Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Benefits of a Sadly Neglected Yard

There are some, you know.  Why there's the added privacy since the neighbors can't see through the dense greenery.  Noise is reduced for the same reason.  Plus, all that extra time gained by not slaving away in the hot sun.  And if you're really bad (like me) you may just be rewarded with a decent crop of tasty, nutritious blackberries.

I have some texture issues and can't stand eating blackberries, raspberries, and their furry, clammy kin.  But I do like the flavor just fine and I know there's all kind of nutrition packed into berries so baking or syrups are the way to go for me.

It's supposed to get beastly hot again soon so I thought a batch of blackberry-mint syrup would be perfect for cool drinks.  All you need are a few ingredients and 15 minutes or so and you, too, can have the loveliest syrup for cool drinks and cocktails.

  • 3 C blackberries, rinsed and de-spidered (seriously, I found one of these guys hiding in  my berries and it did not want to leave)
  • 1/3C sugar
  • A few handfuls of fresh mint leaves 
  • 1/4 C water
Combine everything in a saucepan and simmer gently until berries are broken down. Cool, strain syrup, and chill. 

Serve over pancakes or ice cream or yogurt or mixed with fizzy water and lemon juice 

Some notes:  I would have used honey rather than sugar if I hadn't just run out.

I added some lemon balm leaves along with the mint because they are calming, balancing, and pretty much everywhere you look in my yard.

I used my wonderful nylon nut milk bag
to separate the juice from the leaves and seeds and other bits of debris.  

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Saturday, November 9, 2013

Fall Color

It's November and we have a had a remarkably lovely and colorful autumn. We haven't had much rain (for Portland) so the leaves haven't been knocked off the trees and turned to mush. Do you ever find yourself wishing you could save those leaves and continue to enjoy the gorgeous colors? As it turns out, you can. All it takes is a box of paraffin--or beeswax, if you have deep pockets.

We took a walk around the neighborhood today and gathered a basket of local color along with acorns and pine cones. We looked for bright leaves in good condition, ideally neither damaged nor soggy. I like to collect a varied assortment of leaf shapes, sizes and colors. Make sure all your leaves have stems. 

As soon as possible after collecting your leaves, set up a double boiler with the smaller pot being one that you won't use for cooking. Thrift store pots are great for melting wax. You don't want direct heat while melting wax as it could scorch or even ignite which would surely take the fun out of things. Just make sure the pot that holds the melted wax is wide enough to fit your leaves. Add 8 ounces of wax and heat until melted. Set up a baking sheet nearby and line it with waxed paper or baking parchment.

Brush any moisture and/or debris off the leaves and dip, one by one, into the melted wax, carefully holding the stem. Make sure each leaf is thoroughly submerged in the melted wax and then lift it out, gently twirling to remove excess wax. Carefully set each waxed leaf on the baking sheet, spacing them so that they don't touch. They will cool and dry fairly quickly but don't move them until thoroughly cooled.

Once cooled, gently move each leaf off the baking sheet, peeling away the waxed paper if necessary. What you don't want is for the wax to crack. As long as the wax remains sealed around the leaves they will keep their color and you can use the however you like. I think they make fantastic table decorations and mine are carefully tracked away in tins until I set our Thanksgiving table in a few weeks.

Eventually they will start to crack and degrade and,  at the point when they are no longer lovely, they make great fire starters.
Last year's Thanksgiving table:  waxed leaves + rose pretty in a late fall kind of way.
Last year's Thanksgiving table:  waxed  leaves, rose hips, and beeswax candles. 

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

DIY Shampoo

In recent years I have made a considerable effort to reduce the amount of potential toxins and mystery substances in my home and, especially, on my body.  It turns out that there's a lot of weird stuff in shampoo including parabens, sulfates, and synthetic fragrances which are linked to skin irritation, hormone disruption, and cancer risks.  I don't need that junk on my head, that's for sure!

Nettles and rosemary from my garden plus powdered bhringraj.

