Making a good gift for your child leaving for university

The main premise of this blog post is about creating value using beauty, goodness and benefit.  So I was wondering how to make a suitable gift for my son who is leaving home for University.  In the UK, this is the time of departures for Universities, of leaving the nest and so emotionally this will be a sea change for us and him.  I wanted him to have something that was homemade and practical.  It was his birthday as well this month.  So I made him a cook book and a ‘cooking tool kit’.  It was in the form of two things- a cookbook (the software as I call it) and the toolkit (the hardware!)- plates, utensils, tools, etc.  It took me almost a year of planning and making, so here are the steps-

  1. The cookbook– This is actually a photo album that I found in a charity shop.  In it are my cooking, healthy living, and money saving tips, his favourite recipes and photos of him cooking as a baby and child.  I did a cull of photographs which was something I had to do anyway and found a treasure trove of photos that reminded me of the recipes that he has always loved. Of course, coming from mum, the tips and recipes have corny titles! So the making the recipe book also served many other purposes.
  2. The toolkit– Over the year, I ‘retired’ several items from the kitchen and cooked without them, just to get used to not having them.  These included cooking and serving spoons, bowls, pans, etc.  I rang up my son’s University and asked them what facilities he was going to have in his kitchen and based on what he liked to cook, I added some new items- either from charity shops or bought at sales.  Some items had even been picked up from the street!  Some items were repurposed from ready meals such as the china bowls from an environmentally responsible brand that makes chilled food and glass shot glasses from a French yoghurt brand.  These ready made food items were also reduced so this made for a double reduction!  Some items are also ones that came from my University days thirty years ago.  Most items can be used in at least two different ways, for example the wooden tray can be used as a serving tray, a rolling board and a chopping board.  Obviously this took a lot of planning and thought.

IMG_9679These items were then packed into his dad’s old rock n’roll box.  The final toolkit looked like this when packed.  All neatly tidied up into boxes and bags, using tissue and paper and strong bags I had saved up.

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I know that some items might not come back and I am happy with that. Life is about loss.  There are items I haven’t put in, deliberately- I need him to make some effort too which I I know he will.  At least I know I have set him up, food wise!

Let me know if you’ve done similar things for your child when they headed off to University.

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Launch of Energy Gardens

A recent project carried out by my charity, Charushila, where I have used the principles of Value Creation- Beauty, Goodness and Benefit

The Canny Gardener

I have written previously about the garden we were working on the station platform at Acton Central Station, West London.  We finally had a grand launch on Friday with members of the community, our work partners- Repowering London, Groundwork Trust and Arriva (the train company) and the local Member of Parliament.  The garden is complete with ornamental and food sections- from which the local community can freely take away what they need, as long as they leave something for others!  The centre piece of the project consists of a large ornamental bed featuring a stone plaque with the encouraging words of Nichiren, a 13th century Buddhist philosopher, ‘Winer always turn to spring’.  These words are not just about seasons but also about finding hope and inspiration.  The bed is also a tribute to a station staff, well loved by the users of the station and local community, who died suddenly…

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Why I don’t need apps to reduce food waste

Recently many apps have been in the news for reducing food waste- it seems in the digital age, we need our smartphones to tell not not waste food and share food.  But food waste is a relatively new phenomenon.  In the past, nothing really went to waste, despite not having fridges or freezers.  In my village, food was cooked fresh and as there were no fridges, it was stored for a few hours. Usually most of it got eaten, if not by us, it was distributed to the rest of the village.  Anything leftover after that was given to the cows, dogs, chickens, ducks and compost heap. I never saw any rotting mounds of food anywhere and generally everyone looked happy and healthy.  Even when we went there for our summer holidays of two months, we put on weight as we were generally malnourished in the city. I have also lived in communes and villages in the UK and have not seen wasted food.

So it seems food waste is an urban problem, which is where these apps come in. I also see many homeless and hungry people in the cities all over the world.  So there are people wasting food while there are people wanting food, similar to how I see there are people with second homes while some have none.  It isn’t an equitable world.

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We’ve had people sleeping here and foraging food from these rubbish bins

I’ve given to food banks and donated to charities which distribute food to the poor, and helped at soup kitchens which I think is a better way to do things.  Apps don’t really solve the problem of poor people going hungry, they are for the rich. So I think for those of us who have more than enough, there could be ways of reducing our waste.  This could not only help our bank balances but also the environment.  Here are some ways that I have done so-

