How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Three

Two years ago, in April, Kristl and I decided that it would be a good idea to start a blog about the way we live. A lot has changed in two years. If you are feeling like you could never live a more sustainable life, like it's too expensive or time consuming, consider that it took us almost three years living together to start living the way you see us today. Sustainable living takes a little while to get used to. It's a transition! So, in honor of Earth Day, we give you How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Three! (For the 2013 installment, click here, and for 2014's version, click here.) Last year, we used a system of colors, bold lettering, and strike-throughs to communicate what we had changed. Let's be real, it confused all of us more than it was worth. This year we are going to start from scratch, but follow the same pattern. So, if you go back to previous years, you'll be able to follow our progress pretty easily. If you don't, you'll still get the picture.

Projects related to housekeeping:

  • Cleaning almost exclusively with products derived from white vinegar or Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap Baby Mild
  • Using rags instead of paper towels - When appropriate, which is most of the time except for when pets are involved
  • Buying post-consumer recycled paper products and recycled aluminum foil - We used to roast veggies on foil, but now we roast them on our Sil-Pat, which is easily cleaned and infinitely reusable, so we rarely use foil anymore.
  • Downsizing our apartment and purging in the process - We moved last summer and definitely got rid of furniture and lots of stuff we didn't need
  • Not buying anything we don't need, especially clothing, books, gadgets, etc
  • Trying to buy things with as little packaging as possible - The less you bring in, the less you have to recycle or trash
  • Still using the same homemade washable swiffer cloths, because they are totally reusable
  • Simplifying and organizing our stuff - We hired a personal organizer to work with us a couple times to streamline our stuff. Organizing and downsizing frees us from clutter and helps us focus on the things that matter.
  • Running full dishwasher and laundry loads to conserve water
  • Recycling, obviously - our building separates paper goods from containers, because we are a six-flat and have to contract our own recycling service. Thanks, Chicago.

Projects related to self-care:

  • Using baking soda as shampoo - Works like a charm
  • Using homemade deodorant - We finally settled on a recipe we really like
  • Making homemade lotion/balm
  • Making homemade facial oil
  • Using Chinese medicine/chiropractic/massage/Reiki/nutritional supplements in addition to Western medicine to keep us healthy - It would be weird if we didn't use alternative medicine, Kristl is an acupuncturist, after all.
  • Using Oral Wellness HealThy Mouth Oil and EarthPaste to clean our teeth - No cavities and no added sweeteners.
  • Daily meditation practice, exercise, and reading - Healthy body, healthy brain.
  • Eating "Sustainable Whole Food Nutrition" for good health - See our blog about How We Eat
  • Using eco-friendly, reusable menstrual products 

Projects related to food:

  • Making at least one batch of bone broth in the pressure cooker per week - Gives the crock pot competition
  • Saving bacon fat and using it to cook other things - Butter and avocado oil tend to be our go-to fats these days, but bacon fat comes free with the bacon, so we totally use it.
  • Meal planning for the week, and buying groceries based off the plan - Helps us keep in our budget and limit food waste.
  • Planning large meals or doubling recipes that we can divide them out over 2-3 days so that we don't have to cook every day
  • We carbonate our own water with our Soda Stream and add lemon or lime to it - Our days of making syrups, infused liquors, and shrubs are pretty much over.
  • We definitely make mustard from scratch
  • We make our own mayo with the immersion blender - Keep an eye out for a video on that trick!
  • We cook 95% of our own meals - Try this at home, but remember, it took us a while to get to this point.
  • Participate in True Nature's meat and egg co-op  - $5/dozen for pastured eggs? Yes, please.
  • Participate in C&D Farm's meat co-op delivery - Part of a wedding gift that just keeps on giving
  • Buy produce from farmer's market or local farms in season
  • Buy local food and local products because we care about local business - See these posts for our restaurant and local products recommendations

Projects of the miscellaneous variety:

  • Not buying cable - It's really easy now, because one of the things we sold when we moved was our TV.
  • Making our own gifts - Much like Christmas 2013, we didn't spend too much on gifts for 2014. We would rather have good experiences with our friends and family than get things for and from them. When a gift is appropriate, we'll make it.
  • Feeding our cat and dog grain free/raw food
  • Using backyard (and maybe community garden) to grow food - We missed out on our old community garden plot this year, but not to worry, there are always locations to grow vegetables. Rachel has plenty of offers on the table and she's making plans.
  • Using mason jars for storage - We cut back on our random glass jar collection when we moved. Now we mostly use Mason jars and it does us just fine.
  • Worm composting - We didn't do the best job of worm composting on our own, but our current living situation pays someone to worm compost in the basement. So we totally take advantage of that service our building offers.
  • Budgeting with You Need A Budget (YNAB) - Our commitment to use YNAB keeps us on budget and honest about the money we have coming in and going out. Confused how this relates to sustainability? Sustainability is all about using resources wisely. Money is a resource, and if you are using your money wisely, that will allow you to use your other resources in a sustainable manner. (And if you use the link above, you save 10% off the purchase price!)
  • Donating to people and projects that are actively working to make the world a better place - If you want to play along, we have some suggestions
  • Working at home/within walking distance of home - This is a transition that has made the next point possible
  • Living CAR FREE - We sold our car almost two months ago, and have adjusted just fine. We use the CTA more, we signed up for Enterprise CarShare, and we just bought Rachel a new bike to help with the transition. However, day to day, unless we are getting a huge load of groceries or going way out of our neighborhood, we don't really notice the difference. The best part is we don't have to worry about parking, street cleaning, city stickers, insurance, etc.

