My weekend baking extravaganza

I set myself a challenge this weekend. I decided to try three new recipes of things that I’ve never made before. I love food and I love cooking (which if you read this blog you’ll probably have noticed) but I often feel like I’m making the same things over and over again. That’s partly true because I get a seasonal veg box delivered, and the contents don’t vary much week to week – especially in winter. I consider myself pretty good at knocking something nutritious and tasty up out of whatever is in the fridge and in the pantry, and I love making recipes up, but when I have the same ingredients I tend to make the same kinds of things.

I was feeling a bit stifled, creatively speaking. I don’t tend to use cookbooks and recipes much apart from special occasions, but I decided maybe this was what I needed to re-spark my culinary inspiration. I decided I’d find three recipes that looked great and that I’d never made before, go shopping for any new ingredients that weren’t already hanging about, and get baking.

I had such a fun time! It was great to make things with new ingredients, and follow other people’s recipes rather than tinkering for hours with my own. I used spelt flour for the first time, made raw vegan chocolate brownies and learned about wakame gomasio. It’s definitely re-sparked my creativity again; I’ve been thinking up new ideas and I’m already planning some variations and new recipes.

Here’s a mini showcase of my weekend (I’m so proud of my efforts I thought I’d take the opportunity to show off!):

rawpasty cookedpasty pasty rawbrowniejpg brownie2 brownie3 brownie4 bars2 slicej bars3 So I have a challenge for you. This weekend, make a recipe that you’ve never made before. Maybe something you’ve been meaning to make for a while. Maybe just flick through some cook books for inspiration. You’ve got a week to find a recipe and make sure you’ve got all the ingredients to hand. Good luck!

In addition to my renewed passion for cooking, the other great thing about the challenge was that I started my week with a fridge full of delicious things to eat. How awesome is that?!

One year on: how Plastic Free July changed our lives for the better

On Wednesday night my boyfriend and I spoke at the Plastic Free July closing ceremony about how our lives had changed since taking part in Plastic Free July last year. It was lovely to be asked to speak, and great to be able to share with the community what it had meant to us. It was also a chance for us to reflect on how far we had come.

Whilst it’s still fresh in my mind I thought it would be good to share on the blog too.

One Year On from Plastic Free July

When we signed up for Plastic Free July in 2012, I have to confess, I thought it was going to be easy. I thought that we were pretty sustainable already – after all, we took our own shopping bags to the supermarket! I figured we’d buy a few more things in jars, a few more things in cardboard packets, and it would be a breeze.

Then I saw the movie Bag It.

If you haven’t seen this movie, I beg you to seek it out. It’s a documentary that’s funny, clever, down to earth and it gives out so much information without overloading the viewer. I think I’ve seen it five times now and each time I get something new out of it.

I know others who have seen environmental movies and claimed it changed their lives. An Inconvenient Truth is one. The End of Suburbia is another. I haven’t seen either of these, but for me, Bag It was one of those movies. After seeing it, I knew there was so much more I could do. I also knew it wouldn’t be something we just tried for a month. After July was over, we intended to carry on.

July 1st came around, and the challenge began.

Our first couple of supermarket shops after starting Plastic Free July looked like this:

We realised that if we weren’t going to starve we would probably have to make some big changes to our shopping habits.

So we started shopping at markets and bulk food shops like these:

bulkInstead of taking bags at the shop, we re-used old bags – both plastic ones that we already had and also paper bags – and also went to a workshop and made our own washable cloth bags. We also took our own containers to the deli counter and got reusable cups which we carry everywhere with us.

Another simple change we made was to buy bar soap rather than shower gel and liquid handwash that come in plastic. We choose soap made with natural ingredients and without chemicals or additives so we can avoid all that nastiness too, plus it’s made locally by a woman with her own natural skincare and aromatherapy oil business. Wins all round!

soapSo what else? We started buying more of our stuff second-hand. When we moved into our flat we had committed to buying all our furniture second-hand, but after Plastic Free July we started buying second-hand kitchen appliances, and now we always check to see if we can get something we need pre-loved rather than getting a brand new version from the shops.

