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.

Outdoor Cooking

When it’s hot outside and you just don’t want to be inside cooking, what should you do?

Head outside to cook!

Outdoor cooking is, to many, limited to grilling, but it need not be. I put my camping gear to use this morning and was reminded of just how pleasurable it is to cook outside – even if my kitchen is just footsteps away.

This morning I opted to cook outside because it was beautiful out, and I wanted bacon but didn’t want the house smelling like bacon. So, my tot and I headed downstairs to get the propane stove, and minutes later, we were cooking!

Shown in the photo above are my Coleman one-burner stove, a propane cylinder, a folding wind guard, and a 12-inch Lodge cast iron skillet.  (The cast iron skillet is what I use inside on my regular stove as well.)

A word to the wise, though:  if you live in bear country, cooking bacon may bring the bears to the yard!  Yikes!

(That was probably the most exciting bacon-eating I’ve ever experienced.)

What are your favorite foods to cook outside?  Let me know in the comments!

Hiking 101

As a child, I have fond memories of disappearing with a backpack filled with essentials – water, a blanket, a book, and a snack.  I’d make a little nest in the grass and read in the shade of the shelter-belt of trees surrounding my family’s farm.  It was magical – the sound of the birds, the sunlight filtering through the leaves, the absence of my mother asking me to wash dishes.  (Sorry, mom!)

I loved those days, so it’s somewhat surprising that I never got into hiking until much later – four years ago, to be precise.  It was the mountains that convinced me to be a hiker – the only way to get on top of these mountains is on foot, so I set off to see what I could see, and in the process, I fell in love.  Not with the mountaintops, mind you.  I can’t say the summit commands my attention for all that long.  Rather, fell for the journey.  I love the birds and the bugs, the sunlight filtering through the leaves.  I suppose, in some way, I love that it takes me back to those summer days of my youth, escaping the dirty dishes.

If you’ve never been on a hike, it can, at first, seem a little daunting, especially if you haven’t done much of it before, and even more so if you’re doing it with little kids.

So, here I’ll offer some tips to make it easier.  Hiking is, in my view, one of the best, most accessible forms of active leisure (some might call it “exercise,” but I think that takes some of the fun out of it.)  So many recreational activities have high “entry” costs – mountain biking, for instance, will set you back gobs of money, just to get on a bike.  (That’s not to mention the helmet, the shoes, the weird spandexy clothes, the extra mechanical gear, repair costs, etc.)  To hike, you just head into the woods.  That’s it!

But… to make it a more enjoyable experience, it pays to do a little prep work and gather a few useful supplies.  Let’s start with the basics.

First, a backpack.  I have a few packs but the one I use the most is the smallest and least expensive – a very simple, ultra-light pack I bought off of Amazon four years ago (and it’s still going strong).

Another essential is a pair of good shoes.  Yes, you could hike barefoot – or in flipflops, like I have – but I really recommend good shoes.  I saw a child wearing cowboy boots (!!!) on a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains one time, and my heart broke for that kid.  Seriously:  Don’t wear anything with a heel or uncomfortable straps.  And don’t take your kid into the woods wearing cowboy boots!  Any pair of athletic shoes will do fine, so long as you are comfortable in them.  I prefer Keen hiking boots, but that’s just my preference.  Pick what works for you.

Also incredibly important:  Water.  Of all the hiking gear, I’d say decent shoes and enough water are the two most important factors that will make your hike a pleasant experience.  I recommend at least one cup of water per person, per mile.  So, for a two mile hike for two people, a quart of water will suffice.  If it’s hot out, or you’re a thirsty person, pack extra water.  I never thought I’d be the kind of person who bought a special bottle to put water in, but after tiring of the sound of water sloshing in a bottle in my bag, I finally broke down and bought a couple of these collapsible bottles.  I love them, and now I don’t know what took me so long to buy them.  Do not plan to drink water from streams, unless you have some kind of filter.  (For a day hike, you really don’t need a filter – it’s easiest to just take a couple of liters of water and not have to mess with it.  For longer, multi-day hikes, (about which I plan to write a post…) a filter is essential.

