frozen tomatoes

I’ve gardened for as long as I can remember, and inevitably, this time of year, I have a counter full of tomatoes and no idea what to do with them.  I’ve made sauce, I’ve eaten them raw, I’ve made soup with them… and now there they sit, waiting for me to come up with other ideas.

The homesteady part of me thinks:  “I should can them!”  And then the realistic part of me says:  “That’s insane.  Who wants to spend hours over a hot stove during these beautiful sunny days?”  And really:  who wants to sit and peel tomatoes?

So here’s a trick I learned from my mama:  You don’t have to peel the tomatoes or can them to save them for the winter.  Just wash them off, put them on a tray and freeze them, and then dump them (they will look and feel and even sound a lot like billiard balls) in gallon freezer bags.   Then when a recipe calls for a can of tomatoes, head to the freezer instead of the pantry.  Pull out as many tomato billiard balls as you think you need, and run them under warm water until the skin is barely softened.  Use a knife or your fingers to remove the skin, which comes of incredibly easily.  (Alternately, you can just let them sit on the counter for about fifteen minutes, and then the skins will come right off.)

Use the peeled tomatoes just like you would use canned ones.  The skins are full of nutrients but add an unpleasant texture (imagine rubber bands in spaghetti sauce), so I pop the skins back in the freezer in my bag of scraps for stock-making.  Other people dehydrate the skins and grind them for use in sauces, which sounds like a great idea that I just haven’t gotten around to trying.

How many tomatoes you freeze will depend on how many you have and how many you think you’ll need over the winter.  I have limited freezer space, so my tomato stash is usually around two gallons, and that serves us well.  If I had a larger family, yes, it would make sense to can the tomatoes so it wouldn’t be taking up freezer space, but since our household is so small, this works just fine.

And, really, there are few things more satisfying than getting to taste home-grown tomato flavor on a cold winter day.

Of all the things I recommend to my clients to improve their health, growing a bit of food ranks high on my list.  Gardening is great exercise, it gets you outside, in contact with the soil (which helps ground us and also exposes us to healing bacteria), it re-ignites our natural wonder at the world (“how did a tiny seed turn into THAT?!”), and, of course, we get to eat what we grow, and what we grow always tastes better than anything we can buy.

Even if you only have a little bit of space – or just a patio, or a sunny window – you can grow food!  So get gardening, and let me know what you grow!

Compost it!

The other day, my two-year-old wanted to light a candle.  After I lit it, he said, “let’s say blessings.”  I asked him what he wanted to bless, and he said, “Grammy and Papa.”

“Anything else?”

“Sally” (Sally is his teacher.)

“Anything else?”

“Compost!”

I couldn’t not laugh.  And I’m with him 100%!  Blessings for compost!

Why?  It’s good for the soil, which means it’s good for the plants, which means it’s good for the bees and the birds (and people!), and ultimately, it’s great for the planet.  Win, win, win, win, win, and win!

So does composting have any down-sides?

[thinks for a minute]

Nope.  So let’s get you started!

First things first:  don’t over-do this.  You don’t need a big giant fancy composter to compost.  If you’re squeamish about natureish things, or you predict there may be problems with rats or other troublesome pests, you can opt for a rotating-style composting bin, which works well.   Or if you are all *for* natureish things and want to make some really high-end compost, I recommend a worm bin.  Here’s a nice one you can buy, and I’ll post sometime soon about the one I built (and give credit to our hard-working worms!)  Though it sounds counter-intuitive, you can even do worm-composting in an apartment!

If you have the yard space and are not concerned with critters getting into your compost, then feel free to just make a pile on the ground.  If you live in a place that gets lots of rain, it’s a good idea to cover it with something.  (A tarp? A bin? An unused kiddie pool?  Use what works for you.)  Your composting set-up can be as fancy (or as simple) as you like.  It’s not rocket science.  You’re just setting aside some space for things to decompose.

Because I have limited space in my yard (and because I’m thrifty), I opted for a simple hardware-cloth bin.  To make it, I bought a 10 foot roll of 48 inch high 1/2 inch hardware cloth, unrolled it, and secured the ends together with wire to form a cylinder.  Then I put all my compostables in it, and I just let them sit.

You may be wondering a few things, so I’ll try to address the most commonly asked questions about composting.

First, what stuff can be composted?  Anything that comes from a plant – and some things that come from animals.