 Another factor for me is that I have autoimmune thyroid disease.  When thyroid levels fluctuate, our hair often shows the effects.  I used to have thick, wavy, fast-growing hair which in recent years has been replaced by thin, sparse, dull hair completely lacking in vitality.  I am prone to a dry, itchy scalp as well and I suspected that commercial shampoos were doing me no favors.   I know many people have people have had great results with the No 'Poo/ShamPHree method.  While I suspect it's much better for you than commercial shampoo, I know my hair and scalp were not happy under this regimen so I tried to come up with something that worked better for me. I began to research the herbs, essential oils, and other ingredients known to support hair health and have come up with a basic formula for shampoo that works beautifully in my hair.   My formula, however, will not be your formula and I encourage you to research and experiment to learn what works best for you.

A few things I've learned:  first of all, many of us wash our hair far more often than necessary.  This strips our hair of the natural oils which keep it shiny, strong, and healthy.  I make  my shampoo with a very low percentage of Castile soap and I include a small amount of light, beneficial oils such as argan and jojoba for shine and strength. If you are concerned about hair growth, the most important thing is to make sure the scalp is healthy.  A vigorous fingertip massage while washing is great, as is using essential oils which stimulate the scalp. 

No scary ingredients here!  
 The base of my shampoo is a strong herbal infusion of rosemary, nettle, and bhringraj, an Ayurvedic herb known to promote the growth of strong, healthy hair. I add aloe vera, Castile soap, argan and jojoba oil, a bit of xanthan gum to thicken the shampoo, and a mix of essential oils (rosemary, lemongrass, peppermint, and tea tree) for both fragrance and function.  I am happy to report that after exclusively using my homemade shampoo for the last 6 months my hair is longer, thicker, and healthier than it's been in years and my scalp is happy, too.  I won't go back to the commercial stuff for anything at this point because it's so easy and cheap to make my own and I know exactly what's in it and why it's there.
Simmering the nettles, rosemary, and bhringraj.  It smells better than it looks.
General Formula for an 8 ounce bottle of shampoo:

16 ounces of filtered or distilled water
A big bunch of herbs (try rosemary, nettles, lavender, chamomile, or calendula)
1/4 C aloe vera gel
2-4 T castile soap
1/4 t argan oil
1/4 t jojoba oil
1/2 t xanthan gum
essential oils (rosemary, peppermint, lavender, lemon grass, and tea tree are all nice choices)
Simmer the herbs in the water for 30 minutes.
Cool and strain through a very fine mesh strainer or a paper coffee filter.
Using a funnel and an empty 8 ounce bottle, add aloe gel, castile soap, xanthan gum, oils, and essential oils. Top off with cooled herbal infusion.  Shake well before use.

This is enough to last me about 6 weeks with generous use. I have had no problems with spoilage while keeping this in the shower.  While it might be tempting to make a larger batch, I wouldn't do so or, at the very least, I would keep any extra in the refrigerator because there are no preservatives in this formula. 

A great book for learning more about herbs and essential oils which are beneficial for the hair and scalp is Rosemary Gladstar's Family Herbal.

If you are interested in keeping harmful chemicals out of personal care products consider asking your your U.S. Representative to co-sponsor the Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act of 2013. Congress needs to know that this issue is important to constituents!

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Saturday, May 25, 2013

For the Fellas......

This may seem like a horrible sexist generalization but I find it a lot easier to give DIY gifts to my female friends and family members than to the men in my life.  I don't know any gal who doesn't appreciate a hand knit scarf, a lightly scented moisturizing lotion, or a tin of home made lip balm.  I find men a bit trickier but no less deserving of my DIY love so I was thrilled when I found a blog post from Mountain Rose Herbs on Herbal Gifts for Dad.  While no one around here has much need for the Fancy Man 'Stache Wax,  I thought my sweetie might be interested in an upgrade from plain old shaving soap.  With his May birthday it seemed a perfect time to try my hand at making shaving cream which turned out to be dead simple.