We make great use of our local library. As well as the obvious books, our library also lends magazines, CDs and DVDs free of charge. This is great if it’s something we just want to flick through, watch once or have a quick listen, as we can then return it for someone else to use. It’s a great way of cutting down on plastic, but also less wasteful of resources and takes up less space in the flat. After all, how many times do you watch most of your DVDs or read most of your magazines?

We also started switching plastic items with non-plastic alternatives as they needed replacing. This cleaning brush on the right is made by a company called Full Circle (their Australian site is here). It has a bamboo handle and the heads can be replaced so you don’t need to throw the whole thing away. The head is made of bioplastic and the bristles are a mix of natural fibres and recycled plastic fibres. I’m not quite at the stage of knitting my own dishcloths yet (I don’t know how to knit, for a start) so this is a good compromise for now. The brush on the left is wood and natural bristles.

brushesI also bought my boyfriend this awesome little stainless steel lunchbox for Christmas, which he really likes. It generates a fair bit of conversation at his work, too. The plastic fork in the picture came from a pre-Plastic Free July long haul flight – I kept my initial set of cutlery and reused it for

IMAG0360 (2)the entire journey, and then my boyfriend used it at work for several months until the prongs finally snapped. Wouldn’t have happened with a metal fork though, would it?!

After Plastic Free July was over, the Earth Carers, that fantastic group of people that came up with the Plastic Free July challenge in the first place, ran a 5 session course on waste. Having been inspired by Plastic Free July we went along. One of the days was a trip to a rubbish tip and a recycling facility.

One of the big changes you’ll probably have found if you took part in the Plastic Free July challenge is that you ended up with a lot more glass bottles and jars. This happened to us, and we continued to recycle them diligently until we visited a recycling facility.

RecyclingThis massive smelly heap is the recycling collected from just a few suburbs of Perth in one afternoon. I also found out that a lot of recycling is actually shipped to Asia for processing, and glass is often trucked thousands of kilometres to be processed in a different state. The glass that is recycled in Perth is often used for road base – not shiny new glass bottles.

Even with the pantry heavily stocked with bulk items stored in glass jars, we were still accumulating more and didn’t have the space to store them indefinitely. To cut them out I decided to make more food from scratch. We committed to try to avoid buying as much as we could in any kind of packaging.

So I learnt how to make yoghurt, labne cheese and sourdough bread, amongst other things.

I also learnt how to make deodorant and toothpaste. I hope eventually to make most of my own cosmetics and skincare, but I haven’t got round to it yet.

The other interesting thing that happened, and arguably the best thing, is that we became a lot more involved in our local community. After the Earth Carers course we also enrolled in a 10 topic, 7 week sustainability course called Living Smart. It focuses on individual behaviour change and goal-setting, and has been a great way to meet like-minded people who live in our area. My boyfriend and I have both completed the Living Smart facilitator training course that allows us to run our own Living Smart courses. So far I’ve had the chance to present at a few courses and we’re looking forward to running our own by the end of the year.

Finding the Balance

One of our biggest achievements over the year has been finding the balance between wanting to consume as little plastic as possible whilst still wanting to stay sane, be happy and remain part of society! There’s no point in depriving ourselves of things if it’s going to make us miserable. After Plastic Free July I thought we’d become plastic extremists and never buy a single thing in plastic ever again. Over time we’ve come to realise that emergencies happen, sometimes we have to compromise and sometimes, plastic can actually be useful. So we do still end up with plastic – here are the main examples.

Firstly, there’s sneaky plastic. If you took part in Plastic Free July, did you buy something thinking that it was plastic free, only to find that beneath the deceptive cardboard outer, some plastic was lurking inside? Yep, us too.

Secondly, there’s the unavoidable plastic. Despite our best efforts to buy second hand, we sometimes need to buy new things, and these often come with all the little bits and pieces wrapped in unnecessary plastic bags. For example, when I decided to make my own yoghurt I bought a wide-neck flask and a milk thermometer new because I couldn’t find either second hand. Both of these had stupid unnecessary plastic, but it helped stop waste further along. Another thing I’ve found impossible to avoid is plastic lids on glass bottles, or plastic linings inside metal lids, although I buy as few as I can and refill where possible.

