Tuesday, 24 August 2010

People-powered lawn mowers ~

I would love to own an electric car.  Every time I get into my car I feel guilty - for the depletion of fossil fuels, and for adding to pollution levels, which would probably be needless if a little more of a collective investment went into the production of electric powered cars, or a public transport system that worked adequately.  Electric cars are available here, but are beyond my price range.  Hopefully they will become affordable before too much longer.  In the meantime I can't afford one, but I decided it was high time I made more of a commitment to reducing petrol consumption by buying a hand mower.  That,  I decided, I had to afford.  I got one today!

A muscular machine...    :-)

Of course there are lots of good reasons to buy a hand mower, other than petrol consumption: one of the most compelling of these being that running a hand mower costs nothing, and getting it started is as simple as getting me started - behind it.  No petrol, no noise, no struggling with pull-starting cords, or careful looping about of power cables - I just wheel it out, point it where I want to go and start moving.  Good upper body exercise - no costly gym equipment or subscription needed; I work up a good sweat - no sauna needed, not that I'm likely to pursue any of those options, but still it's true!  It's good aerobic exercise, which saves me the consideration of where to go for a walk, and I can enjoy the fresh air which stays fresh, free of petrol exhaust, no ear muffs are required, and so on and so on.  Finally, the only carbon emissions are from me exhaling, which is pretty near zero as these things are counted!

Don't I sound smug?  I am smug.  In fact I'm delighted with my purchase, not one of your light-weight modern pieces of tin foil, but a good solid second-hand one, made at least a couple of decades ago when things were made properly, built to last.  "So you think this will last me a few years?" I quizzed the salesman.  He assured me it was likely to outlast me.  "Thanks a lot!"  I retorted, somewhat taken aback.  That was a promise indeed - I didn't think I looked all that worn myself, but it was a vote of confidence in the machine which was what was important.

He lifted it into the car for me and off I went.  Got home, and raced around the lawns with it.  Okay, that's an exaggeration, but got around them anyway, and in reasonably good time.  Yes, it took longer than the power mower, and it will take me a while to get the hang of how best to deal with some awkward edges, but it gave the lawns a very nice trim, tidy and even.

I'd been meaning to get a hand mower for years, and had been able to put it off since we came to live here due to the generosity of our landlord who has let us use his motor mower free of charge, petrol included.  Although I have appreciated that very much, I've always felt guilty about it, guilty because it's a modestly sized flat section and nothing awkward about it or the grass.  There was absolutely no reason to use a power mower when a hand mower is all that could possibly be required. 

A good quality hand mower, properly sharpened and set, should do most lawns.  When I was a girl I used to mow our hillside lawns which were much more extensive than these ones, and think nothing of it.  Although the purchase has left me rather lighter in the pocket than I expected, I'm very pleased, and happy to recommend it, finally being able to do so with a clear conscience. 

Now, about that electric car...  Hmm, maybe a bicycle will have to be ahead of that on the list.

Later note: Matthew Walker contributed these comments about electric cars via e-mail:
"The problem with the electric cars is where the electricity comes from. A hybrid is definitely an improvement over petrol as the battery is charged from wasted energy. However with an electric car it all depends on the power plant. If it’s a coal plant then coal is even more polluting than petrol! I guess in NZ most electricity is clean, but I can’t help wondering if coal plants get fired up as demand increases. It’s a complicated issue and there’s never a straightforward answer."
Good point, Matthew, I hadn't thought of that!

For overseas readers: Most power in New Zealand comes from hydroelectric schemes with coal and gas-fired Huntly being the big exception.  Moving away from dependence on fossil fuels is going to require many small but determined steps.  However, for those who have relatively easy care lawns there need be no such conflict! 

Friday, 20 August 2010

Egg and chips anyone? Oven chips can be crisp, healthy and delicious ~

Making your own oven chips is easy and yummy.  If you can't think what to have for dinner or want comfort food, oven chips can provide the basis of a warming and satisfying meal.  It's also a healthy choice: very little oil is used and each of the very simple ingredients is of your own choosing.

Hot and tasty - my camera steamed up!

If the cooking time seems too long to wait, consider the time and expense of getting the same thing from a fast food outlet: this is likely to take as long or longer, and not be nearly as nice as what you can make yourself with this easy method.  Is pre-prepared from a plastic bag courtesy of your local supermarket's freezer any better?  Why would you bother?  You might like to read the ingredients on the packet.  When I last looked at these in our supermarket only one brand used vegetable oil.  The rest included animal fat.  I much prefer to make my own - no plastics, less processing and food miles, and I know exactly what's in them, and it's all fresh.

