Thursday, May 24, 2018

Use Less Plastic

Anyone who has been to my apartment or my classroom has a pretty good idea how I feel about plastic. I am perhaps an old lady before my time, compulsively washing and rewashing ziploc bags and drip drying produce bags that show up from time to time for reuse until they are no longer functional (at which point I trek to my local Giant* to recycle them, along with other plastic bags and the odd bit of saran wrap). I've had the same roll of plastic wrap in my kitchen since I moved from my old apartment in Columbia Heights nearly five years ago. I give stern looks to friends and loved ones who don't use cloth shopping bags... and I really try not to do the same to strangers in line at my local Whole Foods or the farmers market, but sometimes I can't help myself. Don't even get me started on how often I have washed and reused old yogurt containers....

But it's not just me, I swear! It's reinforced by the company I keep. My students in the Student Sustainability Corps -- an opt-in, after school program for kids in grades 3-8 -- are just as adamant about responsible use and disposal of plastic. I credit that largely to my friend and co-conspirator in all things sustainability, Karin, who also teaches at the school. Once kids learned about where their plastic utensils were coming from earlier this year -- how plastic forks they had been using in the cafeteria every day were made and transported, how long they were used for, and where they often ended up -- they FREAKED OUT. And came up with some brilliant solutions, including Finger Food Fridays: having foods in the cafeteria that don't even require utensils at all! This simple, replicable idea caught the eye of some pretty big muckety mucks in city government, who recently awarded them a city-wide award:

But they didn't stop there. These bright and determined young people kept on thinking about things any kid or school could do to reduce their use of plastic. They created and posted signage to encourage their peers to be mindful about their plastic utensil usage and consider reusable water bottles, researched compostable utensils, and even brainstormed ways to create a reusable lunch kit (cloth napkin made out of an old tshirt + a small, metal fork and spoon). They took their ideas to the annual Anacostia Environmental Youth Summit... and won first place for their idea to improve the local watershed by reducing plastic's entry into it in the first place. They came home with a check for $1,000 to implement a watershed-improving project of their choice. Reusable lunch kits, here we come!

I'm so proud of these kiddos. Now let me ask you:  what are YOU doing to improve our local watershed?

*An aside on Whole Foods: don't take your plastic bags there for recycling. I've informally audited their bins over the course of a handful of months and I can tell you unequivocally that the people who shop there apparently can't be bothered to put their TRASH in the clearly labeled TRASH BIN nor their COMPOST in the clearly labeled COMPOST BIN in the P Street store. The also-clearly-marked RECYCLING BIN is a disaster. Maybe they pay some poor worker to go through each bagful afterwards, but I doubt it. While I can't seem to help myself fishing trash and food waste out of the recycling bins in my school's cafeteria, I draw the line at doing the same at a grocery store. So I bike eight blocks in the other direction specifically to Giant so I can drop off my plastic bags for recycling in their PLASTIC BAGS ONLY bin, which, incidentally, does not have TRASH or COMPOST in it. Thank you, Giant Food. :)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Swim to Work day

I've been a dues paying member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association for almost a decade now. And though I bike to work most every day, today was the first time I officially registered for Bike to Work Day. Mother Nature decided to weed out the fair weather bikers, it seems, but the upshot was that the Shaw rest stop on my way to work had plenty of size small tshirts and snacks for those of us who braved the wind and rain. So did the rest stop in Foggy Bottom on my way home, so I picked up a tshirt for Matt, too, who recently was in a little bike accident and so was not able to bike -- or swim -- to work today. (Oh, he's fine, just a little banged up, and with a front brake that needs adjusting.)

But seriously, this rain. It's been nearly a solid week of precipitation, readers! My cabbages have more than doubled in size over the past two weeks, as have the lettuces, kohlrabi, late-starting sugar snap peas, and too-early-transplanted tomatoes. My plants have gone a bit nuts in the school garden, to be honest. The flora may be loving this break in the drought, but I am getting a little bit tired of it. Also: my rain pants, it seems, are no longer waterproof. *sigh* I think there's an REI sale coming up soon, at least....

As Ollie and I sloshed through the rain on the way home from school this afternoon, I mused that perhaps WABA might broaden their efforts beyond cycling to triathalon training. Then they could have easily marketed today as Swim to Work Day!

Monday, February 26, 2018

De la chacra a la mesa

Many thanks to my oldest and dearest friend, Becky, for setting up one of the most memorable days we had during our trip to Cuba. After pulling myself out of bed before the crack of 7am on a drizzly Wednesday morning -- hey, this is vacation, and that's earlier than I get up for work! -- we packed a jumble of breakfast foods into tupperware containers, grabbed bottles of water, and stumbled out to our waiting taxi that promptly whisked us off to Caimito, where we would be volunteering on an organic farm for the day. (Interestingly, our friendly cab driver was the ONLY person in the entire island nation who, rather than being multiple hours late, was actually a half hour early.) As we zoomed through the rainy morning, the day became sunnier and the air clearer. I hadn't noticed how thoroughly diesel fumes had infused my time in Cuba until they were almost gone in the rural quiet of the countryside....

