Can our landscapes model a vibrant future? Not according to the LA DWP.

dwp landscaping

California is suffering from drought. In Los Angeles, we’ve experienced back to back two of the driest winters on record (winter is our rainy season). Last year’s rainfall total was under 6 inches. The governor has asked California residents to cut their water use by 20%.  Apparently, we’ve only managed to cut it by 5%.

There’s a strange sense of unreality about the drought. I think that’s because we’re just not feeling it in the cities. Our water is cheap, the taps are running, food prices aren’t terribly affected– yet.  So we keep washing our cars and hosing off the sidewalks and topping off our swimming pools and, of course, we water our lawns.

Lawns are a big liability in this region. I think they may not be such a crime in milder, wetter places where they grow happily (though there’s no getting around the fact that they are a sterile monoculture, not helpful to wildlife). But turf has no business whatsoever in the American southwest. It just doesn’t want to grow in this climate–which is why it’s always doing its level best to die. Here, our lawns live on life support.

There has been some movement toward lawn-free yards in the past several years, but the movement seems stalled. I’d expect to see more lawns being ripped out recently due to the drought, but I haven’t seen much activity in that direction, despite the fact the Department of Water and Power will actually pay Angelinos to remove their turf.

We hold onto our lawns, I think, because it is so hard to think beyond the lawn.

The average property owner is not a landscaper, nor a plant expert, and they have lots of other things to think about. The default setting of a lawn plus a few shrubs up around the house foundation takes no thought, causes no problems with the neighbors and is easily maintained by inexpensive gardening services. What’s not to love, really? And why not hold on to our lawns, because the drought will pass and we’ll be back to normal.

Asking people to re-imagine their yards is asking a lot. Yet it may be vital.

This drought may not end. Los Angeles and all of the southwest are looking at a hotter, drier present and future due to climate change. And regardless of water availability it would be a great service to nature, to our embattled birds and bees and small critters, to make our yards beautiful, changeable, welcoming sanctuaries. It would also be a gift to our own souls. Yards can be healing spaces.

To re-imagine our yards, we need to see examples of yards which work on a different paradigm, and we need to see so many of them that they become part of our shared visual vocabulary.

dwp landscaping

Sorry about the dim photo–the sun was setting–but I think it gives the general idea.

This brings me to the new landscaping at our local Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LA DWP) distributing station. I believe it used to have a typical sickly lawn in front of it, but last time I was in the neighborhood I saw it had been rejiggered to be a low water use landscape. And that’s good…really…a great idea, guys.  But…

The new landscape is mostly artificial turf, with a few swathes of D.G. and a strip of purple gravel mulch running along the foundation, and that gravel is studded with strangely trampled looking agave-ish plants, and a couple of random bougainvillea.

What goes on here? What is in your head, DWP? And how much did you pay for this redesign?

The artificial turf is particularly insidious because it seems to be a placeholder for better days when we can all go back to watering our lawns into emerald brilliance. We need to say goodbye to the lawn for good, write it off like a bad boyfriend.

And the purple gravel… I just don’t know what to say.

Note that the design consists of a lawn and foundation plantings. It’s the same old uninspired model, repeated on the institutional scale.

I suspect this landscaping will have some fans because it is “tidy” and “low maintenance.” True. It is also devoid of life and actively hostile to nature. Landscapes speak. This one denies our relationship with the natural world and declares any actual engagement with nature to be too much trouble. No doubt they’d replace those sickly plants with synthetics if they didn’t suspect they’d all get stolen in the night.

This is not the kind of model we need, DWP.

Next time you change up your landscaping, consider consulting one or more of the many brilliant plant people and designers in this city. Call us if you need numbers.

Consider using permeable surfaces and contoured landscaping to capture every drop of our rare rainfall and send it down to the thirsty soil. Show us how to use native and Mediterranean plants to make lush landscapes that call in the pollinators. Help us create landscapes we want to walk through and live in. Model this kind of smart landscaping for us, please.

Water-wise and ugly do not have to be synonymous.

dwp3

Some of the views remind me of something that might appear in an LA art installation. Which, all in all, is not praise.

Tippy Tap, Beta Version

tippy tap1

A tippy tap is a water-saving handwashing device developed for use in areas where there is no running water, usually fabricated out of simple found materials. Erik and I both love appropriate tech, and this is a really good example of the form. The tippy tap literally saves lives by allowing people to wash up after visiting the bathroom.