Things that belong in the compost bin:  vegetable scraps, rotting fruits, peels and rinds and skins from fruits and vegetables, carrot tops, the spinach you intended to eat but didn’t, the zucchini that’s nearly liquefied in the produce drawer, shredded paper (nothing shiny – only matte papers), fingernail clippings, hair, coffee grounds, coffee filters (no k-cups!), tissues, paper towels, toilet paper, stale bread, leaves, grass clippings, weeds from the garden, egg shells, chicken, cow, horse, goat, or rabbit manure, animal bedding (No, not a dog bed.  Think something like straw used in a chicken coop).

Things that do not belong in the compost bin:  dog poop, cat poop, human poop, plastic, metal, oils, meat, milk, cheese.

NOTE:  If you’ve used chemicals on your lawn, don’t put the clippings on your compost pile.  And stop putting chemicals on your lawn!

There are some things for which you need to use your judgment.  When I lived on a rural farm, I buried five gallons of fish guts in my compost bin!  It reeked to high heaven for a few days, and it got so hot I thought I might start a fire, but then it turned into the best compost I’ve ever made, period.  But would I do it with neighbors nearby?  (Neighbors I like.)  No!

(I wouldn’t even do it with neighbors I don’t like.)

I collect compost in the house in a gallon-size plastic bin that was originally meant to hold cereal.  It has a lid that snaps shut, which keeps the compost from stinking up my kitchen, and it also prevents problems with ants or fruit flies.  I store mine under the sink, next to the rubbish and recycling bins, and – you might have guessed this – even my two year old knows what goes in it and what does not.  Well, mostly.  We have disagreements about whether playdough is compostable.

(It’s not!  Too salty!)

If you prefer to have a bin out on the counter-top and you plan to empty it frequently, you can opt for something like this stainless steel pail, which is attractive and convenient, and it has a charcoal filter to keep the fragrance to a minimum.

You can be creative with this, too, and use something you already have on hand.  Do you have a giant unused pickle jar with a lid?  That would make a great compost storage container.

If you already have issues in your kitchen with ants or fruit flies, I highly recommend keeping your bucket or bin in the freezer, and storing your compost there until the bucket or bin is full, and then you take it to the pile.

I generally do not stir or mess with my compost, and after about eight months, I pull the cylinder off and start harvesting compost from the bottom.  I sort out any un-composted matter and put it in the bottom of the bin in a new location, and start all over.  If you have a tumbling composter or regularly stir/turn/mess with your compost, it will be ready to use sooner.

How do you know when it’s done?  It will look like rich, crumbly black dirt, but feel lighter, and smell sweet.  (It won’t smell like rotting fish.  Even if you composted rotting fish!)  If it stinks, or if it has chunks of recognizable matter in it, it’s not finished composting.  Leave it alone for a while longer.

Some people say you have to use specific proportions of “green” matter to “brown” matter, and they spend a lot of time futzing with this and arguing about what things are brown and which are green.  I don’t bother, and my compost turns out just fine.  Just be sure that you add *some* amount of bulky dry matter (think leaves or grass or shredded paper) with your kitchen scraps, because if you do only kitchen scraps, you’ll get a pile of too-moist goo.  Use your judgment.  And your nose.  Does it seem too goopy and soupy?  It needs some dry matter.  Is it too dry and not doing anything?  Give it some watermelon rinds.  An occasional handful of soil from the garden is also a good idea, as it introduces helpful bacteria to the mix.  (Even better is a handful of finished compost.)

Don’t be surprised to fill your bin up and then come out a day or two later and have it look like you only put a couple gallons of stuff in it.  Compost is sort of magical in how much it shrinks and settles and turns a lot of fluff into a small pile of rich, loamy stuff.

Indeed:  compost is magical.  You take a bunch of rotting, ugly stuff that would otherwise be “waste,” and you transform it into something soft and sweet and rich with life, with the potential to grow amazing flowers and food… well that’s magic.

It’s that simple!  Now get to it… because I’ll be posting soon about how to use that compost to convert some of your lawn into an easy, no-till garden bed!

If you have questions about composting, ask away in the comment section!

And in the meantime… many blessings to your compost!

Anti-itch Plantain Balm

If you could harvest mosquitoes and eat them, I’d…

…never mind.  You probably can eat them.  I don’t want to!