There you have it, our lives in sustainability this year! There are probably things we do that we don't realize. We are in deep, folks!

Sustainable living, especially in the city or on a small budget, is not a competition. It's not about keeping up with anyone; every little bit counts. Tell us what you are doing to live the sustainable lifestyle! Comment below or on our Earth Day post on Facebook

Farm Focus: Joe's Blues Blueberries

There's nothing like February in Chicago to make you dream about picking blueberries in the heat of July. The Sustainable Queers have just about run out of our personal supply of July blueberries, but we want to let you in on our secret blueberry patch.

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Making Mustard (again)

Fast forward to early 2015, and Kristl was reorganizing the kitchen two apartments later. She held up the two, still sizable, portions of mustard seeds, and decided to give it another go. We've been eating pretty wimpy store-bought mustard recently, so I was naturally in support of her efforts.

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The Great Butter Tasting of 2015!

We've been threatening to do a butter tasting since we returned from Wisconsin in October, and so, on January 1st, fresh into 2015, we decided to make good on our promise and make a bona fide butter tasting a reality. We definitely took it to levels untold: we purchase five different butters to taste, we made our own butter from Organic Valley heavy cream, we decided to make it a BLIND taste test--which we managed even though we were the only two testers--and we recorded audio of the tasting and edited it podcast style.  So, that should be fun to listen to, surely more fun than a typed transcript, but if you don't have time to listen, we'll touch on the highlights below.

Please enjoy the recording here: [soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/187587277" params="color=ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false" width="100%" height="166" iframe="true" /]

First, what butters were we tasting? Well, while we were in Wisconsin in October, we picked up two local-looking butters.  They were both butters that we do not encounter in the Chicagoland area, so we thought we ought to try them.  The first is Freis Von Kiel Butter, which doesn't seem to have a website, but is the featured butter on M Magazine's (Milwaukee's Lifestyle Magazine) Locavore page. The other Wisconsin butter is an alleged Amish Country Roll Butter. It was mysteriously packaged and we tried to find some information on it because it looked legit, but it also wasn't labeled with any particular Amish association or community. As far as I know, there are not generic Amish individuals just sitting around making butter for the rest of us. So, with a little google work we uncovered this blog post, and we think we were fed a similar bill of butter goods. Dang.

The next purchased butter was Kerrygold, which is a favorite for many of our readers, I'm sure, and I'm also sure you are interested to see how it holds up to other high quality butters. We also bought Organic Valley Cultured Butter and Kalona SuperNatural Unsalted. We love both of these butters already and use them all them time. I don't know if other people have three favorite butters, but Sustainably Queer does!

And then we made butter...

And then we made butter. Kristl has made butter before, and she is also the boss of the KitchenAid mixer, so I let her take charge of this process.  We used the instructions from Joy the Baker's blog, which you can find here. We will include some photos below, but we will not reinvent the wheel, Joy does a great job. Mostly, you agitate the cream's fat molecules until they let go of the milk and stick together. Then you squeeze the result and rinse it. Add salt if you want, but that's about it. Butter, done.

Butter, done. Salted and unsalted.

So, we made our own butter in preparation and we let all the butters come to room temperature before we spread them. We served each butter spread on two small slices of sourdough bread on each plate. We did our best to make the slices look identical so that once the butter was on the bread we wouldn't know which was which. The plates were correctly labeled on the bottom, and Kristl put the correct butter on the correct plate when she applied the butter.

This is how we made it blind... we're smart.

Once we had everything on the correct plates, we put the plates on the tables and swapped them all around. Then we numbered the plates so we would have a reference for our blind taste test. We set up the recorder and we dug in.

For those of you unable to listen here are some highlights: Rachel is not awesome at describing the actual flavor of the butter, but will definitely tell you whether or not it was from Wisconsin, and if it contains salt. Kristl is good at describing the color and texture of the butter, especially in terms of paint glosses (e.g. one butter was very glossy and yellow, others were more eggshell and pale). We'll provide our initial reactions here and then reveal the butter key at the very bottom, so you can play along.

Our seven butters in the blind taste test

Butter #1 was pretty good, but rather non-descript.  It was the first butter we tasted, and we also hadn't tasted sourdough bread in a while, so it brought more attention to the bread than the butter. Rachel was convinced that it was a Wisconsin butter. Kristl was convinced we shouldn't have used sourdough because it was too distracting.

Butter #2 was very pale in color and immediately upon tasting it, Kristl felt like it had an off flavor (she said "rancid" on the recording). Rachel felt the butter was a little off too, but didn't have a huge mouth feel, and was pretty mild over all.  This was not a butter you would go out of your way to get.