Erik included a tippy-tap, a rather fancy version of one, it turns out, in one of our link roundups.  I’d never heard of such a thing, and, intrigued, promptly fell down a deep YouHole watching tippy-tap videos.

The basic idea is that a jug of water is suspended from a pole or branch by the handle–so it can tip. A string is then tied to the top of the jug to act like a lever to create the tip. A small hole punched in the front side of the jug allows a thin, controlled stream of water to flow when the jug is tipped. To keep cross-contamination from occurring, you don’t actually touch the jug or the string to use it. Instead, the string which tips the jug is tied to a stick on the ground, which acts as a foot pedal, so the jug is tilted by foot action alone.

I thought it would be cool to have a tippy tap hanging in the garden for hand washing — better than spraying water all over with the hose, especially in these times of drought. It would also be a good handwashing station for camping.  So I made a beta version to test the idea. Long story short, it works well. I made a few mistakes and want to work out some kinks. Also, for use in the garden, I want to design a more attractive tippy tap, perhaps using a gourd or ceramics.

For the how-to, and some links to other tippy tap instructions, read on.

Continue reading…

The canning lid conundrum

canning lids

How do you guys store your used canning lids and rings?

We keep a lot of them around because we use canning jars for so many things other than canning: dry goods, leftovers, food-to-go, body care, etc.  My collection is driving me crazy.

Never was there a set of more awkward objects than a pile of slippery, jangly rings and lids.

Ideas?

[Mr. Homegrown in my Master Food Preserver mode chiming in here--as per USDA advice we use two piece canning lids only once for actual canning]

How to Make Stock

painting of a kitchen scene

The Old Kitchen by Hendrik Valkenburg, 1872 (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

By reader request, we’re going to cover the basics of making soup stock today: how to make it and how to use it.

Let’s start with the why you’d make it and how you use it.

Why you make stock:

  • It is the basis of good cuisine: everything tastes better with stock
  • It boosts the nutritional value of anything you cook with it.
  • It’s thrifty: it puts all your odds and ends and slightly past-prime veggies and leftover meat and bones to good use.
  • Because boxed and canned stock is foul. Seriously. It’s terrible. In an emergency you’d be better off using a bouillon cube than that stuff.
  • It’s easy.

How do you use it?

Think of it as super water. Substitute stock for water whenever you can. Use it:

  • As the basis of any soup or stew
  • To make sauces and gravy
  • To cook beans
  • To cook rice
  • To cook any whole grain
  • To cook pasta and couscous
  • To make risotto
  • To make polenta
  • For braising vegetables or meat
  • For sauteing vegetables
  • Straight, as a broth

Preparing for stock:

Stock is traditionally made with scraps. So you may want to start a scrap bin for stock in your fridge or freezer. Save those parsley stems, that half onion, those carrot stubs and celery tops!  Similarly, meat stocks are made with scraps and bones. Chicken stock can be made with a whole chicken carcass. Fish stock is made with fish bones, shellfish stock is made out of shrimp, lobster or crab shells. Save it all!

How to make vegetable stock:

Continue reading…

Chicks, Mayonnaise and Personal Responsibility

handsome in poppies

Recently, an email from Farm Forward (which I believe is tied to PETA somehow) appeared in the Root Simple mailbox, saying, “I thought you and your readers might be interested in a new campaign Farm Forward just launched called BuyingMayo.com. We’re letting consumers know that baby chicks are killed in the process of making America’s #1 condiment: Best Foods & Hellmann’s Mayonnaise.”

Following the link, I found an emotional video pairing sentimental, sun-drenched images of a mom making a sandwich for her toddler with factory farm footage of dead chicks jostling down conveyor belts.

The website says,

Most of us don’t consider the treatment of baby chicks when we purchase mayo. And we shouldn’t have to: we should be able trust companies when it comes to preventing cruelty to animals.

Best Foods and Hellmann’s use millions of eggs each year to create their products. Since only female chickens lay eggs, Best Foods and Hellmann’s don’t have any use for the male birds. Their solution is to treat these chicks like garbage: they’re either ground up alive, gassed, or suffocated in plastic bags.1

Nobody wants to see animals suffer, but some of the worst abuses occur where we least expect them. If we care about preventing cruelty to animals, we have to shine a spotlight on abuses that otherwise would be hidden. We’re calling on Best Foods and Hellmann’s to stop treating animals like they’re trash.

