11 Weird (Or Not So Weird) Things to do for the Planet

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When the Blogging U “list” prompt came up, I thought it was kind of a lame thing to write about until I read some of the amazing example lists they gave, including this cool list project. And that same day, I read this depressing article about how the nightmares of climate change are already here, not just approaching. This stuff is even more terrifying to me when I think about the world Claire will grow up in. I often feel helpless to really change things for her, but I try to focus on the things I can do.

Little things done/not done daily by millions of people can make a huge difference, for better or worse. So here is my list of things to do for the planet, some of which are kind of weird because environmentalism brings out the obsessive eccentric in me, and some of which might only seem weird because we live in culture in which wastefulness is the norm:

  1. Use a hankie, use rags, buy responsible toilet paper. Rain forests that breathe for our planet, cool our planet, and house countless species of animals are being destroyed at alarming rates so that we can have the convenience of single use paper products made from virgin forests. I go into a rage when I see those stupid commercials showing how strong and absorptive a paper towel is. You know what is stronger and more absorptive than any brand of paper towel? A cotton rag cut from an old t-shirt. And using a hankie doesn’t have to be weird like it was for the kid beside my sister in elementary school who took his out from time to time and rummaged in it. Use it once and toss in the wash. DIY note: an old flannel receiving blanket can be cut up to make great hankies/wipes for babies.
  2. Refuse to drive everyday. This one is definitely weird in the city I live in where most people live in sprawling suburbs and many things are hard to walk or bike to. I’m in a playgroup on Facebook and it is very active: I could drive Claire to activities and meet-ups every single day. I refuse to. Some days she is going to have to settle for just walking to the park with her mama.
  3. Buy locally made clothes that use sustainable fibers. This is not weird but it is expensive, which forces me to buy fewer clothes.When we lived in Ottawa, there was a little boutique that sold only Canadian designed and manufactured clothes. They were not cheap, but you knew that the people making them were paid a fair wage and the fibers were often organic. One summer during my PhD I bought a red Jennifer Glasgow summer dress. It was my entire summer clothing budget and then some. It meant supplementing my wardrobe with other means (see #4), and also meant that I wore that dress to pretty much every special and not-so-special event I went to that summer. And the next. And people probably thought it was weird to see that dress in almost every photo of me on Facebook (ditto for the summer dress I bought at Anthropologie this year). But this is the thing: the fashion industry is an environmental and human rights disaster and the less you take part it in, the better. Not only did the cotton industry in Uzbekistan drain the Aral Sea, it is powered by forced labour, and this is only one example. Don’t even get me started on the leather industry.
  4. Buy used. We buy most of Claire’s clothes at a kids’ consignment-type shop called Once Upon A Child. I’ve given up the idea that giving my child the best means buying new clothes from Baby Gap. Giving her the best means not increasing demand for clothes that destroy her planet or hurt people in other countries (see #3). My husband, an economist, has made the argument that buying used or local doesn’t help textile workers in foreign countries; a job with bad conditions and low pay is better than no job in a country without social programs, he would argue. Agreed. So take the money you save buying used and give a Kiva loan to a women’s collective in a country like Bangladesh.
  5. Unplug chargers. Vampire energy sucks. Look it up.
  6. Keep houseplants by the kitchen sink. Whenever I have stale water in the kettle or water bottles, I use it for the plants so it’s not wasted.
  7. Grow a lemon tree. I stuck an organic Meyer lemon seed in a flower pot this spring and voila: a beautiful little tree graced our window all summer until I killed it by leaving the window near it open on cold days. Still, I like to imagine everyone in Canada planting one and having a little forest of millions of lemon trees on window sills. You know, to atone in part for the other forests our TP is destroying (see #1).
  8. Clean with lemon juice, baking soda and white vinegar. Any time I use any kind of cleaning product, I imagine Claire having to drink it some day. I know this sounds weird, but everything that goes down our drains has the potential to end up in our drinking water. Eventually we will not be able to avoid our own water pollution; this is already the case for many people worldwide. Non-eco-friendly toilet bowl cleaners are the worst with their poisonous noxious chemicals. I get that the toilet is a germy place, but do you really need to go all scorched earth on it? Are you going to wash your hands in the basin? I put a big squirt of lemon juice or vinegar around the bowl then use some serious elbow grease with the bowl brush. It looks and smells great afterwards.
  9. Eat leftovers. This is totally not weird to me, but my sister told me that her co-workers said they hate leftovers and never eat them. So she told them to bring them to work and she would eat them, and that is weird, but we all do our part in different ways, I guess? Food waste is not only a waste of all the resources that went into producing that food, it is major contributor to global warming.
  10. Buy the ugly eggplant at the grocery store. Have you ever seen the grocery store staff walking through with a big cart piled with totally eatable but slightly blemished or wilted produce? They’re going to throw it out and it is really depressing. (see #9)
  11. Pee in the shower. This one is legitimately weird, but it really is A Thing. Peeing in the shower can save up to 12 litres of fresh water per saved flush. Universities have actually started campaigns to get students to do this. Imagine 10,000 students all saving one flush per day by peeing in the shower? That’s 120,000 litres of water per day! Seems worth it to me. It also saves toilet paper (see #1).  And it’s really not as gross as it seems, after all: urine is totally sterile — if it’s not, you’ve got a UTI. So for the sake of the planet, I’m going to put it out there: I pee in the shower. Let’s normalize this, people.

