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Nooks and crannies. I just love them.

I must have been a squirrel or a chipmunk or something in a previous life. I love storing things away in little spaces. I love when everything is tucked away in it’s own special place.

Now mind you, my things may not actually stay in their places for very long (or at all, for that matter) but at least I have identified those places where they should be, so I’m halfway there, right?

As you can imagine, I have a penchant for food storage containers with sections. Yes, seriously. I love nooks and crannies in my food storage, so the wet things can be separate from the crunchy things and the raw things are far away from the creamy things, and so on and so forth.

Of course you can imagine how absolutely tickled I was to receive from Laptop Lunches a sample bento-style lunchbox for review here on my blog. Red on the outside, multicolored on the inside … the lunchbox just shouts “Happy day!” no matter what you put in it!

Red star stickers on the orange container furnished by Ecogirl

Don’t worry, I don’t really hear lunchboxes shouting. Though sometimes I do hear muffled whispering amongst the cutlery …

So anyway, the exterior lunchbox and all its individual compartments are made in the good ol’ U S of A. Yes, they’re plastic, but some of that is recycled content. And they’re safer than other plastics, with no lead, phthalates, BPA, or PVC (vinyl). They can take a beating (one of mine flew off the car roof and a good portion of it survived!), and the colors are just plain fun.

There are five interior containers that hold everything from sandwiches to fruit salad to dips, whatever your imagination and knife skills can fit in there. One day, I used cookie cutters to shape bread for toast pieces which I served with egg salad. Another day, I cut celery the short way to make “celery bridges” (waaaaay less stringy, according to Ecogirl), served with Caesar dressing for dipping.

One day Ecogirl implored, “Mom, I want Dora yogurt” which she’s never had in her life but sees at the grocery store and at the homes of some of her friends. I was unwilling to buy it, but sympathetic to a three year old’s desire for the latest and greatest character-branded merchandise. So what did we do?

We decorated one of our small interior bento containers with our own Dora stickers, and now she has Dora yogurt any time she wants (our version made with organic plain yogurt and local raw honey). If the mood strikes one day, then we are more than ready to change it out for a Disney princess yogurt container, or a celestial container covered with star stickers … one’s imagination is only limited to one’s access to good stickers.

Yoplait ain’t got nothing on us!

All compartments and lids are dishwasher safe, including the exterior lunchbox itself. I love that the compartments are all separate, so if there’s only a bit of one food leftover from lunch, you can just take out that one container and put in the fridge.

If you’re not sold yet, why don’t you check out this great link featuring 365 lunch ideas for fall, with beautiful, colorful images?

Ok then.

Now that I’ve got you excited to ride the bento bandwagon, let’s talk GIVEAWAY!

Laptop Lunches has generously furnished a $25 gift certificate to give to one lucky Ecomama Says reader. That will get you one super-duper, handy-dandy bento lunchbox, or some other fun items like an insulated soup container or a decorative lunchbag.

Here’s what you need to do to enter to win:

  1. “Like” Laptop Lunches on Facebook and Twitter (yes, both of them)
  2. “Like” Ecomama Says on Facebook and Twitter (yep, both again)
  3. Post a comment below, here on the Ecomama Says blog, letting us know what you would purchase with your $25 gift certificate

One lucky winner will be selected by the end of the day on September 3, 2012, Labor Day, just in time to go back to school!

So, tell us, dear readers: What would you buy with $25 from Laptop Lunches?

 

Update: We have a winner! Monica D., have fun shopping through all the fun colors!

Thanks to all for participating, and thanks again to Laptop Lunches for furnishing this great giveaway!

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We don’t drink cow’s milk in our house. I didn’t grow up on the stuff, and just never liked it. Plus it makes everybody phlegmy around here … who needs that?

I’m also not convinced it’s all that cool that ours is the only species on this planet that a) drinks milk beyond childhood, and b) drinks milk from a different species than our own. (Remember how it was so shocking to the general public when Salma Hayek breastfed another woman’s baby in Africa? Yet nobody gives a second thought to the fact that cow’s milk is collected from many, many different cows to be consumed by humans. I’m just sayin’…)

It’s easy to have a dairy-free diet nowadays, as there are lots of milk alternatives out there: soy, almond, rice, oat, and hemp for example. I’m a big fan of almond milk, and make it frequently. But Ecodaddy isn’t so fond of it (unless it’s warmed up with a splash of maple syrup, which is super-delish!), and so we still spend a chunk of change on store-bought rice milk.

