Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Blog!

I'm now blogging over at A Wilderness Life

Come find me there, and please update your links.  The posts on M.E.T will eventually be moved to A Wilderness Life... and when I say "eventually" I mean "possibly some time within the next few months, maybe, if I get around to it."



Monday, August 31, 2009

No-poo, AKA Homemade Shampoo!

What we need to keep our hair clean, soft, and shiny is soap. The end. But if you use shampoo, what you're doing is stripping your hair's natural oils, which creates a need for conditioner, which makes your hair limp and greasy, which creates a need for more shampoo... and on and on. It's the ideal situation for advertisers!

Add to that the fact that shampoo, even the fancy salon brands and many organic formulations, contains sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (an industrial surfactant used to de-grease engines -- it's also an irritant that has been rumored to cause everything from skin lesions to cancer), and you too might be motivated to switch to a more gentle, natural product to suds your locks!

Because shampoo strips the natural oils from your hair, it causes your scalp's sebaceous (oil-producing) glands to go into overdrive to keep your hair moisturized -- that's why people like me have to wash their hair every. single. day. to keep from looking like, say, Amy Winehouse after a three-day bender. So when you go "no-poo," your scalp will probably have a little adjustment period while it figures out how to regulate, after which you'll find yourself going longer between shampooing. It took my hair maybe 4 washes to get jiving.

Here's the skinny on how to make a simple, crazy cheap "no-poo" that gets the job done and leaves your hair soft and healthy. (Thanks to Ivory and T.L. over at my FAVORITE blog ever, Little House in the Suburbs, for this awesome technique which I tweaked.)

Grate a bar of plain soap (like Ivory or homemade soap) without added glycerine and put it in your blender. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil* and about 1/2 cup warm water**. Blend, dribbling more water in a bit at a time until the mixture looks like thin pudding. Weird, I know, but that's what it looks like! Scrape the sides of the mixer down and blend again, adding any essential oils you like. I added lemon oil, tea tree oil, and wintergreen oil. Funnel into your shampoo bottle and you're done. It should be thinner than normal shampoo -- it will thicken slightly as it sits, and you want to be able to get it out of the bottle!

Then make a scalp-soothing conditioning rinse that will also de-tangle and smooth your hair. Mix 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and four cups of water in your old conditioner bottle or another bottle with a cap or a squirt-top.

Now. The use of this stuff is a leeetle bit different than normal shampoo and conditioner. Scrub up like normal shampoo, but when you rinse, really rinse well, until your hair squeaks when you run your hand down it. (I was VERY worried at this point, y'all. My hair felt WEIRD. But hang in there, ok?) Saturate your hair with the vinegar rinse, making sure you get all your hair, even the underside!***

Give it a good rinse, and you're ready to go! Smooth, soft hair with no chemicals!

It helps in the first few days if you give your hair a good once-over with a natural bristle brush a couple times in between washings -- it distributes the natural oils down the hair shaft, which is a GOOD thing! And even though my hair was weird and a little oily the first few days, it was never as greasy as it used to be when I skipped a shampoo (or two, God forbid).

I love this stuff, you guys. I'd totally encourage you to break the shampoo-conditioner cycle and give no-poo a shot.

* I eliminated this, because it was making my hair (not scalp) oily. If you have really dry hair, you can leave it in. I use the remaining, oil-containing stuff as body wash and it's amazing.
** Blondes can substitute brewed chamomile tea, brunettes can substitute brewed black tea, for all the water in this recipe.
*** This is the point at which my fears began to subside. Oh, it feels like hair again! I can do this! And don't worry. It's not going to make you smell like a pickle!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

One-Bowl Blueberry Dinette Cake

My mom has a 1970s copy of the Betty Crocker cookbook, tattered and faded from its original poppy red to a very dingy-looking orange, a testament to its frequent use in her kitchen. I think it was a wedding present.

Some of the recipes are distressingly canned-soup-centric, but others are terrific and (I think) much more practical for the home cook than many modern cookbooks aimed at the average American housewife. Dinette Cake is a cute example of this practicality. It's based on the "economy cake," which excludes both rich ingredients like cream and butter, both of which were rationed during WWII, and time-consuming techniques like creaming and sifting -- Rosie the Riveter didn't have time to be a pastry chef! But it's smaller than the typical cake, scaled down to serve a small family or two couples, so it's perfect as a weeknight treat for the grownups or a coffee accompaniment for unexpected guests.