Butter #3 was not salted, but had a very deep and luxurious creaminess to it. Rachel felt immediately that it might be Kalona, because she will sometimes eat a little bit of Kalona first thing in the morning. Kristl agreed that it was was smooth and creamy, and could possibly be Kalona, but definitely had to be one of the salt-free butters.

Butter #4 was also not salted. It was also extremely creamy, for being butter. We talked a little bit about the odds of the two unsalted butters being directly next to each other. Rachel said something silly about it having a Wisconsin vibe, even though both the Wisconsin butters included salt. Kristl stated that this was probably Kalona (which is made in Iowa).

Butter #5 immediately caused us both to sit up a little bit because it had a lot more salt than the other salted butters.  We could tell that it had been hand-salted with sea salt recently. Some of the salt was still crunchy in the butter.  This definitely improved the flavor for a butter tasting on bread. This butter was very lively and showed its cards pretty easily with that crunchy salt.

Butter #6 was also pretty easy to guess, because it had the slight tang of yogurt that comes  with the territory of cultured butter. Cultured butter was a nice variation after all the plain butters that we had tasted, and it definitely would have stood out more if we had tasted it on a bread other than sourdough.

Butter #7 was the glossy, yellow butter.  Looking at the butter, knowing the butter, and having former experiences with this butter, we actually thought we would like this butter the best, because it's so fatty and soft. It is very good butter, there are no questions about it, but to be honest it lost out to the homemade stuff.

Well those were our blind taste test reactions in a nut shell, listen to the recording for a full spectrum.  Here are the actual answers:

Butter #1: Freis Von Keil

Butter #2: Amish Country Roll Butter (probably not actually Amish)

Butter #3: Homemade Unsalted

Butter #4: Kalona SuperNatural Unsalted

Butter #5: Homemade Salted

Butter #6: Organic Valley Cultured

Butter #7: Kerrygold

Our goal in this experiment was not to rank the butters or to pit them against each other, necessarily. We mostly wanted to see, given an ingredient that is pretty simple and easily produced, how different separate butters could taste. That being said, we really enjoyed our homemade butter the best. It was clearly the freshest, and when the tasting was complete, we combined the salted and unsalted and finished it within the week.

So, that's The Great Butter Tasting of 2015! There will be more tastings in 2015, don't worry. If there is a food you would like us to taste and post about, please let us know in the comments below. We're happy to take on any whole food challenges!

Five Food and Homesteading Goals for 2015

Happy New Year from Sustainably Queer! Before we take on the ARDUOUS task of tasting a whole slate of butters on tangy sourdough bread, we thought we'd write a quick post a post to inform you of our food and homesteading goals for 2015.

1. Eat no processed sugar - This includes white sugar, brown sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup, other corn syrups, other processed sweeteners that are called by other names, etc. We will eat products that include honey, maple syrup, and molasses (we understand it's byproduct of sugar refining, but it has a much higher nutritional value than sugar because of this), but not in large quantities. We will make exceptions to this goal for very special occasions, but in general, we will try to avoid sugar in general, because of the effect that it has on the brain and the gut flora.

2. Cook at home at least five days a week - We recently did a 21-day purification program (let us know if you want more info - we actually really enjoyed it!) that forced us to cook at home every day for at least two of those three weeks. This took a little bit of getting used to, but once we got into the swing of it, we realized we were saving a lot of money, and eating really well (The program started with 10 days of just vegetables, fruits, seeds, and fats, with protein shakes, then you could add back in lean meats on day 11.) We learned a lot of recipes that are easy and delicious (veggie garam masala, baked salmon, mashed cauliflower with mushrooms, roasted lemon broccoli, broccoli cauliflower soup, etc). We love to cook and we're glad to be back in the kitchen in 2015.

3. Season our cast iron and actually start using it - We have three beautiful cast iron pans that are sitting in the trunk of our car, two old, unseasoned pans that were given to us, and one that we took camping and totally covered in soot. They have been in the trunk of our car for eighteen months. Literally. We have Teflon pans that are slowly killing us and cast iron that is waiting to set us free. Look forward to a post chronicling our experience.

4. Buy even more of our food from local sources - As you can tell from many of our previous posts, we are all about supporting the local economy and small businesses.  We want to know about small, local businesses who are committed to sustainability and are using quality ingredients and  products to make their goods. We have a goal to increase our knowledge of these businesses and our patronage of them. The stronger the web of the local economy, the easier it will be for these businesses to survive, and that creates jobs and a myriad of other good things.

5. Make more of our own products at home - As you can imagine, not every item we want to buy can be sourced locally (yet), so we have to buy some things from places like Target (though we do try to patronize small businesses over corporations whenever we can). There's no shame in going to Target now and then, but we are going to do our best to be more intentional about what we buy there. Is this something I can make at home? Then I should make it at home, instead of buying a processed, packaged version. Our final goal is to make what we can at home, be it deodorant, dish soap, laundry detergent, pickled carrots, belts, or just dinner at home.

Ok, those are our simple food and homesteading goals for 2015!  Feel free to play along and share some of your goals with us! And once again Happy New Year!