Compared to nut milks like almond, rice milk lacks beneficial protein and fats and is quite a bit higher in carbohydrates. However, many like it because it is a low fat choice, and hey: sometimes you just need some cold, yummy white stuff to moisten your bowl of cereal, ya know?

Lucky for me, a few weeks ago a friend posted her rice milk recipe on Facebook, and I was ready for a new kitchen project. I am happy to report it was easy and cheap to make, and totally delicious to drink!

I’ve since tested this recipe twice using two different types of rice. I got 3 quarts of rice milk from the first batch and 4 quarts from the second. I had coupons for Lundberg organic brown rice that I held onto until it was on sale, making my final rice cost a mere $.50 a cup.

Tweaking my friend’s recipe, I added some vanilla extract to the final product, but didn’t like it because I could taste the alcohol from the extract. In batch two, I added half a vanilla bean during the cooking time instead, with much better results.

I also found that the type of rice you use determines whether you really need to add a sweetener or not. I used a sweeter type of rice the second time (Lundberg Golden Rose). Flavored with just the vanilla bean, it didn’t need any sweetener at all.

Homemade Rice Milk

  • 1 cup uncooked organic long or medium grain brown rice
  • 8 cups water for cooking
  • More water for diluting
  • 1 tsp salt
  • Glass jars or bottles with lids for storage
  • Blender
  • Fine mesh strainer
  1. Thoroughly wash the rice.
  2. Put 8 cups of water in a big pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Pour in rice and stir.
  3. Cover the pot and lower the heat to let the water simmer.
  4. Cook for 3 hours stirring occasionally, til it looks like very soupy rice pudding. Turn off heat and stir in salt.
  5. In batches, fill your blender halfway with cooked rice mixture and halfway with water. Blend until very smooth. Strain twice through a fine mesh strainer, collecting rice milk in mason jars.
  6. Continue on with remaining cooked rice mixture until you’re finished, filling jars with rice milk and screwing on lids tightly.
Even with the extra water, this rice milk can end up thicker than the product you find in the store, almost like a rice cream. My second batch was thicker than the first and required another whirl in the blender with more water: 3 cups rice cream to 1 cup water made it perfect.

Since it doesn’t have preservatives, presumably it won’t last too long in the fridge. I’ve kept mine in there a little over a week and it was just fine.

Make sure to shake before serving, as there is some separation, plus the tiny black vanilla specks settle to the bottom.

Enjoy!

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Whenever I make jam, I always lament that the beautiful pure fruit I laboriously prepare is then laced with a ton of sugar. The regular recipe calls for an almost 2:1 ratio of sugar to fruit.

Gag.

Even with the low-to-no-sugar pectin, if you follow the directions on the box, it’s still a whopping 1:1 ratio of sugar to fruit. I usually use organic evaporated cane juice or Sucanat, which is way better than the bleached-out white stuff, but still …

It’s sugar.

Honey is so much better. It has antioxidant and antibacterial qualities, gives a boost of energy, and is totally natural and unrefined. It has a real depth of flavor, whereas sugar is a little one-dimensional.

If you use local honey, your neighborhood bees will be helping to minimize your allergy symptoms by inoculating you against your local pollen. Goes right along with the old “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory … a little pollen every day helps keep the doctor away.

And get this: I recently learned that honey is the only natural food on earth that never spoils! It may crystallize and harden, but it never actually goes bad.

Honey is a staple in my household. I always have plenty on hand. But strawberries are so transient, at their peak just once a year for a few short weeks.

Lucky me, when Whole Foods had a one-day sale on organic strawberries a few months back. Not known for doing things halfway, I came home with 30 pounds.

Some are in the freezer for month’s and month’s worth of smoothies. And some became honey-sweetened preserves, inspired by Sarah’s Musings.

Finally! Easy homemade preserves that I don’t have to make with sugar!

With my Candida-related issues, sugar is always a no-no. In addition, because of my current extremely restrictive Candida cleanse diet, I’m not eating fruit, honey or fruit juice for a while, either.

Making this jam without tasting even a drop was sheer torture. However, Ecogirl and Ecodaddy assured me it is delicious without being cloyingly sweet.

At least I think that’s what they said … I couldn’t really understand them as they spooned it straight from the jar into their sticky mouths, over and over again.

Some call it jam, some call it preserves … what is the difference?

Jam is made with fruit that’s pureed to one consistency. Preserves have big chunks of fruit throughout.

