My husband, James Duft, is the programming director for our Mother Earth News Fairs, a series of hands-on celebrations of sustainable living. This year will be the first one we’ve had in Lawrence, Kansas, where we live. A couple months ago, we met for coffee and breakfast with a few of our city leaders as he started developing content plans for the Fair. It was a fortuitous meeting, because we met Ian Spomer, sales director for Cromwell Solar, which is now leasing solar panels in Lawrence. As an editor for Natural Home & Garden (now transitioned into Mother Earth Living), I had talked to and featured many people who had financed solar panels, most notably Matthew Grocoff, the host of GreenovationTV, who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He made the good point that “most people can walk into a car dealership and walk out with a $25,000 car and financing. Yet navigating solar rebates, tax credits, incentives and financing requires an advanced degree. Investing in solar should be as easy as buying a car.” (Read about Matt's net-zero Michigan home.)
In California and many other places in the U.S., solar leasing has made investing in solar just about as easy as buying a car. Major companies such as SunRun and Sungevity have been making this opportunity available for years. But solar leasing didn’t exist in Kansas—until now. Using a solar lease, the bank owns your solar panels and leases them to you for a period of 15 years. The first step is applying for the loan. Then the company determines how much solar you’ll need by pulling your electricity bills for the past year. In our case, our south-facing roof and smallish house meant that our solar array will be able to provide 98 percent of our energy needs. If we can cut back on energy use at all, we should be able to achieve 100 percent solar.
We will make payments to the bank, which is financing the panels, which will cost less than our current electric payments. The payments go up with inflation over the years of the lease, but less than the expected cost of electricity increases. At the end of the 15-year lease period, we buy out the remaining cost of the panels—contractually not more than $1,000. Then we own them and they continue producing free energy on our roof. The panels are under warranty for 25 years.
None of this requires a down payment. The bank gets big tax credits for financing the alternative energy; we get an expensive alternative energy system with bite-size payments we can afford. Of course, you may also be in the position to take out a loan and take advantage of tax credits on your own, but for us, this was a workable solution.
I can’t tell you how excited I was to come home to solar panels covering our roof! They’re not turned on yet—we’re awaiting a final inspection by the energy company. I am so excited for the day we start producing solar power!
Tomato season has hit Kansas, and our tomato plants are in full production mode—meaning tons of delicious garden-fresh tomatoes in just about everything we eat. But even so, we simply have too many to eat them all right now, and I want to save some of this summer deliciousness for later in the year.
Luckily, we have a food-freezing guide in our July/August issue, so I was ready to preserve some of our ripe fruit. Last year was the first year we had tons of tomatoes and I planned to try my hand at canning, but having a baby in the middle of August squashed those plans. So this is my first year of experimenting with preservation methods. I decided to try the very easy instructions for stewing tomatoes Barbara Pleasant recommended in our Guide to Freezing Food (instructions below).
I thought the peeling part would be a task, but it was actually incredibly easy. After being dunked into a big pot of boiling water, the skins peeled off easily. Then I dumped out the water and put the quartered tomatoes back into my stockpot over medium heat. 20 minutes of cooking and voila—supersimple stewed tomatoes bursting with flavor. I started with probably 30 tomatoes and got six 8-ounce jars of stewed tomatoes. I put them in the freezer this time because I was in a rush. Next time I’m going to try water-bath canning so I don’t have to worry about defrosting before using.
3-Step Stewed Tomatoes
1. Put fresh tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds. Let cool briefly and peel loosened skins.
2. Cut into quarters, put into a large pot over medium heat and add about a cup of water.
3. Cook for 20 minutes, then turn off heat. Let cool, transfer to jars and either freeze or can.
Last June after the Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington, my husband, James, baby, Julian, and I traveled down to Portland. I was going to the home of Cara and Jason Hibbs of Oh, Little Rabbit to photograph them and their home for a feature next spring. We’d booked a place to stay via Airbnb, but we didn’t know the homeowners had a cat and James is allergic, so we had to make last-minute plans. Lucky for us, we were very near The Kennedy School, one of 65 properties in the McMenamins chain of brewpubs, microbreweries, music venues, historic hotels and theaters.
For those of you on the West Coast, this is probably old news, but many people around the rest of the country may not have heard of the chain—which is based mainly in Portland but also has locations around Oregon and Washington. The Kennedy School is an old elementary school that’s been converted to a hotel, replete with a movie theater (free to hotel guests but also open to the public), a wonderful restaurant with a gorgeous outdoor courtyard, a heated outdoor soaking pool, a variety of bars including a cigar lounge and more. Each room is decorated with vintage décor with dim lighting via antique chandeliers and heavy wooden headboards (ours was painted with an owl).
We had such a great time we were sad to have to check out after two nights because they were all booked up. But, luckily for us, there are many more McMenamins locations, so we simply transferred our stuff to Edgefield. In Troutdale (about 20 minutes from Portland), Edgefield was build in 1911 as the county poor farm. It has a vineyard, huge organic gardens, a golf course, and a variety of restored historic buildings. The food—available from four different restaurants on site—is spectacular, the grounds are gorgeous. The rooms don’t include any televisions or phones, but you won’t miss them. Instead, visit the on-site spa and outdoor pool or watch live music at the outdoor pub. You can also watch on onsite glass-blower and potter at work or take in a movie at the on-site theater (family-friendly, the hotel offers a “Mommy Matinee” where kids can come and no one minds a little fussing).
I’m a huge fan of the restoration of old buildings (my book, Housing Reclaimed, is all about homes built from reclaimed materials), so the McMenamins properties were so up my alley. They truly defined our trip to the Portland area and we had so much fun. I highly recommend anyone visiting Portland consider staying at one of these excellent historic properties!
