Saturday, July 11, 2015

All-Purpose Homemade Scrubbing Solution

This simple combination of just two natural, common household ingredients can be used to safely and effectively clean just about any surface. It really works. I wouldn't bother writing about it if it was just kind of OK- which is how my natural cleaning methods were for years, before I started making this. 

In fact, I can't believe it took me this long to try it. Previously, I was simply cleaning my tub with pure baking soda, and a whole lot of scrubbing. It worked, sorta. I cleaned my sinks just with a scrub brush and some soap. When my worlds collided in this recipe, I was amazed at how much easier it was to clean everything, just as naturally, and how much cleaner everything got.

To the recipe, then!

All you'll need are these items, plus a bottle for the finished product.


1 c baking soda
1/4 c liquid castile soap
1/4 c water
(If your soap isn't scented, and you like things that smell nice, you can add a couple drops of essential oil. Lavender or tea tree oils will also help with disinfecting.)

I like to write what goes into my homemade cleaners right on the bottle, which makes it super straightforward when it's time for a refill!


Measure ingredients and pour into the bottle. I use an old Siracha bottle, but any repurposed squeeze bottle will work great.

Shake well and use like any scrubbing cleanser. When I was a kid we used Soft Scrub, and this works every bit as well. 

Besides the fact that this is a million times cheaper than products you can buy (if I did my calculations right) you don't have to worry about rinsing every bit of cleanser away before, for example, bathing your children in the tub. It's just baking soda and natural soap, both of which you might actually want a little of in a bath. 

It's easy to make, and kinda even makes cleaning fun.

In a closed container, this solution should last indefinitely. Shake before use, as the ingredients can settle into layers. 

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Meditation: How & Why

As the new year begins, many of us find this a good time to let go of old habits and start healthier ones. Will you make 2015 the year you start meditating regularly?

I'm a pretty typical Type A personality: driven, busy, and often multitasking, while still making an effort to slow down and enjoy life. For years I considered meditation a luxury of those with much simpler lives, something that I couldn't possibly justify making the time for on a regular basis.

I eventually read this book though, that completely changed my view, and suddenly meditation became positively worthwhile for me- Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, by Sharon Salzberg. I recommend it to anyone curious about meditation, especially for those like me who had tried it at various times in their lives and felt like a failure at it for one reason or another. I'm not going to do the book justice here, but I'm going to try to sum up what changed for me, and what I learned from reading Real Happiness.

Here are some of the reasons I've had difficulty maintaining a meditation practice over the years:

My mind would wander. I felt incapable of clearing my mind for 20 minutes. I figured there were people who could do this, and people who could not, and I just couldn't. I felt convinced there were more important things I needed my time for. Life was passing me by, while I sat! Meditation seemed like a waste of this limited resource. Sitting still? What was the point, really? Enlightenment? Did I even want to be enlightened? I was pretty sure meditation was something that might be a huge benefit for certain types of people, but for me, not so much. I'm more of a doer, not a sitter. Keeping myself busy seemed more rewarding.

OK, so here is what I've learned about How to Meditate:

There are so many ways to meditate successfully, but in order to clear your mind of wandering thoughts, it helps to maintain some kind of focal point. Some practitioners use a mantra, a series of words or sounds mentally repeated. These can have meaning to you or not; the point is to have something to come back to when your mind wants to jump around. Another focal point could be your breath, just focusing on the rise and fall of your chest. Or the subtle feel of the air as it softly passes in and out of your nose. Some use a mental image. Whatever you can gently focus on, and come back to as often as needed, will work.

Choose your focus. Let the rest go.
I prefer to keep my eyes closed during meditation, but some find it easier to keep their thoughts from wandering if they have a visual focal point, such as a candle on a table in front of you, a flower in a vase, or even a spot on the wall.

For everyone, no matter how experienced, thoughts will come during meditation. It's not a sign of failure or an innate shortcoming. It's human. It's what you do with those thoughts, how you respond, that makes a difference. Do you follow them wherever they lead? It's easy to do, but bringing yourself back to your focal point, gently and consistently, and being prepared to do this over and over again, will help your practice. Successful meditation involves consistently making the choice to gently guide your mind home, to your chosen focal point.

I use a free meditation timer app on my phone so that I can simply set it and meditate for a decent amount of time without checking a clock. The app I use is called Insight Timer, but I'm sure there are others out there that would be just as useful. Even a small kitchen timer or something could work. I like the freedom of being able to sit without thinking about how much time has passed, and at the end of my chosen time, a lovely chime sound signals that I'm ready to begin the rest of my day.