Sometimes I make jam, which is just delectable thinly spread over warm buttered toast.

Sometimes I leave some chunks and make preserves, which are perfect mixed with plain yogurt.

With this recipe, it’s really up to you to what consistency you want to mash the fruit. It can be jam or preserves, you decide!

Either way, it is always delicious, and great for gift-giving. Tie a festive ribbon around the rim of the lid, and surprise the recipient with a little bit of sunshine in a jar.

paired with almond butter on toasted Ezekiel bread, mmmmm ...

Strawberry Honey Preserves

  • 6 cups mashed strawberries
  • 1 cup organic apple juice
  • 3/4 cup honey
  • 1 package low-sugar/no-sugar fruit pectin
  • Preserving equipment: glass jars, lids, rings, canning pot or any large pot, funnel, jar tongs, and ladle
  1. First things first: get your water boiling on the stove in your large canning pot. Sterilize your clean, empty jars by letting them boil in the water. Place the jar lids in a bowl and ladle some boiling water over them … DO NOT put them in the pot of boiling water or it will compromise the rubber seal.
  2. Hull and mash your strawberries. You can leave some pieces chunkier for more texture in your preserves. If you like it smoother, you can pulse in a food processor until it’s a consistency you like.
  3. In a large pot over medium heat, combine the mashed fruit and juice. Stir in the pectin and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
  4. Once it’s boiling, add the honey and bring it back up to a rolling boil for three minutes, stirring constantly.
  5. Remove fruit mixture from heat and skim the foam off the top with a spoon into a small bowl. Ecodaddy is a big fan of eating the foam as an added bonus. You can eat it, or toss it, but definitely remove it from the preserves or it will make the final product look funny.
  6. Remove the glass jars from the boiling water with your jar tongs, shake out any extra water, and line them up on a dishtowel. Let the water in the big pot keep on boiling.
  7. Working quickly, ladle the fruit mixture into the funnel-topped jars, leaving a 1/4 inch headspace at the top of each jar. Wipe the rims of the jars clean with another damp dishtowel, and top each jar with a lid. Secure a ring on each jar and tighten “fingertip tight” … tight enough that it’s secure, but not so tight that no steam can escape.
  8. Place lidded jars into the pot of boiling water for a ten-minute bath. When the time is up, pull them out with your jar tongs and do not touch them. Just let them rest. Soon you will start hearing a “pop” from each jar as all the steam escapes and a vacuum is created inside, sealing the jars.
  9. Don’t touch the jars for 12-24 hours, then push down on each lid to make sure it is sealed. If the lid moves up and down slightly with a “click click” sound, then your jar didn’t seal. That’s ok, you can still enjoy the preserves, but the jar has to go right into the fridge to be used in the next week or two. If the jars did seal properly and the lids don’t move, then you can store your jars in the pantry at room temperature for up to a year.
Note: I used six cups of fruit, which makes a runnier, more sauce-like finished product. This is perfect for spooning over plain yogurt to make your own strawberry yogurt, or drizzling over a piece of pound cake. To make a thicker more spreadable preserve a la PB & J, use only four cups of fruit.

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Every time we roast a whole chicken in my house, we make that chicken go a loooooong way.

We eat roast chicken for dinner that night.

We pick the meat off the bones, refrigerate, and use in various ways in the days that follow: chicken salad, chicken soup, chicken stir fry, etc.

Then we make broth with the bones.

Bone broth is a highly nutritive substance, rich in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and other trace minerals. It also contains glucosamine and chondroitin, which help counter arthritis and joint pain, as well as gelatin, which supports the connective tissue in the body and helps strengthen hair and nails.

And it is so easy … and cheap! … to make.

As you go about your business through the week, cleaning and chopping vegetables for various recipes, inevitably you have the scraps of the vegetables that you don’t really want: the ends of the carrots, celery leaves, kale stalks, peelings from broccoli stalks, parsley stalks, etc.

Get in the habit of storing these valuable scraps in a container in the freezer, specifically for making broth. You can use all parts of the veggies, even the parts you don’t usually eat … leaves, ends, peels, etc.

We roast a whole chicken about every two weeks or so, and always make broth from the bones. Ecodaddy loves our homemade broth so much, he even brings me back the bones from the rotisserie chicken lunches he has with his coworkers sometimes. No, I don’t ask him to do it … he just does it!

