Low-Tech Magazine

chinesewheelbarrow

Chinese wheelbarrow with sail assist. Image courtesy of Low Tech Magazine.

Yesterday, Erik and I had the privilege of interviewing Kris De Decker, the creator of one of our very favorite Internet resources, Low-Tech Magazine. Those of you who know Low-Tech will understand our vast excitement. To make it all even happier, he seems like a really good guy.

If you haven’t heard of this blog, believe me, Root Simple readers, if you like what we do here, you’ll love Low-Tech. This is the sort of site you fall into and stay for days.

Our interview with him will appear on our podcast next Wednesday, but in the meantime I suggest you whet your appetite by reading some of our favorite articles:

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

How to Downsize a Transportation Network: The Chinese Wheelbarrow

If We Insulate Our Houses, Why Not Our Cooking Pots?

Restoring the Old Way of Warming: Heating People, Not Spaces

Recycling Animal and Human Dung is the Key to Sustainable Farming

Announcing Our New Solar Cooking Initiative

Moreau_Sun_Furnace

Last December, when the summer heat finally subsided, I decided that since Los Angeles has become the capital of the planet Arrakis, we may as well as make hay with the sunshine. I decided to learn how to cook in a solar oven, and more than that, I wanted to learn how to do it really well.

We have made and used and written about solar cookers here,  and here, which are reflective surrounds for a cooking pots, and which can be quite effective under the right circumstances, but we’d never played with a solar oven, which is, in its basic form, an insulated box with a clear lid. Solar ovens reach higher temperatures than cookers, and can be used in less ideal conditions. But we’d never invested in a solar oven because they are rather pricey, especially for an unknown quantity. Would they really work? Could we make good food in one? I certainly didn’t want to spend a couple of hundred bucks on an oversized rice cooker.

Wait! I almost forgot. We do have a solar oven in our garage! And if I don’t mention it, the Internet will make me a liar. Erik posted on it back in 2013. He was gifted a Sundiner, which is a 60’s era solar oven. We never use it because, being a product of the 60’s, it has a very small, shallow cooking box, suited only for cooking hot dogs and frozen dinners.

sundiner
So, anyway, being cheap and not fond of TV dinners, I decided to make a proper, box-style solar oven (there are a lot of DIY plans out there) and test it out come the equinox, when the days are longer and the sun a little higher. Then, just as I was about to start construction, the good folks at a sun oven company called Solavore contacted us and offered to loan us their oven, the Solavore Sport, for an extended trial period. It was one of those moments where the universe seemed to be conspiring to help us along, so I answered, “Funny you should offer…”

A few happy emails later, and now we have a shiny new Solavore Sport to explore. In the spirit of DIY, I will still make an oven later this summer and report back on that process, and I will also run a comparison between the commercial oven and the homemade oven and see how they stack up.

But my primary goal in this season of solar cooking is to figure out whether, if properly used, a solar cooker can create meals of the same quality as those I turn out with my kitchen stove. Not “It’s not bad for solar” but “Hey….this is scrumptious!” More than that, I want to figure out what solar ovens do better than real ovens. I want to master the vocabulary of solar cooking.

I figure the learning curve is going to be high–it’s like having to learn how to cook all over again–but I’m excited to have the Solavore Sport on hand for these experiments, because I can focus on the cooking itself instead troubleshooting my construction techniques.

Throughout this short winter I’ve been looking at fusty old solar cookbooks from the library and poking about on the Internet for inspiration, and frankly, most of what I found has been pretty bleak. A lot of the recipes seem outdated or just out of step with what Erik and I like to cook and eat. But, in all my looking somehow I never stumbled on the Solavore website. It turns out they have an attractivecollection of solar recipes, so that is where we will be starting out.

I’m calling this series Solar Oven Summer, and no, I do not find the acronym S.O.S. pessimistic. And yes, it is summer here now, as far as I’m concerned. We’ll tag all these posts so you can find them all at once. In our next post we’ll take a close look at the Solavore Sport, and then we’ll begin learning how to use it, one recipe at a time.

Are any of you solar chefs? Any advice? Horror stories? Favorite resources?

Satan’s Easter Basket is Filled with Plastic Easter Grass

Easter baskets, a springtime ritual so loved by kids and adults alike should not have a dark side. So it’s more than a little ironic that this holiday, which in its secular form emphasizes rebirth and celebrates new life and baby animals of all sorts, actually causes accidental pain and suffering to many animals. The culprit is plastic Easter grass.