Another aspect of meditating is simply to sit, and be still as much as possible. Adjust your body during meditation only if you must. Moving doesn't mean you failed. I might switch positions if my foot is falling asleep or something. But those small itches and tingles, sensations of "needing" to move, it's best to just breathe them away. It helps me to remind myself, "This too shall pass." And it will. Sensations come and go. Chances are, that tickling you feel is not anything that needs your attention. Learning to notice these sensations without reacting to them is part of the practice. Notice, and let it go.

This too shall pass.
Last but not least, find a time that really works for you. Or, perhaps, create a time that really works for you. Yes, our lives are busy. We all have to choose how we spend each moment. For me, I try to rise before my kids each day. Instead of going straight for a cup of tea, I sit, right in bed, and meditate. It really helps me to fit in my practice if I do it before getting busy with life.

If first thing in the morning doesn't work for you, perhaps it's something you could do on your lunch break, or right before bed. I think it helps to have a daily practice if the time you meditate each day is pretty consistent. When I couldn't manage to wake up before my early-rising youngest child, I'd try to show up a little early for yoga class and just sit in meditation on my mat before class. In general though, I know if I skip my morning practice, I'm unlikely to make time for it later that day.

There is discipline in maintaining a meditation practice, and part of the benefit of meditation comes from consistently making time for yourself this way. Once you decide the benefits are worth it (I'll get to that part soon!) create or find a time that works for you and stick to it.

So, that's How, but the question remains, Why?? Why take the time each day to sit, when we have so much else to do? What is the point of meditation? The answer lies in the title of Salzberg's book: Real Happiness. For most of us, our goals in life, at their most basic, are just about being happy. We want to be happier, we want our kids to grow up to be happy, we want to make others happy. Maybe I'm just a Polyanna, but I think we simply all desire happiness, and pretty much all our other goals are just paths to happiness.

What gets in the way of happiness? Annoyances, sadness, anger, hurt. Big things and little things that cause problems for us of one form or another. Meditation practice helps us maintain an even keel when the world is whipping around us. As it will. We can't protect ourselves from all the storms, but we can train our brains to respond to stress in more helpful, less reactive ways.

Consider it exercise for your mind. My friend calls meditation "mind yoga". When we train our minds to stay focused during meditation, to return to the task at hand (just sitting), it helps us in real life to function in confusing and stressful situations. Life gets hectic and we can remain calm. Our minds don't get carried away with worry and stress in difficult situations. Remember, this too shall pass.

Meditation gives us a calm base for the rest of our life. It doesn't mean we won't get irate when the situation calls for it, but perhaps we won't overreact as often as we used to. This is a change that was really clear in my own life. I used to get quite upset about small things, and I absolutely notice that a regular practice gives me a better perspective on life's little annoyances. For example, things like breaking a favorite dish or being late for an appointment no longer feel like the end of the world. This too shall pass.

Even- especially- when big, big problems arise, meditation is there for us. When my last relationship ended a year ago, I was pretty sure my life was over, worried that my kids would grow up emotionally disfigured from the break of their nuclear family, and convinced that I'd never love again. Fortunately, I was in the habit of meditating every morning, and I maintained it throughout my grief. Some days I was so distraught I could only sit for two minutes, but I still made an effort every morning, through a sense of habit, resolve, and self preservation. I do believe this continued practice, feeble though it might have been on some days, is one of the things that kept me grounded in a reality of calmness, and a sense of the bigger picture, during what was definitely the hardest transition of my life. Read about how my family survived, and thrived, after this change, in my article here.

Remember the instruction to gently guide your mind back to your focal point? This is something we learn to do repeatedly, patiently, and kindly. We learn through meditation practice to be patient and kind with our own perceived shortcomings and flaws. We are none of us perfect, ever. We can focus on the ways we screw up, criticize ourselves, and hope to change through self shame. Or, we can embrace, and love, and gently guide ourselves back onto our path, wherever that might be, again and again. Life, like our meditation practice, is kind of a series of stumbles as we move towards our focus, and choosing to return to the practice with a sense of lightness and good humor makes the whole thing much more enjoyable and effective.

To paraphrase Salzberg, it's not about how frequently your thoughts wander during meditation - for they will wander - but how you treat yourself when your thoughts wander. Learning to do this with kindness and patience positively carries over into real life. We get in the habit of being more forgiving with ourselves, and that carries over into being more patient and forgiving with others. As a parent, I see my meditation practice as a real benefit to my children. In times of turbulence, I manage to maintain a little more grace than I used to.

