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.

Citrus Infused Vinegar for Cleaning

Completed orange vinegar, really to clean! A few of our readers have requested a post on transforming plain old white vinegar into a good-smelling cleaning machine.  I tried this out this past winter, because I, too, was uninterested in having everything I cleaned smell 100% like vinegar and 0% like anything else.  A house drenched in vinegar may be clean, but it also smells like a pickle.

While this was several months ago, and I do not have the exact site/recipe I used bookmarked on my computer (because I, Rachel, am not the most organized blogger ever), the basic idea I use is captured by these two posts from Happy Mothering and Crunchy Betty.

I stuffed the peels of three oranges into two different quart jars, and then covered the orange peels with plain white vinegar.  Then I let it sit on the shelf for about two weeks.  I drained out the vinegar and tossed the peels. The end result was a quart of somewhat brown, orange smelling vinegar.  The process does not entirely negate the vinegar smell, it just minimizes it and makes you think of other things, like groves of oranges.  Our house now smells more orange-y than pickle-y, which is a grand improvement.  I like that Crunchy Betty tried other other scents, and obviously you could avoid the waiting period and just mix in the essential oil of your choice (2-3 drops of oil/pint of vinegar should take care of it).

To use this deliciously perfumed cleaning product, dilute with water(1 part vinegar : 2 parts water) and insert into a spray bottle.  Use as you would any other spray cleaner.  If you are not already using vinegar to clean, you can use for almost anything.  It's not going to kill everything living in your house, and that is precisely the point.  We often kill bacteria that are beneficial to us when we use commercial cleaners.  Vinegar will do the trick in most cleaning situations.  Check out this exhaustive list of uses for good ole white vinegar in the household.

August Food Swap Recap

Yesterday we attended our third Chicago Food Swap and I can definitely say that it was our favorite one yet. Our host was Green Home Experts, which is an awesome store that I will make sure stop by whenever I'm in Oak Park. They have all sorts of eco-friendly items for the home, which you know is right up our alley. This time we convinced some friends to come along, which I'm sure added to the fun for us. We also decided to take it easier with our swap items to ensure we wouldn't be in a mad panic right before the swap. I, for one, am an excellent procrastinator AND an overachiever, so the last two swaps were pretty hectic for me. I had it in my head that I wanted to bake all of the things, even though Rachel gently told me it might be too much, and I forged ahead and ended up being super stressed. The swap shouldn't be stressful! So we stuck with things that we had made slowly over the past 4-6 weeks and didn't bring anything that would require last minute baking or cooking. We brought more pineapple-infused vodka, since that was such a hit at the last swap. We also brought cherry-infused vodka, some of our raw fermented strawberry vinegar, and sourdough starter.

Sourdough Starter Escape
Sourdough Starter Escape

We picked our friend Jess up around 2:20 and headed to Oak Park. We arrived at 3pm on the dot and went inside; Rachel and Jess found a place to set up our goods while I filled out our nametags and raffle entries (yep, there was a raffle at this swap!). We saw our friend Sarah and her friend Amara, of Eat Chic Chicago, and oh my goodness did their table look amazing! Sarah's a professional chef and Amara is a nutritionist, so they totally brought it (in the form of roasted corn and feta salad, cherry fig infused balsamic vinegar, and peach lavender infused white wine vinegar - we ended up swapping for ALL of their items).

We ended up sharing a table with Chris, of the delicious organic bean sprouts and just-spicy-enough (for me, at least) olive dip. Jess outdid herself by making whole wheat croissants, both with and without chocolate, brown butter rice krispie treats, and vegan granola. Once everyone was set up, Emily ran through the instructions and then we started checking out the goods. I really liked the variety at this swap. I immediately saw a few items I needed to have, as did Rachel. Amazingly, we were able to swap for all of our "must have" items!

Once the actual swapping started, things moved so quickly! Rachel is definitely the most extroverted of the three of us, so she blazed her way into the swapping arena and did the majority of the actual swapping. Jess came and went, getting a taste for how the swapping works (I'd say that the actual swapping is the most nervewracking part for newbies!). I mainly stayed at the table, fielding swap requests. It was all over relatively quickly and I was really pleased with our haul. We came with 14 items and left with 16 (it helped that Sarah and Amara gave us the sample jar of their peach lavender vinegar!). Not too shabby, if I do say so myself!

Swap Haul
Swap Haul

Not surprisingly, the sourdough starter was our least popular item. We probably won't be bringing more to future swaps, but if you are in the Chicago area and want to try your hand at using a starter, let me know and I can hook you up with some! Also, for those of you brave souls who swapped for the starter, this is the recipe I used to make the sample bread. That link also has information on how to feed and care for your starter. If you have any other questions, feel free to email me!