All photos courtesy McMenamins
With my herb garden’s bounty in end-of-summer explosion mode, I’ve been experimenting with ways to preserve my herbs. One delicious mode of experimentation I dove into further last weekend—with excellent results—was freezing herbs by way of popsicle. I encourage you to experiment. You have nothing to lose but maybe some less-than-stellar popsicles as the result of your experimentations (even the ones that come out bad are pretty good). I bought a bunch of fruits, picked a bunch of herbs and had a few kinds of organic yogurt on hand. Here are three of our best combinations (did I mention, these are wholeheartedly kid-approved!).
Mix about one cup of frozen strawberries with about 1/4 cup white sugar or honey and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar. Mash the mixture up a little bit and let it sit for 10 to 30 minutes. Add a couple large spoonfuls of vanilla yogurt and about 20 basil leaves and mix with a hand blender (or in the blender). Pour into popsicle molds, let freeze for 4 hours and enjoy.
First, de-stem and pit about one cup of dark bing cherries. Combine with vanilla yogurt and about 15 mint leaves. We used spearmint, but you could use any. Blend with a hand blender or in the blender. Pour into popsicle molds, let freeze for 4 hours and enjoy.
Basil Lemonade Popsicles
Squeeze the juice from two whole lemons into a blender or the container of a hand blender. Add about 20 basil leaves and a couple heaping spoonfuls of plain Greek yogurt. Add about 1/4 cup sugar, then keep adding to taste. Once you’ve achieved the sweetness you want, pour into popsicle molds, freeze for four hours and enjoy.
If your garden is anything like mine, you are dealing with a basil explosion right about now. Basil is one of my favorite herbs, but no matter how much Caprese salad or pesto I make, it seems there is always more than I know what to do with. So I’ve been looking into good ways to use and preserve my supply. Here are a few favorites:
1. Basil Popsicles
To me, basil screams summer. And what goes better with summer than popsicles?? Search the internet, and you’ll find a huge variety of yummy-sounding recipes. This one from the blog Deliciously Organic yields a fresh and tasty treat that includes fresh basil, raw honey and organic yogurt.
Get the recipe to make these delicious treats from the blog Deliciously Organic!
2. Basil Beverages
For my friend’s strawberries-and-cream-themed bachelorette party early this summer, we made these delicious strawberry-basil-champagne cocktails that were a huge hit. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with basil beverages. They come in many varieties, are amazingly refreshing, and seem fancier and more complicated than they really are.
This recipe for basil limeade is perfect for summer.
3. Frozen Basil
When I’ve made all the basil recipes I can think of, I turn to preserving this summertime treat to enjoy all year. Last year, I exclusively froze basil as pesto—delicious, but somewhat more labor-intensive than I’d like for a superquick preservation job. This year I’ve made some pesto to freeze, but more frequently I’ve been taking the easy route: Chop some fresh basil, mix it with some olive oil, blend briefly with the hand-mixer and pour into ice-cube trays. If I’m feeling extra lazy, I will just chop the fresh herb, put it in ice-cube trays, cover with a bit of water and freeze. This winter, I will just pop the herb cubes into sauces, soups or casseroles for some summer flavor.
Kaitlin Jones, president of Living Whole Foods and mom of three young kids, sent me this recipe the other day and I had to share it! Vegan and chock-full of vitamins, this tasty meal is perfect for a weeknight family dinner. Try it and let us know what you think!
Cashew Alfredo Pasta
• 1 cup raw dry cashews
• 2 1/2 cups water
• 1 1/2 tablespoons onion, divided
• 1/4 red bell pepper, chopped
• 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
• 4 cloves minced garlic, divided
• 1 tablespoon miso
• 5 mushrooms, sliced
• 1 to 2 tablespoons coconut oil
• Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
• Your favorite noodles
1. In a blender or food processor, blend cashews until they are finely ground.
2. To the cashews in the blender, add water, 1 tablespoon onion, bell pepper, nutritional yeast and 3 cloves of garlic and blend until smooth, creating the sauce.
3. Pour cashew sauce into a sauté pan over medium heat.
4. In a separate pan, sauté the remaining 1/2 tablespoon onion, 1 minced clove of garlic, miso and sliced mushrooms in coconut oil for about 5 minutes.
5. Mix sauté into sauce, season with salt and pepper, and serve over your favorite noodles! Serves five.
I love St. Patty’s Day mainly because it’s the first holiday of the year during which we might be blessed with warm, springy weather here in Kansas. I’ve often been known to take the day off work and go downtown to watch the parade, then to my favorite outdoor music venue, where they always have bands playing all afternoon, along with green beer and traditional Irish dishes. With a nursing baby, this year I probably won’t be indulging in much Irish ale, but I am still hoping to celebrate the day with a few Irish favorites. Luckily, we have three excellent St. Patrick’s Day recipes in our archives.
1. Sweet Potato Colcannon
Made with sweet potatoes, leeks and collard greens, this yummy take on the traditional dish offers high levels of vitamins A, C and K—plus plenty of fiber. Bonus: It only requires six ingredients (plus salt and pepper)!
Get the recipe.
2. Herby Beer Bread
Infused with Guinness and topped with lavender, rosemary and mint, this hearty bread offers a nonalcoholic way to enjoy dark, bold Irish beer.
Get the recipe.
3. Asparagus Spears in Phyllo
OK, so this one isn’t Irish at all, but with the start of spring comes asparagus season, so I think we could make a wonderful new tradition out of eating asparagus at St. Patrick’s Day get-togethers. This easy recipe makes a perfect finger-food... plus, it’s green, right? If you prefer not to make the mint aioli dipping sauce from scratch (although it will taste so good), just bruise some fresh mint leaves, chop them up and add them to store-bought mayo.
Get the recipe.