Mosquito season is upon us!  Which means I’m dotted with red welts and can be spotted out in the yard wearing long pants and sleeves, despite it being in the 80s!  Fortunately, nature offers a good remedy for the itch, on those days when I just can’t be troubled to wear pants and sleeves.  Plantain to the rescue!

Plantain, also known as “white man’s foot” because it grows in areas trampled by foot traffic, grows just about everywhere, and you probably have some in your own yard.  Here’s some in mine:

Look for it at the edge of your lawn, or on or next to a walkway.

You can recognize it by its wide leaves and rosette-style growth pattern.

You can pick a clean(ish) leaf of plantain, chew it up, and then use the pulp to cover up a bite.  It will take the itch away in seconds!  Just leave it on until it falls off on its own.

If you don’ want to be covered in green splotches of plantain/saliva goo, there’s another method that works too.  Gather a good bunch of leaves and take them to the house.  Chop them up finely, and stuff them in a jar.  Then pour olive oil (you can substitute other skin-healing oils like fractionated (liquid) coconut oil, sweet almond oil, etc) over the plantain to cover completely, and fill the jar all the way up.  Use a chopstick to push down on the plantain to allow any trapped air bubbles to escape.  Then top it off with oil so that it comes all the way to the top, so that there is essentially no air left in the jar when you screw the lid on.  Label the jar with the herb (plantain), the type of oil you put on it, and the date.  Store in a dark place at room temperature, on a surface that won’t be ruined by seeping oil. (I put my jar in a yogurt container, just to be on the safe side.)

After six weeks, strain the oil off of the plantain and toss the plantain in the compost bin.  The oil is now ready to be applied to bites as is, or you can take it a step further by making a healing balm.  I make a balm and store any excess plantain-infused oil in the refrigerator for future batches.

To make the balm, use:

4 ounces (1/2 cup) of plantain-infused oil
1/2 ounce beeswax (if you don’t have a scale and are using beeswax pastilles, it’s about 2 tablespoons)
20 drops essential oils (optional)

Put the plantain-infused oil and beeswax in a glass jar, and put the jar in a saucepan half-filled with water.  (This works as a double boiler.)  Heat the water on the stove and stir occasionally until the wax is completely melted.  Then remove from the heat and add essential oils, if using.  Oils I have added to this mixture that promote skin healing are lavender and frankincense, and in a recent batch I used basil and rosemary, because they are anti-inflammatory and also help to repel bugs, hopefully keeping me from getting bit even more!

After adding the essential oils, pour into small containers, label, and enjoy!  I use these little 5 gram tubs because they are inexpensive, reusable, small enough to carry with me everywhere, and they’re a great size for gifting.  I put a penny in the photo so you can see how small they are.

I also make an effort to re-use small cosmetic containers – those little tins that beard balm and the like come in are great, as are small glass jars and pots.   I keep a 1.5 oz. honey-jar of this balm in a kitchen drawer, because I use it so often.

This balm is great for bug bites, but it’s also helpful on lots of other skin conditions.  The balm can be used anywhere for skin irritation, itchiness, minor scratches, or even as an all-over moisturizer.  If you omit the essential oils, it makes an excellent balm for healing diaper rash.

Just do one thing

As a health coach, two questions people ask me all the time are, “What should I eat?” and “What diet should I follow?”  This makes sense: everywhere we look, we see new diet fads, new ways to lose weight, new ways to identify ourselves by what we eat.  You can’t host a dinner party anymore without fielding concerns from people about how they’re paleo/keto/vegan/raw/gluten-free/dairy-free/soy-free/high-fat/low-fat/all-carb/no-carb/no-fruit/all-fruit/anti-nightshade/subsisting-on-air-and-sunshine-and-occasionally-vodka.

That last one is made-up.  (Probably.)  I know someone who lived happily for a year on just ice cream.  She may or may not have been me.  (She was me.)

And here’s the thing:  the question of what to eat isn’t easy to answer.  Humans are omnivorous, which means we can eat pretty much anything, and different cultures all over the world eat dramatically different diets and do just fine.  Consider that traditional Inuit people eat lots of blubber and almost no carbs, whereas the traditional Japanese diet features lots of white rice (carbs) and very little fat.  And here’s the rub:  people eating either of these traditional diets tend to be healthy!  My grandmother grew up eating bacon and butter and cream and, at 92, was still living at home and tending her own garden.

