Saturday, July 25, 2015


After years of having it in the back of my mind, I've finally managed to get around to roasting some green chilies in the sun oven. It couldn't be simpler...

1. Wash and dry the chilies.
2. Pile them into your standard issue black enamel sun-oven pot (no lid)

3. Stick them in the oven for a couple of hours 'til they are deliciously roasty-looking (and smelling! Like the entire state of New Mexico in the fall...).
4. Let cool.

5. De-seed and peel off the skin. Using a sharp knife, pull off strips of roasted chili (compost the seeds, stems, and skin).
6. Pack the de-seeded/skinned strips into small sterilized jars with lids.
7. Return the jars to the sun oven pot in a few inches of water.
8. Forget about them for an hour or so.

9. Let cool, then store in the fridge.

10. EAT!

Approximately three pounds of raw chilies yields a little over one half pint when roasted.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

the taste of summer: wholesome gin and tonics made with homemade quinine syrup

I try to avoid all drinks (and foods, for that matter) that contain artificial &/or highly processed ingredients. When it comes to tonic, there are several commercially-available better-quality tonic waters and syrups...but they are all above my budget. Some also contain citric acid, to which I do not react well. I decided to try making my own. I created an augmented recipe based on one I found in the New York Times:

4 C Water
9 Allspice Berries
6 Cardamom Pods
1 Mesquite Bean (optional)
1 C Lemongrass (we've been having great luck growing our own!)
1/4 C Cinchona Bark (acquired from Penn Herbs)
1/4 teaspoon Sea Salt

Simmer all ingredients on the stove top - or in a solar oven if you have one! - for 30 minutes. Add all ingredients to a big glass jar, and continue to steep in the fridge. After two days, strain into a clean jar. After another day or so (once sediment has settled), strain through a paint filter or cheesecloth. 

Now brew some simple syrup: stir 4 C boiling water and 4 C unbleached sugar (I use 2 C sugar and two cones of piloncillo – Mexican unrefined sugar – which gives the finished tonic a mildly caramel flavor) until sugar is dissolved.

Add the simple syrup to the bark infusion in a 1:1 ratio. Your tonic is now ready for use!

For a refreshing summer drink, fill a tall glass with ice and sparkling water (here in the west, we use Topo Chico). Add 1 oz gin and 1oz tonic syrup. Add lime juice to taste, and enjoy!!

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

lo, how a squash e'er blooming

We had the most incredible crop of rampicante zucchini this year. This one was picked WEEKS ago, and it refuses to stop growing – these flowers bloomed in the pantry this morning. It is an extremely hardy and prolific vining squash...if picked early the skin is soft like a regular zucchini...if left on the vine to mature it acquires a hard shell and can be stored longer in the manner of a winter squash. The flesh tastes like a cross between butternut and typical summer zucchini. The seeds came from Baker Creek – highly recommended!!

Friday, June 21, 2013

summer solstice 2013

This has been a crazy year for growing - we had a very late freeze (several weeks after the typical last frost date), so many of the squash and bean plants were really only just getting going...until this evening, when the most monstrous hail storm we have ever experienced rolled through town, pulverizing everything in the garden, including fruit on the trees. We've had a few other hail storms this year, but since we use forest gardening techniques (planting amongst the trees), the young plants were protected enough to be spared major damage. Not this time - in a matter of 30 minutes, we lost pretty much everything. The lettuce and chard, which has been the staple of our diets for months, has been reduced to a pile of shredded goo.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

seiko's home-made mochi

what a crazy revelation THIS is - fresh, home-made mochi, baked in the sun oven (if you don't have a sun oven, a regular oven will do). mochi is a traditional japanese treat made from rice and red beans - a perfect-protein snack!

thanks to our friend seiko for sharing her recipe!

THIS RECIPE MAKES ENOUGH FOR TWO MOCHI ROUNDS LIKE THE ONE PICTURED - we have two solar cookers, so we get both going at once...if you only have one sun oven, you may have to do one batch at a time. store the second round in the fridge 'til it's ready to go in the may take a little longer to cook.