For storage, after the broth has cooled, I measure it out by the quart and pour into individual, labeled, quart size Ziploc bags. I lay the bags flat to freeze, and then once frozen, I can store them upright like books on the shelves in the freezer. Just make sure when you thaw it, you place it in a bowl or pot in case the plastic gets a little ripped during storage.

I use broth for everything. I cook all my grains in it. I braise vegetables in it. Sometimes, I warm up a mug of it and drink it as my morning hot beverage. I drank it during my early stages of labor with Ecobaby, and it carried me through an intense, amazing waterbirth at home.

Homemade broth is truly wonderful stuff!

Homemade Chicken Broth

  • Bones from one cooked chicken
  • 2 Tbsp EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)
  • 1 large onion, cut in eighths
  • 3 carrots, roughly chopped
  • Large handful of chopped celery leaves, or 2 stalks celery roughly chopped
  • Stalks from half bunch parsley, chopped
  • Stalks from half bunch kale, chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, cut in half
  • 1 large or 2 medium bay leaves
  • Approx. 20 sprigs of fresh thyme
  • 1 Tbsp sea salt
  • 8 whole peppercorns
  1. In a large soup pot, heat EVOO over medium heat. Add onions and carrots and stir occasionally, sauteing until everything begin to soften.
  2. Add celery leaves, parsley stalks, kale stalks and garlic; saute for another minute or two
  3. Add chicken bones and enough water to cover bones and veggies by several inches
  4. Add remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower heat, cover pot, and let simmer for 6-48 hours
  5. Remove from heat and strain through a colander or sieve. (I like to see little bits of herbs floating in my broth, but if you want yours perfectly clear, strain through cheesecloth)
  6. Store in fridge for up to five days; freeze the rest to use later

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Black gold, that is. And I’m not talking about crude oil.

Composting is a great way to reduce your landfill-bound trash, and turn something you don’t want (rotting kitchen scraps) into something you do want (nutrient-rich soil). To insure success, there are a few rules of thumb you need to follow.

Unless you want to host a maggot party in your compost bin, you cannot put any animal products into your compost. Maggots aren’t the worst thing ever, because they’re just helping decompose your scraps in their own disgusting way. But a compost pile is much nicer without them.

So, no meat, poultry, fish, dairy, or eggs. Exceptions are eggshells and shrimp tails. Eggshells do take a long time to decompose, so I let my cracked eggshells dry, put them in a ziploc bag (which I reuse each time til it has holes in it) and punch and roll the bag til the whole shells are pulverized into tiny pieces. Great way to get out some aggression; bang bang, smash!

Coffee grounds are really good for compost. You could even take the grounds and put them directly on your plants, but you have to let them cool first. I find it easier to just dump the grounds into the compost bin and let them mix with everything else.

It’s a good idea to keep a container on or under your counter in which to collect kitchen scraps. If you’re anything like me, you probably won’t make it outside to your big compost bin every day, so you want something with a lid that will trap odors.

It can be as simple as a large tupperware with lid under the sink. Or you can buy a pretty ceramic container that sits on your counter. It may even come with replaceable charcoal filters that fit inside the lid to keep smells in check. This is what mine looks like:

Keep in mind: the smaller you chop your scraps before tossing them in, the quicker they’ll decompose. Banana peels are easy enough to rip into pieces with your hands, as are avocado skins. Something larger and thicker like watermelon rinds or half grapefruit peels should definitely be cut with a knife.

If you don’t cut, it will decompose eventually, but “eventually” is the key word here. It will take a lot longer.

For optimal conditions in your compost, you want to have a balance of wet matter (kitchen scraps) and dry matter (shredded paper). Different experts have different opinions on the exact ratio, anywhere from 1:1 to 1:4. I generally end up with somewhere between 1:1 to 1:2.

Your compost bin should be about as damp as a wrung-out sponge, but no wetter than that, otherwise it’ll just be a smelly pile of muck. You will have to experiment with your own ratio of wet matter to dry matter to get the perfect consistency.

The wet matter is easy to provide: kitchen scraps! If you eat your fruits and veggies like you should, you will have plenty of those.

For dry matter, I take every piece of paper towel, paper napkin (slowly phasing these out), or tissue we use in the house, rip into small pieces, and add to the compost. I also take some of my mail or printer paper that didn’t print quite right, put it through the shredder, and add that too.

Some people use leaves or dried out grass clippings as their dry matter, but I find that leaves in particular take forever to decompose. Our lawn mower mulches the leaves as it runs over them, so they go back into the soil right then and there.

So now you’ve got your container under or on the counter. Into what big container are you going to transfer its contents?

