Archive for November, 2009

How to Reuse Plastic Bags {Or How to Make it Easier}

Posted on November 28th, 2009 by Tonia 7 Comments

It’s a job that’s never started that takes the longest to finish.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Do you exist in a pretty constant state of guilt and frustration about the fact that you live a life of consumption and waste?  Do you feel like no matter what you do, you’ll never be able to change your lifestyle drastically enough to significantly reduce your impact on the planet?  Yeah, well, join the club. 

Mike and I live in the city + we have full-time office jobs + we don’t have a lot of spare time= we usually get through daily life doing everything as quickly as possible= we consume a lot, and waste a lot.  Example:  Instead of packing my lunch in a reusable container every morning, I quickly throw it into a plastic baggie and run out the door.  The result of this behavior is a lot of plastic garbage, and a lot of stressful guilt…

So, about  a year ago, we resolved to never throw away a plastic bag until it had been used so many times it had holes in it.  We started washing out the baggies and sticking them right back into the “bag drawer” to be reused.  The result has been amazing– I can’t even remember the last time I’ve had to put “Ziploc” on my shopping list.  I feel really, really good about the fact that we’ve pretty much eliminated the unnecessary waste of baggies from our lives, just by changing one itty-bitty behavior. 

I will be honest, though…plastic bags do not look cute sitting around all wet and crinkly on your kicthen counter.  We needed a good way to dry the bags…and we don’t have a clothes line outside in the winter months.  So, Mike came up with this really simple drying-rack {and it’s even cute enough to sit on your counter!}:

 Itty Bird icon Steps:

You will need:  wood glue, 5′ of dowel rod {for a more rustic look, use sticks/branches}, a hand saw, a brace {pictured} or an electric drill, a scrap of wood slightly larger than the finished size {11″ x 3″}.

1. Measure a board to be 3″ wide x 11″ long, and cut the board to those measurements.

2. Prepare the base: sand/plane the board until it is level and smooth, take off any rough edges.

3. Cut dowel rods to five 12″ long pieces.

4. Measure & mark the spots on the base board where your dowel holes will go.

5. Drill holes into the base at the marked spots.

6. Drip wood-glue into each of the holes, and insert the dowels.

7. Let the glue dry, and then you’re all done!  Start saving those baggies!






Weekend in the Woods

Posted on November 18th, 2009 by Tonia 4 Comments

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.”
-An excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem “After Apple Picking”

I spent this past weekend at my parent’s house in northern Wisconsin.  We cleared their cross-country ski trails of fallen tree branches in preparation for the winter. It felt great to breathe some fresh air and walk in the woods…as much as I love Duluth, I get homesick for the boonies sometimes.

While I was there, my mom was given an enormous basket of apples by some friends. We made an apple-pie and some German Apple Pancakes with them, but there were still apples left after that. My mom showed me how to peel and core the apples using the handy little contraption in the photos below…


This old-fashioned apple-peeler worked so well!  It sliced the apples into perfect spirals.  We packed the slices into plastic bags, sucked the air out of the bags using straws, and threw them in the freezer where they’ll sit until our next apple-pie craving.


My parents have a huge garden, which is fed by their huge compost pile.  Composting is something I have not been brave enough to try in the city yet.  I’m afraid it will attract pesky city critters like skunks.  But it is an excellent way to fortify your soil, and composting reduces the amount of waste each of us sends to the landfill.  In fact, up to 30% of the material we send to landfill is organic and could be composted at home.


…So I returned to Duluth resolving to figure out a way to safely compost in our backyard.  Expect a post about this endeavor in the near future.  And if you have any tips about urban compost piles, please share!

I’ll leave you today with my mom’s German Apple Pancake recipe, which is a great twist on regular old pancakes.  This recipe originally came from The Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas, but has been modified over the years by my mom.  Gut essen!


Itty Bird iconGerman Apple Pancake:


3 large eggs

¾ cup milk

¾ cup flour

½ tsp. salt

1 ½ T. butter

½ c. thinly-sliced apples 


1 lb. tart, fresh apples

¼ cup melted butter

¼ c. sugar

powdered cinnamon and nutmeg 


Preheat the oven to 450º.  Beat together the eggs, milk, flour and salt until very smooth. Add the thinly-sliced apples. 

In a heavy 12-inch skillet, melt  about 1 ½ T. butter.  As soon as it is quite hot, pour in the batter and put the skillet in the oven.  After 15 minutes, lower the oven temperature to 350º and continue baking for another 10 minutes.  The pancake should be light brown and crisp. 

During the first 10 or 15 minutes of baking, the pancake may puff up in large bubbles.  If it does, pierce it all over with a fork. 

While the pancake is baking prepare the apple filling.  Peel and thinly slice a pound of apples.  Sauté them lightly in a ¼ cup of butter and add ¼  cup sugar.  Season to taste with cinnamon and nutmeg.  Cook about 8 to 10 minutes – the apples should be just tender, not too soft. 

When the pancake is ready, slide it onto a platter, pour the apple filling over one side, and fold the other side over.  (Or, just pour the filling over the top and cut the pancake in wedges to serve.) 

Serve at once, with plenty of warm (real) maple syrup.

How to Preserve Your {Locally Grown} Herbs

Posted on November 9th, 2009 by Tonia 4 Comments

Mike and I will be married in nine months.  Mike and I compliment each other perfectly.  What I lack, Mike has, and vice-versa.  For example, Mike is excellent at math.  This amazes me, because I am “not a math person” (that’s the nice way to say it).  Needless to say, Mike will be the one doing the taxes and paying our bills when we’re married.