1 bag sweet white rice flour (we use bob's red mill. we tried it with brown rice flour works, but it takes on a  a slightly different, less gooey, more dense texture)

1 can pure coconut milk (not "lite", and with no additives if possible)

1 can (the can from the coconut milk) water

1 can (same can) adzuki bean paste (made previously by cooking 1 part adzuki beans – here again, we use bob's red mill) to 3 parts water in the sun oven with a little raw sugar added - process or mash the cooked beans until they form a smooth paste).

if additional sweetness is desired, a little brown rice syrup or raw sugar could be added to this mixture. we sometimes add a few tablespoons of our jujube butter).


blend everything well in a food processor. pour into TWO parchment-lined round pie pans (for the sun oven, black enamel pots with lids work great) or a 9"x13" rectangular cake pan. bake at 350F for one our, or until shiny on top and a bit crusty-looking around the edges.

best when cooled to room temperature. keeps well in the fridge for a few days. if you have leftovers, mochi can be frozen and used later by steaming or baking in the oven on a cookie sheet with a little olive oil.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

the best DIY sun oven design

Last week I got to teach a class at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas on DIY sun oven building for kids. Since Julian and I have happily used the fancy "Sun Oven Brand" factory model for many years (we have two and use them all day long, nearly every sunny day of the year - please see Alyce's Solar Kitchen for recipes and lots more info), we haven't had occasion to try out other designs, although we've always been curious to know how well they work. The opportunity to teach a class gave us the perfect excuse.

We got most of our ideas from We based our test models on the Fun-Panel, the Reflective Open Box Cooker, the Minimum Solar Box Cooker, and the Solar Funnel Cooker.

We were quite surprised by the results! The Reflective Open Box Cooker - the two very simple models on the left-hand side - got hotter faster than any of the other designs, including the more complex Fun-Panel (the one in the back). The Fun-Panel worked well, but it is much more difficult to build, requiring exact measuring, scoring, and cutting. The Reflective Box is nothing more than a 90 degree angle covered in foil with a foil-covered surface, and a single adjustable foil-covered flap.

Above we are demonstrating the oven's ability to boil water in a black enamel cup covered with a glass plate. Prior to adding the water we'd measured the temp in the cup with an oven thermometer: 250F.

Above we are using a slightly smaller oven of the same design to cook cornbread in a cast-iron pan with a glass plate on top. It took a long time for the cast iron to heat up - the bread required nearly two hours to cook, but cook it did, and it was delicious!

I also used this model to cook applesauce in a larger black enamel pot with black lid sealed inside a turkey roasting bag (available at grocery stores). The turkey roasting bag held the heat in well and could be fine for use in emergencies, but for everyday use we prefer to use only metal and glass implements if possible (black pot with glass lid, or black pan or jar inside a clear glass pot...always the black to attract heat, covered by glass as an insulator).

For the kids' class we used hi-temp black paint to color enough squat mason jars with metal lids to go around - each student could cook a single muffin inside his or her own tiny "pot". again, the black jars must be placed inside a clear glass pot, underneath an upside-down glass bowl, or inside a plastic bottle or bag to work efficiently.

The kids (aged 9 - 13) were easily able to grasp the solar oven concept, and were invited to create their own experiments inspired, if they wished, by any of the designs we had on hand. Several of the students chose to build something based on the simple "Open Box" model, and were delighted with their results.

On the day of the workshop the wind was light and the sun very intense - the fancy "Sun Oven Brand" models got up to 400F easily, and the "Open Box" and "Fun Panel" designs we built prior to the class got up to 350F.

The following crazy experiment also worked surprisingly is made of two picture frames acquired from the thrift store. A slightly larger frame has two panels with foil under the glass. A slightly smaller frame with three panels (again, foil under the glass) rests on the larger frame, one panel of which can be adjusted to focus the light into the glass pot with a painted mason jar inside:

I wrote the following text to be included in a hand-out which contained some drawings of basic designs. Please feel free to take/use this text in the development of your own workshop! Hope you'll enjoy building and sharing DIY sun ovens...for mere pennies compared to the cost of a commercial model!

COSMIC COOKING! solar ovens 101

Concentrating and focusing sunlight is the basic premise of solar cooking. You only need to understand a few basic principles in order to make your own simple oven that uses absolutely no fossil fuel, produces no emissions, and costs nothing to run! 

Solar cooking works best in places like here in the high desert, where there are few cloudy days and lots of direct, intense sunlight. Sun ovens work great even in winter – the outside temperature doesn’t make a difference, since you are directing the light into an insulated container. Aside from clouds, the only thing that can make using a sun oven tricky is too much WIND, since most solar cookers have reflective flaps that can blow around and make the oven unstable.

Before you begin, stand or sit outside for a few minutes and observe the weather conditions carefully. Where is the sun in the sky? Depending on the season, the sun will be higher (summer) or lower (winter) in the sky. Where is the sun in its daily trajectory? Are there any clouds? Wind?