Finally, there’s guilty pleasures. These are the things that contain single use disposable plastic but we continue to buy anyway. My boyfriend’s top example is beer bottle tops. Maybe when we have our own place he can try his hand at homebrew. Hopefully he will turn out to be a master brewer; otherwise I think these are likely to stay.

capsBirthday and Christmas presents to each other are excluded from the plastic-free rule too – although we keep it for gifts we give to everyone else in the family! We never go crazy though. The stainless steel lunchbox purchased last Christmas actually came in a plastic bag, and I received a board game with various bits and pieces packaged in plastic. Still pretty old-school, really!

If you’d asked me a year ago how Plastic Free July would have affected me, I wouldn’t have guessed anywhere close to where I am now. I think the main lesson has been to take things slowly, and keep at one new thing until it becomes a habit before starting the next thing. A lot of this is now second nature to us, but it took a bit of work to get there.

The other important lesson has to be not to berate others for their choices. Everyone is on their own journey and if you want to inspire your friends and family to change their habits too, it is far better to lead by example than berate them for what they aren’t doing! Once people see you quietly getting on with things, hopefully they will be inspired to try things out for themselves. Everyone needs time!

As a thank-you for presenting we were given a copy of Beth Terry’s Plastic Free book. Despite being so committed to plastic free living I’ve never actually read this book, so I’m looking forward to any new inspiration that it brings!

book

You’ve made it: the last day of Plastic Free July!

Today is 31st July. If you’ve been taking part in Plastic Free July this year, you’ve probably been counting down this day as you’ve struggled with a month of buying no single use disposable plastic. Well here it is!

Congratulations – you made it! Read more

How to Make Your Own Beansprouts

Although they look a little different, these guys are similar to those long white beansprouts that you can buy from the supermarket to put in stir-fries. Although they are both sprouts, the homegrown versions are totally superior, being packed with way more flavour and a good deal more crunch than their insipid white cousins.

Making your own sprouts is super easy, and you can make them from most dried pulses, small bean or seeds.

The smaller the better as they will be the quickest to germinate.

It’s a great way to use up any lifeless dried old lentils that you’ve had sitting in the pantry for months (or years) whilst you wait for an appetising recipe to turn up. All you need is a glass jar, and some water!

The sprouts I’ve been making recently have been using mung beans, as I had a packet in the cupboard (from before my plastic-free days!) that I had no idea what to do with. It’s hard to believe when you look at these hard, dry little balls that there’s any life in them at all!

sprouts1jpg

Yet with a little bit of watering they turn into something super fresh and tasty. They’re also nutritious, containing thiamin, niacin, Vitamin B6, pantothenic acid, iron, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium, and being a great source of dietary fibre, vitamin C, vitamin K, riboflavin, folate, copper and manganese (for nutritional information check here).

I’ve also made sprouts with various lentils, azuki beans, sunflower seeds and chickpeas, often as a mix.

All you need to do is put whichever dried pulses/beans/seeds you want to use in a jar, and cover with water, and leave for a few hours or overnight. They will swell considerably so be liberal with the water. (Don’t be afraid to add more if they appear to have absorbed it all.)

The next morning rinse and add fresh water. After the initial soaking add enough to keep them moist, but not too much so as to drown them! Aim to rinse and replace the water twice a day – more often if the weather is hot. Small sprouts like mung beans should be ready in 24 hours; seeds and larger pulses (like chickpeas) take a bit longer.

sprouts4jpg sprouts3jpgYou can eat them straight after the overnight soak, but I prefer to wait until I can see the little root poking out. Once they’ve sprouted I usually keep the jar on it’s side so the ones at the bottom don’t get so waterlogged.

They will keep in the fridge for a few days but as they are so quick to prepare I make small batches often so I can eat them as fresh as possible.

Stir them into quinoa, use in stir-fries, add to salad or just eat straight out of the jar!

The JOCO cup: a reuseable coffee cup made from glass

It’s not often that I see a product that I think is worth raving about. After all, we can’t save the planet by buying more stuff, no matter how great the eco credentials claim to be. But when I came across the JOCO cup I thought it was worth sharing.