The day after Easter this year, I took an early morning walk down to Echo Park and found Eastermagedon waiting for me in the dawn’s soft light. The entire park was strewn with detritus of the happy day, plates and soda bottles and all the usual picnic garbage, plus the added seasonal bonus of tons of loose plastic Easter grass tangled in the real grass. I think animals may have gotten into the garbage cans overnight, making it all worse, but clearly a lot of that trash, especially the Easter grass and Silly String, was probably on the ground when the picnickers left.

One lonely, overburdened city maintenance guy was already raking up the garbage, but it was a Sisyphean task, and I doubt he’ll be so fine tuned as to focus on the Easter grass, but the Easter grass may be the most problematic of all the garbage on the ground this morning, especially because Echo Park surrounds a lovely little urban lake full of birds. Read on to find out why.

eastergrass3

4 Excellent Reasons to Avoid Plastic Easter Grass and use all of your influence to make sure other people avoid it, too:

  1. Domestic cats and dogs eat Easter grass and it can cause intestinal obstruction. Cats are particularly attracted to its stringy texture, but dogs might also gobble it up when they raid a kid’s Easter stash. If your pet does consume Easter grass and you see it coming out the other end, don’t try to pull it out! The other end of the string might be wrapped around something important inside your pet. Let it work its way out on its own, or visit the vet.
  2. Nesting birds pick up strands of plastic Easter grass and use it to build their nests. Sadly, this stuff is super strong, so it can tangle up baby birds, or even wrap around the feet of parent birds, tying them to their nests. People who keep bird boxes can tell us horror stories.
  3. Plastic grass left over from egg hunts in parks can blow into lakes, ponds and rivers, where it becomes both a water pollutant and a hazard to aquatic life. No kid on an egg hunt would want to know that her pretty pink Easter grass might end up choking a duckling.
  4. Like any plastic garbage, airy strands of Easter grass, whether floating out of parks or school yards or the back of garbage trucks, will make their way to the sea via wind and city gutters and rivers, where they will become part of our ongoing crisis of plastic pollution in the ocean.

Happy Substitutes for Plastic Easter Grass

The worst thing about plastic Easter grass is that it is so utterly unnecessary. We don’t need it. No one really likes the stuff–it gets everywhere in the house and is hard to clean up. Kids will not miss it–the padding is hardly the point of the basket, after all. Plastic grass is just something that was invented in a more ignorant age and marketed to us, something that we got used to using and never questioned. There are many ways, better ways, to line an Easter basket. We just have to take this plastic hell fluff off our “auto buy” list and embrace our creativity:

  1. There’s a natural, sustainable, renewable, organic form of Easter grass called real grass! (whhaaaa???) And best of all, it’s free! Just visit your nearest vacant lot. Pick long green grass and coil it in the bottom of the basket. You could also use hay or straw if you have access to it– both smell fantastic.
  2. Use green leaves, vines and short, flexible green branches from trees or bushes and flowers* to make sort of a wild fairy basket. As a Californian, I’m imagining a basket filled with a heady mix of rosemary branches and lavender leaves and buds. Or what about a nest of sweet chamomile? That would be lovely. Or maybe purple cabbage leaves? Arugula? Fennel fronds? Grape leaves?
  3. Use shredded wrapping paper–this is particularly easy if you have a paper shredder, but you can also cut or tear the paper into strips. This is a great way to re-purpose used paper, or to finish up the ends of rolls. Same goes for construction paper and other bright craft papers.
  4. Line the baskets with pretty table napkins or old scarfs, or tear fabric scraps into strips.
  5. Make little basket pillows out of scrap material. This might be a good use for old themed bed sheets or favorite clothes that kids don’t want to give up.
  6. Use moss, which you may be able to gather gently in the wild, depending on where you live, or buy sphagnum moss in a craft store or nursery.
  7. Fill the baskets with colorful mini-marshmallows–if you can deal with the resulting sugar high and possible marshmallow fights.
  8. Get ambitious and grow a pot of grass! Find a plastic pot which will fit your Easter baskets, fill it with potting soil and sprinkle a dense coating of seed on top. You can use lawn seed, if you have it, or you could buy “cat grass” seeds at the nursery–that way you can buy a small quantity instead of a big bag of seed meant to plant a lawn. All you have to do is keep it moist and you should have a pot of short grass by Easter. Check the seed pack and look for “days to maturity”–use that to figure out when you should plant. Bonus: your cats will thank you for the grass after Easter!
  9. And finally, there is commercial Easter grass made out of shredded paper instead of plastic– as easy as plastic, but sooooo much better!