 

Claire in Vancouver

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In February Jeff had to go to Vancouver for training so Claire and I tagged along. His classes were in the Vancouver public library, so we stayed next door at the Westin. While I would generally prefer a little boutique hotel off the beaten path, it was wonderful being right in the thick of things. I broke out the Ergo carrier for the first time since the fall and Claire and I trekked all over downtown Vancouver and Gastown. We found our way to the ocean and she found a beautiful smooth rock that perfectly fit her fist; she put it in her mouth and tasted the salt and carried it with us. We found a walled Chinese garden, we wandered through boutiques, we ate sweets and met another mom with her baby at Pure Bread. We met my brilliant art historian friend and Etsy genius, Jessa, at the Vancouver Art Gallery where she works, and she walked and talked us through exhibits of Cezanne, and modern Chinese art.

[Note: I found this unfinished post from last year and decided to put it up. We’re prepping for our next big trip with Claire: Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, next week. She adores planes and airports now, so this should be fun. I’ll just add the one Golden Rule of travel with little ones that I learned on the Vancouver trip: always fly in a nursing-friendly top or dress. Claire caught the flu from friends’ children and spent the entire flight from Edmonton throwing up on both of us or screaming. She was only okay while nursing, but I had worn a dress that I could only nurse in if I pulled it up to my neck. So I sat in the plane bathroom and nursed that way for most of the flight. Will never make that mistake again. I now always fly in one of the Boob Design dresses. Worth every penny.]

 

Bakery love (and some coffee) in Saskatoon’s Riversdale.

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Recently I watched the PBS documentary “A Few Good Bakeries” and was inspired, and even touched by, the beautiful places of community and joy that bakeries (and coffee shops that bake!) can be. Watch it: it will make you want to quit your job and take up baking. Or just watch it and go to a bakery and bask in the love, which is what we did when we were in Saskatoon last weekend.

Saskatoon is becoming such a fabulous little city, especially the newly rejuvenating Riversdale neighborhood, which is just down the hill from my parents’ neighborhood. While the development of the area is not entirely unproblematic, and these issues are worth talking about, it’s still interesting to see old spaces and places completely transformed. One of the loveliest new spots is Little Bird Patisserie and Cafe. When we lived in Ottawa, my favorite Saturday past time was wandering down to Benny’s Bistro, the French bakery in the market, for an almond croissant. To now have a gorgeous French bakery in the heart of Saskatoon is too much to have hoped for. The space is beautiful — an old building with original hardwood and high ceilings that used to be an antique emporium, furnished thoughtfully with a mix of vintage finds and new creations like this wood counter.

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Although I’ve widely sampled their goods on several occasions, their macarons are probably the star. You know they believe in what they do because they even have a little placard gently informing the customer of the proper French pronunciation of “macaron” as opposed to “macarOON”, which is the coconut and chocolate cookie. Attention to detail, people. This is what makes a great bakery. Sadly, I don’t have a photo of the famous macarons because the day we went, in their debit machine was down and we only had a bit of cash. So we opted for the “healthier” Gruyere croissant, which was incredible. A truly authentic French croissant with a lovely savory cheese layer. Claire and my sister devoured it while I took photos. Then we wandered down to Collective for coffee. Very good coffee made by people who pay as much attention to detail as Little Bird.

And because we hadn’t had enough baking, we bought a scone to go with our coffee and it was dreamy. Some genius thought to put a layer of butter and sliced almonds down on the baking sheet under the scone dough so that the scone had the most amazing buttery crunchy crusty bottom.

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As I watched Claire lounging on a vintage couch enjoying her croissant, I commented to my sister on how different her life is sometimes from what ours was as children. Even if something like Little Bird had existed in Saskatoon when we were young, there is no way my parents could have afforded to bring four kids there for brunch, or coffee even. Both of my brothers would have wanted a six dollar tart and my dad would have had a heart attack. I hope we’re able to teach Claire about the privileges she has and encourage her to be aware of and to share with the many people who don’t necessarily share her privileges. But I also hope that she learns how much her life can be enriched by gathering with friends and family in neighborhood spots like Little Bird and Collective, and that she takes that enrichment back out into her community.