I’ve talked before about how takeaway coffee cups are made from fossil fuels (yep, that’s where plastic comes from) and are creating a huge landfill problem. The same goes for those biodegradeable ones that actually need commercial composters to biodegrade (you can read that post here).

The way I see it, there’s two simple solutions. Dine in, or bring your own reuseable cup.

I bought a KeepCup, which is made of durable plastic. I’ve used it countless times. I was torn between buying the KeepCup, which appealed to me because its cups are standardised sizes (8oz, 12oz and 16oz, the same as disposable coffee cups), and buying a non-plastic alternative. I would rather have purchased a stainless steel one (or even ceramic) but they all seemed to come in bizarre and impractical sizes. (If your takeaway coffee cup is too tall to fit underneath an expresso machine, it rather defeats the point of having it, don’t you think?!)

The downside of the plastic KeepCup is that it does retain the taste and smell of the previous drink. No matter how many times I wash it out. Soaking overnight with a teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate does a pretty good job of removing it, but wouldn’t it be better if I could wash it once and be done with it? The plastics used in the KeepCup are polypropylene for the cup (type 5) and LDPE (type 4) for the lid, which are both considered safer types of plastic. They thought that about plastic with BPA and phthalates once though. This type of plastic isn’t easily recycled either, so disposal will be an issue at the end of its life. Reuseable plastic is better than disposable plastic, but the best would be no plastic at all.

So I’ve been quietly waiting for KeepCup to bring out a stainless steel alternative.

It seems like JOCO have beaten them to it. Not with stainless steel, but another non-toxic material – glass. I wish the JOCO cup had been around when I was in the market for one. It truly seems to be the best of both worlds. The JOCO cup is made out of glass, with a silicone band so your fingers don’t get scalded. It’s the only glass coffee cup I’ve ever seen. Plus they come in proper barista sizes: 8oz and 12oz. And they’re easy on the eye, if stylishness is your thing.

JOCO cupThe other thing I love is that they sell replacement glass, bands and lids so if you lose any of the bits (or the glass breaks) you can replace them without having to buy a whole new one. This may seem obvious, but often companies make it very hard to buy replacement parts. If you’ve ever broken the glass in a coffee plunger and tried to buy a replacement you’ll know exactly what I mean.

I don’t have a JOCO cup, and I haven’t tried using one. I won’t be getting one either, because my KeepCup still has plenty of life left and to get rid of it would be wasteful. Discarding old products to buy new ones, however green they may be, is not the sustainable option.

But I know there’s a few people out there who are taking part in Plastic Free July, and maybe haven’t got round to buying a reusable coffee cup of their own yet. In which case, here’s another option for you to consider.

The humble teabag: maybe not so innocent?

I’ve always used teabags. I like their convenience. That’s the thing, though. Convenience is a word that I’ve come to be suspicious of. After all, convenience is what created the plastic pollution problem that we have today. In particular, convenience foods and all its unnecessary plastic packaging. Like pre-peeled bananas on Styrofoam trays and cling wrapped with more plastic to save us all the ‘hassle’ of peeling them. (Think I’m joking?! Check out the Time magazine article about it here.)

I was very pleased when I found out that Twining teabags do not come in a cellophane wrapped box, nor do they come with that plastic-disguised-as-foil inner packaging inside the box. Most other brands have one (or both) of these. Even those ‘silk’ teabags are actually made of plastic. But Twinings offer me plastic-free teabags, hurrah!

I’d been using these plastic free teabags for a while, and I noticed that the thread is held together by a tiny metal staple. Have you ever noticed that? My box of 100 teabags has 100 staples. How are they stapled together? Is there a person sitting in a dark room somewhere stapling teabags together? Has someone invented a machine that can staple the stringy bit to the tea bag with no physical labour required?

Let’s think about this. Metal comes out of the ground. It’s mined. It’s then got to be made into a staple. It’s got to be transported to the teabag factory. Then, somehow, it’s got to be attached to the teabag along with the stringy bit. And all of this occurs to save me the inconvenience of having to remove the teabag from my cup with a spoon. Is that not a tiny bit ridiculous?

Before you point out that other teabag brands do not have staples, or even strings, whilst I know that’s true, I am yet to find any that don’t have plastic cellophane packaging, or plastic ‘foil’ wrapping, or some other unnecessary packaging.