When looked at in this light, I think it's easy to see why even the busiest among us can benefit from a regular meditation practice. Meditation prepares us to keep a calm and balanced mind through life's small annoyances as well as life's huge curveballs.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Delicious Raw Cashew Cream

Cashew cream is simply cashews blended with water, and it is creamy, rich and tasty, and incredibly versatile as it is. But, with the addition of a few basic, whole-food ingredients, it can be transformed into something quite divine.

Unlike other nuts, cashews don't really need to be soaked. They are soft enough that they will blend up pretty smooth in a high speed blender. However, if you're using a conventional blender, you will definitely want to soak them for about an hour prior to blending. Use the soak water right along with the nuts when you blend; it will be rich and flavorful. I still soak mine just to ensure maximum creaminess, even with the high speed blender.

You can sweeten cashew cream with soaked dates or raw honey, or stevia if you prefer. Go ahead and soak your pitted dates, if you're using them, right along with the cashews, in enough water to just cover.

Vanilla, coconut oil, cashews, and honey. These four ingredients are the main players in my cashew cream. Feel free to mess around with the recipe though; you can't go wrong.

The addition of a dollop of raw coconut oil, with all its richness, mild but delicious flavor, and wonderful melting properties is really what makes this particular recipe fantastic. You don't need to use too much- a little is quite noticeable in the final texture. 

Finally, a dash of vanilla extract will give the cashew cream more depth of flavor. Try making your own with this recipe.

Directions for the Cashew Cream:
For small amounts of cashew cream, our little Nutri Bullet works perfectly. This is about 1 C cashews. Whatever device you blend in, be sure the liquid level is above the cashew level, for easiest blending.
Add a tablespoon or two each of sweetener and coconut oil, depending on how sweet you want it, and a teaspoon of vanilla extract, or half a vanilla bean.
Blend until it turns into this amazing goodness. I want some right now. Refrigerate after blending. The coconut oil will solidify the cream when it's cold, and then it will melt wonderfully when dolloped on something warm.
It melts deliciously on warm pie, cake, or baked french toast.
Also, try it on regular toast, instead of butter and all that. My son likes to just eat it with a spoon. Anything goes with this stuff.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Frugally Uncoupling: How to Break Up without Breaking the Bank

Divorce is pretty much universally challenging, but it doesn't need to be the worst thing to happen to you, and it doesn't need to break the bank. Despite the common perception, it does not have to be a huge financial sinkhole, a source of everlasting angst, or the subject of your child's future therapy sessions.

When my partner of ten years and I first split up, I knew none of this, and I was worried that our formerly happy lives were going to hell. There are so few examples of happy divorces, and so many fine examples of the damage a nasty divorce can do to people, to their relationships, and their finances. I'm not saying our breakup was completely pain free or easy, but I felt it was important to write this article to share how it's possible to end a romantic relationship, after living together and raising kids for ten years, while still being frugal and friendly.

I have friends who have been duking out the terms of their divorce, and particularly the custody of their children, for over three years. They never agree on anything, and are each a source of endless misery to the person that they used to love. They spend ridiculous amounts of money simply communicating with each other (or failing to), because it basically all has to be done through their lawyers. It is not easy for their kids to be in the middle of such animosity, and it's stressful for both of them to be spending all of their money on this ongoing fight. This is a particularly bad case, but many other couples I have known are in similar, if less inflamed or drawn out, legal battles.

Nik and I are adamant about not letting our relationship and communication devolve like this. In fact, since we were never legally married and don't have to get a legal divorce, we haven't had to involve a single lawyer in our process of separation. In our ten years together we've pretty much always been kind to each other, and aren't about to stop being kind just because we are no longer going to spend the rest of our lives with each other. We are still co-parenting, and want to continue to do that the best way we can. Breaking up has not turned us against each other. We both see that hurting each other would pretty much directly hurt our kids as well.

Speaking of the welfare of children, I admit to experiencing a short-lived fear that this would be the end of their happy, carefree childhood. That us breaking up would signal the collapse of all things good for our wonderful family, and that our kids would forever resent us for not "working things out" with each other. But here's the thing:

Pre-breakup, we were a close-knit nuclear family. Post-breakup, our family has actually grown and expanded. Both Nik and I are in new relationships with wonderful people who our kids love. The world my children inhabit has grown larger and more interesting. Rather than breaking into shards, our family has simply shifted and grown new roots to support the new branches.

Pretty much the best ex-boyfriend ever.
At its most basic, the frugal breakup is a kind breakup. When two people are really trying to put each other through the ringer, it gets expensive fast. It hurts everyone. But when they remember to be caring and kind--even when there are no kids to think of--and generous in spirit with each other, even a long relationship can end without really costing a thing. Obviously, when you are legally married there will be the straightforward fee involved in a legal divorce, but it doesn't have to escalate beyond that when people remain kind to each other.

