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.

 

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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.

Holy Grail: The Baby-Friendly Coffee Shop

I will admit that I am a total sucker for that Apple commercial that makes having kids look all magical. I may have even rewound it once or twice on the PVR. I would have totally hated this commercial when I was single (“not everyone is having babies!”), but now that I’m on the other side, I’ve been forced to admit that, yeah, ok, lots of people have babies. Clearly, Apple gets that parents are a huge demographic — a demographic that spends money. So why haven’t coffee shops figured this out?

If anyone needs coffee, it’s the sleep-deprived parents of an infant. We will happily drop $6 on a specialty coffee, more than once day if necessary. And especially if you’re a stay at home parent or on a parental leave and cooped up in the house all day, a trip to a coffee shop might be the highlight of your week, and you’ll happily buy not only coffee, but all the baking you don’t have time to do anymore. You’d think coffee shops would love parents with babies, but when we visited Ottawa this summer with Claire I realized that in most of my favorite coffee shops (and restaurants) there was no place to change a baby. Admittedly, some of these are in older buildings that aren’t even wheelchair accessible, let alone able to accommodate a counter in the washroom big enough to change a baby. That said, our favorite scone shop moved from a tiny character home to a huge venue in a brand new office building — still no space to change a baby. Clearly parents with children did not figure into the owners’ new plans. This I just don’t get.

Long ago I was a barrista at Saskatoon’s late great Caffe Sola, possibly the least child-friendly coffee shop ever: the furniture was made of slate, granite, and steel, with toddler-head-height pointy corners; the floor was concrete, and the coffee cups were hand made by the ceramic artist Mel Bolen. Yet a few brave parents would come and camp out there for hours with their small people, because the coffee was amazing, the food was wonderful, and the atmosphere was glorious (hello, roaring fire in the hand-carved fireplace on cold mornings).

Sadly, Sola is no longer with us, but thankfully, one of the former pillars of Sola, baker and barrista extraordinaire Nikita Brown, has opened Citizen Cafe &  Bakery. Same great fair trade organic artisan coffee, new and amazing food, gorgeous atmosphere, and this: Citizen is incredibly child-friendly. First of all, they have a change table in the bathroom (anyone who’s had to change a baby on his or her lap while sitting on the toilet in a tiny bathroom will totally get why this is so crucial). And it’s in a bathroom that is not specifically marked “women’s”, so dads can change babies too (I’m obsessed with this). There is a sunny little play area and children’s table near a cool space with comfy couches, chunky knitted bean bags, and armchairs. This area is somewhat separate from the rest of the coffee shop, so if babies are getting restless, people having coffee meetings or reading the paper can still do so in peace. Because the armchairs face away from the rest the shop and are up against a dividing wall, a mom could probably breastfeed pretty comfortably there.

In a neighboring community to ours in Edmonton, there is a coffee shop that is specifically for moms and babies. Frankly, the coffee is bad, the food is mediocre, and the atmosphere is meh, but moms go there because there is a nice diaper changing area at the back, play area for the kids, and no one will be annoyed by fussing babies. And although these latter features are nice, I can’t really say I enjoy the feeling of being segregated in a “moms only” coffee shop — it’s kind of like having coffee in a daycare. Citizen manages to make going for coffee an adult indulgence that is accessible to both parents and non-parents (it’s also wheelchair accessible). Being accessible is clearly good business: Citizen is always packed. Inclusiveness is also just something to be expected from a shop whose menu features sandwiches named after Harvey Milk, Louis Riel and Tommy Douglas. Now if only we can convince Nikita to open one in Edmonton…