There’s a simple solution of course. Switch to loose leaf tea.

 

teajpgOver the last few months I’ve slowly been using up my teabag stash, and replacing them with loose leaf tea. The other great thing about this is that loose leaf tea tastes far better. There are a number of grades of tea and the lowest is called dust (or fannings) – it’s this stuff that usually ends up in teabags. If you buy loose leaf tea you’re buying a better quality product.

Switching from teabags to loose leaf tea may not save the planet, but it reduces packaging, prevents plastic-rage (when you get home to discover that the item you were so sure was plastic-free was hiding it all along), and makes a far better brew. What’s not to love?

I was on the radio for Plastic Free July!

plastic-free-july-logo-banner-lgeWhen I spoke at the Plastic Free July launch back in April (I wrote about it here) about my experience of Plastic Free July in 2012, I was also asked to record a brief interview with radio station RTR FM.

Well, this week my interview was aired!

Quite exciting, as I’ve never been on the radio before.

I have no idea how to add media files to the blog – or if it’s even possible – so I’m just going to share the link. If you’re interested, click here to hear the Understorey Plastic Free July programme recorded by RTR FM.

Happy listening!

Plastic-Free Sweetcorn (How To Remove The Kernels + Freeze)

Some things seem so glaringly obvious with the benefit of hindsight. I would never have thought of processing my own sweetcorn cobs if it hadn’t been for giving up plastic last year. Until then, I had always purchased bags of sweetcorn from the freezer aisle in the supermarket. I didn’t use it often, but it was one of those staples I liked to have on hand, for when my fridge was empty and the shops were shut.

The freezer equivalent of the tins of tomatoes that I liked to have on hand in the pantry.

So Plastic Free July came along last year, and out went plastic food packaging, and so did frozen sweetcorn. I wasn’t about to buy the tinned stuff, because it’s filled with added sugar and salt, and the tins are lined with BPA plastic. Plus I always think it has a grey tinge that fresh and frozen corn just doesn’t have, which rather puts me off.

I resigned myself to only eating sweetcorn for the month of the year when it comes into season and I could buy fresh corn cobs. Along came the season, and with it more corn than I knew what to do with. And it occurred to me that I could process my own cobs and freeze the sweetcorn, plastic free! Why this epiphany took so long to come to me I have no idea. But at least it did, as I now have a supply of frozen sweetcorn in my freezer that should last me until next season.

It still makes me smile when I think about how obvious it was.

So if you’re like I was, and have no idea how to process corn, read on. If you were on that page years ago, I hope you feel a sense of satisfaction that I have finally caught up!

How to Freeze Sweetcorn

An average cob makes approximately 150g frozen sweetcorn.

corn1jpgRemove the green husks and as much of the silky stuff as you can.

Place the corn in a pan of unsalted boiling water (wait until it is boiling before adding the corn) and allow to boil for 5 minutes. This is called blanching.

Remove the corn with tongs and place immediately into a bowl of icy water. This will stop them from cooking. Let them sit for at least 5 minutes, until cool to touch.

To cut the kernels off, hold the cob upright and using a sharp knife, cut downwards in strips. The corn will fall off in chunks but is easily broken up with your fingers.

corn5jpg

corn10jpgcorn9jpg Break up any clumps with your fingers. Place in a suitable container. Try to pack the containers as tightly as possible to minimise freezer burn.

corn12jpgFreeze until you want to eat!

A month without.

Today is the 1st July. I quite like that it also happens to be a Monday. It feels like an even better day for the start of new things. Plastic Free July has started, so it’s a month without plastic. As we don’t buy anything much in plastic these days, it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, but it’ll be good to keep us on our toes and keep track of anything that does come our way, which we will put in the dilemma bag. The dilemma bag is for all the plastic we just can’t do without, or the sneaky plastic that thwarts our attempts to buy plastic-free. When we first gave up plastic, we kept everything in a dilemma bag but we had nowhere to keep it so after a few months we decided to stop. But we’ll resume it for the month and see how much (hopefully none!) we accumulate. Read more

Plastic recycling: What Those Numbers Actually Mean

With Plastic Free July just around the corner, I thought it might be helpful to talk about plastic recycling, and why it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Recycling gives the impression that you can consume something, and then dispose of the packaging in a responsible manner, free of all guilt. But whilst recycling is a great last resort when the only other option is landfill, it should be remembered that it is the LAST resort. Have you ever heard the mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’? There’s a reason that ‘recycle’ comes last! Now there’s a new mantra that is gaining popularity. This one goes ‘REFUSE, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle’. And that is what Plastic Free July is all about. Rather than worrying about disposing of plastic packaging responsibly, ask the question: do I actually need it in the first place?