I agree with the broad facts. Male chicks are destroyed just out of the shell because they come from breeds developed specifically for heavy egg production, not for quality meat. Only the girls have value to us, but nature insists on giving us 50% boys. The practice of culling newly hatched males is appalling. It is wasteful, in the darkest meaning of the word. It is a blatant disregard of life. It denies that we have any relationship to, or responsibility for, these animals.

Nonetheless, my first impulse was to ignore this email, because I don’t understand why they are targeting mayonnaise makers specifically. I mean, I do, on one level, because OMG! Dead baby chicks in my mayo??!!!!  After all, what’s more sacred or beloved than mayo? These campaigns are fueled by emotion.

But the focus on mayonnaise alone seems to muddy the waters overall. The fault is not with the mayonnaise producers. The fault is with us. All of us who eat eggs.

Yet it seems that the activists are hesitant to point the finger at us, potential donors that we are, and say, “If you really care about this, change your behavior.” Instead, they give us a scapegoat to point our finger at and cry, “Chick murderer!”

They want us to convince Hellmann’s and Best Foods to solve the problem for us (or rather, one small slice of the problem), perhaps by reformulating their mayonnaise to be eggless (likely by adding weird stabilizers or–joy–monocropped GMO soy) or figuring our how to humanely source eggs on a vast industrial scale…er…somehow? My response to this is one big big eye roll.

It’s time to point fingers toward ourselves. But instead of letting the guilt gnaw at us, or living in denial, we can take positive action–such as:

Continue reading…

Party in the Bathroom!!!!!

buck close

The Continuing Saga of Living in a 900 Square Foot House with 3 Indoor Cats

Every time I enter the bathroom, no matter what I plan to do in there, or how long I’ll be staying, I have company: at least one cat, often all three, come to join me for an impromptu party.

Yes, I close the door. But Phoebe, our little heart-challenged female, is a genius. She understands the principles of force and acceleration and all sorts of things I don’t even know the names of, and can send the bathroom door swinging inward with one precise smack of her dainty black paw. If I do lock the door, she scratches on the other side in protest–tirelessly– making a noise so annoying that I have to submit and let her in.

The boys, Buck and Trout, being handsome but sadly thick, can’t even begin to open the door without her.

Phoebe is deeply bathroom obsessed, though, so the boys will never be locked out. Wherever Phoebe is, she comes running when she hears me entering the bathroom. Maybe she doesn’t hear me–maybe she’s set up psychic trip wires. I have no idea, but she always knows.

Originally she liked to roll around on the bath mat while I was in the bathroom, giving me a rare opportunity to pet her, since she often doesn’t wish to be petted, at least by me. She’s Erik’s cat, shamelessly biased.

More recently she’s expanded her Empire of Domination and has trained me to open the bathtub faucet to a drizzle. The running water is never less than thrilling. I wonder why cats tire of everything else (toys, perches, etc.) quickly but the faucet never loses its charm. And I can’t help but obey her every wish, because, after all, she’s dying (despite looking bright and fiendish, she is in heart failure) and she’s on lots of diuretics, so water is good for her. I am her tub slave.

cat drinking from tub

Phoebe says, “Hmm, the rate of flow lacks that certain je ne sais quoi, Fix it. Now.”

So, turning on the tub is my first duty whenever I enter the bathroom. If I don’t do it, she’ll stare daggers at me until I obey.

Next the boys rush in, probably having heard the water running. They each have their own objectives. Trout likes to jump into the bathroom window and balance there precariously, threatening the screen. I worry about the screen, but mostly I’m grateful he’s leaving me alone.

trout in window

Trout says: “I may pop this screen, or I may jump down and break all your toiletries on the counter or I may just stare at you for a long while.”

Buck is more interactive. Not to get all TMI here, but when I am in our bathroom, occasionally I will be found sitting on the toilet, contemplating the nature of the universe or what have you, and at such moments Buck jumps up on the sink, which is just to the left of the toilet, and begins purring at full volume.Why he is so happy and excited, I cannot begin to guess.

In that position he is very near my shoulder, and a little taller than me, which is somewhat disturbing. He wants to be petted there on the sink. If I ignore him, or don’t pet him enough, he bats at my head and shoulder, to remind me of my duty.

If this does not satisfy, he jumps to the back of the toilet, where he skitters precariously on the stack of trashy free publications and ham radio catalogs Erik insists on keeping there, rubbing his cheek against mine until an avalanche of slippery magazines sends him jumping for safety, and sends me scrabbling to keep the magazines from falling down my back.

buck in sink

Buck says, “What…are you leaving already?”