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Pizza Dough and the Impossibility of Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza

Recently I decided to get over my intimidation and bake bread. I found a recipe in my trusty Martha Stewart Baking Handbook and it turned out fabulously. So I got cocky and got out Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish.

My husband gave me this book for a gift (after some broad hints) while we still lived in Ottawa, while I was still working on my thesis, and before we had Claire. A world away. I carried it with me everywhere and read it like a novel (the opening story of Forkish’s founding of a French bakery in Portland does sort of read like a novel). I was fascinated and inspired. And completely intimidated. Poolish, levain, biga…I thought I knew a lot about baking but all this was new to me. Scales, tubs, proofing baskets…I didn’t even have a cast iron dutch oven (I also broadly hinted and got this for a gift — or sort, as my poor husband inadvertently got ceramic instead of cast iron and oval instead of round). In the end, I read the entire book and never baked a single loaf of bread.

Fast forward to today. Claire was napping, I was feeling brave, and opened Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast to  see if maybe the pizza crust was doable. The intro to the pizza section said “use any recipe from Chapter 3.” I flipped to the first recipe and the first step was “Feed the levain.” Shoot. What was the levain and how did I make it, let alone feed it?? You also needed a 12 quart tub — I wasn’t sure what that was and how big it was, but I knew I didn’t have anything like it.

I looked in the index and there was a “Same Day Straight Pizza Dough.” I flipped to that. The suggested schedule said to start the dough at 10AM if you wanted pizza sometime after 6 because it needed a 6 hour rise time, then shaping into balls, then another 2 hour rise. It was 3:00 when I read this. It also called for 7 cups of flour. How much pizza dough did I need??

Defeated, I googled “quick pizza dough” and found a recipe on The Kitchn site, a site that has never failed me, for thin crust pizza. They describe it as “the very best thin-crust pizza dough for a home cook on a weeknight,” and let me tell you: they are not kidding. It whips up in minutes and bakes like a dream. And only calls for 2 cups of flour. The longest part was the five minute kneading time. I found myself watching the clock while kneading and then stopped and just enjoyed the beauty of a simple, nurturing task in a rare silent moment.

I haven’t given up yet on Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast; it has become for me the Everest of cook books. Someday I will read it all again, buy all the stuff, and attempt it. But I might wait until Claire is in kindergarten.

Vegan Chocolate Earl Grey Pudding

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After a long summer hiatus, I’m back to blogging and have been baking and cooking up a storm.

While I’ve been loving Martha Stewart’s Baking Handbook, and plan to review some recipes from it soon, today I thought I’d do a quick post during Claire’s nap on a fabulous little chocolate pudding recipe I found in our local paper.

  1. Steep Earl Grey tea bag in 100ml of boiling water for about 10 min.
  2. Wrap 300 grams of silken or smooth tofu in tea towel and squeeze as much water as possible from it then combine with tea and one tsp vanilla and blend until smooth.
  3. Melt 100 grams of dark chocolate with 5 TBsp maple syrup over double boiler. Add to tofu and blend again until smooth (I used a salted dark chocolate so I would add a pinch of salt here if you’re using another kind).
  4. Chill for at least an hour and garnish with grated chocolate and Maldon salt.

This comes from Anna Jones’ A Modern Way to Cook — a book I have to check out, even though I am drowning in cookbooks. I love the title: I’m becoming increasingly persuaded that the truly modern/sane/progressive approach to food must be plant-based, not animal-based. More on this soon…

Recipe review of Ottolenghi’s Orange Hazelnut Greenbeans

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I’ve been meaning for some time to do some recipe reviewing. As a grad student, with limited time and resources, I always hated it when I tried a recipe and it flopped. Now that I have a bit more time on my hands (if I don’t mind often cooking with one hand while holding Claire) and I’m no longer a poor student, I love trying new things and hope to give you a heads up on the flops and the fabs.

This one, from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, is definitely on the fab side. I did a simplified version because I didn’t have all the ingredients on hand (does anyone besides Ottolenghi himself typically have hazelnut oil on hand?).

This is brilliantly simple (I’ve made it even simpler than the original): take a pound or so of green beans, blanch for 4 minutes in boiling water then transfer to ice water. Meanwhile, roast about a half a cup of hazelnuts for few minutes at 375. Drain beans and dump out onto a tea towel to remove excess water. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, the zest of one orange, and garlic clove put through a press. Mix well and season with fresh ground pepper and sea salt. Roughly chop the hazelnuts and sprinkle on top. Done!