I used apricot kernel oil, aloe vera gel, shea butter, white clay, baking soda, unscented Castile soap, and a few drops of cedarwood and bay essential oils for a pleasant, manly scent.  It took maybe 5 minutes to melt the shea butter with the oil, another minute or two to mix in the remaining ingredients, and a couple of minutes of with the stick blender to whip everything into a lovely, fluffy, mousse-like texture.   After the first use he tells me it makes for a fantastic shave and he loves it-not bad for 10 minutes work!
The Mountain Rose blog post also included a recipe for aftershave.  I made a batch of Bay Rum aftershave last year which included a lot of rum, bay essential oil, and not a whole lot else and I thought he might be interested in a change so I threw this new recipe together last night as well:  witch hazel, aloe vera gel, orange peel, a cinnamon stick, crushed allspice, a few cloves, an ounce of rum, and a few drops of bay rum essential oil.  This will take 4 weeks before it matures and I can strain it into a bottle so no verdict as yet but I can't resist opening the jar for a sniff every now and again.  In addition to its lovely scent, the orange peel, witch hazel, and aloe should all provide beneficial antibacterial and skin-soothing elements and I expect it to make a nice final product.

Father's Day isn't that far off but you still have plenty of time to throw together a lovingly crafted DIY shaving set for the man in your life should you feel so inspired.  And if you are (or know) a razor-using woman I'm sure the shaving cream would be a treat for the legs as well--no need to be exclusionary!
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Sunday, May 19, 2013

Basic Salve...and variations

 There are so many benefits to learning to make your own body care products.  You can save boatloads of money.  Although the initial investment in ingredients may seem scary, most will last you for many, many batches of products.  You can have fun with basic science.  You will learn exactly which ingredients do what and can have all kinds of fun experimenting and coming up with custom blends to meet your exact specifications. You will know exactly what is going on (or in) your body--no more mystery chemicals with potentially troublesome side effects.  And, if you're like me, there's that little "I did it!" thrill which is priceless as far as I'm concerned.

Basic salves couldn't be easier and once you have the process down you can make lotion bars, lip balms, deodorants, and more.  The basic formula is 1 part oil/1 part butter/1 part beeswax.  Depending on my end product I might use olive, coconut, or apricot kernel oil along with shea or cocoa butter.  Vitamin E oil is both nourishing for the skin and a good preservative so I always add a bit to just about everything I make. You can certainly use some of the more exotic oils like argan, avocado, macadamia nut, rose hip seed, or jojoba but these are quite expensive.  Including a small amount in your total is an affordable way to add a little luxury.  Once you start adding essential oils (and you should, both for their healing properties and their delicious aromas) your basic moisturizing salve technically becomes a balm.  

A family member asked me to attempt to duplicate a product she loves from a small local producer who appears to have gone out of business. I looked at the ingredient list and saw the following:  Calendula infused olive oil, beeswax, shea butter, Vitamin E oil and essential oils of rosemary, tea tree, lavender, and peppermint. I filled a jar with dried calendula blossoms, topped them with olive oil, and put the jar in water in a double boiler over very low heat for a few hours to infuse the oil with the anti-inflammatory and skin healing properties of calendula.  After straining it a few times to remove all traces of solid matter, I added one ounce to a glass canning jar along with an ounce of shea butter and and ounce of beeswax pellets. I used my kitchen scale for accurate measuring, resetting to zero after I added each ingredient.   Two notes here:  use a designated jar for melting beeswax--you'll never get it clean again so you may as well hand it over for the cause.  And, if at all possible, buy natural beeswax in pellet or pastille form.  Yes, you can use blocks, but then you have to grate the wax.  It takes forever and it makes a mess and you then need a dedicated grater.  Pellets are no more expensive than blocks of beeswax and are so much easier to work with--I highly recommend them.

Put your jar of wax/oils in a pan of simmering water and stir until everything is liquid.  Again, due to the tenacity of beeswax, I use bamboo skewers for mixing and stirring.  They are cheap and can go in the compost when you are done--one less thing to try and clean.    Once everything is melted, remove from the heat and pour into the container of your choice, and add vitamin e oil and essential oils.   Quickly and gently stir to blend (use that bamboo skewer or a toothpick) and then leave to cool completely.  Once the salve is semi solid you can carefully transfer it to the refrigerator to cool completely if you are in a hurry. 