Upon arrival, Farmer Annabelle welcomed us with coffee, juice, and some delicious yogurt made by her neighbor. Then we pulled on some rainboots, squished out to the field, and started transplanting tomatoes and onion starts. The sun came fully out, and both Becky and I marveled at how lucky we were to be in this beautiful place with our hands in the earth, helping good people do good work. We chatted as we tucked the seedlings into their new homes, following behind the quiet older Cuban farmhand who marked out holes for us to dig and plant into. After some water and a bathroom break, we were tasked with adding soil and seeds to rows of starter trays in the open-sided nursery. Meanwhile, divine smells began to emanate from the kitchen....

Over a fabulous, lingering lunch, we learned that Farmer Annabelle, a Nicaraguan transplant, had studied and worked in a number of fancy Parisian restaurants. She had learned a lot about the need for quality ingredients during her time in France, and had developed a passion for the delights of food's seasonality. Upon reflection, she and her husband Alfredo decided that what they really wanted to be doing wasn't cooking in fancy restaurants (or working in IT, as he was doing) but helping to grow food and teach others how to improve the land through sustainable farming. They just needed some land... and to learn how to farm.

After visiting Alfredo's parents in Cuba, they decided to put down roots there. With help from family and the government, they took over an old house and began to fix it up while they cleared space to grow food. The plan was to start with planting trees and row crops, and eventually expand to more growing space and adding in livestock. Rather than burning down the existing foliage, as their neighbors had done for generations, they researched ways to more sustainably prepare the land and build up the soil's resilience and nutrient content. They composted on site, collected local seeds and introduced little known crops (like broccoli and leeks) to their planting plans, and shared with others as they learned. Now, four years later, they've built a community of sustainable farmers who share knowledge and seeds... and, in the case of the day we were visiting, a friendly meal around the farm table.

I'm still trying to decide which was the best meal of the trip: this unconventional one that featured white bean hummus and a veggie and free-range pork stirfry, or the traditional Cuban lunch from our cooking class. I daydream about both of them still. If you go to Cuba, dear reader, you might have to try both!

[Here's Annabelle harvesting a broccoli that she sent us back into town with that afternoon. Boy did we scarf up that hard to find vegetable with our dinner that night!]

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Comida Cubana

Cuban food gets a bad rap in the States, at least from most Cuban Americans I know, who complain about a lack of seasoning, ingredient choices, and creativity. Rice and beans, rice and beans, more rice and beans maybe with a little pork.  Yet I have to say that while moros y cristianos features prominently in most meals on the average Cuban table -- not surprisingly, given the monthly allotment of rice and dry beans given by the government to each Cuban citizen, and the average person's inability to afford much more -- I've enjoyed some deliciously diverse dishes while bouncing around Havana.

Perhaps the best experience I had during my 10 days in Cuba was a cooking class, hosted by the lovely Malinelli and her charming husband Hector at their home. My best friend Becky and I started our culinary adventure at the open-air agromercado, tagging along as our cooking instructors bought fresh ingredients from local, organic farmers....

At this stand, Mali showed us how to pick out good malanga -- a local tuber used to make fritters and other starchy delights:

I was dubious about these unassuming, dirt encrusted root veggies until Hector showed us about an hour later how to scrub, prepare, and perfectly fry them. I don't normally seek out fried food -- to be honest, eating it usually leaves me feeling a bit ill -- but I could've devoured these garlic and herb loaded malanga fritters for days, with or without local honey to dip them in. And now Becky and I know how to make them, thanks to the hands-on practice and follow-up recipes sent to us by our kind cooking instructors.

Here we are with our delightful hostess, Mali, and a friendly English couple who also joined our cooking class, sitting down to our homemade Cuban feast:

After a hearty late afternoon meal of fried plantains, a simple salad, pork with sour orange and garlic (my new favorite dish), a new twist on the traditional black beans and rice, the famous malanga fritters, and capped off with great conversations about Cuban history, economics, and culture over coffees and cheese with guava jam for dessert, we were ready to face the rest of the day with contented bellies. It's a good thing, too, since our evening led us first to live music and dancing at the Casa de Musica in nearby Miramar and then a jaunt around the hip Fabrica de Arte Cubano on the later side. I was still so contented from lunch that after our late night cab right back to the Airbnb, all I had room for was a bit of leftover fruit before crawling into bed. Well, maybe I could have nibbled on a malanga fritter or two....