Oh, I almost forgot to mention! This time there was a raffle with 6 Heritage Collection Pint Jars from Ball and the Desserts in Jars cookbook. Everyone put their name into a basket and Emily drew a winner towards the end of the swap. Guess what? I won! I've already got my eye on a few recipes to try out for future swaps.

We've come up with a few more tips for swappers (in no particular order)! Check out our recap of the June swap for more swap tips.

1. Try not to overdo it. As mentioned previously, I went a little overboard at the previous two swaps we attended. Food swaps should be fun events. If you're going to make something that's really time consuming, flesh out the rest of your swap offerings with some easier items.

2. Wear something eye-catching. Our friend Jess wore a t-shirt the color of a brand new tennis ball to the swap and it made it SO easy to point her out to other swappers who were looking for her.

3. Realize what you're willing to spend. The swap itself is free and how much money you put into your swap items is completely up to you. Some people put time and money into creating labels and getting cute jars, some people put their stuff in a Ziploc and label it with a Sharpie. Some people will use a lot of fancy, high end ingredients, others won't. All of those options are totally valid for your swap items, just be aware that not everyone is going to choose the option you choose.

The next swap will be on September 15 at the Peterson Garden Project in Ravenswood Manor. Registration opens on August 18. The October swap will be on October 6 at the Savory Spice Shop in Lincoln Square. (Please note, the September and October locations have switched since our June recap went up.) The November swap will be on November 10 at The Chopping Block in the Merchandise Mart.

If you want to read more recaps of the swap, you can find some here, here, and here.

Make Strawberry Vinegar

On our quest to prove that you can make basically everything in your own home, we discovered that it is deceptively simple to make your own fermented fruit vinegar. If you have used Braggs Apple Cider vinegar, you know the type of product we are going for here. (If you click through to that site, please note how awesome Patricia Bragg looks.) From start to finish, we used the instructions from Kate over at Hip Girl's Guide to Homemaking. We thought, at first, about doing it with peach skins, once peach season comes around, but a friend who was staying with us for a few days bought a five pound bag of strawberry seconds from the Glenwood Sunday Market and left us quite a few of them. (I'm not the world's biggest strawberry fan, but I think I'm starting to come around to them this summer.) So, we had very many strawberries, which we made into all kinds of delicious desserts and snacks, and the scraps we saved for vinegar.

As you can see, if you look at the instructions, all you need to make fermented strawberry vinegar is strawberries, sugar, water, a splash of vinegar (with the mother), a vessel, some semipermiable vessel cover, and the patience to basically ignore this slow but profitable process.

The Cliff Notes version of the process is this:

1. Put the strawberries in the water with the sugar, cover, and stir every day for a week.

2. Strain out the strawberries, add a splash of vinegar (like Braggs) to get things started. 

3. Let it sit on your counter for 2-3 weeks until a mother forms and the whole room/house smells like vinegar (it's not that bad).  

4. Strain again, rinse the mother, and package it up because you just made vinegar (in about a month).

Here's what our process was like, in more detail.

Strawberry parts soaking in sugar water
Strawberry parts soaking in sugar water

The first thing to do, obviously, was to put the strawberries in the sugar water and let the natural yeasts in the air do their work.  We had strawberry seconds, so they were not super fresh, and I did have to battle some mold in the first week.  I solved the problem by keeping the strawberries submerged under a plate.  Regardless, a straggler or two would float to the surface, succumb to the effects of oxygen, and start to decompose. Those bits were promptly discarded. Towards the end of the week, when I took the cloth off the top, I would be greeted with a view like the one below.

Now we're cooking with...alcohol?

Now we're cooking with...alcohol?

Delicious, right? Under that weird stuff is a plate and some strawberry bits. We had enough strawberries to have two bowls going at once. When we strained out the strawberry parts and put the substances back in the bowls, they were smelling pretty much like strawberry beer. I'm pretty sure it would not have been pleasant to drink, because it was wild yeast and the process was pretty crude. If you wanted to actually make strawberry beer, you would go about this in a very different manner. It was cool to walk by and catch a waft of beer-y berry scent. Every time I stirred them, also, a lot of vaguely alcoholic bubbles would rise to the surface. Oh, food science.

Anyway, we strained out the chunks, put the liquid back in the bowls, and added a splash of "starter" vinegar to each bowl. We did use Braggs Apple Cider Vinegar for one of the bowls, and for the other we used a locally made blueberry cherry vinegar from CO-Op Sauce. Then we swirled the bowls every 2-3 days, and largely left it alone. Within a week, the beer-y smell had turned to vinegar and a vinegar "mother" was starting to form on top of each bowl. What the heck am I talking about when I say  "mother?"  Well, the mother is where the bacteria live that turn the alcohol into the super acidic vinegar most of us love. So, a little vinegar mother is what you need to get that process started, just like yogurt needs a starter and kombucha needs a SCOBY.  Vinegar will generally start to form its own mother eventually, but a splash of already established vinegar with mother-bacteria totally moves things along. I'm not going to lie, the mother is kind of a snotty, gelatinous goop that sits on/in your vinegar, and it could gross you out. Brace yourselves. However, homemade vinegar is worth touching one goopy thing, for us anyways.