You want to pick a spot to do your cooking that is flat and protected from the wind. A few clouds are okay, but if there’s too much wind, it might be best to wait ‘til a calmer day to cook in your sun oven.

If you’ve ever gotten into a car that’s been parked in the sun, you’ll know that darker colors absorb heat, and lighter colors reflect. The basic elements of a sun oven are: a black container inside a bigger glass (or plastic) container, and shiny surfaces that direct the heat into the box. All of the ovens we will be experimenting with are variations on this theme. Some cookers are simpler than others – most can be made with materials you probably have around the house already!

Fun, simple things to cook in a sun oven: 

Nachos (chips & cheese) – 15 minutes (quick and fun to watch the cheese melt!)
Applesauce (chopped apples with a little cinnamon) – 40 minutes
Cornbread (if you don’t have your own recipe, follow the instructions on a bag of Bob’s Red Mill mix) – depending on the size of your muffin cups, 1 – 2 hrs

(Lots more recipes at Alyce's Solar Kitchen!)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

sun-oven baked jujube butter

Jujube, or red date, also has a fabulous latin name: Ziziphus zizyphus. It is an Asian species, but is very hearty and tolerates the high desert climate wonderfully. Unlike apples, pears, and peaches which are far more commonly-grown here, insects do not seem to bother with jujubes...though we do have a family of foxes who like to come around late at night to snack (rather loudly, I might add...) on the ripe ones that fall to the ground. Occasionally a bird will peck through the fairly thick skin, but otherwise we get to keep as many fruits as we can harvest. From a small grove of trees, we've been picking between 5 and 10 lbs per day for a week or so during august - by now the crop has dwindled down to a pound or two per day. The trees are a bit thorny, so perhaps that is a deterrent to many creatures.

Jujube fruits are small, about the size of a date and with a date-like pit, but with flesh and flavor more like an apple. You can eat them right off the tree, but we like to cook them down into a butter. It's a bit of a process, but the result is sublime!

The wikipedia page contains a wealth of excellent info about this wonderful tree and its fruits - including its purported medicinal uses. In Asia jujubes are revered for their stress-relieving properties.

We make our jujube butter in the sun oven, but you can easily adapt the recipe for stove top:


Place 2 lbs jujubes in a black enamel pot covered in water along with a cinnamon stick, a few cloves, and a chunk of ginger. No sugar is necessary!!

Cook 2 - 3 hours at 350F.

Once the fruits are soft and cool enough to handle, the pits will pop out quite easily by hand (we find this method of pitting easier than using a cherry pitter in the raw phase).

Smash the pitted fruits using a food mill to remove skins. 

Place the sweet sludge back in the sun oven, and cook for another hour or two. 

Prepare canning jars (recipe will fill 2 jars). Fill with hot jujube butter. Follow your usual canning procedure (for us this means putting the jars in a water bath in the sun oven for several more hours). 

Much like a butterscotchy-flavored apple butter,  jujube butter can be paired with sweets or savory things. Excellent with cheese and bread, or a few tablespoons added to recipes for baked goods, such as scones. Also great in a smoothy, or on top of yogurt or ice-cream!

(please see also my SUN OVEN BLOG for more recipes!)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A home burial

 I don’t remember exactly how my parents and I first became interested in the idea of a “home” burial.  It was probably the combination of becoming aware of how environmentally destructive and expensive a “conventional” burial is, as well as my dad being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We began researching this unfamiliar and intriguing topic both online and through local officials. We found that every state, county, and town has its own laws regarding home burial and in some places it is prohibited.

According to Texas law:  “A family can bury its dead without using a licensed funeral director. A statement of death and a death certificate are legally required. Generally, local ordinances or deed restrictions prohibit private burial within city limits. Check with the State Health Department and local zoning authorities for applicable laws.”

It was quite tricky finding out the information we needed, but we were not in a hurry and at first it was just an exercise in possibilities. Roughly speaking we needed a piece of land outside of town, the top of the container buried had to be two feet from the surface of the ground, and we had to do the burying within twenty four hours of death. To obtain a death certificate in advance we had to go to the local funeral home which was very reluctant to give us one. The determination of death must be made by a coroner, Justice of the Peace, or attending physician. Having the blank death certificate in advance would allow us to be prepared.

Years later my dad contracted pneumonia, the Parkinson’s having severely weakened him, and he passed away in a hospital. At that moment we decided to go through with a home burial.