So what are we supposed to eat?!?

Most research on nutrition suggests that eating a traditional diet – that is, one that your ancestors ate – will keep you healthier.  Most research also suggests that eating a modern diet – that is, one filled with processed convenience foods – will make you sicker.

As a good starting point in figuring out what to eat, I really like Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, a book that offers out a number of helpful guidelines to use in deciding what to eat (and what not to eat).  Some of my favorites are:

Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food

Avoid products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.

Avoid foods that have some form of sugar (or sweetener) listed among the top three ingredients

Avoid products that contain more than 5 ingredients

Avoid products containing ingredients that a third-grader cannot pronounce

Avoid foods you see advertised on television

Eat mostly plants, especially leaves

Eat animals that have themselves eaten well

Eat well-grown food from healthy soil

Make water your beverage of choice

Eat meals

Don’t become a short order cook

Fill half your plate with vegetables

Limit your snacks to unprocessed plant foods (fruits, nuts, and vegetables)

Plant a vegetable garden if you have the space, a window box if you don’t

Cook

While that may seem like a lot of advice to follow all at once, here’s the deal: you don’t need to.  Just pick one thing that you can change – something that seems both manageable and sustainable – and start there.  Then, after that becomes your new norm, pick one more change.  As you start to shift to healthier eating patterns, your body will shift too, and it will become easier to make healthier choices.

Do I recommend drastic dietary shifts to my clients?  No.  Why?  Because every diet has an equal and opposite binge.   You can deprive yourself of the junky foods you love for so long… until eventually you cave, and then you feel bad, and feeling bad makes you eat more junky food, and suddenly you’ve lost all the progress you’d made.  So I encourage my clients to focus not on drastic, fast change, but rather to take the slow and steady approach.

So, my answer to the “what should I eat?” question is this:  The only diet I advocate is one that’s 90 percent healthy, 10 percent vodka ice cream.  (Kidding!  You get to pick your poison.)  This is the 90-10 diet, and it doesn’t require religious adherence, nor does it require you to eat eat just pineapple for weeks on end.  You don’t even have to give up donuts.

Shout-out, by the way, to Mr. Bob’s Donuts.  I love you, donuts.

See?  All things in moderation.  Even donuts!

Since I recommend a moderate approach to dietary change, does this mean that I think people doing keto or paleo or sunshine-and-vodka diets are wrong or stupid?  No.  (Well, maybe my ice cream diet was unwise.)  If you’re an adult and you think that the keto diet might help jump-start healthier living for you, by all means, do it.  But if you think that a 3-day juice fast will solve all your problems and make you lose (and keep off) 15 pounds, you’re delusional.

Real change is change that lasts.

So pick ONE healthy thing.  And do that thing.  Not for a month, but forever.  Pick a thing you will be content to do forever, and start doing it.  Right now.

And if one day you forget to do that one thing, it’s not the end of the world.  You can just start anew, every day, and do that one thing, until it becomes second-nature to you, and you won’t have to think about it.  Then pick one more thing.

The little choices that we make every single day matter.  They add up to how we live our whole life.  So pick that one thing, and let’s get started.

What will be your thing?  Let me know in the comments!

And, as always, if you think you might benefit from a guide to help you transition to a healthier lifestyle, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me to schedule a free health history consultation.  Email me at upstreamhealth.jill @ gmail.com (minus the spaces) to set up an appointment.

My path to health, wellness, and a happy vagina

When I meet fellow health explorers – the people who don’t think it’s weird that I make my own skin care products, or brew kombucha, or abhor lawn chemicals – I often ask them, “So what made you this way? Were your parents hippies? Did you have some kind of transformative experience that led you down this veritable rabbit hole of health and wellness?”

(It’s not actually a hole – it’s a magical tunnel, a passageway to an alternate, technicolored reality.)

The answers I get vary. One friend was, in fact, raised by hippies, homeschooled in the middle of nowhere, denied all the usual perks of childhood – he enjoyed no soda, no candy, no tv, little or no technology. (He turned out great.) Another friend said that it was a game of adult hide-and-seek and his inability to run as fast as he thought he should be able to. Yet another, a conservative rancher in the midwest, said it had a lot to do with his quest to have sex with hippie chicks.

I appreciate honesty. Also, the wish to bed hippie chicks seems like a laudable goal for a rancher.