I like to have as much local produce in my meals as possible and this one has a good amount - free range eggs (that's a poached egg, by the way), potatoes from the garden (when in season), and steamed rocket, a favourite green vegetable which grows abundantly all year round.  Rocket is tangy, either raw or cooked, and has a delicious sharp aroma and flavour which offsets the other flavours and textures well.  You can read more about rocket in my earlier article, 'Remarkable rocket'.  My one concession to pre-prepared food in the meal pictured here was a can of baked beans, well heated, which rounded out the meal nicely.  

To make oven chips the basis of a meal for two people with moderate appetites, you will need these ingredients:
  • Potatoes - 1 kilo / 2 pounds
  • Flour, plain or standard - 2 to 3 tablespoons
  • Vegetable oil - a few tablespoons
  • Salt to taste - about half a teaspoon.
You will also need a large metal baking tray - mine is 30 by 42 cms / about 12 by 17 inches, and a hot oven.

  • Potatoes can be prepared with or without their skins depending on your preference.
  • Chop them into lengths which are not much more or much less than half an inch or 1 cm through.
  • Preheat the oven to about 180 degrees Celsius.
  • Place the chopped potatoes into a large bowl or pot, whichever is easiest, and sprinkle the flour over them.  Toss them well until flour has coated them reasonably thoroughly.
  • Pour enough oil into the baking tray to cover the bottom with a few millimetres or about an eighth of an inch of oil.  I like to preheat this in the oven for a few minutes before the next step.
  • Spread your chips in the tray. There's no need to fuss too much about evenness.
  • Bake for about twenty minutes.
  • Take them out and with a spatula or two toss the chips a bit and salt them lightly.
  • Cook for a further ten minutes or until nicely browned and smelling good.
  • You will not need to drain the chips or toss them on paper towels.
Serve and eat immediately.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Winter warmth with polar fleece ~

Polar fleece is often associated with drab clothing of the shapeless variety, but it needn't be.   Garments made from well chosen fabrics and suitable sewing patterns can look smart and colourful.   

Note: this pattern is 'fast and easy'
I love this jacket for the cheer it gives me whenever I put it on.  The lipstick I bought to go with it adds to the sense of festivity and trousers of chocolate brown or denim blue set off the orange well.  Most of my clothes are less dramatic...

I discovered the value of polar fleece in a fit of desperation.  I had lived at the northern end of the country for many years where it is much warmer, and moving south I found the winter cold bitter.  Being cold renders me pretty much inoperable, so finding a quick, easy, low cost solution was essential.  Usually I prefer natural products such as wool and cotton.  However, at present neither matches polar fleece in the equation of warmth and thrift.

Since I couldn't find anything remotely suitable in the shops there was no choice but to make my own.  I'm a capable seamstress but hadn't made any clothes for years.  I got into a bit of a fluster about setting to work on my new outfit but was rewarded for my effort with a smart new jacket and pants.  I wore that suit day in and day out all that winter. 

This marked a transformation in how I felt about the coldest time of the year.  I began to enjoy it.  You can enjoy things when you're warm; one's whole world takes on a different complexion!  I remember seeing a news item about an American man whose Christmas ritual included buying up many pairs of gloves and giving them away to the poor, bless him.  He knew how hard it was to function well when ones hands are cold and I agree.  Clothing adequate for local conditions is a basic human requirement.

The quality of polar fleece fabric varies greatly:
Some very quickly takes a static charge* whereas others don't seem to at all; some stretch considerably and readily loose their shape and others stay much the same, and so on.  When I'm looking at it now I'm much more fussy about how each fabric feels and drapes.  Good quality fabric should feel soft.  A lesser quality may feel a bit hard or 'squeaky'.  I find it useful to imagine how it would be likely to look after a few washes. 