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(And we'll get back to the conclusion of our Ninety-Nine Favorite Things list shortly!)

How We Do Sustainable Living - Year Two

Hello friends and readers! We have just entered the second year of this blog and another year of concentrated sustainable queerness! Last year, shortly after starting our blog, we provided you with an introductory post about why and how we live sustainably and call ourselves Sustainably Queer.  We decided that as a means of looking back and celebrating our one year anniversary, it would be fun to revisit that post.  Please find a revised and annotated version of "How We Do" below! Spoiler alert: there have been some pretty big changes!

Note: This may go without saying, but new actions/changes are listed in bold, things we are no longer doing are crossed out, and notes are in green. Let us know in the comments if you have any questions.

Projects related to housekeeping:

  • Making orange infused vinegar for cleaning   - We decided that we don't mind the smell of vinegar enough to go through this process regularly, plus the one batch I made last year lasted almost an entire year. We may do this again, but it's not high on the list.
  • Woodworking with reclaimed wood - We took one class from the Rebuilding Exchange, but we haven't continued woodworking. We still have three unfinished table tops chilling in the basement, so hopefully eventually they will become tables, but who knows when.
  • Using rags instead of paper towels - We do this as much as possible, though we still haven't found a good substitute for paper towels for draining bacon (we're going to try some of these options soon).
  • Buying post-consumer recycled paper products and aluminum foil
  • Giving away two items for every one item we bring into the house - This is still the rule, but we've been scaling way back on our buying, so sometimes we give away things even without buying something new. A larger purge is planned for early summer, so we can put stuff away without feeling cluttered about it.
  • Trying to buy things with as little packaging as possible
  • Switched to wind powered electricity (it’s cheaper too!) - Still going strong!
  • Using homemade washable swiffer pads - Love these still!
  • Recycling basically everything we can - We are planning a "How to Effectively Recycle in Chicago" post at some point, there are tricks to it.
  • Leather-working with Chicago School of Shoemaking - You can check out our blog about the experience here. We're currently saving up to take Leatherwork 201, with the end goal being saving up enough to take the Beginning Shoemaking class because, really, what's more awesome and sustainable than being to make your own shoes?!
  • Large-scale refrigerator/freezer organization - Things got real about a week ago when we bought some Fridge Binz. Yes, we try to avoid bringing more plastic into our home, but we also try to avoid wasting food. We weighed the pros and cons and decided to go with the plastic bins for now, with the idea of switching to bamboo or metal sometime in the future, if we find something that fits our needs. 

Projects related to self care:

  • Using baking soda as shampoo - It took her years, but Kristl finally figured out a way to make this work for her hair. She's planning a post on it soon.
  • Making homemade deodorant - Rachel uses this exclusively, Kristl's pits are more delicate, so she's still searching for a recipe that her skin can handle.
  • Making homemade lotion/balm
  • Making homemade facial oil blend
  • Using Chinese medicine/natural healing home remedies instead of Western medicine cures - With the addition of epilepsy to her life, Rachel is now obligated to take a Western medication to control it, but otherwise, we are mostly reliant on acupuncture, chiropractic, and herbal medicine to keep us healthy.
  • Using OraWellness tooth oil instead of toothpaste
  • Receiving acupuncture/chiropractic/massage regularly for health and balance
  • Meditation practice - We both really could stand to meditate more often and for longer, but it's still helpful even in small doses!
  • Using eco-friendly, reusable menstrual products - We're planning a post about menstrual cups and cloth pads/liners in the next few months. 

Projects related to food:

  • Making stock with veggie scraps and chicken bones
  • Saving bacon fat and using it to cook other things (like sweet potatoes, yum!) - This isn't actually a new thing, we just forgot to include it on our initial list.
  • Making staples for the week (baked/boiled eggs, congee, etc) - We still do this, though the staples themselves have changed.  Recently, we've been making a lot of breakfast bars, and soups/stews that are good for eating over 3-4 days. 
  • Making bigger batches of the meals we create so we can freeze portions for when we aren't able to cook - This has saved us on many occasions! We can pull a container out of the freezer and have it for lunch or dinner instead of going out to eat or getting takeout. 
  • Making homemade drink syrups (to flavor carbonated water)
  • Infusing liquors (vanilla vodka and ginger vodka so far) - Rachel has infused vodka with all manner of things, including pineapple, blueberries and a specific spice blend to make it taste like gin.
  • Drinking vinegars, a.k.a. shrubs  - We love a good shrub, but we make so much kombucha now, making drinking vinegar also would be too much
  • Making our own kombucha - So much cheaper than buying it!  
  • Making ricotta, yogurt, mustard, cheez-its, etc from scratch - Again, the actual things we're making from scratch has changed, but we are still committed to buying as few packaged/processed foods as possible.
  • Canning, fermenting, and dehydrating food for long term preservation
  • We bought an upright freezer - We can keep more meat and veggies in the house and put up fruit and veggies from the summer without messing with as much canning. We now have more versatility in how we "preserve" produce.
  • Bringing lunch to work/school
  • Trying to eat locally sourced, humane and organic food as much as possible
  • Signing up for CSA and egg share  - We've changed our approach on this since Rachel is in farm school this year.  We will probably have some access to vegetables that we didn't have before and hopefully we will be able to grow more than we did last year.  The egg share we had last season has been restructured to only be offered to CSA members, so we are no longer getting a carton of eggs a week.  This is kind of a relief, as at one point last summer we had 4 dozen eggs in our fridge.
  • Joined a meat and egg co-op - True Nature Foods has a relationship with a local, pastured farm where the consumer pays $60 a year for membership and is then able to order/purchase a wide variety of meat products and eggs for a reduced price.  This makes eggs cheaper than our egg share and we only have to buy them when we need them. We are doing our best to only eat meat from local, pastured, humane farms.
  • Using all of an item if we buy it, e.g. whole chicken, eating beet greens and broccoli stems
  • Choosing to eat at restaurants that serve sustainably sourced food - This is a huge consideration especially where meat is concerned.  Every choice you make about where to spend your food dollars impacts how safely and sustainably food is produced, in general. Cheaper food is almost always cheap due to government subsidies or externalities (pollution, run-off, inhumane practices, lack of oversight, diminished workers' rights, etc), higher quality food is often more expensive because care was put into it's production and little harm was done to third parties (consumers, workers, animals). Not only do you vote with your money, you also farm with your money, by proxy.
  • Participating in community food events, like the Chicago Food Swap, Soup & Bread, Good Food Festival