After the doctor signed the death certificate we were free to take the body which we placed in our van. The head nurse told us that throughout her 30 years working at the hospital, we were only the second to remove a body independently, the other was returned to Mexico. It was late in the day when we drove to our property. We spent the night then woke up early and started digging. My brother and brother in law joined in and it took us most of the day using a digging bar and shovels, praying for the ground to be free of large rocks, and grateful it was quite cold. Not long before the twenty four hour mark we placed the blanket wrapped body in the deep hole with several special items picked out by family members - a  harmonica, stones, and notes. We then replaced the dirt and topped the grave with rocks. Later that day we had a short service before it started to snow, the first and only time that winter.

In hindsight we were very lucky everything worked out the way it did. We didn't have to hunt down the Justice of the Peace on a weekend, we were not pulled over on our way (we had the necessary papers), and no big rocks were in our way.  What ultimately made it all possible was making the arrangements in advance, and having a supportive and unconventional family.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

drying zucchini on the clothes line

for our first drying-zucchini-on-the-clothesline experiment, we strung zucchini rounds on cotton string, then clipped the string to the clothesline with clothespins. because the rounds are quite heavy,  in order to keep the slices from touching each other, we needed to hold up the string with one pin every three rounds or so until much of the moisture had gone out of them. we wrapped the whole thing in cheesecloth and left it on the line for three days (and nights) in very sunny, low-humidity weather until they became lovely dried rounds that we are storing in jars, and will use in soup later in the year.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

the multifold resistance: an invitation

"the 7 generations" by alyce santoro

The next article in my series about ways to think about and act on climate change, "The Multifold Resistance: an Invitation", was published today at Truthout under the title "How to Break Up with the Oil Industry: a Complex Relationship". I hope you'll give it a read and let me know your thoughts.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

we have met the environment, and it is us

"newton" by blake

my most recent article we have me the environment, and it is us  is a constructive critique of bill mckibben's piece in rolling stone titled "climate change's terrifying new math", has been published at truthout. the basic premise is that, as long as we continue to perceive the environment as "terrifying math", rather than as a part of ourselves, the problem and its solutions will remain abstractions to us. the environment is not math - it is us.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

an intense year

photo taken april 29, 2012 by jeff smith

a year between posts? it seems absurd, but what a year it's been. during the frigid winter of 2011 we became focused on the uprisings in egypt and north africa, and the outrage stirred here in the US by the wikileaks revelations. terrible wildfires raged through our drought-ridden region of far west texas, placing untold stress on local plants, wildlife, and the people who live here. 

months of breathing smoke inspired julian's mom to suddenly relocate to the oregon coast, leaving behind the family homestead located in a small town about 45 miles from our place in the mountains. suddenly we found ourselves with two places miles apart to care for. we made the difficult decision to move our main base of operations to the house in town, since during the severe drought we have not been able to harvest enough rainwater to supply both ourselves and our plants - hauling water from a community well is possible, but very labor, time, and resource-intensive.

while here in the house in town, we have been making swales and berms in the relatively flat landscape of the yard to encourage the native plants and fruit trees here to flourish. we've routed every drop of graywater out onto the gardens.

then last week the fires started up again, and our canyon was once again threatened. as of today, the fires are 70% contained and the wind is light - we are hopeful that our beloved tiny home-in-progress may be spared once again. meanwhile, we are safely ensconced at the house in town, feeling very grateful to have a place to dwell, but worried about the ongoing stress to this remote, unique, and beautiful part of the world - and to planet earth in general.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

prickly pear juice

here in the high desert, the deep magenta fruit of the prickly pear cactus - called a tuna in spanish - is especially abundant this year, so we tried making juice for the first time ever. step one: harvest tuna very carefully using tongs (they have lots of tiny thorns, or glochids) step two: cut the fruits in half lengthwise and scoop out flesh with a grapefruit spoon or melon baller. step three: place flesh in a pot in the sun oven or on top of the stove with a little water, let cook down for an hour or so. step four: press pulp thru a food mill. step five: put back in the sun oven for another hour with some sugar (we used some mexican brown sugar). step six: enjoy over pancakes or ice cream, mixed with kombucha or in a margarita, or any other way you might use a wonderful sweet-tart berry-flavored syrup!