A dinette cake is meant to be casual, homey, and not-too-sweet. Recipes abound on the interwebs, so I borrowed a little of this recipe and a little of that, combined it with what I had on hand, and came up with a very tasty cake that will work for breakfast tomorrow as well -- plus, I made it low maintenance by using one bowl and one spoon. Simple! Oh, and I used butter instead of oil because I don't have to save up ration coupons to get the Real Deal, you know? You can use oil if you prefer, but it won't be as yummy!
1/4 c. butter
1 c. sugar
1/3 c. milk
1/3 c. yogurt
1 egg
juice and zest of half a lemon
1/4 t. nutmeg
1/2 t. salt

1 1/2 c. flour
2 t. baking powder

1/2 c. fresh blueberries

Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit In a large microwafe-safe bowl, melt butter. Add sugar, milk, yogurt, the egg, lemon zest and juice, nutmeg, and salt, and mix thoroughly. Add flour and baking powder and mix thoroughly again.

Grease an 8x8 baking pan or #5 cast iron skillet, pour in the batter, and bake for 30-40 minutes or until a pick inserted into the center of the cake comes out with a few moist crumbs. Cool slightly and serve with whipped cream or ice cream.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This Yogurt Method is Even Simpler!

Many of you read and commented on the post I did awhile back on making yogurt in the crock pot ("Dairy/Non-Dairy"). Thanks for all the awesome feedback! Well, I recently stumbled across a method of yogurt making that involves a microwave and a cooler... and I thought it sounded like it was worth a shot. So I made it yesterday and oh, boy!

It's even simpler than the crock pot method, if you can believe it! Y'all, seriously, if you or your kids go through carton after carton of pricey store-bought yogurt, you need to take this method for a spin. Sorry, no pictures this time; this was a spur-of-the-moment creation motivated by my need to get a half-gallon of milk out of my fridge.

A note on incubation: there are several ways you can keep the inside of your cooler warm for incubation. I put about two inches of hot tap water (around 140 Fahrenheit; if yours isn't this hot, put a little boiling water in as well) in the bottom of the cooler, and filled three quart jars with hot water to set around the jar the yogurt was in. Then I covered the yogurt jar with foil and placed a big towel down over the tops of all the jars and zipped the cooler shut.

- large glass bowl
- small glass bowl or measuring cup
- stainless steel (or other non-reactive) spoon
- mesh strainer or cheesecloth or tea towel
- thermometer that goes up to 190 (I used my cheapo meat thermometer; you can use a candy thermometer or I'll tell you how to gauge the temperature without one)
- large glass jar or several smaller glass jars (you can use any clean, empty food jar)
- incubation jars (see note above)
- medium-sized cooler
- towel

- half-gallon of milk*
- 1 cup nonfat powdered milk
- 6-8 oz cup of plain, unflavored yogurt with active cultures
- 2 T. sugar (optional; the addition of sugar makes the end product MUCH less tangy, so if you prefer a tangier yogurt, just omit this)

1. Pour milk into glass bowl and place in the microwave. Microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir, and microwave for another 2 minutes. If you have a thermometer, begin checking the temperature now -- you're aiming for 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. If not, keep an eye on the milk and continue microwaving in 1-minute intervals until milk bubbles around the edges and steams vigorously. 190 is just shy of boiling. Don't let it boil.

2. Remove bowl from microwave and stir the milk gently for about a minute. Stir in the powdered milk. Allow the milk to sit at room temperature for 30-60 minutes, or until it is between 110 and 120 Fahrenheit. You can test the temperature against your wrist if you don't have a thermometer; it should feel quite warm but not make you say, "Ouch!"

3. Take out about a cup of the warm milk and put it in the small bowl or measuring cup. Stir in the small container of yogurt. Add this mixture back to the large bowl of milk. Add the sugar, if you're using it.

4. Strain the mixture into jar or jars. This step isn't totally necessary, but I found that it strained out the bits of powdered milk that hadn't dissolved completely. Cover jar(s) with foil.

5. Place the yogurt jar(s) into the cooler along with the jars of hot water. Cover with a towel and incubate for 8-14 hours. Overnight is perfect for this! If your kitchen runs cool or when you're making this in the winter, give it a little boost of hot water an hour or two before you're going to take it out. A longer incubation tends to make thicker yogurt, but I only did about 8.5 hours and still ended up with yogurt that's plenty thick -- thick enough to stand up on a spoon! :)

6. Remove the yogurt jar(s) from cooler and refrigerate until cold. Keeps for two weeks. To flavor, stir in jam or preserves, honey, fresh or frozen fruit, granola, or any combination of the above.

*Re: milk. I've found that full-fat milk works best for thick, creamy yogurt and that the lower-fat your milk is, the runnier the set tends to be. I also used non-homogenized milk, so I ended up with cream-top yogurt! Yum!

If you have ANY questions or if something in my instructions isn't clear, please let me know in the comments section and I'll do my best to clarify or adjust!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Really, Alton? It is NOT that hard.

So tonight's episode of "Good Eats" made me mad. God bless Alton Brown, because he is a seriously good cooking show host, and I normally love his no-nonsense style, but seriously?