Miscellaneous Projects:

  • Not buying cable
  • Homemade gifts - We didn't buy any Christmas presents in 2013.  We either created or re-gifted everything we gave out or we didn't give gifts at all.  It worked out perfectly.
  • Feeding our cat and dog grain free/raw pet food
  • Using community garden plot and backyard to grow food - We just got clearance from our landlord to use some of our backyard space to grow more things.  This is a very exciting development and we are still deciding how to make it functional and beautiful.
  • Reusing jars and bottles for all forms of storage
  • Worm composting - Worms and composting took a little bit of a hiatus over the winter.  They hung out in our basement because the "earthy" smell was a bit much for us in the apartment.  The basement was cold, given our wily winter, but I have seen signs of life, so hopefully worm composting will be back in order soon. 
  • Bugeting via You Need A Budget (YNAB) - With Rachel quitting her full-time job and Kristl going through an office relocation, we knew 2014 was going to be a different picture financially.  We took the pro-active approach and started zero-sum budgeting in December with a program called You Need A Budget.  Things have been going very well so far.  We have been able to save in advance for big bills (like car insurance) and put money away for upcoming big expenses (new car?).  It's pretty awesome. They offer a free trial, so you have no reason to try it out for a bit. Full disclosure, if you sign up using the link above and subscribe after your trial ends, we'll both get one month free - it's a win-win!
  • Tithing/giving to projects and people who are trying to make the world a better place in a sustainable way
  • Kristl is moving her practice to a location with-in walking distance of our house - This exciting for all kinds of reasons, but primarily because she will not need to use the car!

Well, that's about everything, it is a bit overwhelming, but we're managing ok on a day-to-day basis.  As always, feel free to check out anything we link to and ask us more questions about the products/processes.  We are always willing to write posts based on reader interest, so if there are specific topics you want to hear more about, please let us know in the comments below!

Thank you for all your support! Here's to the success of year one, and plenty of sustainable queerness to fill year two and beyond.

Delicious Breakfast Bars (Vegan, Grain-free, Refined-Sugar-Free)

Vegan, Grain-Free, Refined-Sugar-Free Breakfast Bars
Vegan, Grain-Free, Refined-Sugar-Free Breakfast Bars

We first posted about these breakfast bars on our Facebook page in October of last year. We've tested and tweaked the recipes a few times and decided it was high time to post them in January, but kept forgetting to take pictures. I finally remembered to take pictures a couple weeks ago and realized a few things - 1) The lighting in our kitchen is abysmal. 2) I am 100% not a photographer. 3) There was nothing I could do to make these bars look appetizing. Nothing. So just trust us when we say you should make them.

For the past couple of years we've struggled with finding a good on-the-go breakfast that could hold us over until lunch time. We used Smitten Kitchen's thick, chewy granola bars for a long time, but they were a little sweet (even though we cut the amount of sugar) and didn't always tide us over until lunch. Then one day Rachel sent me a link to this recipe for Tahini-Date Salted Caramels and said simply, "I WANT TO MAKE FAKE CARAMELS." I'm always game to try a new recipe and I love traditional caramels, so we made them that night and loved them. We made them a few more times before I realized I could probably add chopped nuts and dried fruit and make a no-bake, vegan, grain- and refined-sugar-free breakfast bar (if you use raw tahini, they're raw, too!). You know the absolute best part? They're easy to throw together and you don't even have to turn on the oven!

I decided to use walnuts and tart cherries to offset the sweetness of the dates, but you can probably use any combo of nuts/dried fruits that appeals to you. We also started adding chia seeds, which do get all up in your dental work, but help you feel full longer. We each take one for breakfast every day and I frequently will take an extra one to work if I have a full day of patients with no scheduled lunch break. They're also great a post-workout snack!