Friday, October 15, 2010

rainwater harvesting

we've edited together some footage we shot last winter into a 1 minute video to give a quick overview of how a basic rainwater catchment system works.

the amount of rain you can harvest will, of course, vary according to the area of your roof. there are formulas for this, but the basic gist is that a 1000 square feet of roof can provide 600 gallons of water for every inch of rain. there are also ways to use swales and berms to slow down and direct the flow of water on your land in order to create areas of higher moisture where trees and croplands can flourish. we learned so much from brad lancaster's book rainwater harvesting for drylands - one of our favorite reference materials.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

pilot lights

I was taking care of a friend’s house near Big Bend National Park a few summers ago and the usual daily temperature did not fall below 100 F until late in the evening. The kitchen was situated in the middle of the house and would not cool down at all. After considering every option I opened the top of the propane stove and found that there were three pilot lights running full time. Luckily I could turn them all off with a screwdriver. Although I had to light the stove manually, the temperature of that room dropped probably 10 degrees or so.

During the winter we sometimes leave the oven pilot light on, but only when we want the extra heat. Otherwise, leaving the stove pilots lights on not only heats up the kitchen, but apparently burns quite a bit of fuel, be it natural gas or propane.

There are many different types of gas stoves: some come with electric click starters and have a pilot light for the oven, some won’t allow the pilots to be turned off, and some you might not want to mess with at all. But under the right circumstances this idea can save quite a bit of energy, money, and make your kitchen more comfortable in the summer.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

bubble up

BUBBLE UP is a song dedicated to the current state of the world, with music by julian mock and lyrics by nick santoro.

you can stream the song by clicking on BUBBLE UP, or download the mp3 for 99 cents - please see our music store along the right-hand sidebar. all proceeds go directly towards supporting our work.

Music by Julian Mock
Lyrics by Nick Santoro

Bubble up, bubble up from the bottom
Bubble up, bubble up below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Can’t stop this flow from the bottom,
Can’t stop this flow below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop drivin’.
Hey stop lyin’ to ourselves.

Don’t like this stuff on the beaches,
It’s stuck between my toes.
Don’t like this stuff in the wetlands,
This stuff has got to go.

You use this stuff from the bottom,
I use this stuff below.
We bought this hole in the bottom,
We bought this hole below.
Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop flyin’.
Hey stop lyin’ to yourself.

Bubble up, bubble up from the bottom
Bubble up, bubble up below.
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?
Can’t stop this flow from the bottom,
Can’t stop this flow below,
Who poked this hole in the bottom,
Who poked this hole below?

Hey, stop sighin’.
Hey stop cryin’.
Hey stop drivin’.
Hey stop flyin’ to yourself.

We killed life in the ocean,
We changed the life we know.
Who poked the hole in the bottom,
It’s us, don’t cha know?

We’re going down down down to the bottom,
There’s just one way to go
Stop using this stuff from the bottom
Or we’re all goin’ down below.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

1.3 kWh per day

we just got our electric bill for last month - we used an average of 1.3 kWh per day, for a total bill (including $9 worth of miscellaneous fees) of $14.11.

most of the electricity we use is consumed by our very efficient refrigerator (retrofitted out of an old chest freezer). the rest is used by lights, computers, a random battery charger, mp3 player, or other small items. our bill does not reflect the amount we use to do laundry - we take our stuff to the laundromat for washing, and dry it on a clothesline. we don't have a conventional hot water heater - all of our hot water is heated in a black hose and in a black tank on the roof of our bath house (dish washing and bathing is an afternoon activity). fortunately, we live in a temperate climate, so our heating and cooling needs are extremely minimal. that, and all of my studio equipment (sewing machine and sound equipment) runs off of a solar system that cost around $500.

when we move into the papercrete cabin we're building, we expect to be able to run everything we need off of a very small solar system (under $2000). we've mentioned this before, but we really feel strongly that an important step towards getting off the grid is to minimize usage and maximize efficiency as much as possible first, then buy only the smallest system necessary. it can always be added onto later.

Monday, May 31, 2010

fairy cactus?

the cactii around here are blooming like crazy. maybe it's because we got a lot of rain and snow this winter?

good year for pine nuts?

we're not sure if all the buds on the pinons mean it's going to be a good year for nuts. julian recalls a steady rain of pine nuts onto the tin roof 4 or 5 years ago, but we haven't seen any since. pinon nuts, while extremely delicious, have extremely hard shells which are incredibly difficult to crack.

pizza oven: work in progress

made of local clay and stone. after the coals burn down, we insert a shelf, on top of which we place the pizza stone. works GREAT, even without a door. we ate all the pizza (made with heavenly stewed tomatoes from our friend sandra's garden - last year's crop - and zucchini, onion, and garlic precooked in the sun oven) before we could get pix - promise to be more diligent next time.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

makers: DIY agents of social change

i've got another article published at truthout: makers: DIY agents of social change. it's inspired by joseph beuys' concept of social sculpture, and emphasizes the potential of acts of personal creativity to transform the world.