For me, my health journey began in starts and fits. I wasn’t raised by hippies. Nay, I was raised by parents who’d never heard of the idea that sugar might not be the best thing to eat. (In their defense, it was a time when all the health gurus were busy excoriating fat, not sugar.) I was not what you’d call a healthy child. I had strange food tastes, including a sugar addiction, an obsession with butter (which remains to this day) and a peculiar interest in eating dessicated instant coffee granules. I was sick many times a year, catching every cold that went around, suffering through weeks-long sinus infections, and enduring all kinds of stomach upset.

So what happened, then?

First, as I was embarking on my legal career, working too many hours, drinking too much, not sleeping enough, and generally living a non-virtuous life, I had a wake-up call. My boyfriend at the time was 26, three years younger than me, and he was battling stomach cancer. And I thought: Life is short. Sometimes, it’s REALLY short. Why am I living my life in such a way that I hate waking up in the morning?

The next morning, I woke up, went to work, and wrote my letter of resignation. I gave it to my secretary, who hugged me and cried – tears of joy, delight that I was going to get out while I was still alive, still (relatively) healthy and happy.

I got a second wake-up call a year or so later, when I found myself beset with terrible pain – in my vagina, of all places. I went to the doctor, and she ran a slew of tests, all of which came back negative. I was fine – other than the awful pain. So she examined me again, and then announced gravely that she had to go do some research. She left for a very long time, and I sat in the examination room, worrying. When she finally returned, she held a large stack of paper, computer printouts. She announced in a serious tone: “You have lichen sclerosis.”

I thought lichen was a type of moss. Surely, there was no moss growing in my vagina. So I asked her what that was, and she explained that it’s a flesh eating disorder and that if I didn’t treat it, I would end up with no labia whatsoever.

FLESH EATING WHAT???????

The doctor gave me the stack of printouts, so I could take them home and read all about my new friend, the vulva-eater, and she also prescribed a steroid cream that was supposedly going to save my labia from extinction. I left, feeling not at all at ease.

I tried the cream, and the pain it caused was worse than the original pain.

So I quit the cream. And I made another appointment with a different doctor who examined me, and, quickly dropping the sheet, gave me a sympathetic look.

“You don’t have lichen sclerosis.”

PHEW!!!

He went on. “This is going to sound weird…” (Trust me, doc, after someone tells you that your vulva is being eaten to extinction, nothing sounds that weird.) “…but your vagina is just really irritated. It’s angry. Stop shaving, stop using any bubble baths or scented soaps, and change your laundry detergent.” He explained that recent regulatory changes had banned a particular chemical from laundry soaps, and that the new formulations were causing a lot of similar irritation in other women.

That all made great sense. It also didn’t seem weird, in the least.

So, I went home and followed his prescription, started reading labels, started seeking out non-toxic care products with only gentle, safe ingredients. Within a day or two, all the pain was gone. It never returned. I shredded the lichen sclerosis literature and used it as bedding in the chicken coop.

The memory of that experience, though, has stayed with me, and just the thought of the pain I experienced has made me never, ever want to have scented or chemical-laden personal care or cleaning products around me. I cringe at the acrid floral stench of Tide laundry detergent. I unplug any “air fresheners” I encounter. I buy goat milk soap from a hippie homeschooling family. I make my own laundry soap. I make herb-infused oils and from them craft decadent lotions and balms. I use vinegar, baking soda, castile soap, and essential oils to clean my home. I even make my own toothpaste.

My skin is happy, my house is clean, and perhaps most importantly, my vagina exists in a state of perpetual bliss.

Moreover, living this way hasn’t been a hardship in any way – it has only made my life richer and better. And so I wonder – why do so many people use so many toxic products? And perhaps more importantly, why do so many people consume things that contain artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives, and all that crap? For many people, I think it’s that they haven’t made the connection between eating those crap-filled foods (or using those crap-filled products) and feeling like crap. So I guess, here I am, encouraging you to recognize this, if you haven’t already done so.

Just try it for a month: cut out the crap, and replace it with healthier options. Shop at the farmers’ market. Eat fresh, local food, and see how you feel. You don’t have to go out and buy a bunch of new products. But as you run out of things, be mindful, read labels, and seek out healthier versions.  Lots of small, gradual changes add up to big transformation.

So, cheers, friends! To health and wellness and happy vaginas.

Have you had a health transformation? If so, do share!