It's just one goopy thing, you'll be fine.

It's just one goopy thing, you'll be fine.

She's so pretty.

She's so pretty.

You can see how dense the mother in the one bowl was in the pictures on the left. The other bowl's mother was more viscous and didn't drape across the hand quite so nicely. It was more snotty. Different starter, different mother, maybe.

After two weeks of sitting and being swirled on occasion, our vinegar was ready to be strained and bottled. Per Kate's instructions, we removed the mother from the top and rinsed it out. Then we poured the vinegar over a strainer with a thin cloth on top and strained out the sediment.

Strain, baby, strain

Strain, baby, strain

We put a little bit of mother back into each container and called it good. The vinegar has a pretty mild flavor, but it definitely tastes like strawberries. The bowl with the Braggs vinegar had the thinner mother and the vinegar was cloudier. Otherwise, there does not seem to be a discernible flavor difference. Basically, the point is, if you want to make your own vinegar, all you have to do is be willing to stir a bowl of water and fruit scraps semi-regularly for three weeks. Delicious!

Final product!
Final product!

Quick Broccoli Stem Pickles

Hey there, Rachel here! Today, I'll be sharing a wonderful way to use those broccoli stems you might be otherwise throwing away. Here's to repurposing perfectly good produce!

Growing up, my mother would peel broccoli stems and slice them into a pot of steaming broccoli. We would eat them that way, but I never considered how they might be as pickles. It makes sense though, they are pretty bland but with a little bit of that bitter broccoli flavor; they are crunchy and have a good snap before they are cooked. A pretty good candidate for a pickle.  

Kristl found a nice recipe or two on the internet, but when it was time to make the pickles, we couldn't find the recipe. I just decided to do it by intuition. That's basically always my style. Cooks often make discover the best recipes by making a few mistakes in the kitchen, if you ask me.  If I have the basic idea down, I'm pretty capable of producing something like what I'm aiming at. That's how it went with these lovely pickles.

Pickles Sitting in Brine
Pickles Sitting in Brine

I started by peeling and cutting the broccoli stems into sticks. We had a bunch of leftover broccoli stems from an ambitious Easter dinner, so we had quite a pile (2ish cups). You could, however make this recipe to work with 3-4 stems. Proportionally, it should work out regardless. After peeling and cutting, I tossed the broccoli stems into a bowl and covered with water and white vinegar in a 3-1 ratio. I just poured in water to cover the stems and then glugged 2-3 glugs of vinegar in. I put in 3 Tbsp fresh dill and 1 Tbsp mustard seeds. I also added 2-3 tsp whey for flavor. This is totally optional if you don't have whey kicking around. You are also welcome to add additional pickling spices and garlic. We didn't really have a whole lot else just sitting around (I had used all the garlic in puttanesca sauce earlier that day.) Also, you can do these pickles with a bread and butter or sweet pickle flavor, but I don't mess with sweet pickles. All dill all the time over here.

I let this mixture sit for a couple hours, but only because I had to go somewhere and didn't have time to finish immediately. Regardless, I don't imagine letting it set hurt the flavor at all. When I was able to return to the project, I added two large pinches of grey sea salt and 3-4 turns of the pepper grinder. I stirred the salt in and tasted the mixture to see if it needed more salt.  

I drained the liquid into a small saucepan and boiled to blend the flavors and get the brine ready for the fridge. Hot liquid helps set the pickles, at least that's the feeling I get. I'm not a pickling scientist. The boiling killed the whey, so my pickles won't ferment, but they will still have that slightly lemony flavor from the whey. I left the brine to boil for 10-15 minutes while I packed the broccoli sticks into jars. I also made sure to get a good amount of dill in each jar, because I love dill. I used pint size canning jars. Yum.

Just waiting for lids!
Just waiting for lids!

I took the brine off the heat and poured it over the pickles in the jars. I added an even amount to each jar and made sure that all the pickles were covered completely. Because they were only three small jars, I did not wait for them to be completely cool before popping them in the fridge. If you are putting a lot of warm items in the fridge, it can raise the temperature of your fridge to an unhealthy level, so you should let them cool. But three small jars seemed safe enough.  

Most recipes said the pickles would be ready to eat in around 24 hours, but we waited for 48, just to be sure. (I think probably they would have been pretty tasty right away, but honestly, I like my pickles pretty tart.)

Empty Pickle Jar
Empty Pickle Jar

We had a jar with dinner tonight.  Albeit, they were small jars, but yes, we did eat the whole jar.  The pickles were crisp, and they taste just like dill pickles.  And all those broccoli stems that might have been wasted otherwise have become delicious! Also, definitely an improvement on the steamed broccoli stems of my youth.