Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pass the Weeds, Please (Episode II)

A Foraging Recipe - Weed Pesto

Here is a great pesto I like to make with some of my weeds...

  • ¼ cup Dandelion Greens
  • ¼ cup Purslane
  • ¼ cup Field Garlic (grass)
  • 4 bulbs Field Garlic (bulb)
  • ¼ cup Olive Oil
  • ¼ cup Pine Nuts
  • ¼ cup Basil leaves
  • ¼ cup Grated Parmesan Cheese

Mince and lightly saute the garlic bulbs in some Olive Oil to take the edge off. In a food processor: chop up the nuts and garlic bulbs. Add all of the greens and continue to process until everything is finely chopped. Add in cheese and slowly add the olive oil slowly while processing until you reach the desired texture. Leave in the fridge for a few hours before eating. Serve as a dressing for penne pasta, use as a sandwich spread, or serve with crackers or toast.

So, what weeds do you like to eat?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pass the Weeds, Please (Episode I)

I’ve been intrigued by foraging for food in my backyard my whole life. My neighbors and I searched for wild strawberries, ate “onion grass”, and came up with a recipe for “lemon grass” cheese sauce. At the time, it did not concern me whether or not these things were toxic. Lucky for me, they weren’t!

Now I am a suburbanite who does not want to use fertilizer or weed killer to have a lush, green bed of grass in my lawn. Instead, I like to arm my children with baskets to go collect dinner from the lawn. Backyard foraging has become a fun family activity. Here are some of the things we can find in our mid-atlantic yard:

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea) – This is my absolute favorite weed. I like to just pluck off some of the succulent leave and eat them plain because they are tasty. They have a little bit of a lemony flavor to them. A sprig of purslane makes a great addition to a toss salad, an addition to a tomato sauce, or as a component of a pesto. What is unique about purslane is that the leaves are naturally high in Omega-3 fatty acids, which is rare for green vegetables. The stems are high in Vitamin C. I like to put purslane in a container garden – it doesn’t need too much tending. Most often purslane is considered a weed and people are trying to eradicate it, but if I see some growing in a friends yard, I just say “May I have your weeds?”

How to Identify Purslane

Nutrition Information for Raw Purslane

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – This is my second-favorite weed. Besides the fact that it is a beautiful flower and makes great bouquets, necklaces, rings, and hair accessories, it is extremely useful food and herbal remedy. Have you ever eaten that Whole Foods “Spring Greens” in a bag salad mix? You are probably eating Dandelion greens. The leaves are great in the spring for salads, pesto, or sandwich toppings. Dandelion greens are a great source of Vitamin A and C as well as fiber. The roots are great in the fall for a bitter tea or as a nutritional supplement. Dandelion roots harvested in the fall are high in inulin (soluble fiber). The flowers can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried and ground into flour.

How to Identify Dandelions

Nutrition Data for Dandelion: Greens

Wild Blackberries (Rubus allegheniensis) – We have these growing all along our fenceline as well as on our bike-riding route. What could be better than free blackberries? The brambles can be prickly, so take care when picking these. Make sure to wait until they are dark purple before picking – otherwise, they won’t taste very good. Use them just as you would blackberries: Freeze them, make a jam, add to a fruit smoothie, or best – just eat them as you pick!

How to identify Wild Blackberries

Some words of caution…
  1. Don’t eat any foraged food that is from an area that may be exposed to insecticides, road salt (from snow), or any foreign chemical substances that you don’t know about.
  2. Make sure to clean anything that you pluck from your yard thoroughly.
  3. Make sure you can absolutely, positively identify something before you eat it. Many plants in your yard are poisonous.
  4. Don’t encourage non-native invasive species to grow. Check with your state or local invasive species organization.

Properly identifying anything you forage is very important. Here are some great resources to help with that. I am a big fan of naturalist “Wildman” Steve Brill who has written a book on the subject and has a wealth of information on his website: http://www.wildmanstevebrill.com/. He includes tons of information on identifying plants that are edible and is working on a book for foraging with kids.

An organization called Plants for a Future (http://www.pfaf.org/index.php) has a searchable database of edible plants with all kinds of information on uses of the plants and any hazards or warnings about their usage. It is an excellent free resource.

Frugal and Fun: Backyard Foraging is a Finer Thing. (See more Finer Things at Amy’s Finer Things Fridays).

This is a series and I plan to share more foraging tips, resources, and recipes to try.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Cre8 Your Own Energy: Documenting our Solar Project

Okay, so I am not building my own solar panels or anything, but the stars aligned for us this year and we are able to get solar panels on our home. I hope to document that process here a little bit.