The episode starts like this: after burning one roux and ruining a dozen others by various methods, Alton comes up with a brilliant idea -- let's eliminate the direct heat source altogether and instead make the roux... in the oven!

Sigh. Fine, look, if you want to make Cajun food but are the kind of person who burns boxed mac and cheese, by all means make your roux in the oven. But if you have even the most basic of cooking skills and a modicum of patience, you will be richly rewarded with a beautiful dark roux (and the resulting indescribably rich and complex gravies and gumbos) by implementing the fine art of stirring.

Last school year, I made a shrimp etouffee that got the stamp of approval from an honest-to-goodness Cajun, on my first try. It's seriously not hard AT ALL. There's this whole mystique around Cajun food that makes people think it would be foolish even to attempt, but y'all, it's peasant food at its finest, born from necessity and tradition. It's darn delicious and Cajun mamas can for sure make it in their sleep better than I can, but it's SIMPLE STUFF. Really.

All you have to do is put equal parts flour and oil in a pan over medium heat, and stir the dickens out of it for about 25 minutes until it's a bit darker than peanut butter. Go ahead and do all the standing yoga positions you can think of while you stir. It ain't rocket science. Then you add 2 parts minced onion and 1 part each minced celery and green bell pepper, salt and pepper that business, stir it for another, oh, five minutes or so, throw in some crushed garlic and a can or two of crushed tomatoes (dodge the spatters!), a bay leaf, and a few shakes of hot sauce, give that a stir, cook it until the veggies are soft, and toss in some raw, peeled shrimp. Switch off the heat, stir until the shrimp are just cooked, and then serve it over hot rice. Could it get easier? Maybe, but you'd have to buy your roux in a jar.

Anyway, Alton's overcomplications aside, go on ahead and make you some Cajun food this weekend, why don't you? It's goooood.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Homemade Deodorant (Caution: TMI Ahead!)

So. You know that there are all these rumors about aluminum and its supposed harmful effects on the body, right? Cancer, Alzheimer's, and other health problems seem, in some tests, to be associated with the ingestion and absorption of aluminum into the body. Now, I tend not to just jump on bandwagons when it comes to health issues, but on the other hand, I also think it's pretty wise to err on the proverbial side of caution until we know for sure. I take this approach with plastics, non-stick, sulfates, cleaning products, and triclosan as well as aluminum. My theory is that it's best to stick with the materials and methods proven safe by hundreds of years of human history, rather than glom onto a bunch of new (as in last 40 years new) products whose safety is just plain not known.

Anyhoodles, probably the major source of aluminum absorption for most of us in the West is our deodorant! Any deodorant that has anti-perspirant in it uses one of a variety of aluminum salts as its active ingredient. Check out the back of your deodorant container and you'll see: US labeling laws require that the percentage of aluminum salts be listed -- the percentage for over-the-counter anti-perspirant/deodorants seems to range from around 12% to around 19%.

As I said in a previous post, I have lately not been relishing cramming aluminum into my pores every morning, particularly since aluminum has been linked to breast cancer. Eep! So, filed under "better safe than sorry," here's a recipe of sorts for homemade deodorant. You will need:

  • an old empty deodorant container (make sure you rescue the bit that holds the deodorant as it gets pushed up!
  • about 1/4 cup coconut oil (you can use the fancy extra-virgin kind or just the cheap Lou-Ana stuff from the grocery store)
  • about 1/4 cup baking soda (NOT baking powder, which often contains... you guessed it, aluminum!)
  • about 1/4 cup cornstarch or arrowroot
  • 10-20 drops essential oil (lavender, tea tree, cedar), optional

Put the coconut oil and essential oils in a small bowl. Add about half of the baking soda and the cornstarch. Stir and mix until smooth. Add more baking soda and cornstarch in equal proportions until the mixture is a stiff paste. Spoon into deodorant container, shaking and tamping down after each addition. Refrigerate for 30-40 minutes or until quite solid.

Now. Stuff you need to know:

This is NOT an antiperspirant, if by antiperspirant you mean "a chemical that keeps me from sweating." It will reduce the amount that you perspire, and it will absorb the perspiration. That being said, some people theorize that the reason you tend to sweat a LOT when you go a day without using your ordinary a-p/d is because your body is taking advantage of the aluminum hiatus and trying to clean the chemicals out of your pores. I have definitely found a reduction in the amount of sweat, and I also don't have that awful "crap, my deodorant just gave out" sensation in the middle of a tough day. The difference between natural deo and commercial a-p/d meltdown is sort of like the difference between the spillway on a dam and a total failure of the dam. Does that make sense?

This is a VERY effective deodorant. If, like me, you're prone to get a little whiffy by day's end, you will LOVE this stuff. Coconut oil is naturally anti-bacterial and anti-fungal, tea tree oil and other essential oils are antiseptic, and baking soda is known to eliminate odors. You know what my armpits smell like right now? Tea tree oil. That's it. And it's been a good ten hours since I applied my natural deo. And I've been outside in the August humidity, and I ran around at school for a couple hours!

