Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Why stop using shampoo?

Why do I use baking soda instead of shampoo? Well, as most people don't realize, personal care products like shampoo, makeup, soap and lotion are not regulated. The FDA does not assess the safety of personal care products or their ingredients, and less than 20% of cosmetics chemicals have been assessed by the industry's safety panel. So companies freely use harmful chemicals in products that we slather on our bodies multiple times a day. Lipsticks commonly have lead in them, while shampoo and toothpaste contain parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, petrochemicals, etc linked to cancer, reproductive health, asthma and other health problems.

Unlike most women, who use an average of 12 of personal care products a day, I have limited mine to a locally made bar of soap, baking soda, Tom's of Maine toothpaste, aluminum-free deodorant and Burt's Bees lip balm. No, I almost never wear make up or lotion.

You do not actually need a multitude of products. This is a lie that corporate advertising campaigns have perpetuated. They hae convinced us we are not pretty enough and need a regimen of products like shampoo to make our hair shinier, makeup to look prettier, lotions to make our skin softer, perfumes to make us smell better, nail polish (the most toxic of them all) because bare feet are not classy enough, and so on. (Literally, I was in an elevator once with my coworkers who talked about bare toenails not being classy while I was standing right there in my sandals. But it's "okay" for me because I'm the eco-exception.)

Meanwhile, I often get comments from people telling me my skin looks great and asking how do I do it. Here's how - by not putting anything on it but water and occasionally soap. From my own perspective, I have as many pimples as the rest of them, but we tend to be more self-conscious and pay more attention to our own blemishes than other people actually do. What's more important? Your health or meeting a false standard of beauty?

On a positive note, the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2011 was introduced this summer in the House of Representatives. If passed this bill will give the FDA the authority to ensure that personal care products are free of harmful substances. You can learn more about all of this by watching The Story of Cosmetics video below, checking out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, and discovering whether the products in your own bathroom are good or bad at the Good Guide.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Going shampoo-free

Among my 25 things list were goals to use homemade body products. I'm waiting until my current store-bought deodorant runs out to try my hand at that, but I have successfully been shampoo-less aka "no-poo" since March by washing my hair solely with baking soda. Maybe I have low maintenance hair (straight and fine), but unlike some people who go through a greasy transition period, my hair has always felt clean and the same after a baking soda wash as it did with shampoo.

The idea is to combine baking soda and water into a paste to apply to your hair. There are different approaches. I fill a small jar with baking soda and then add enough water until it forms a paste that I can easily scoop out with my hands and lather into my hair. You could use an old shampoo bottle or cup and a higher ratio of water for a more liquid-y solution that is easy to squeeze onto your hair. Some people also like to do a rinse with white or apple cider vinegar afterward as a conditioner, but my hair feels the same whether I use vinegar or not, so I don't.

If you miss the scents of shampoo, you could add something yummy smelling, like a drop of lavender essential oil, cinnamon sticks or vanilla extract, to either the baking soda or vinegar, but I go plain. One jar lasts about a couple weeks, and since baking soda is readily available for about $2 a box, it is much cheaper than shampoo. This also helps me reduce my use of plastic.

Why stop using shampoo? To avoid the multitude of unpronounceable and potentially hazardous chemicals listed in shampoo ingredients. Stay tuned for my next post about the personal care products industry and why you should care about what's in your bathroom.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Dinner

I decided to spend Hurricane Irene weekend upstate at my parents' house, although it turns out I didn't need to leave Brooklyn since the flooding was apparently minimal and the power didn't even go out. Flooding is going to be more of a problem in my journey through New Jersey to get back to the city tomorrow. With a lot of time on my hands, I cooked dinner for my parents on my second night here: a zucchini parmesan casserole and cantelope sorbet for dessert.

My mom has grown some massive squash in her garden this year. The snake-like one is called a cucuzza squash and is common in Italy, but I chose to use the oversized zucchini - and I actually only needed to use half of it to create two create two casserole dishes. I breaded zucchini slices and lay them in a glass baking dish, which I topped with tomato sauce, stale pieces of bread, and shredded mozzerella cheese and baked for a half hour. It was fine, but a bit mushy. I recommend either frying the breaded squash first for a crisper texture, although it's time consuming, or going more deconstructed by dicing the zucchini and combining it with the bread pieces (but no bread crumbs), sauce and cheese rather than layering.

I also made sorbet out of an overripe cantelope that was too mushy for eating. We blended cantelope pieces and then added 2/3 cups of orange juice and 2/3 cups of simple syrup. It came out with a large ice grain texture, which could be improved by cutting down the OJ and syrup and using an ice cream maker instead of my handmade stirring method.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Apricot Cherry Muffins (or Cupcakes)

For a birthday party on Friday, I was requested to make an interesting hearty muffin-like cupcake, rather than a plain, light and fluffy cupcake. Hence the chopped cherries and whole wheat flour for texture. The apricot flavor was subtle and you want to make sure you find some sweet delicious cherries, since I was tricked by cherries that looked tasty but were actually lackluster. I know this picture is terrible, but my kitchen has terrible light at night, which deterred me from taking further pictures of the end product. They looked like cute little lumpy muffins until I frosted them with my bourbon cream cheese icing. But you could easily skip the frosting and serve these as muffins for breakfast.