Friday, May 28, 2010

seeds for haiti

inspired by this article at truthout describing haitian farmers resolution to burn tainted seeds being donated to them by monsanto, i've managed to track down an organization in florida that is willing to accept donations of non-hybrid, heat tolerant, preferably organic seeds that they will deliver directly to haitian farmers and families in need. seeds can be home-grown, but will need to be labeled with seed type, approximate retail value, and estimated expiration date. commercially purchased seeds must not be past their expiration date.

please send seeds (tomatos, okra, squash, peppers - preferably summer crops that are likely to grow in haiti) directly to:

Friends of Paradis des Indiens, Inc.
PO Box 292234
Davie, FL 33329
attn: Chantal Bazelais

i've posted a page on facebook to publicize this seed drive. please feel free to forward this link or this message widely, and if you happen to have any contacts at garden stores or seed suppliers who might be interested, all the better.

thanks for any help you may be willing to provide!!

thanks so much,

Monday, May 24, 2010

spaceship earth: navigators wanted

today my latest article, spaceship earth: navigators wanted, was published in truthout. in it i outline why the climate debate needs to shift away from the ongoing argument over whether humans are causing climate change, and focus instead on the undeniable fact that POLLUTION is harmful to us all. there's no time left for bickering.

Friday, May 14, 2010

rice & beans cooked with the sun

A few years ago we became interested in trying to cook with the sun. Initially we'd planned to build something ourselves out of salvaged materials, but then some good friends gave us a Global Sun Oven as a gift. Since then we have used it practically every sunny, not too windy day, sometimes making three different dishes before the sun goes down. We cook rice, beans, bread, veggies, and cakes with this simple but very effective technology.

In the summer we now use 2/3 less cooking energy and the kitchen stays much cooler. We also use it extensively in the winter on sunny days. Although the cost of an "official" Global Sun Oven is way beyond our normal means, we must admit that it's a practical, efficient design. We also believe that a more economical and just as effective solar oven could be made with minimal material and know-how - search on "solar cooker plans" for lots of ideas!

For more recipes, please visit Alyce's Solar Kitchen.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

the french way to eat a radish

we harvested the first of our radishes yesterday (note to self: plant even earlier next year, and stagger planting so they're not all ready at once!).

to me, there's no better way to eat radish than to simply wash it and munch on it whole. leave it to the french to improve on this technique by adding...what else? butter and salt. what's not better with butter and salt?? as far as the french are concerned, rien du tout. this technique requires a bit of finesse, however, which i learned from the natives.


1. make a groove your whole radish with a beautiful knife.
2. pick up a pat of fresh butter (in our case, vegan butter - earth balance) on said knife.
3. slowly draw the blade through the groove, filling it with butter.
4. dip in freshly-ground sea salt.
5. bon app├ętit!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

julian's speakerwire shoelace


urine is a valuable source of nitrogen for gardens that is often overlooked. used correctly, it is not only a safe and extremely effective fertilizer, it saves water (if you have a non-composting toilet) and reduces effluent that causes eutrophication (over nitrification that causes algae blooms) of lakes, streams, and rivers. there's an excellent book out on the subject called liquid gold.

some rules of thumb: keep urine separate from solid waste (pee in a bottle or bucket), dilute at least 5 to 1 (more for tender plants and seedlings), use it right away (or it will turn to ammonia), water at the base of plants (not on leaves), and generally don't overdo it.

why let all that tea go to waste?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010


we just planted two rhubarbs that we got from a local nursery for a couple of bucks each. a neighbor recently gave us some strawberry plants that he'd culled from his own patch, so getting some rhubarb (mmmm - pie...) suddenly seemed urgent. rhubarb can live a long time and likes a cool spot, so we picked a place on the north side of the house that we didn't have any other big plans for.

so far this year, aside from the usual greens and various herbs, we've planted a pear (a mate for another pear we planted two years ago), two apples, two blueberries (we've got one that's two years old and going gangbusters - they love acid soil, and that's what we've got), several jujubes (a great tree for our climate, native to asia. it bears little apple/date-like fruits and has a fantastic latin name: ziziphus zizyphus), sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and peanuts! we read that you can grow peanuts from plain old raw peanuts you can get from the grocery store. they need a long growing season...we've got we soaked about 10 nuts in rainwater for an hour or so and stuck 'em in the ground. peanuts are a great source of fat for vegetarian diets - we hope they'll work out.