Delicious Breakfast Bars (Vegan, Grain-free, Refined-sugar-free)

Makes 16 bars.

Equipment needed: Food processor (or possibly a high-powered blender like a Blendtec or a Ninja), 8"x8" square pan, parchment paper

  • 1-1/2 cups pitted dates - We've made these with medjool, barhi, and deglet noor, and have found that the moistness of the dates matter. Deglett noor seem to be a little drier than the other two varieties, so we if we use them, we tend to mix them with either medjool or barhi.
  • 3/4 cup tahini - We like the East Wind Community tahini the best.
  • 3 Tbsp coconut oil - room temperature 1 cup chopped nuts - We run whole nuts through the food processor, but you can buy chopped nuts and save yourself a step.
  • 1/3-1/2 cup dried sour cherries
  • 1-4 Tbsp chia seeds - We started with 1 T and have since increased this to about 4 T. Of course, it's up to you.

1. Combine 1-1/2 cups of pitted dates, 3/4 cup tahini, 3 Tbsp coconut oil in the bowl of a food processor or blender. Blend until you have a thick, creamy paste.

2. Add the 1 cup of chopped nuts, 1/3-1/2 cup of dried sour cherries, and 1-4 Tbsp of chia seeds in on top of the paste. Pulse until combined and most of the cherries are broken up, everything is evenly distributed, and it starts to pull away from the sides.

3. Line a 8"x8" square pan with parchment and transfer the mixture to the pan. Press it flat with an off-set spatula, your fingers, or whatever floats your boat.

4. Refrigerate until firm (we usually do this overnight).

5. When firm, lift the bars out of the pan using the parchment paper and cut into squares. We usually use a pizza cutter, but a large knife should work as well.

Leatherworking 101

Our new years resolution to blog more is getting off to a slow start, but we're still here.  We've been more active on our Facebook page as of late, so if you haven't liked us over there, please do so.  We are always willing to answer questions and provide more information about anything we post, so feel free to comment and join the conversation. Awesome belt!

Late in the fall, Kristl had an eye out on Groupon and noticed a deal for half-off an Introduction to Leatherworking course at The Chicago School of Shoemaking.  We have long talked about saving up to take the basic shoemaking course ($900 a person!), but that's not currently in our budget (speaking of which, we recently started hardcore budgeting and it's been awesome, but we'll probably cover that in a later post).  However, throwing down $35 a piece for an intro class seemed like a fantastic use of a Sunday afternoon.  We both bought the Groupon, as did our friend Owen, and we all planned to go together. We were originally scheduled to go to class before Christmas, but the class got rained out and we had to reschedule for January.  The only reason I bring that up is we were originally going to have our class with the fabulously bad-ass Sara McIntosh, the founder of The Chicago School of Shoemaking.  She is self-taught, and basically learned to put shoes together by taking them apart. She is a working cobbler and teaches classes in her studios on the weekend.  We were psyched to have her as a teacher, but it didn't work out.  However, Tammy, who taught our class, was awesome, and incredibly patient with the struggles of her students.

We arrived at the location of the school, but it didn't look like a business because it is in two un-connected garden apartments of a large residential building, on a cul-de-sac. The location is unassuming, to say the least, but once we found it, we were instantly swept into the world of leatherworking and never looked back.  We had the option of making one of five items, 1) a clutch, 2) a wristband/cuff, 3) a fancy keychain, 4) 1-2 small pouches, or 5) a belt.  Kristl decided to make a clutch, and Owen and I went for the belt option.  There were three other students in the class, and they made a clutch, a belt, and a cuff, respectively.

Tammy told us the correct thickness and quality of leather to use for our projects and then set us loose with templates and cutters and punches and hammers and all these other seemingly-dangerous things. Kristl used a template to cut out the basic shape of her clutch and then glued it together, with rivets to reinforce the glue.  Owen and I picked buckles and built our belts based on the size of the buckle.  We cut a strip out of heavy duty leather and then trimmed it down and beveled it with x-acto knives and rotary cutters. Then we had to use a skiver, which is essentially a leather shaver, to reduce the thickness of the belt on the buckle end.  This was so it would not be too thick when we folded it over to rivet the buckle in there.  Using the skiver was the most frustrating part of the class because the one we started with had an old blade in it and wasn't really cutting.  Once we got a sharp blade, it cut through the leather like butter.

I have taken intro classes to other skills in the past, and I found that, in comparison, the work with leather was pretty forgiving.  Aside from the original cut of the strip for the belt, I found that most things I did a little wrong, I could fix without too much drama.  It was awesome to use tools I have never used before, like an anvil or an awl, and the finished products were really awe-inspiring.  The belts that Owen and I made really looked like belts that you could buy somewhere, for $50-75, but also they looked hand-made in a way that a $50-75 belt from Macy's never could.  Kristl's clutch, photo below, has real late 80's early 90's charm and actual 2014 functionality (whatever that is).

Awesome clutch!Overall, our experience with The Chicago School of Shoemaking was awesome, and hopefully you can find a Groupon or take a class of your own volition. The Leatherworking 101 is $75 regular price and is 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon.  Try something new, make your own leather item, and leave with a practical skill, what's to lose?