You could just have a big pile of scraps and paper and yard clippings in the corner of your yard. When I lived in Vermont, I had friends who did it this way. However, then you have to worry about animals and pests getting in, and you have to turn it with a pitchfork. Headache. And backache.

You could go to your local hardware store and buy a hundred dollar compost turner, resolving the pest and turning issues. I used to have one, back when I had no kids and more disposable income. Ah, those were the days.

Now, I have a round 33 gallon garbage can with a lid, a couple of bungee cords across the top, and holes drilled throughout. Voila!

You’ll want to drill holes in the lid and all around the sides several inches apart. This will allow for good oxygen flow. Also, the holes in the lid will let in some rain while the holes on the side will let out excess moisture.

Don’t drill holes in the bottom four inches of the can. This will help keep in enough moisture so that your compost doesn’t get too dry. If you find it’s getting dry, just add a little water with a hose or watering can. But not too much. Remember: it should be damp like a wrung-out sponge.

To get the most rapid result, you need to aerate, or turn your compost. The aerobic organisms that break down your compost need oxygen to survive.

Take your handy dandy homemade garbage can compost bin and kick it down on its side. The bungee cords keep the lid from falling off). Roll the can back and forth with your foot, and pick it back up again. Easy peasy.

When my first can got to be about 2/3 full I stopped adding to it, so that it could decompose all the way down to compost without new scraps being added. I bought a second can and bungee cords, drilled holes, and started adding scraps and paper to that one while the first one “cooked”.

I still turned the first one to aerate, and checked the moisture level. Soon I had my first batch of compost! I added it to my container vegetable garden and looked forward to my plants flourishing.

Then I had Ecobaby. The plants got demoted and pretty much forgotten as I watched the weeds flourish instead.

When both kids are a little bigger, and Ecogirl can really help me in the garden, I fully intend to grow vegetables and herbs anew and put my rich, loamy compost to good use.

In the meantime, I can boast that my dandelions are two feet tall.

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Ever notice how sometimes the lettuce at the store looks pretty good, and other times, it’s seems more anemic than usual? It’s smaller because, as the days go by that it sits there unsold, the wilting outer leaves are picked off to keep it looking fresh.

Meanwhile, the brand new lettuce that was just delivered is hidden away in the back until the wilty stuff is all sold. It’s a crying shame.

I get my organic produce every two weeks from a co-op (short for “cooperative”) run by a friend out of her home. It’s a great lesson for her three home-schooled daughters. My friend makes no profit on this endeavor; she just needs orders from other people to fill cases so she can get cheaper organic food for her family.

Companies will lower their prices if they know they’re going to sell a large quantity of their products. They require a minimum order, either a minimum quantity or a minimum dollar amount. For my organic produce co-op, it’s a case minimum: orders have to be placed by the case.

Here’s an example: a case of broccoli is 14 bunches. Obviously, one family won’t buy all 14 bunches of broccoli. But eight or ten families might. So if you buy one, I buy two, he buys two, she buys one, and so on and so forth, we hit the case minimum, and we get the product at the wholesale price.

I’m getting my produce super fresh and super cheap. Score!

But organic produce isn’t the only co-op in which I participate …

I run a buying club for a natural products catalog that has everything from herbs and spices to body products to kitchen accessories to pet treats and much more. They don’t require a minimum order to get wholesale pricing, but I do need to hit a minimum of $250 to get free shipping.

I set up a Google group so I could communicate with member of my buying club. Every month, I post the monthly sales catalog to the group and members email me their orders. I compile them all and when I hit the $250 mark, I place the order. When everything comes in, I separate the orders, and everyone comes to my house to pick up their stuff.

One of the members lets me use her credit card for the orders. Everyone writes their check to her, and she gets airline miles out of it. Talk about cooperation! It’s a win win.

If you are not aware of co-ops in your area, try to start one. Contact a company from which you are interested in buying, and ask them if you can set up a wholesale account. Some will require a business ID, but others will allow regular consumers like you and me to just meet their minimum order requirements, either ordering cases or ordering a certain dollar amount.

It’s up to you to find members for your co-op to help you meet the purchasing minimums, but it doesn’t take long. Start with a handful of people, and let word of mouth be your advertising. This helps insure your safety too, especially if people will be picking up at your house. Everyone in the co-op is a friend of a friend.

It won’t take long before you’ll have enough people to insure lower pricing and fresher products for everyone. Just cooperate and make it happen!

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