tiny tea

we drink a LOT of tea, and it's one of the products we buy that often travels vast distances before it reaches our cup. we did a little research on what tea needs to grow, and decided that we have the exact same climate here as they do in darjeeling. well, maybe that's a little bit of wishful thinking, but we do have a good bit of elevation...

back in february, we planted 6 little tea plants (camillia sinensis) that we ordered from camillia forest nursery in north carolina. we planted them in a spot where they'll be right outside the kitchen of the cabin we're about to build, so they should get pretty constant moisture from graywater runoff from the sink. for the past few months we've kept them covered with blankets on cold nights, though when they get a little bigger, they should be able to tolerate the winter cold and frost. right now they are only about 6 inches tall - in a few years, they could reach as high as 15 feet. so far, they seem to be doing great!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

today's harvest

the last of the beets that have been growing in the greenhouse all winter.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

solar for under $500

my art studio (housed in a converted 1970's school bus) runs off of a solar set-up that can be installed for around $500. i've got three 15W solar panels that came in a kit with a charge controller, plus two deep cycle batteries, and a power inverter. i can run a sewing machine, lights, stereo, printer, and scanner (make sure if you're running computer equipment you spend a little extra on a "true sine wave" type of power inverter).

papercrete blocks arrive!

papercrete is a mixture of paper pulp made from recycled newspapers, water, cement, and sand molded into blocks. we are about to begin construction of a tiny cabin made from stone and papercrete bricks with a metal frame and roof. papercrete blocks are cheap to make, fairly light (about 25 lbs each when dry), fire resistant, and have an extremely high insulation value. we'll be posting much more about papercrete as we go along.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


tonic used to be the name of one of my all-time favorite music venues in new york city (now defunct, like so many things with value not commensurate with lucrativeness). i recently came to find out that it's also the name of a website that aims to share what it considers to be good news. the use half now campaign, and my lifestyle by association, were recently covered in an article called "living on less: one woman's life-altering decision".

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

cool fridge

About a year ago some good friends gave us a small chest freezer they had found next to a dumpster. The power cord was a little chewed up and there was a small amount of rust down inside. We replaced the cord, sanded down the rust and touched it up with some paint. After plugging it in to see if it worked we installed a Johnson Controls A19AAT-2C Thermostat.

The new thermostat has a small box that we mounted on the outside, and a tiny probe that we ran through the door seal and down into the lower part of the freezer. We set the new thermostat at 40 degrees and cut our electric use by 1/3 just like that. Since we have not permanently modified the unit it can still function as a freezer if necessary.

Since cold air sinks, a chest fridge does not lose its cool when opened. Our converted fridge is on the porch, so much of this winter it has hardly even switched on. Although it is not as easy to organize as an upright, using stackable baskets works fine.

This design can be ten times more efficient than an Energy Star fridge, and is an affordable way to reduce our energy needs. We were inspired by the good folks at Mt. Best to try this idea.

According to the EIA, refrigeration accounts for 14% of household energy usage.

(another picture of our fridge is below in the last post)

unconventional living

When it comes to finding ways to make your living situation more efficient, there are many options worth considering. Where the winters are long and cold, most of the year’s energy use may go almost entirely into heating. In hot areas much money is spent on cooling using air-conditioners. Either way, a well insulated small space is the most economical and efficient way to go.

You can retrofit an existing structure with better insulation/windows/doors, and possibly solar panels. Unfortunately many homes are so large that heating and cooling the whole building is very costly and wasteful. This is where the notion of the need for a $30,000 solar system comes from - it's true that a large system would be needed to support an inefficient lifestyle. One way to save on a large place is to heat or cool only the rooms in use.

Another option is to build an energy efficient house from scratch, using techniques such as passive solar (maximize winter sun use  and minimize summer’s sun), and using materials such as adobe, cob, papercrete, and other affordable high insulation materials. In this case the best place to start is to tune into the landscape, weather, and path of the sun. For instance, knowing where the dominant wind comes from enables you to incorporate this information into the plans. There are many good ideas like this in books on Permaculture.