We don't know how this organization sources their leather, and while I think there are things to be said about the use of leather in crafting, in terms of environmental impact, we're not looking to enter that discussion here.  The pure act of refusing to "just go to Target and get a new one" of whatever you need is central to our philosophy of living.  If you can make one instead, and make it to last, it's 100% worth the cost and time put in.

Thanks for following us on our little leather working journey, we hope it inspires you to try something new too!

Garden Update: The Wrapup

Here's a quick garden conclusion for those of you who were watching our garden posts this year! (Want to catch up? Check out our previous posts: Garden Update: The Setup! and Garden Update: July!) Our giant kale plant, that just kept on giving.

Our first season of community gardening has drawn to a close. Weather usually dictates the end of growing season, but with our community plot we had to have everything cleared out by November 4th. Conveniently, most of our garden had finished producing by that time.

We attempted a fall planting of beets, radishes, and kale, but only one lonely radish and a few tiny beet plants came up. I'm not sure why the seeds were so reluctant to sprout, but it could have been a water issue. We were not so present in the garden towards the end of the summer and into fall. If I had done an August garden update, it would have been focused on how our tomato plants were producing (quite well for being fairly inactive most of the summer), and how giant our kale plants were getting. Striped beetles completely destroyed our cucumber plants, and did their best to eat the corn as well (or maybe they were living in the corn and dining on the cukes, didn't matter, they were everywhere).

We harvested some very sweet and tiny beets in August as well. They were golf ball-sized at the largest, but they were so sweet with an essential beety-ness. I am now determined to figure out how to grow larger beets. Broccoli was a big disappointment, in that it didn't make a nice pretty head - it just kind of bloomed willy-nilly for 2 months and we mostly plucked tiny bits of it and ate it in the garden. We could have eaten the stems, but by the time November rolled around, I was a little burnt out on broccoli stems, not gonna lie.

A couple of our tomato plants persisted in putting out tomatoes until mid October, which we much appreciated. Most surprising, however, was the strawberry plant, which just kept blooming and fruiting all the way until we had to clear out the plot. I ate a strawberry in November! No one in the Midwest expects to be able to grow strawberries in November!

We also had calendula flowers blooming all through the summer and well into the fall. Calendula is a type of marigold whose flowers have anti-inflammatory properties and can be infused into creams and balms to help with healing of minor wounds. It is also sometimes used as a substitute for saffron and a yellow dye. We are planning to use it in some homemade skin creams to help with irritation and redness.

Rachel embracing the entire chard harvest before we processed it.

The last two crops we harvested were swiss chard and potatoes. I planted the chard in June, and it took most of the summer to get to a size where it would be satisfying to eat. The variety I chose to grow was called spinach chard, so it was completely green and had a spinach-like flavor. We harvested it all at once about mid-October and steamed it, then portioned it out and stuck it in the freezer for adding to soups later on this winter. I find the blanche-and-freeze method much more palatable for straight up vegetables than going through all the trouble to preserve them through pressure canning.

Potatoes were kind of a last minute crop for us, and we didn't use starter potatoes that were meant for growing. We just used some older organic potatoes that were starting to sprout in the pantry because sometimes you simply have to use what you've got. We did originally plant seed potatoes, but the container they were in didn't drain well enough, so they ended up rotting. Our second attempt at growing potatoes made a very nice plant above ground, but they never bloomed. (Some sources I encountered said you should harvest the potatoes after they bloom, and some said after the vines die, which is what I did in this case.) We got probably about a pound of potatoes total - tiny and adorable potatoes. Next year, we are going to focus on production, and hopefully make some good meals out of our potato experiments.

Our meager potato harvest.

All in all, I would say that the gardening season was a great success. We had fun and were able to eat fresh food. Next year I am going to focus on planting for three seasons and I will do my best not to plant on the day a big storm is supposed to come through. Every experience with gardening and farming is a learning experience, no matter the scale you are working on. So, I'm going to take the lessons I learned this year and use them to improve my little garden plot next year!

Back where we started.

We got word from PGP that the lease for Vedgewater (which is on a plot that Loyola owns) was renewed for another year! This means we will be able to keep our same plot, which is really exciting because we've been adding eggshells and worm castings to it periodically to enhance the soil quality. While we talked about applying for an additional plot to increase our growing space, we decided not to because we don't want to be greedy. Peterson Garden Project wants to make organic gardening accessible to as many people as possible and we don't want to hinder that goal in any way. We are going to see if our landlord will be open to us doing some minor planting in the backyard. Hopefully, the college kids who live in the same building will not be too excited about breaking beer bottles amongst our tomato plants. At the very least, we can start some raspberry bushes back in the corner and have a few tasty morsels for years to come.

We'd love to hear what you grew this year? Any major successes or failures? Surprise crops? Hit us up in the comments or send us an e-mail!