And what strong suits will I be bringing to the marriage?  Well, while Mike does the taxes, I will take care of the cooking. I come from a long line of humans who live for one thing alone:  to eat good food.  We’re Italian, and we know what good cookin’ tastes like!

Through cooking, I’ve become more aware of where our food comes from, and I feel strongly that one of the most important itty-bitty changes we can make in our lives is to eat as close to home as possible, meaning buying the strawberries from the neighboring town verses the ones from two states away.

Sustainable Table is a website with some great information about why it is so important to buy locally grown food.  One of the statistics on their site especially hit home for me:

Between production and transportation, growing 10% more produce for local consumption would result in an annual savings ranging from 280,000 to 346,000 gallons of fuel.”

The tough part is that Duluth’s long winters make buying locally grown food possible for only about four months per year.  But there are some great CSA options in the area, so please check them out if you don’t already know about them.

We are lucky enough to have enough dirt around us to grow a little food ourselves.  Mike and I planted a little garden in our backyard last spring, and our tiny patch of dirt exploded with peppers, peas, lettuce, herbs, rhubarb, and more.  It was really fun to walk outside and pick ourselves a salad every night.

Recently, the arrival of cold weather meant we had to watch our beautiful crops whither away.  We had eaten almost everything, except for the herbs.  Large patches of basil and parsley still remained, and we wondered how we could preserve these plants for cooking with all winter long.

This is where having a “foodie” family comes in handy-  My mom came up with a great way to preserve herbs, so I thank her for the following tutorial.

Itty Bird iconPreserving Fresh Herbs:

1: Harvest the herbs (in this case, parsley).  Wash them, and remove the stems.


2: Tear the herbs into pieces.  I did this by hand instead of using a knife, because I wanted the pieces to stay relatively large.


3: Fill the cells of an empty ice tray with the pieces.  I really crammed the parsley in there, to get the most out of each cell.


4&5: Slowly fill each cell with water until the herbs are submerged.  If they start to float up, push them down with your finger.  Now that they are wet, the leaves will stick together and stay put.  When finished, put the tray in the freezer.


These beautiful little herb-cubes can be popped into any sauce or stew and the ice will melt to reveal perfectly fresh tasting parsley!  For basil, use the same technique but fill the cells with olive oil instead of water (water makes basil turn black.)


Happy cooking everyone!

DIY No-Mess Chimney Cleaning

Posted on November 7th, 2009 by Tonia 1 Comment

May you always have walls for the winds, a roof for the rain, tea beside the fire, laughter to cheer you, and those you love near you.”  – Irish Blessing

Sitting by the fire is one of the pleasures we enjoy most during the long Minnesota winters.  The earthy smell of the wood is comforting, the crackle and snap of it burning is soothing, and if we use it enough the gas bill goes down a little bit.  A year ago we splurged and bought ourselves a really efficient little stove.  I hooked up the chimney myself to save some money.  Climbing up onto our steeply sloped roof to put up the exterior part of the chimney was a little scary…If you try this yourself, make sure someone is home with you in case something goes wrong.

Today, in preparation for another long winter, Tonia and I brought a large stack of seasoned firewood inside the house, so that any remaining water will dry out before we use it.  I also needed to clean the chimney to rid it of any creosote that built up last winter.  Creosote is what causes chimney-fires to ignite…and we’re really not interested in having that happen!  After much deliberation, I figured out an easy way to clean the chimney without making an enormous mess.

For those of you heating with wood this winter, feel free to try my technique, or share your own way of doing this dirty job by leaving us a comment.

chimney sweep steps123

1: Gather supplies {ladder, duct tape, drop cloths, heavy-duty bag, chimney-brush} and disconnect the chimney from the stove.

2 & 3:  Tape the heavy-duty bag to the base of the chimney, but leave one side of the bag un-taped.  This opening is where you will insert the brush.

chimney sweep steps456

4: If your chimney brush is connected to its rod already, unscrew it so the brush head is separate.

5: Insert the brush head through the opening you left in the bag, and push the brush up into the chimney until it is lodged there.  Finish taping the bag securely to the base of the chimney now, so that no soot can escape.

6: Create a very small hole in the bottom of the bag, through which the rod of the brush can fit.  Slide the rod through this hole and connect it to the head of the brush, which should still be lodged up inside the chimney.  You can now begin pushing the brush further up into the chimney.  Hold the bag tightly around the rod as you push it, so that no soot escapes through the small hole.

{OPTIONAL:The exterior part of most chimneys has a cap.  You will feel your brush bump this cap when you push your brush all the way to the top of the chimney.  If you want, you can climb up and open this cap, which will make it easier for you to see into the chimney after cleaning , to make sure it is clean.  It will also be easier to feel whether or not you’ve cleaned the entire length of the chimney if you open the cap.}


{No Mikes were harmed in the openning of this chimney cap.}

chimney sweep steps789

7: Push the brush all the way up the chimney, until you feel it bump the cap {or pop up outside if you opened the cap.}  You may need to add a few rods in order to clean the entire length of the chimney.  I used four rods for mine.

It is helpful to have a second person to hand you the rods as you need them, and to take them from you as you detach them again on the way back down.

8: Pull the brush all the way back down, detaching rods as you go.  I used a damp rag to catch the small amount of soot that started to escape through the small hole in the bag.

Repeat steps 7 & 8.

9: Carefully pull the tape off from the base of the chimney.  Use the damp rag to catch any stray soot.  You can now look up the chimney, and it should look shiny and clean.

10: Take your brush, rag, and plastic bag out to the garbage and dispose of the soot-filled bag.


The section of chimney you detached in the beginning also needs to be cleaned.  Run your brush through it {do this part outside} until it looks shiny and clean.  Reattach it to your stove when finished.

Grab a good book, some tea, and go sit by the fire!