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Duck Duck Soup

Nothing warms the soul quite like hot soup on a cold day. And while yesterday was rather temperate for late November, we've definitely had some soup weather in DC in recent weeks. So when dad sent me home with some leftover duck meat the day after Thanksgiving, and with our country's leader currently making a mess of things, duck soup sounded just about right.

What's that? Oh, yeah, since there were only four of us at this year's annual poultry extravaganza, and since mom and I are partial to duck, we opted for a turkey-less thanksgiving. Before you sputter something about how skipping turkey on Thanksgiving is unAmerican, let me direct your attention to the delicious concoction I just ate for dinner:

Duck Avgolemono Soup

  • 1 TBSP butter
  • a few glugs of olive oil
  • 1 carrots, diced
  • 2-3 celery stalks, diced
  • 1/2 red onion + 3 small leeks, diced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 4 cups good vegetable broth
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/4 cup brown rice, uncooked
  • 3 lemons worth of freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 large handful leftover duck meat, chopped into small (1/2") chunks
  • 2 large handfuls fresh spinach, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Warm butter and olive oil in a medium pot. Stir in carrot, celery, and onion -- you've now got a fragrant mirepoix. (Go on and use that fancy culinary French vocab, aspiring cooks!) Stir in garlic, then broth.

Bring pot to a boil, stir in rice, and then turn the head down and let things simmer for about 30 minutes, until the rice is tender.

In a small bowl or measuring cup, whisk together lemon juice and eggs. Then, slowly and carefully -- SLOWLY, I mean it! -- whisk about a half cup of warm broth in a thin stream into the lemon egg mixture. Now your lemon egg mixture is tempered, which will keep it from curdling. (You're welcome for that other fancy cooking vocab word.)

Slowly, whisk your tempered lemon egg mixture into the main soup pot, stir in duck and spinach, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Once the duck is warmed through, which should only take about a minute or two, dish it out into bowls and enjoy. This recipe makes enough for two large bowls of soup. And I'm ready for my second bowl....

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Mead Day!

It is a bit of a meadstravaganza around my apartment these days:

By now you must sense that I love any reason to celebrate food and drink. In fact, I was just talking with some neighbors this weekend about our need to celebrate International Crepe Day. The group agreed that it's too many months away, as is Nutella Day, though felicitously the two are a mere three days apart, so we agreed we needed to make some practice batches between now and then. For research.

While sipping on a little snifter of mead after dinner tonight, I realized that many of you might not know there is a National Mead Day. It was on August 5th this year, and I was fortunate to have my mead making mentor, Tysen (yes, I have a mead mentor!), and my boyfriend  Matt, (yes, I have a boyfriend!) over to celebrate. After a lovely brunch, we got to tasting five different varieties.

I'll be writing a full post on the mead making process and results -- Tysen will be editing the excerpts from our planning, brewing, and tasting sessions, and posting the finished podcast in coming months on his site -- but as I decompress from my amazing summer travels and dive back into teaching, I didn't want to miss the chance to share this most important day that you should mark on your calendar so you don't miss Mead Day next year: it's the first Saturday in August. You have almost a whole year to learn about and learn to love mead before then! Those who are around may be invited to taste the by then 18-month-aged varieties pictured here:

Which will you prefer, I wonder? The classic? The quince-infused? The tangerine and thyme variety? What I can say is that there will be no more of this smooth, barrel aged one, hand carried all the way from western Poland:

Take comfort, though, DC-area mead lovers (or those who are mead-curious): you can reference Tysen's awesome website to learn how easy it is to make your own mead. Or you can pick up some of Charm City's latest limited-release meads at many a local grocery. I have a can each of raspberry coconut and orange lavender in the fridge now. For research, you know. Cheers!

Saturday, August 26, 2017

This means war!!

It's not news to me that DC has a rat problem. It's also been known for some time that Ollie has been sharing a storage closet with rats. But until recently, the rodents kept to their corner, and we kept to ours.

Apparently these rodents have gotten a little big for their britches: the other day when I went to take Ollie for a ride I noticed some distinctive chew marks on her right handlebar. I brought my bike helmet inside. (Rat poop on my head? No thank you!) Then a few days later, some chomp evidence on her left handlebar. Then today, a brazenly large chunk was missing. Eating rubber? Really?? Apparently the mild winter meant that rat populations across the city have grown considerably larger than usual, and they're getting aggressive. I hate rats, yet I've generally maintained my distance. Love and let live, you know. But now?

NOBODY chews on my Ollie and gets away with it! This means war!! That exterminator better get here asap or I'm heading in there with the rat poison myself....