If you’ve been happily consuming all that plastic because you know that you’ll recycle it responsibly when you’re done, maybe this post will change your mind. I used to be the same. But once I started to understand what plastic recycling actually meant, I began questioning everything I bought and I drastically reduced the plastic in my life.

So here is a guide to the different types of plastics, what they are used for and what they are recycled into – if they can actually even be recycled.

Let’s dispell a couple of myths!

Firstly, if you’re under the impression that your old plastic bottles can be recycled into shiny new plastic bottles, unfortunately you’re wrong! Plastic isn’t technically recycled, it’s downcycled, meaning it’s used to create a product of inferior quality and productivity. So whilst glass can (in theory) be recycled an infinite amount of times, plastic can only go through two or three cycles.

Secondly, just because you see the ‘recycling arrow’ on your plastic packaging it doesn’t mean that it’s actually recyclable. The arrow is meaningless. The number tells us what the plastic is made from, and so you can work out if it can be recycled. Just because plastic has the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t mean that your local council actually recycles it, either.

Plastic recycling – a guide to the numbers

If you don’t want to read this list (I’ll take no offence!) allow me to summarise it here. The majority of plastic products are not commonly recycled, and when they are, the major product is plastic ‘wood’ and garden furniture. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen any attractive plastic recycled garden furniture, and I definitely have no desire for fake plastic wood products. Considering how much plastic gets recycled each year, that’s a LOT of plastic garden furniture. So rather than helping the environment by recycling your plastic, you’re actually adding more eyesores to public spaces everywhere!

If you do want to know more about what different types of plastics there are, whether they can be recycled and what they become, read on.

1. PET or PETE: polyethylene terephthalate

This is the plastic used to make clear bottles for soft drinks and water, plastic food jars for sauces and condiments.

Recycled into: bottles for cleaning products and non-food items; egg cartons; fibres/textiles (carpet, fleece, filling for winter coats).

2. HDPE: high-density polyethylene

This is the opaque plastic used to make milk bottles, oil/vinegar bottles, ice-cream tubs, bottles for toiletries and cleaning products.

Recycled into: recycling and compost bins; pipes; crates; flower pots; outdoor furniture.

3. PVC: polyvinyl chloride

This is the clear plastic used as food wrap, some squeezy bottles. Also used in flooring, plumbing pipes and hoses, children’s toys.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for: pipe, floor coverings.

4. LDPE: low-density polyethylene

This is used to make cling-film, most squeezy bottles, food bags and plastic carrier (shopping) bags.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture; fence posts; tubing.

5. PP: polypropylene

This is the plastic used to make dairy food containers such as yoghurt pots and cheese containers, margarine containers, Tupperware and other plastic food storage boxes, and medicine bottles. Most plastic bottle tops are made out of this.

This is not commonly recycled, but can be used for outdoor furniture and planters.

6. PS: polystyrene

This includes colourless, transparent polystyrene and expanded polystyrene, which is more commonly known as styrofoam. This is used for takeaway food containers, hot beverage containers, food produce boxes and deli packaging.

This is not commonly recycled and predominantly makes two products, insulation and plastic ‘timber’. To recycle it has to be mixed in with new ‘virgin’ polystyrene.

7. Other

This includes polycarbonate, polylactide, bioplastics made from corn starch, acrylonitrile styrene, and acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Products made from these include high quality kitchen plastics, CDs, toys such as Lego, protective helmets, toothbrushes, the outer covers for electrical equipment such as printers, and medical storage containers.

These are not commonly recycled (and obviously depend on the material), but can be made into plastic ‘timber’ products.