Apricot Cherry Muffins/Cupcakes
7 tbsp butter
2/3 cup sugar
1/3 cup honey
1 cup apricot puree (about three apricots)
2 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tbsp + 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 pound of cherries, pitted and diced

Preheat oven to 350. Grease two muffin tins. Puree three apricots in a blender or food processor. Cream butter and sugar, and beat in honey, eggs, apricot puree, milk, and vanilla. Dump flour and baking powder on top and then stir to combine. Stir cherries into batter. Bake for 15-20 minutes. Makes 24 muffins. Add icing to serve them as cupcakes. I recommend bourbon cream cheese icing or lemon icing.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Making Cloth Napkins

I’ve talked about no sew napkins here before. I’ve made some myself, which weren’t as cute as those, but just an old pillowcloth cut into squares. They are definitely frayed and not necessarily fit for company but serve just fine as multipurpose rags/napkins. But now, my new roommate (who is also my best friend – yay) has a sewing machine, which means I can finally try sewing projects like cloth napkins.

I went to Mood Fabric, and was disappointed to see that despite being what I understand is New York’s premier fabric store, their organic section was limited to ten solid print colors of cotton twill. The clothing industry needs to catch up with the food industry and keep working toward the Sustainable Apparel Index.

It was probably the first time I’d used a sewing machine since home ec in middle school. The sewing itself wasn’t too hard, and I didn’t care that my stitches weren’t straight, because they are just napkins after all. But the time intensive part was all the pinning. First, I washed the fabric and ironed it. Then I laid out an existing cloth napkin I had as a pattern to cut pieces around. Then for each napkin, I folded over the edge, pinned it into place, sewed the seam, ironed it to hold the stitch, and then folded over the edge again and pinned, sewed and ironed again. According to The Kitchn, you could get away with just ironing over the first seam and only pinning and sewing the second seam, which I will try next time. I would also do some actual measuring because they came out as uneven rectangles.

I bought two yards and was able to make two large restaurant-size napkins and four smaller half-size napkins, which someone got for his birthday, with a jar of my pickled banana peppers. I still have almost a yard of fabric leftover so I can make some more napkins for my own apartment when I have enough time for all that pinning.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Guest post: From NYC to cowboy country

A guest post from my sister Lisa. Last summer, she wrote in from Costa Rica, and now she writes from Oregon, where she is a botanist for the Bureau of Land Management and spends her days looking and identifying plants: finding "special status species," assessing recovery following wildfires, determining the sustainability of livestock grazing activities, and collecting seeds for restoration projects. I'll get to see some of this in person, since I'm planning a trip to Oregon next month!

Just a typical workday landscape!

Cattle drive on the way to Bend

After two and a half years in NYC, I got a job in the high desert ecosystems of central-south Oregon, in a town of 2,000 people. In a little over two months, I’ve had more sunny days, more adventures, more fun and more excitement then I did in those two and a half years. (Sorry NYC! Maybe I’m just the right type of person for this landscape, where there are only about 4 million people in the whole state, while Julia is the right type for the place with 8+ million people right next door.)

Drake Park in Bend

At first, driving 1.5 hours to my field site every day past endless mountains, plains and mesas of sagebrush was unsettling and uncomfortable, strange and not really very exciting. Some switch went off about a month in, and the fullness of my love for this new place ignited. Cowboys, horses, cows, eagles, badgers, antelope, bighorn sheep, hawks, sandhill cranes, burros (the list goes on) are commonplace. There is so much quiet here. So many stars. The first day I got into town, I went to the grocery store, and people I didn’t know said hello to me.

Live Blues out in the sunshine behind Deschutes Brewpub

The places I work have epic names and for epic reasons: Crack-in-the-Ground (facilitated by an earthquake), The Lost Forest (a mysterious ponderosa pine forest in the middle of the desert). I spend hours every day listening to wind through trees and birds talking to each other, examining the intricacies and diversity in this seemingly homogenous set of ecosystems.

Crater Lake (12 feet of snow in mid June!)

Along the way, I’ve also fallen in love with Oregon in its entirety. Trips to Crater Lake, Bend, Eugene, and most recently a trip (yesterday) where I ran a 10k up the Steens Mountains from an elevation of 7,800 to 9,700 feet (my favorite activity by far) have breathed so much excitement and relaxation into my life simultaneously. Whereas the awkwardness and clamour of NYC filled me with a lot of anxiety that I thought would never go away, I feel like I become progressively less anxious-prone every day here. Plus, local craft beer costs less than Corona (about $6 a six-pack). In sum: beer, friends, friendly people, dogs and horses, eagles and quails, sky and ground, love and life.

At the top of the Black Cap Butte (6500 feet) overlooking Lakeview

Steens Mts east rim at the race finish

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fire Escape Garden

Another apartment, another plant setup. This time on a fire escape, where there's room enough most of the plants I started in my former back patio this spring. Parsley, mint, rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, basil (which I grew from seed and is just now starting to take off), cosmos (one of my favorite wildflowers) and two tomato plants. I gave away several tomato starts and left behind the lavender.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Farmers Market Haul: Late July

Tomatoes are finally here! Went a little crazy buying some things as special treats to enjoy the height of the summer. Milk and cream for making (coffee) ice cream. Peaches for smoothies. Tomatoes and basil and garlic and sourdough bread for bruschetta. Grape tomatoes for snacking. Scallops because I haven't cooked seafood in too long. Yellow watermelon for dessert. Swiss chard, onions, potatoes, and corn will make their way into dinners somehow this week, likely with rice and beans I cooked last week and stashed in the freezer. Sad to have missed the blueberries. I wanted to make blueberry cake, but it was too hot the other weekend for oven usage and now they're already gone from the market.