For this particular balm, I used 2 drops of rosemary essential oil and 10 drops each of tea tree, lavender, and peppermint.  If you are interested in exploring essential oils further, please take a look at this simple Essential Oil Guide I wrote for one of my classes.  

I purchased my containers at The Portland Homestead Supply Co.

For printable directions for making a basic salve/balm, click here.  

Please let me know in the comments if you make this salve and how it turns out for you.  Once you see how easy it is, I hope you'll make lots!
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Monday, April 29, 2013

Problem Solved

I'm not sure if it's a sign of spring or my energy returning after my bout with endocrinologist-induced hypothyroidism but lately I have been in a frenzy of cleaning, decluttering, organizing, and rearranging. A lot of things that I have ignored for years are suddenly making me crazy and I am trying to tackle a million little problems around the house. In the midst of big stuff (moving furniture, repainting, cleaning out long neglected cupboards) there have been some smaller, simpler solutions including this one which just makes me happy.

I am a scarf lover, big time. I rarely leave the house without something draped around my neck. Not only do I like the extra bit of color, but that extra bit of warmth is welcome, too. The only problem is once I come home I tend to fling my scarves off and drape them over the backs of chairs or pile them in baskets which means they quickly become cat beds. I have never been able to figure out a good way to store them until the other day when I was looking for a new shower curtain at IKEA and I had a brilliant flash of insight when I noticed a simple package of shower curtain rings. I tossed the package in my basket, came home and slipped them on to a wooden hanger and suddenly one irritatiting problem was solved, just like that. Don't you love cheap, easy, functional solutions? No, it's not a cure for cancer or an end to global warming, but it's a problem solved and that makes me happy.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Some Like It Hot

No doubt you are familiar with the ubiquitous hot sauce known as sriracha or, more familiarly, "rooster sauce". Although made in California, it claims to be a Thai-style sauce and yet it goes well with just about anything. Yes, it's delicious in SE Asian style soups and noodle dishes but it also perks up eggs, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and Mexican-style tortilla-based dishes as well. It's also cheap and easily found in just about any grocery store around here so why bother making it from scratch?

As you've probably guessed, I just like making things from scratch. That's my #1 reason. I also like avoiding preservatives like potassium sorbate. As it turns out, when you ditch the preservatives, you end up with a much fresher tasting end result. While it can cost more to make your own rooster sauce than to buy it, your end result will be brighter and more interesting than the store bought variety. Also, making it yourself gives you the chance to adjust to your taste. Maybe you like a bit more garlic? A touch more vinegar? Less salt? You can even dial down the heat with the addition of red bell pepper if that's how you roll.

The hardest part about making your own sriracha is finding appropriate chiles. The first time I made this, I used a mix of hot chiles from a local organic farmer. My resulting sauce was good, but the flavor wasn't very distinctive and the color was muddy from all the different chile varieties. It was still a good hot sauce, and the technique and quantities work well with any variety of chile but if you are aiming for rooster sauce, you want bright red, fleshy chiles along the lines of a red jalapeƱos or Fresno chiles shown below. I have the best luck finding appropriate chiles in markets catering either to Mexican or SE Asian customers. For my most recent batch I started with 1.5 lb of fresh Fresno chiles.
The only other exotic ingreient you will need is palm sugar which usually comes in 2-3 ounce cakes. If you are lucky, you will find a soft palm sugar but sometimes it is hard as a rock. Most recipes direct you to grate the palm sugar but this can be rather like grating concrete so my workaround if I have super hard palm sugar is to bring the vinegar and water to a boil, drop in the palm sugar, and dissolve it, breaking it up as it softens with a sharp knife, before adding the chiles and garlic. That way the sugar has time to break down without cooking the chiles to death. You may be lucky and find granulated palm sugar. Another option is light brown sugar although I haven't tried this myself.
I generally follow this recipe for fresh chile sauce and it has never failed me. It's a simple matter of stemming the chiles, chopping them up, and then briefly simmering them in water and vinegar along with with garlic, palm sugar, and salt. Once cooled down, you run everything in the blender until smooth (or use a stick blender as I did) and then press through a fine mesh sieve to remove seeds and skin.
The end result is a beautiful bright red sauce that you can bottle up and use to brighten just about anything.

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