Step 1 - Reduce Energy Usage
Of course the process started over a year ago for us. It started with an awareness of how much energy we were using and wasting. We only have electric available in our neighborhood - and boy, were we using more than our share! In the winter, our bills $400-$500+. So, being the geeky engineer-types that we are in my household, we immediately started tracking our usage and started an aggressive campaign to reduce our electric usage. We turned down our heat, turned up our AC, got rid of our "vampires", switched to CFLs, turned the lights off, among many other little energy saving changes. The results were dramatic! I would say we save about $1700/yr over if we had not changed our behavior. This graph is what we've been using to track our usage over time.

Step 2 - Cost/Benefit Analysis
So once we reduced our usage, we looked at the costs and benefits of installing the solar panels on our home. The up-front costs are very high, approximately $60K for the size system we are getting. Luckily, this year there are many state and federal grants and rebates that end up cutting the cost in half to about $30K. We are using a local company called Standard Solar that will take care of all the paperwork and permits for us. Now, we will expect $1200 cost savings every year on our energy bill. In addition, the energy company will pay us a credit for producing clean energy (like a carbon offset price). This system should (theoretically) also increase the value of our home by about $30K. The financial Return on Investment for us (minus the increase in home value) is about 11 years assuming energy costs stay the same. Now, if energy costs rise, our ROI will come much sooner.

That is just the financial benefit. There are also benefits that are not financial. One is knowing that we are not burning through as much natural resources to create our energy. Another is emergency preparedness. If our electric service became rationed or more unreliable, we have a good solid backup. Also, it is a great learning experience for us and the kids. So, overall, it was a go for me and my husband.

Step 3 - Evaluation, Planning, Permits, and Design
Now, this was the easy part for us because the Solar Company does all this work for us. Our solar rep came out and took a bunch of measurements and pictures of the house. They tested the sun exposure and determined that we would have 89% efficiency with the panels. The panels will be mounted on the east-facing back of our roof, so you won't even see them from the street. An engineer at the company then made up a bunch of technical design drawings for us to review and approve.

Now that the design is complete and the permits are pulled and the paperwork is filed, we are ready for our installation. That is yet to happen. I'll let you know how it goes...

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What to Do with Old Pants: Travel Pillow Cases

Adult-sized non-tapered chinos or Jeans are just perfect for very simple pillow-case for a travel-size pillow. I love to have travel pillows with us for naps in the car or to use with sleeping bags on overnight trips to Grandma’s house. However, things get so dirty in the car being accidentally stepped on with muddy shoes or ending up with popsicle sticks melted into them. I needed a cover for these travel pillows that I could just throw into the washer with everything else – and I didn’t have too much time toi spend on this project.

So, after making my “coloring bag” (also good for travel in the car), I took the left-over pants legs from my husbands old chinos and made them into a nice little pillow-case. Here’s how I did it:

  1. Get a travel pillow (you could make one from scratch - I found these at CVS).
  2. Cut off a pant leg from a worn pair of chinos. Choose a 15 in section of the pants that is wide enough to fit around the pillow.
  3. Sew: Sew up the side at an angle so the top and bottom end up the same width. Sew down the bottom of the pillowcase.
  4. Fold under the top of the pillow case twice and sew around.
  5. Turn right side out.
Once I was finished with the sewing portion, I wanted to personalize them for the kids. (They do love to have their own, personal items. So, on our trip to the beach in the car, here’s how I did it:
  1. I had them each choose a picture they wanted on them.
  2. Using a ball point pen, I wrote out their name and drew their respective fish, shark, and turtle
  3. Then using a back stitch I hand-stitched around my free-hand drawing. Then I embroidered on their names. With such a thick material for the pillow case - I didn't find any need for a hoop.
  4. Voila – no they each have a one-of-a-kind very special travel pillow.
These get a lot of use around here and can easily just get thrown in the laundry for cleaning.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Cre8 4th 0f July T-Shirts (and Rocks)

I love celebrating the 4th of July. This year, we had a nice "small town" 4th of July (even though we live far from a small town). I was looking for a good activity to celebrate with that would appeal to my 13-yo niece as well as my 4 and 6 year old boys. Using some fabric paint and some plain white t-shirts, we made our own Independence Day shirts.

We put coloring books in the middle of the shirt to make sure the paint didn't spread to the back.

And the kids decided to make some patriotic pet rocks....

Fun was had by all.