See how easy it is to avoid Satan’s Grass? So spread the word. Ban it from your home. Bug your friends and relatives about it. Agitate at community egg hunts. Let’s just end this whole business as a really bad idea.

And let us know if you have any other ideas for grass substitutes!

* Okay, plant paranoiacs and nanny-staters, yes, you have to be a little bit cautious to make sure you don’t choose a noxious plant to line your Easter basket,  a plant like poison oak or yew, for instance (unless you’re having a Tim Burton Easter). The vast majority of plants are harmless, particularly if you’re not ingesting them. Just keep the babies from mouthing the greenery, to be safe.

Pesticide sprays are more of a concern than plant toxicity, frankly, so gather from your own yard, or from places you know are not sprayed. 

Or, if you remain concerned, use only food plants from your garden or a neighbor’s, or go to the farmer’s market and have fun picking out herbs, flowers and plant leaves to use in the basket–the vendors can tell you if they are safe.

How to Make Your Own DIY Instant Oatmeal

oats

Long time readers will remember my trauma when I accidentally bought a box of “low-sugar” i.e. artificially sweetened instant oatmeal. I took it on a camping trip unawares, and ended up trapped in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast except Splenda soaked packets of horror. Frankly, I’d rather be alone in the woods with rabid bears or hook wielding maniacs.

At the time, some of you pointed out, “Umm…why aren’t you making your own darn instant oatmeal, Mrs. Homegrown?” To be sure, you all said it more nicely than that, but this was my takeaway.

Well, you were right. I think the impulse to bring packets of oatmeal camping is the sort of thing which, once inculcated at an early age, is never considered again consciously afterward. But yes, of course one can make their own instant oats, and even pack them up in single serve packets. So last week I took a container of homemade instant oats camping and they were a big hit. They were so much better than the sugar stuff in packets. They were scrumpdillyicious, in fact–toasty, chewy, not too sweet. I liked it so much I’ve decided to keep it around the kitchen for everyday breakfasts.

oats2You’ll need:

4 cups of rolled oats, old fashioned or quick oats. See oat notes below

1/4 cup brown sugar. This much brown sugar will result in something barely sweet, much less sweet than the store brands, which have about 3 teaspoons of white sugar per tiny packet. Of course, you could opt to use no sugar, or more sugar. Or, heaven help us, you could use a sugar substitute.

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1 cup (give or take) of various add-ins of your choice: the dried fruit family: raisins cranberries, apricots, cherries, apples, and freeze dried bananas or strawberries; seeds of different sorts like chia, flax and hemp; additional fiber such as wheat bran, exotic substances like cacao nibs, coconut, candied ginger and powdered milk. Nuts fall into the add-in category too, of course, but personally I like to toast my nuts and store them in a separate container to keep them crunchy until needed, because no one likes soggy nuts. But do as you please.

How to:

  1. Preheat oven to 350F
  2. Spread oats out on one cookie sheet and toast in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes. It’s a good idea to stir them half way through. You want some color, but no burning. This step is not found in all DIY instant oatmeal recipes, but totally worth it for the flavor it adds. I think it also makes the old fashioned oats more digestible.
  3. If using old fashioned oats, remove oats from the oven and grind some portion of them in a blender or food processor. I leave half whole and process the other half until some of the oats turn to fine meal while others are still partially intact. The finely ground bits make the oatmeal more “milky” and cohesive.  This is a personal preference thing–everyone likes their oatmeal in certain ways–dry or wet, lumpy or smooth. (If you’re using quick oats, this step unnecessary because they break down fast when soaked, so they don’t need any mechanical assistance in that direction.)
  4. In a big bowl, recombine your oats (if necessary ) and stir in the sugar, salt and cinnamon.
  5. Stir in your add ins
  6. Transfer to an air tight container, or portion into single serving bags.