Sewing tips:
  • Given the bulkiness of the material the most suitable patterns will have a minimum of detail and layers.
  • Before cutting out pattern pieces it's a good idea to wash  the material as it may shrink.  It may also leak colour so wash it separately.  Further to this I've learnt to cut trousers long as one pair I made shrank after a number of washes, well after I'd cut off the excess I subsequently needed to let down!
  • Polar fleece usually has a 'nap' in the pile, by which I mean that the pile tends to lie in one direction.  
  • There is also usually a discernible difference between the upper and the underside of the fabric although often not much.  To be sure of getting an even result I cut all my pattern pieces to take this into account.  It would be a pity to discover later that parts of a garment had been cut wrong side out! 
  • Before ironing the actual garment, it can be helpful to iron some scrap material. and see how the fabric responds.  One garment I spent a lot of time on turned out to be poor quality, and the pile flattened permanently after ironing. 
  • Material that is particularly soft and stretchy should be stay-stitched, especially those seams around the seat of pants, where it may otherwise go out of shape.
  • Top-stitching is likely to look awful as I've found to my cost, and was then tricky to unpick.  Commercially sewn fleece garments are commonly top-stitched, but having compared my own efforts both with and without I have concluded that usually it looks better without it. 
However good the quality is, polar fleece is not a long lasting material.  Consistent wearing though one season is as long as it's likely to remain smart and it's important to recognise this and not spend too much time on complex patterns or lining.

These may seem like a lot of possible drawbacks, but I still find it absolutely worthwhile and wear my own garments constantly.  In the really cold weather, polar fleece trousers over full length under garments can't be beaten for warmth and comfort! 

All the practice I've had sewing this cosy. low cost material has been valuable and given me greater confidence about taking on other sewing projects of a more costly and durable nature. 

This mossy-looking fabric was a particularly good quality.  The creamy fabric on the right is pure wool.  I'll write about wool in a future article. 

* Note: Regarding static electricity in trousers, I've found that a light application of body lotion (on the legs!) solves the problem.

Link to a related article:

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Wintry wonders and watery windows ~

Poplar tree in front of a macrocarpa
I love winter.  Everything is stripped back to essentials, withdrawn from the bustle of the summer into a season of  inner reflection.  It's quieter too, with neighbours being indoors more, which suits me just fine.  I need the space and quiet to think my own thoughts, a different sort of creativity from labouring in the garden, harvesting fruit and vegetables and going on expeditions.  The frost gives the air a particular zest and I sleep better, all of which is good.  We have had no snow yet this winter, a relatively unusual occurrence this close to the coast, so this image is from an earlier year.

Further inland where winters are more harsh there have been glorious sights as these articles in the local paper show.  Be sure to click on the images to see them enlarged:
Deep freeze - ground temperature of minus 12.1 degrees Celcius
Skippers canyon - waterfall of ice
Glacier ice lift

Winter does of course bring with it mundane considerations which require practical attention:

Keeping warm indoors:
New Zealand houses are notoriously poor at keeping warmth in and cold out, and electricity, the main heating fuel, is relatively expensive.  The Community Energy Action website gives useful information about heating issues.  The World Health Organisation recommends that living areas be kept at 18 to 21 degrees Celsius and bedrooms at 16 degrees.  That sounds like luxury to me!  For many low income households this may be impossible. 

Dressing warmly is essential. 
I usually wear three pullover jerseys, polar fleece trousers as well as full length thermal under garments, fleece socks and shoes roomy enough to accommodate a bit of warm air.  Sometimes I wear a headscarf as well.  The effect might not be glamorous but usually I'm warm enough, which is the main thing!  Wearing this number of layers might sound excessive but is  fairly common this far south.

 Wiping condensation off the insides of windows helps reduce indoor moisture levels.
Regular readers may recall the mention of an implement which I recommended for keeping shower walls and doors dry.  It is also excellent for removing condensation from the insides of windows in the mornings. The water is then easily mopped up from the sill with an absorbent sponge or cloth.
Although our home is relatively dry, in winter the insides of the windows often acquire sheets of condensation overnight.  Here is a photograph I took one particularly cold morning when I found it had frozen!  

Despite all this winter can still be appreciated both indoors and out.  Throughout the months of heavy frosts and quite a lot of rain, the garden here has stayed fairly green and tidy.  Now however, it is looking decidedly shabby as the seed heads and long growth I left to stand over winter finally begin to decay.  In her book "The winter garden", Val Bourne emphasizes the value of leggy old plant growth which can  provide homes to insects wintering over.  She encourages gardeners to leave a selection to stand for this purpose.  I've enjoyed her book very much and now have much to consider about designing for future wintry elegance in my garden.  Meanwhile, my tulips are above ground and we may yet have snow!