Although there seems to be a certain stigma against mobile homes, an excellent option is to find a small, used, 16-30ft  travel trailer. Like the cabin of a boat, most travel trailers have been meticulously designed to utilize the small space wisely. They usually have a small refrigerator, oven, sink, and even a small toilet/shower. As for alt energy, many are already wired for 12V systems, with lights, water pump, etc., so hooking up a small solar array is not much of a leap.

These trailers can be functional in an RV park, as a guest house, or as a completely off the grid, compact, living arrangement. Add a roof for shade and rain catchment, and a porch to spread out a bit, a composting toilet,  and you have a cozy, inexpensive, very low energy home anywhere you want...

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

change is dead, long live change

i'm very honored and delighted that an article i wrote has been published in, a journal i highly respect: change is dead, long live change.

monday march 22 - hummingbirds arrive!

11 days late. maybe they were around, just hunkered in until the chilly weather passed? we're still getting below-freezing nights, but the days have been in the 60s/70s.

Monday, March 15, 2010

how to make kombucha tea

Kombucha is a fermented drink brewed from a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY). Homemade kombucha requires a bit of nurturing in the form of feeding and a clean, warm, sweet environment in order to thrive.

To get started you’ll need to ask a friend for a “kombucha daughter” – the “offspring” of a kombucha culture, which is called the “mother”. A kombucha culture, if sufficiently fed and nurtured, will cleave off a daughter once a month or so. The daughters can be given away, put in the compost, or – believe it or not - dried into a leather-like substance that can be used in the making of arts and crafts!

Get a good large (preferably glass) container with a wide opening and clean it well. The best containers are wide all around as opposed to narrow at the top. The old candy store style with the big glass lid, probably about 5 gallons, is perfect. My jars hold about a gallon.

Make the tea of your choice, add a cup or so of sugar per gallon of water while the tea’s still hot, then let it cool down (don’t worry about the high sugar content - the “mother” will digest it all!). We like to use fresh ginger tea that we make by chopping up a chunk of the root. Black or green tea works great too. Stir the sugar into the hot tea and let it simmer for a while so it gets dissolved completely. After your tea and sugar are well blended and cooled, gently slide the “mother” into the jar using non-metal implements if possible – the “mother” will float to the top soon if not immediately. Cover the opening of the container with a clean breathable cloth (a cotton dishtowel secured with a rubber band works great).

Store your kombucha in a cool dark place for about two weeks. Time ‘til your brew is complete will vary according to ambient room temp – in summer it goes much faster! Give it a taste after two weeks, and if it tastes pleasantly sweet-and-sour, it’s ready! If it’s too sweet, let it sit a bit longer. If you wait too long you’ll have vinegar - i've heard this type of vinegar is used traditionally in mexico...probably other places too! if you wait much longer past the vinegar stage, your "mother" will have no sugar left to digest, and will eventually perish.

To bottle: empty plastic water bottles or pint-sized jars work well. Fish the “mother” out of your jar – again using non-metal utensils - and put her temporarily on a clean glass pie plate (or, if you’d like to let her go dormant for awhile, store in a mason jar in the fridge until you’re ready to start again – a couple of inches of water and a few tablespoons of sugar will enable her to live in the fridge for about a month).

If you are using plastic bottles, pour in the tea, then squeeze the bottles a bit so they’re indented. Cap them with a dent – when the bottles un-dent, your kombucha will be delightfully fizzy and ready to drink! If you are using glass it’s a little harder to know for sure when they’ve reached perfect bubbliness – two or three days should probably do it, but they could be ready even faster in hot weather. Store the bottles at room temp ‘til they undent or after a couple of days, then put them in the fridge ‘til you’re ready to drink them.

If your kombucha produces foam or stringy things or brown spots that’s okay. Mold, however, is not good. If your batch has fuzz on it, smells “bad”, or is in any other way suspicious, throw it out and start again. If you’ve given a daughter to a couple of nearby friends, you’ll always have back-ups. Kombucha-making is definitely a community affair!

While the medicinal effects of kombucha are considered dubious by some, it would be hard to deny the wonderous feeling that comes from a creating a drink made from a living creature that provides you with a delicious substance in exchange for your enabling it to continue to thrive.

If you happen to be interested in a healing, nurturing, culturally symbiotic, political/philosophical movement inspired by kombucha, you may wish to peruse the kombucha party.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

sun oven cookery

we'll be posting much more soon about our experiments cooking with a solar oven. today we made pinto beans - one of the most healthy, inexpensive, delicious, and easy dishes under the sun! soon we'll be posting videos - but in the meanwhile, i'd like to invite you to visit me over at alyce's solar kitchen.