Appropriate attire is also important.  By this I mostly mean:  don’t wear jeans.  Jeans just aren’t good hiking attire.  The cotton will wick moisture out of the air, and jeans aren’t sufficiently flexible to let your legs move as you climb.  Other than a prohibition on jeans, anything will do.  I love hiking in merino wool dresses, which a lot of people find ridiculous, but it works great for me.

See?  Dresses are just fine for hiking!  And tree climbing!  Merino wool is a favorite fabric of mine because of how well it works in both cold and warm weather.  It keeps me warm in cool weather, and keeps me cool in hot weather.  It also doesn’t hold odors like synthetic or cotton clothes do, so even after I get all sweaty hiking, I don’t feel gross.  (Downside:  Merino sheep must subsist on a diet of platinum and gold, because their wool is crazy expensive.)

Check the weather before you go, and see if rain gear is needed.  If so, pack it.  Even if it’s not needed, pack it.  (At least pack an ultralight poncho.)  A lot of people dislike hiking in the rain, but I’ve done a lot of it and find it incredibly pleasant.  For one, no one else hikes in the rain, so you get to have the woods to yourself.  And besides that, the sound of the rain, the lushness of the wet forest, the fresh smells, the softness of the ground under your feet… it’s all just pretty heavenly.

Other necessary items:  Sunglasses, hat, ponytail band, a map of the trail, and tissues (for when nature calls while you’re out in nature).

You may say:  I don’t need a map.  I’ve got my phone!  But trust me… the odds that your phone’s GPS will work when you most need it (whilst lost in the woods as sunset looms) are not good at all.  Print out a map of the trail before you go.  Or, at the very least, take a photo of the map of the trail that’s on the sign at the trailhead.  You may be thinking… “I’ll remember which way to go!”  No, you won’t.  You’ll get to a sign post and think… “Which way do I go?  What color blazes am I looking for?  Where am I?  WHY DIDN’T I LISTEN TO THAT WISE WOMAN ON THE INTERNETS??????!!!!”  Pack a map.  You will not regret it.

A final necessary item:  Food!  I tend to over-pack food, but I think that’s just fine, and I’ve never had a hiking partner complain about it.  Most hikers seem content with a snack bar, but those never appeal to me when I’m in the woods.  A fellow hiker pointed out yesterday:  maybe it’s the greater connection to the earth that makes me crave “real” food.  And she may be right!  My favorite hiking snacks are apples, oranges, pears, grapes, nuts and seeds, dried fruit (mangoes and figs especially), homemade bread, nice cheese, olives, and dark chocolate.  A favorite picnic food is kale and quinoa salad, which tastes great at room/forest temperature.

Items you may wish to pack, but which aren’t always necessary:

flashlight or headlamp
space blanket or emergency sleeping bag
rag or small towel (I prefer microfiber)
small bag for collecting trash (including tissues – yes, they’re biodegradable, but that doesn’t mean other people want to look at them)
plastic grocery bag (makes a handy and free dry seat when the ground is soggy and wet)

I also keep a first aid kit in my backpack.  Mine contains:

an assortment of bandages
ointment (both an antibiotic ointment and a plant-based healing cream called Goop)
pain reliever for sprains or bruises
anti-diarrheal
small bar of soap (washing an insect bite is the best way to remove the sting)
insect repellent (I use products containing lemon eucalyptus essential oil, which the CDC lists as an approved ingredient.
anti-itch cream (I use a homemade one with plantain-infused oil)
mineral-based sunscreen (look for titanium dioxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredients)

To keep the first aid kit small, I put all these things in tiny containers and medicine-sized baggies.  If the kit is small, it stays in my bag.  If it’s too big, I inevitably leave it behind, which does me no good.

Other optional things to pack:

If you have a little one (not yet potty trained), don’t forget diapers and wipes.  A kid-carrier is great, though I tend to let my toddler hike rather than carry him.  (Of course, I’ll carry him if he’s tired and asks me to carry him, but in general, he’s a great hiker and his own little legs carry him for miles!)

Nature guides, little books to help you identify trees, plants, mushrooms, animal tracks, etc., can be very fun and useful on a hike.  Yes, there are apps that do this, but they tend not to work when you’re in the deep woods.

A hammock can be really nice if you want to take a mid-hike nap.

And for a picnic, having a twin-size sheet (thin polyester is lightweight and will pack down very small) is great.

The last – but maybe the most important – thing to take with you is a sense of adventure.

See you in the woods!