Book shop details for interested NZ readers:
The Winter Garden: Create a Garden That Shines Through the Forgotten Season

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Triumph over pumpkin skins ~ and very tasty soup

Last summer our vege patch produced a crop of self-sown pumpkins of unknown origin which, though delicious, are impossible to get into without an axe!  I'm not joking.  It goes without saying that peeling them can't even be thought of, and since cooking makes the skins no softer and we had rather a lot of them a creative approach was required.

Please note: the axe shown here is a small one which New Zealanders refer to as a tomahawk, and I gather Americans refer to as a hatchet.

I came up with the idea of cooking the axe-cut portions in the steamer until the insides were cooked and then scooping it out with a stout spoon.

Brilliant - as long as you let it cool sufficiently before attempting to handle it!  From there it can go straight into the blender or food processor to get it liquefied properly with a little water.  One then has an excellent base for soups or stews.

I'm sure this approach would work equally well with more accessible sorts of pumpkins and save a lot of hard work chopping and slicing through thick skins.  I haven't had occasion to try it yet, but will certainly do so after we've eaten all these heavy duty ones!  We've come to refer to them as Great Southern Pumpkins; this is on account of their tough exteriors rather than their size as they are in fact quite small!

Here's the recipe for the soup we made last night:  I'll call it Great Southern Pumpkin Soup after the pumpkins used.  I'm sure it would be just as delicious made with pumpkins of any sort:
Pumpkin pulp - about 3 cups
Onions - 2
Garlic - 2 to 3 cloves
Cumin, ground - 1 teaspoon
Oregano, dried - 1 teaspoon
Soy sauce - a tablespoon or so
Tomato - I use a can of chopped tomatoes - 400 grams
Barley, cooked - about a cup - cooked measure.
As much water as is needed to make this a soup rather than a stew
Salt and pepper if desired.
Method: liquefy pumpkin pulp in a blender or food processor with enough water so that the machine can do this without struggling.  Sauté chopped onions and garlic in a little oil.  Add cumin and oregano and allow to cook a little more.  Add tomato and soy sauce, then the pumpkin purée and barley.  Season further with salt and pepper if you wish.  Add more water to get the consistency you want.  Check seasoning and serve hot.  Yummy with fresh bread and cheese!

It tastes as good as it looks!

If you've made more than you need it freezes well and can be a quick warming meal another day.

A fast, convenient way to have barley, lentils and beans pre-prepared:
I cook a whole potful of this sort of thing at a time and after draining them and allowing them to cool, pack them into plastic containers which go into the freezer.  These are easily defrosted when desired which greatly reduces time spent on food preparation.  To defrost:
  • stand the container on the bench and allow it to defrost by itself
  • place the contents into a sieve and run under the hot tap 
  • placed the contents into a sieve and stand it in a bowl of hot water.
  • Depending on what you're adding it to the contents can be added directly to other hot ingredients where it will rapidly defrost and the grains or beans crumble apart  
...all of which is easy.  Bon appetit!

Later note added on 8th October 2010 and a second recipe for you - very fast and easy:
A store of these pumpkins lasted us through the winter and only recently started to spoil.  I caught most these remaining ones in time, chopped them open with the axe and popped them into the steamer.  There was more pumpkin there than we needed just then so I pushed the pulp of the remainder through a sieve and packed it into the freezer in a few medium sized yoghurt pots each of which held perhaps a couple of cupfuls. 

We had a wintry day today and we felt like a warming soup this evening, and being even more in need of a quick solution than usual I decided to try making a home-made equivalent of packet soup.  It turned out really well so I'm recording the details here for future reference - for myself or anyone else who's interested:

Ingredients and method:
  • One tin of chopped tomatoes - 400 grams - emptied into a pot
  • One of the tubs of frozen pumpkin as described above tipped still frozen into the above
  • 1/2  to 1 cup of water to dilute the purée according to taste
  • In a separate pot heat
    • 1 tablespoon of oil, heat it and add to it
    • 1/2 teaspoon of curry powder - more or less according to taste
    • 1/2 teaspoon or so of marjoram
    • 1/2 teaspoon or so of basil
    • 1 teaspoons of soy sauce
    • salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the spices and herbs very lightly, add some of the tomato to it, cook a little more, then combine with the heating tomato and defrosting pumpkin purée.  By the time it's defrosted it's ready to eat.  I served it hot in a cup with a dollop of low fat sour cream.  It was very tasty!