To read more on "consciously uncoupling", I recommend checking out the book The Good Divorce: How to Walk Away Financially Sound and Emotionally Happy, by Raoul Felder and Barbara Victor.

Happy children in an evolving family.

 Edit: For some reason comments to this article aren't coming through. If I haven't responded to your comment, that's why! Hopefully the issue will resolve itself soon.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Easily Make Sauerkraut Right In The Jar

I've been making my own sauerkraut for years, but for a long time I used a more complex method involving a large crock, the perfect size plate to fit inside it, a heavy jar to weigh it down, and a tea towel over it all. It's really not too hard to set up once you have the right size crock and plate, but in my small kitchen it was annoying to have this large contraption taking up space while it fermented for 3 weeks. Plus, checking the sauerkraut along the way to see if it was done was an involved process each time.

Here is the method I've been using for the past year or two, with great success. It's way easier and quicker, and when the sauerkraut is done it's already in jars, so there's no messy repacking.

This batch of spicy cortido kraut has celery, carrots, cabbage, beets, fresh oregano, and jalapeno.
I start with about 5 lbs of veggies and 3 Tb of sea salt. I usually use one big head of cabbage, plus a handfull of whatever other veggies I want to try. Things that I've found work great are carrots, celery, beets, daikon radish, kale, and onion. In smaller amounts I add stronger flavored ingredients, like hot peppers, garlic, ginger, oregano, and seaweeds. When adding dried seaweeds, soak them first to rehydrate, and reduce the salt a bit. Variety makes sauerkrauts more interesting, nutritious, and tasty!

The lovely mixture of shredded veggies
Simply chop or shred all veggies and combine with the salt. I mix with my hands to massage in the salt and bruise the veggies a bit, to help them start to break down and release their water.  I wear gloves to protect myself from the sting of hot peppers. You can save spicier additions like peppers and onions to stir in after the salt has been massaged into the other veggies, if you're not protecting yourself with gloves. 

I use the slicing blade on cabbage and greens...
... and this blade on root veggies.
After massaging in the salt, let the mixture sit for a few minutes, massage again, and you should notice a lot of liquid has been released. This water (brine) will be added to each jar along with the veggies. It's ready to jar up and start fermenting! 

After mixing with the salt, veggies will release their water. This batch has arame seaweed.
Stuff veggies by the handful into clean, wide mouth mason jars. You will probably need 3 quart jars, or 2 quarts and one pint size jar for 5 lbs of veggies. Press the veggies deeply into the jars, both to bruise the veggies further and to remove any air pockets from the kraut. It's best if the jars are filled just to the "shoulder", about 1" below the top, so that there is room for them to bubble and expand a bit. I frequently overfill them, and liquid seeps out. Which is fine, but I'd rather it stay put.
After pressing the veggies deeply into the jar, top off with the brine. Try to distribute the liquid equally between the jars, with the goal of covering the veggies with brine. Using a spoon or clean hand, press all the kraut as much as possible below the level of the brine. If necessary, extra brine can be mixed up to top off the jars. Simply mix salt and water (about a teaspoon of salt per cup of water) and pour over kraut. I have never needed to do this, because I find the veggies always provided enough liquid on their own.

OK, your work is done here. Screw some lids on those jars and let them ferment for anywhere between 1 and 3 weeks! Yes, that is a huge window. It's up to you to decide when they're done. I find it's perfectly good at any point along that continuum; some people like their krauts a little more fresh and crispy, and others like a more mature, softer kraut. For the first few days, fermentation will be very active, and it's best to open the jars enough to release pressure once a day.

Open the jars at least once a week to check for signs of mold (remove any you see with a clean spoon) and press any veggies back under the brine that have strayed. Taste a pinch of veggies each week. Once they're done to your satisfaction, transfer them to the fridge. They'll continue to mature in the fridge, but at a much slower rate. Kraut will last for many, many months under refrigeration. I've even kept it in my cool, dark, garage pantry for about a year and it was still perfectly good.

Sometimes the top layer of the jar will discolor from oxidation; you can discard this layer if you find it unappealing. My chickens gobble up discolored kraut with impunity. An off color does not mean it's gone bad, it's simply oxidized.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Herbal Salt Blends

This is my favorite new recipe, simply blending together dried herbs and sea salt. It's amazingly good and infinitely variable. It's also a delicious way to add more dried nettles to your diet, which are mild tasting and incredibly nutrient rich.