The Bitten Word's Cover to Cover Challenge

Fish and Chips with Malt Vinegar Mayonnaise
Fish and Chips with Malt Vinegar Mayonnaise

Most of y'all probably don't know this, but The Bitten Word is one of my favorite blogs. They did a cover to cover challenge last year, in which people were assigned one dish to cook from one of six magazines, the goal being to feature every recipe in those six magazines. I really enjoyed reading everyone's experiences and swore that I would participate if they did it again. Well, this year they did, and we signed up!

Instead of cooking all the recipes from six magazines, they decided to cook all the recipes from the September issue of Bon Appétit, and instead of having one recipe per person, they assigned multiple people the same recipe. That way they didn't have to cap the number of participants, and if for some reason someone didn't get a chance to make their assigned recipe, they could be sure it would still be covered.

We got the email with our assignment on Thursday, August 29. We'd planned to cook on Labor Day, but an impromptu cookout with friends pre-empted our cooking time. The submissions were due on Friday, 9/6, and Rachel had a terrible sinus infection all week, so we weren't sure we'd actually get a chance to cook. In fact, we'd kind of given up hope of submitting it to The Bitten Word, but pledged to cook it sometime to feature it here. Well, perfectionist that I am, Thursday came and I decided that I wanted to do it, whether or not Rachel could help me.

We actually had a choice between two recipes - Fish and Chips with Malt Vinegar Mayonnaise and Striped Bass with Lime Broth - because I'd requested an alcohol-free recipe and the fish and chips is made with lager. I let them know and they offered us the option of making the fish and chips with alcohol-free lager or making the striped bass. When looking for ingredients, we saw that the bass was $29.99/lb and the cod was $10.99/lb, so that made our decision for us.

The first step is to make the mayo. I've made mayo in the food processor before, but the recipe called for whisking by hand, so I figured I'd try it. Listen. I'm right-dominant. Like, extremely right-dominant. I'd try to switch to my left hand to give my right arm a break and it was like my brain couldn't control the left side of my body. I'd attempt to whisk, oil and egg bits would fly out of the bowl, so I'd switch back to my right hand. This happened a few times before I just gave up and whisked the heck out of it with my right hand, achy, shaking forearm be damned. Let me tell you, though, this mayonnaise was delicious.

The recipe recommended we serve the fish with french fries. Since I had never fried anything in my life, Rachel had only fried doughnuts, AND Rachel was sick and unable to help very much, we cheated and bought frozen crinkle cut fries. We did fry them in the oil, which made them extra crispy. We couldn't wait to try the mayo, so we ate a LOT of fries with mayo while making the rest of the meal.

Clumpy Batter
Clumpy Batter

Rachel cut up the fish (we wish we'd done smaller pieces than we did), while I worked on the batter. Whisking the dry ingredients was fine, when it came time to add the beer, club soda, and vinegar, it turned into a lumpy mess. I never did get the batter to be all that smooth; it was a weird combination of liquidy and lumpy. Next, we seasoned the fish with salt and pepper, dredged it in the corn flour, and dipped it in the batter.

Fish, corn flour, batter
Fish, corn flour, batter

Now we're getting to the exciting part - the actual frying! First off, we used a 3.5 quart dutch oven to fry. The recipe called for "about 4 cups" of oil and says it should be 3" in a large pot. We used 4 cups of organic safflower oil and it was maybe 2" deep. I'm still confused by how those measurements were supposed to work out. We were waiting for the 2" of oil to get up to temperature (375°), when all of a sudden it shot way past 400°. Damn it. We turned off the heat and waited for it to cool off. When it did, we turned the heat back on and put the first few pieces of fish in. Rachel helped with timing how long the fish was in the oil and putting it on a paper-towel-lined baking sheet when it was done. We had a heck of a time keeping the oil temperature consistent. It always seemed to be at 350° or 400°...375° was an elusive, mysterious, unattainable thing. We had to do 5-6 batches of frying, which took longer than we expected, but the fish looked beautiful.  The frying part wasn't really difficult at all, but we never did really get the hang of dropping the fish in the oil without it splattering back at us.

Frying the fish
Frying the fish

Now for the moment of truth! We plated two pieces of fish, some fries, lemon wedges, and the mayonnaise. We topped the fish with chopped dill, but completely forgot the sea salt and the Old Bay. Whoops. Having almost completely filled up on fries and mayo, we shared the one plate and declared the meal delicious. It was a fun stretch for us to make something like this, since neither of us ever really think to order fish and chips. The mayonnaise was definitely the best part of the recipe (though when I went to use it for some leftovers the next day, it had broken! I have to figure out what went wrong).

We definitely should have halved the recipe. Not only did it make way more fish than we could possibly eat, but it made a ridiculous amount of batter. If I were to make it again for just the two of us, I would have halved the amount of fish and quartered the batter recipe. We tried to fry the extra batter into some sort of malt vinegar fritter surprise, but the batter seemed to both liquify and become lumpier as soon as it hit the oil. It was unappetizing, to say the least.

We dropped off most of the leftovers with our friend Jess later that night. Almost as soon as we got back in the car, we got this text: "OMG. That's like legit delicious restaurant quality. I just devoured half of that! YUM. Thank you! It was so amazing I stood up and ate it in the kitchen. I'm lucky you two are my friends." We couldn't have asked for a better review!