Tip: make sure to pick the youngest, skinniest beans; if you have slightly thicker, older ones, boil for an extra minute or so.

The original called for hazelnut oil as well olive, snow peas, and fresh chives. The flavours are quite intense with the orange and garlic so I feel like the chives could be too much, but I’ll try when I’m at my mom’s next and can pick some fresh from her garden. Will let you know how that goes. The snow peas would probably be lovely but I didn’t have them on hand. Even with a slightly simplified ingredient list, though, this dish was so good: refreshing, light, intensely flavorful, and unusual. I’ll likely say this again and again here: Yotam Ottolenghi is a genius.

PS: Claire hated this recipe. She stuck her tongue out like, “get the taste off!” Oh well. I tried.

2015: The Year of Doing Less.

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Shortly before Christmas, our Moms’ Network had a Christmas party: 15 mom and 15 babies. Potluck lunch. Cookie exchange optional. I opted in for the exchange. The night before, Claire miraculously went to sleep at 10 [we’re now sleep training so she sleeps closer to 8 or 9, but 10 was good at that time], so I started baking and enlisted Jeff’s help making a butternut squash soup. I picked a favorite Christmas cookie my mom makes every year.

I realized very quickly that I had made a huge tactical error. Tradition dictates that the cookies be rolled into little candy cane shapes then iced after they cool. I rolled cookies until 1 in the morning, while directing Jeff with the soup. Then I went to bed. Then Claire woke up for her first nightly nursing session. First of 4 or 5. Needless to say, we slept in until 9. That gave me 2 hours to ice 60 cookies (40 for the exchange, 20 for Jeff’s office party), finish soup, feed baby, dress baby, dress self, get baby to nap, get baby to wake up from nap, get baby into car, get cookies into car, get soup into car, survive baby’s inevitable car melt-down, and get to party on-time.

Needless to say, I was late. I got lost on the way, turned a frantic U-turn because Claire was screaming and I was losing my mind, and the vat of soup spilled all over the floor of the car. The party was almost over when I got there. Most of the people participating in the cookies exchange were gone or leaving; I missed the thread that said people were going to bring the cookies all parceled out (mine were on a huge cardboard fruit flat), so no one was able to take mine home. My soup arrived in a half empty sloppy bowl and no one ate it because lunch was over. I begged one of the moms to take some of the cookies to the moms who lived near her, and I passed off the remaining soup on the host. There was also a collection for the foodbank; I had bought food the night before, and forgot to bring it. All in all: disaster.

The mom who had to deliver my stranded cookies showed up in a beautiful dress, with beautiful hair (as always), and little decorated jars of homemade hot chocolate in pretty gift bags for everyone. And beautifully packaged cookies for the exchange. I’ve written before about human extremes, and this lovely girl is a prime example. My go-to response when confronted with such a shining specimen of organizational perfection is usually to feel like a complete failure, but I quickly realized (while scrubbing butternut squash soup out of the car carpet) that the example I needed to look to was that of the mom who agreed to take part in the cookie exchange only on the grounds that she could buy cookies. This is a woman who knew her own limitations.

This all reminded me of the time in third year PhD when I was one of 2 lucky students who got that year’s tickets to the Governor General’s award gala at the Governor General’s residence (a mansion straight out of a Jane Austen novel). My friend Kate came to help me get ready, which really meant we sat in my kitchen drinking wine and eating olives for far too long and then trying out updos and falsies. I ended up standing on the street in Chinatown, at the last minute, frantically trying to flag down a cab — not an easy task during the dinnertime rush. When I finally got one, I sat in the back of the cab as it struggled through downtown Ottawa rush hour, frantically checking the time on my phone.

Looking kindly at me in his rearview mirror, the driver said: “if you rush all the time, you miss your life.” I never forgot that.

I usually end up rushing because I’ve tried to do one too many things. Doing one too many things is usually the result of trying to Do Everything. I don’t know what it is about parenting that can bring on the compulsion to do everything, but it was this compulsion that made me sign up for the cookie exchange, even though several of the other moms simply opted out and even though we were heading to my parents’ the next day where there would be loads of Christmas cookies. I don’t know why I stayed up icing cookies until 1 AM and then rushed around and stressed and cried. But I do know that that cookie exchange was the one thing too many that I should have skipped.

And of course the irony is that in trying to do everything, I did, as the cabbie said, miss life, or at least part of it. I missed most of the party (and, also ironically, the cookie exchange itself), and more importantly, Claire missed being in the group photo of all the babies at the party — it seems like a little thing, but she might have loved to have seen herself with all her little friends some day and now she won’t. But there will be other parties and other photos and other chances to do less, rush less, miss out on life less.

So here’s to 2015, a year of knowing limits, not doing everything, and living more.