To use, just scoop out what you need into a bowl and pour boiling water over the top until it’s as moist as you want it to be (It’s a good idea to give your storage container a shake or stir before using to make sure stuff hasn’t settled out). Let the oats sit for a minute or so to soften up before you tuck in. Add a little more water if it stiffens up too much. I’m sure you could microwave this, I just don’t know how.

I like to put a nice chunk of grassfed butter on top of my oatmeal after its mixed to anchor those carbs with some fat–and this is also when I add my emphatically unsoggy nuts.

I’m mulling over making a savory version of this to use as a quick meal/snack. Something involving a trip to the Japanese market for some seaweed and maybe a bit of instant dashi powder?

A note on oats. There can be confusion over oats. Whole oats are called oat groats. Don’t use those. Steel cut or Irish style oats won’t work either. You want the flattened kind of oat. Those come in two basic categories under different names. In the U.S., the classic kind is called rolled oats or old fashioned oats or some people refer to them as Quaker oats. These are oat groats which have been steamed and then flattened with rollers. The other category is quick oats, also called instant or minute oats. These oats have been steamed, flattened and cooked and then dried again so they cook up super fast. You can use either quick cooking or old fashioned oats in this recipe. The main difference is texture. The old fashioned oats will keep some fight. I like that very much, personally. Instant oats will have a softer texture, more like “real” instant oats.

Meet the Amazing Sierra Newt

Nature!!!!

I join generations of gobsmacked naturalists in saying O. M. G.

Meet the Sierra newt (Taricha sierrae). I’m a dryland girl and don’t have much acquaintance with the salamander family, though I have spotted these guys over the years during different trips to the mountains. Last week, I was camping in the Southern Sierras and saw several of them around the campground and out in the forest. The area seemed oddly newt-rich. One even waddled right past our fire pit late in the night, braving our head lamps and chair legs. I could tell by the look of them that they liked moist places, but I did not know they also swam. I had never seen them on river banks, only away from the water, in campgrounds and off trails.

So imagine my surprise when, hanging out by a stream (Water! Living water! I hadn’t seen any for months) I found one of these guys coiled up and still on the bottom of the stream bed. It looked so out of place–I thought it might be dead, dropped in there by a predator, perhaps? So I poked it with a stick — a favorite primate tool–and was surprised to see Mr. or Ms. Newt jump up all affronted and wander off under water. He (I’m going to call him he) didn’t swim. He walked. He had no gills. He released no air bubbles. He just wandered around under water like it was no big thing.

Call me naive, but for me, this was shocking. Miraculous. I had no idea these guys were aquatic. It was like seeing a human friend casually take flight and flap away. I watched him for a few minutes with my mouth hanging open, and then, like a good modern citizen, dutifully recorded the moment for the social media.

Back home with the wonder of the Internet, I was able to identify Mr. Newt and find out what was going on with him and his semi-aquatic lifestyle.  This type of newt is born in the water, and at that stage it has gills. When this newt matures, it will leave the water for some kind of amphibious rumspringa in the woods. They are crazy toxic if ingested–they excrete the same neurotoxin as pufferfish– so no one eats them except garter snakes, who are acknowledged bad asses.

(The toxin won’t hurt you if you touch a Sierra newt–which is lucky since I had petted them before bothering to look this up–but don’t lick your fingers afterward. Or the newt.)

Due to this indigestibility, I suppose, Sierra newts waddle around slowly, almost imperiously, right out in the open, like they don’t have a care in the world.  None of that paranoiac lizard-style scurrying from rock to rock for them. Sometimes, though, they get stepped on or run over in busy campgrounds, because evolution did not factor in hiking boots, distracted campers and Subaru Outbacks when designing the defensive systems of the newt.

When they decide it is time to meet a special friend and lay some eggs together, the newt returns to the pool from which they hatched–or tries to, since it might be difficult with all the pools in the Sierras drying up–but my guy found his way to the stream, and perhaps was napping, waiting for his lady newt to come by.

But here’s the best part–he was breathing through his skin. The gills he had as a baby are long gone, traded for fledgling lungs when he left his birth pool. But once back in the water, he dispenses with those clumsy organs altogether and draws oxygen out of the water straight through his skin, in a process called diffusion. That’s right. This handsome orange show-off breathes in three different ways over the course of his life: by gills, by lungs and, call it what you will, by magic, because this diffusion business is obviously pure sorcery. No wonder witches keep newt parts in their spice cupboards!