But speaking of temperature and humidity, coconut oil tends to liquefy at around 75 degrees (that's Fahrenheit, y'all). So if you're the type to keep the A/C set at 80 in the summertime, you're probably going to have to keep this in the fridge for a couple months out of the year. No biggie, but there it is. In the winter, keeping it solid shouldn't be a problem.

One of my biggest problems with commercial a-p/d's, aside from the aluminum, is the fact that after a few months of using one brand, my body seems to develop a resistance to it, and it quits working. (Same thing happens with shampoo, too. Weird.) But supposedly, as you go along using natural deodorant and your body gets used to not having chemicals stopping its natural processes (hello, God made us sweat for a reason! It's called detoxification!), you'll end up sweating less. I'll let you know how that goes! ;)

Verdict: thumbs up. One less chemical in my life. Good riddance!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yes. You Can. No, Really. You can make this bread. Quit arguing and just go to the kitchen, okay?

If any of you has the slightest foodie inclination, you probably already know about the no-knead bread sensation that swept the internet a few years ago. It began when Mark Bittman, the New York Times' "Minimalist", finagled the recipe out of Jim Lahey, a NYC baker. It's never really gone away; variations pop up periodically as people experiment and rediscover the thrill of triumphing over the daunting task of bread-baking. Alton Brown has a version. Cook's Illustrated did one. Jaques Pepin made a take on it on his "Fast Food My Way" show. There was an NPR special on it. Whole books have been published on the subject. Some skeptics remain -- no-knead bread must be about culinary laziness; it requires expensive equipment; it takes too long; it's fussy.

Au contraire, my friends; the no-knead technique is a most forgiving and obliging one, one that results in an end product greater than the sum of its parts and much greater than the amount of required labor would suggest.

In other words, it's dead simple, and it makes great bread. So, without further ado, here's what you need to do RIGHT NOW. I mean it.

Take four cups of flour, and mix them with one teaspoon of sugar, two teaspoons of salt, a half teaspoon of instant yeast, and two cups of ice water. Keeping in mind variations in humidity and flour measurement, adjust the amount of liquid and flour so you have a sticky, shaggy mass of dough. It should be too soft to "stand up" but not soft enough to pour. Stir that vigorously for about ten seconds, cover and forget about it for about 18 hours.

Then give the mix a quick stir, cover it again and let it sit for about two hours, more or less. About a half-hour before you want to bake the bread, turn your oven to 450.

Put a baking vessel of some kind in the oven as it preheats. You can use a cast-iron skillet, a dutch oven, a fancy Le Creuset, a terra cotta planter, anything, as long as it's safe to heat it to 450 degrees when it's empty. If it's got a lid that's oven safe, great; preheat that too. If not, fill another oven-safe vessel with water and put it on the bottom rack while the oven preheats.*

When the dough is ready, have a spatula at the ready, pull out the baking vessel from the oven, scrape the dough into it, cover it if you've got a lid, and put it back into the oven. Let it bake for 55 minutes. If you're using a lidded vessel, take the lid off at this point and let bake for another 15-20 minutes. If you're not using a lidded vessel, cover the top of the loaf with foil to prevent over-browning and let bake for another 15-20 minutes.

Remove the loaf and let cool completely before slicing.

* Notes:

1. I use a 10-inch cast iron skillet, and fill my great big roaster pan with water. The key to this bread's crust and texture is steam. One of the reasons artisanal bakeries can make such great bread is that they often have multi-thousand-dollar steam ovens that create the necessary environment for the crackling crust they charge a premium for.
2. For the love of little green apples, don't underbake this bread! An 70-80 minutes is a LONG time compared with most home-baked bread, but it's completely necessary. The water content of the dough is extremely high, and if you don't bake it long enough, you'll wind up with a weird, gummy interior.
3. Once you've baked the original version, you'll find this bread to be infinitely adaptable. You can use a light-flavored lager in place of the cold water. You can use half rye flour and stir caraway seeds in. You can use honey in place of the sugar and half whole-wheat flour. You can add rolled oats or wheat germ. You can stir in sunflower seeds, millet, and pumpkin seeds just before the second rise. Or walnuts and dried cranberries. Or fresh rosemary and roasted garlic. Or... you get the idea.
4. The rise times aren't hard science. If you can't do 18 hours but you can do 14 or 16 or 20, great. If it's going to be more than a day until you can get to it again, it can sit in the fridge for up to 24 hours at any point in the process -- just think of it as the "pause" button.
5. If this isn't the best bread you've ever made at home, I will... be extremely surprised. It's so good, it's kind of magical. Do yourself a favor; get it started tonight.