I got the idea from a recipe in the Mountain Rose Herbs catalog, but have made it my own. I always have different herbs on hand- and never follow a recipe to the letter if I can help it. Not having any dried rosemary the first time I made this, I was worried mine wouldn't turn out that great because I used such different flavors, but it was amazing. I'll include both the original recipe, which sounds fantastic, and my first variation, which was very ad hoc and turned out great.

This is a perfect way to use your home-dried herbs! Shown here are golden oregano, parsley, and rosemary, all from my summer garden.
Original recipe: 
2 parts rosemary leaf
1 part nettle leaf
1 part dandelion leaf
1 part lemon thyme leaf
coarse sea salt

In a coffee grinder, finely powder each herb. Mix the blended herbs together in one container, and measure the total volume. Add half that volume of salt. Return to the grinder and pulse together to blend.

What I did:
2 parts sage
2 parts nettle leaf
1 part oregano
1 part parsley
1 part thyme
coarse sea salt

Don't worry if it looks a bit coarse after the first grind. When the herbs are ground a second time, with the salt, they'll become fine powder.

It's so, so good. Use it as you would table salt, to sprinkle extra nutrients and flavor on everything you eat. As you can see from how different the above herb combinations are, you can really use whatever you have. We've also found that we can get away with a lot less salt, so rather than half the total volume being salt, we might use 1/3 or 1/4. It's really more about the herbs!

I made specific flavors that I thought people would like (parsley & thyme for my stepmom, rosemary sage for my brother) and packed them in pretty jars, to go along with Christmas presents this year.

Friday, December 6, 2013

How To Make Delicious Water Kefir

Water kefir is my new favorite thing to drink. It's so light and naturally bubbly, and can be made into any flavor with the addition of fruit juices. Plus it has the health benefits of living cultured foods. In less than a week and with minimal effort, your kefir grains will transform a small amount of juice and sugar into an amazingly tasty, versatile, and healthful beverage.

There are two stages of fermentation for your kefir, the first ferment and the second ferment. I will describe them both here. When you are given water kefir grains, they will look like this:

I scrawled a line on my jar to mark the optimal level of kefir grains. When they multiply and go over the line, it's time for me to share them with someone!

Here is how to feed and care for your kefir grains, and produce a delicious tonic in the process:

First of all, they need sugar. Simply mix sugar into warm water until it dissolves. I heat about two cups of water in a pan on the stovetop, just until it's steamy, and then stir in the sugar. There's no need to boil it. More cool water will be added, to bring the total liquid up to about a quart. I loosely measure 1/4 cup of rapidura or sucanat sugar, and stir it to dissolve. This is then poured into a large glass jar with about 1/4 c of water kefir grains. That's it.

1/4 cup Rapidura sugar, loosely measured.

Choose the least processed sugar you can find, since the kefir grains benefit from the minerals. If you only have processed sugar, add a dollop of molasses to give back some of the minerals that the kefir needs to thrive. 

This jar contains 1/4 cup sugar dissolved in about a quart of liquid, along with the kefir grains.
Once the grains & sugar water are combined, cap tightly. To be sure fruit flies can't get into it (and they would really like to) I cover the lidded jar with a cloth, rubber banded in place: 

Let this ferment, undisturbed and at room temperature, for 24-48 hours. Cooler temperatures will slow down fermentation. You don't want the kefir grains to run out of sugar or they will die, so don't let it go too long.

After two days, it's time to strain out the liquid into a bottle or jar, and add some fruit juice. Use whatever flavor you fancy; we've tried fresh apple, grape, elderberry, and orange, and they've all been really good. For the elderberry, I used a small amount of homemade elderberry syrup in place of juice, and it worked great. I tend to use about 1/4 to 1/3 for my ratio of juice to kefir liquid. 

While you can use a tightly capped mason jar for the second ferment, I prefer the spring loaded bottles shown above. They have a firm seal and are easy to use, as well as a pretty nice presentation. These two bottles of orange kefir are in their second ferment, alongside the "mother" jar of kefir doing its first ferment.
These upcycled bottles of storebought kombucha that a friend saves for me also work great for doing the second ferment. They have very tight fitting lids, which is important for building up carbonation in the water kefir.
Orange water kefir, nicely bubbly!
Once your juice and kefir blend has fermented for 2 or 3 days, place bottles in the refrigerator. They'll last a long time in the fridge, but they're ready to drink as soon as they're cold! Open with caution. Sometimes a lot of pressure can build up, particularly if they've fermented for too long or been kept in the fridge for too many weeks (where they slowly continue to build up pressure). If this happens, drink your water kefir sooner!

Do you have a favorite flavor of water kefir, or a different way to make it? I'd love to hear ideas and feedback from you!

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