And thus ends another relaxing visit to the bathroom.

Home cooking advice?

soup stock

Our talk about the perils of added sugar this past week has reinforced to me how very important it is to cook at home, from scratch. It’s important for so many reasons, and big reasons, too. To name just a few, it’s good for our health, it’s good for the environment, it makes us civilized, it teaches kids what real food tastes like, it reinforces cultural traditions and forges bonds between family and friends.

Sometimes, though, it can seem hard to come up with a meal every night. It’s particularly daunting if you don’t have any experience in home cooking, and if you weren’t raised watching people cook. I was not, myself, so I had to figure stuff out as I went along.

These are a few things I’ve figured out. I hope you all will add any advice or tips you have in the comments, to help other people along on their journey into cookery.

1) Simple is good.  Despite all those over-the-top cooking shows they put on TV, good food can be very basic. A pot of soup and a hunk of bread. Done. Fiddlesticks to side dishes, much less courses.

2) Always make double batches if you can, then either freeze the other half for an easy meal down the road, or eat the leftovers for lunch, breakfast, dinner.

3) Shop with a list. Plan your meals for the week. It doesn’t have to be a tight plan, but maybe just a list of 5 main dishes you will make that week, and the ingredients you’ll need for them, along with the “usual suspect” types of food that you keep on hand for breakfast and lunch.  It really helps. Not just with organization, but also because it helps you set your intention to cook. This wakens your inner cook.

4) For bonus points on your weekly planning, consider how ingredients from one meal might transfer to another, and save you effort. Say you’re going to be making soup stock for something (or something you’re making will yield soup stock) — what else can you make which will use the rest of that soup stock? Same for cooking up a pot of beans, or a chicken, or a loaf of bread. Same goes for opening a jar of olives or splurging on a hunk of good cheese. Multitask those ingredients.

5) Pick a cooking style and try to stick with it. Some may disagree with this vehemently, but  I’ve decided that I can’t competently cook all of the world’s cuisines, nor can I maintain a pantry which will allow me to cook out of any cookbook a moment’s notice.

I’m lucky to have access to foods from all over the world, and have learned to love those flavors, but it’s not so good for my kitchen organization.  I’m sure my great-grandmother never stood staring at a shelf of cookbooks from ten different countries when she was trying to figure out what to make for dinner.

In short, to make my life simple, I’ve chosen to limit my home cooking palette.

I can go out and eat pad thai, waffles, bouillabaisse, sushi, pupusas, bahn mi, chile rellenos, dim sum, extravagant desserts….whatever.

At home now, I’m only cooking Italian and Middle-Eastern foods. (Of course there are many different Italian and Middle Eastern cuisines and cooking traditions, but these broad labels are enough for now.) I am neither Italian nor Middle Eastern–my native regional dish would be a steak with a corncob on the side–but I live in a Mediterranean climate, and the vegetables and herbs and fruits used in these cuisines thrive in my yard, and are easy to buy locally. This food just makes sense here. And we like it.

If I limit my choices like this, my pantry becomes functional. I use everything in it. Nothing goes to waste. Everything matches. It’s like a well organized clothes closet or a professional color palette. The flavors harmonize. The basic ingredients were meant to be together, so it’s easy to look at what’s in my fridge or on the shelf and pull something together without confusion or emergency trips to the store. Meals just happen. The tomatoes want to be with garlic and the chickpeas and the eggplants. They all get along. My spice shelf is starting to make sense.

Leftovers harmonize under this system. If we have a supper of leftovers, instead of the table resembling a low-end Las Vegas buffet at about 3 AM, I can just put everything I’ve got on hand in little bowls and announce, “Meze!”  It’s very impressive.

I like this simplicity thing so much, I’m considering booting the Italian food so that I’m only working with one palette. I love Italian food, and there’s plenty of crossover in ingredients with Middle Eastern food– but I love even more the thought of a perfectly streamlined, specialized pantry.

(I’m imagining some of you might be saying here, “What about the homemade tortillas you’ve been making? What about all that sourdough bread? That’s not Middle Eastern.”  Part of the answer is that the wonder of tortillas is that they’ll wrap around anything.  And another part of the answer is that we’re pretty freeform about what we eat for breakfast and lunch.

What have you learned that you wish you knew when you started cooking dinners from scratch?

trout and beans

On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.