compelling. Yet how many times have you tried to actually eat the recommended number of fruits and vegetables - five to thirteen per day, depending on your weight?

As for myself, never. I was curious as to how many servings I was actually eating, and a few months ago I decided to find out. For one month last year, I wrote down every serving of fruit, vegetable, or beans I ate. I was surprised by the results. I discovered that at first, I was sometimes eating less than the minimum recommended amount of five fruits and vegetables. Once I started paying attention, I began finding more ways to get them into my snacks and meals, and I began to enjoy the challenge of experimenting with new foods.

Yet five servings is still far from the optimum. In fact, it's only the minimum! Why not go for better health, more energy, increased immunity?

Good question. My answer: I just started the challenge once again in honor of March, National Nutrition Month. This time, I'm going for eight servings of fruits, vegetables, and beans per day. How did I come up with eight? Well, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends nine servings for someone consuming 2,000 calories. Since I only need to consume about 1,800 calories per day, eight seemed like a reasonable number.

I'll be blogging about the adventure to improve my health, immunity, and nutrition over the next 30 days, as I try a variety of fruits and vegetables, grow some of the vegetables in my garden, and experiment with some unusual, but inexpensive and easy to make, foods. At the end, I'll summarize the habits and strategies that I want to keep.

Anyone want to join me in the challenge? Here's how:
1. Comment on this post and I'll send you a blank version of the calendar I'm using to track my results, which I'm posting on my fridge. If you don't want to publish your e-mail, you can send me a request for a tracking calendar at - but still comment in to join the challenge!
2. Track the fruit, vegetable and bean servings you eat every day (guidelines are listed below).
3. Find ways to increase the number of servings of these immunity-boosting foods.

I plan to have fun with this challenge, and I hope you will too! The challenge will run from today until April 5th. At that time, I'll do a drawing for Simply in Season, a seasonal cookbook, for challenge participants.

Here are some guidelines for what counts as a serving size for this challenge:
- 1/2 cup of fruits or vegetables
- 1/2 cup of cooked beans (kidney, black, pinto, garbanzo, lentils, hummus)
- Approximately one medium apple, banana, or orange
- 1/4 cup of dried fruit
- 1 cup of uncooked greens (lettuce, spinach, kale)
- 1/2 cup of not-from-concentrate juice (carrot or orange)

Note that potatoes do not count as a vegetable (nutritionists count them as a starch). Commercial fruit juices made from concentrate, and processed items like fruit roll-ups, also do not count as a fruit.