  1. Using up all bits, i.e. roots to shoots cooking-  Some of my recipes use the broccoli stems, carrot leaves, beetroot leaves, potato skins and stems of greens such as summer greens, cabbage, etc.
  2. Using water left over from boiling pasta and vegetables- these make useful and healthy soup stocks and the pasta water is also very useful for mixing flours for bread and chapati making.
  3. Many preserves and pickles come in olive oil or salted water and these can be re-used.  The sardine or anchovy olive oil can be used with pasta or bread- it makes lovely base for bruschetta.  The salted water or brine can be used in the preparation. I’ve also used up the lemony mixture in the preserved lemons bottle in a chicken bake that had a Moroccan twist.  The vinegar that comes with olives has been used for ‘washing’ lamb that makes the strong smell disappear.
  4. I’ve saved up the fat from cooking bacon and burgers and used those for further cooking.  Sometimes I’ve added the pasta water to the hot pan with the lovely bacon fat and then put that away for freezing. The beauty of this is that the starch in the water soaks the fat away and it makes it quicker to clean.
  5. I use bits of bread to make croutons for soups and spicy mixes to sprinkle over baked potato, cabbage and spinach.  Birds can also have leftover stale bread
  6. Seeds and lentils can be used to make bird feed if you don’t want those.
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    Spicy Indian preparation with carrot and beetroot leaves, along with bits of broccoli stems and carrots

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    Even the stems of the lettuce can be used to grow more!
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Pasta and vegetable water are always in my fridge and freezer to make soups and bread

Sometimes I’ve used a tiered cooking arrangement that soaks away the fat and cooks food with it.  You see, my way is the lazy way to cook and clean!

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The fat from the sausage cooks the green below and saves them from being scorched.

I also carry ‘doggy bags’ for uneaten foods at restaurants and events- I’ve been told that much of the food at events gets thrown away after four hours because apparently that is when the food goes off.

Remember the best way to stop food waste is not to have food waste in the first place.

 

 

 

How to drink less tea and coffee

I don’t drink much tea or coffee to confess outright.  It used to be one cup of either in the morning and one cup in the afternoon for a long time.  Then I started to feel dissatisfied and started to have more tea but it was never enough.  As I buy the best quality organic tea and coffee- loose tea and coffee beans- it was also quite an expensive habit. Again, I had to go and get these products from specific shops, so there was the additional time/cost element to it.  I was suffering from poor sleep as well- perhaps even that little bit more caffeine was bad for me?  So I thought- is a there a way of cutting down on these?  Again, going back to the three basic points of sustainability- could I save money, save the environment and save my own health? I also wanted to do this in a pain free way because I know if you are deprived of something, you crave it.

I had read about the Konmari method sometime back when her books came out.  Something seemed to resonate in that and I thought of trying to drink out of cups that I really loved. I got rid of cups I didn’t like and got out two that I really liked.  One was a charity shop find while the other was found on the street- perhaps someone else did not like it!

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I had stored both cups away- always for a good time, for another time.  Yet, time was passing me by while I was drinking out of cups that I didn’t like and not enjoying the drinks either.  I had in the past, tried drinking out of other smaller cups but didn’t like them.   To my surprise I found that by drinking out of these cups, not only was I drinking less but also enjoying drinking the tea and coffee, so much that I didn’t need another cuppa.  It is the same tea and coffee but tastes so much nicer- I wonder of the spark of joy that Konmari often talks about can be had in drinks as well.  I have also changed to eating out of plates that I love and I have found that I eat less as a result and enjoy my food more!  Imagine if people who wanted to lose weight tried to eat out of plates they loved- they’d eat less simply by eating with joy out of a plate they loved. Or if someone wanted to reduce alcohol consumption, and they drank out of a well loved glass (I don’t know- might work!)  Also, I reduced my waste as I made less tea and coffee, and drank all of it.

Visiting a tea estate brought upon me the hardship that the women who pick tea leaves for us go through- they work from 7-30 in the morning to 5-30 in the evening in the baking sun or rain.  Sipping tea now makes me really grateful for this work that these women do and makes tea drinking time very precious.  I drink less of it naturally as I enjoy it more.  Also, as a side benefit, my teeth which had become stained are now shining again like pearls!

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If you should try this method, please do let me know in the comments below if this worked for you- many thanks!

Making sense of yoghurt

My mother never bought yoghurt in India while I had always been buying yoghurt in the UK.  I was sort of okay with that until I realised how much waste I was creating and as we eat a lot of organic yoghurt at home, it was also costing us. So I looked at how I could make yoghurt at home.  Googling the topic I came across yoghurt makers, yoghurt cultures, thermometers and many other things that I need to buy in order to make yoghurt.  But I wondered how I could make yoghurt without buying any gadgets, like my mother did?  So I did some research and here is what I do.  I use my senses- eyes, touch and nose rather than gadgets to create this yoghurt.

The most important thing is the temperature of the yoghurt while setting- the starter culture of live bacteria need a incubation range of 110°F to 115°F or 43° to 46°C.  Most yoghurt makers say that you should check this temperature with a thermometer.  But what if you did not want to buy that either?  I read that skin starts to form on the milk at 113° to 122° F(45° to 50° C) when it is heated.  So what I do is heat the milk and wait until the skin forms.  Then I remove the skin and wait again for about 5-10 minutes. (I can test the milk temperature by putting a drop on my palm. If it is just bearably hot, then it is above my body temperature of 98° F or 37° C).  But I find that removing the skin thrice in about 5-10 minutes does the trick.

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I mix about 60 grams of organic yoghurt (I use Yeo valley yoghurt but there must be equivalent in other countries) with half litre of the warmed milk.  I then place the container in a wooden box and cover with blankets and towels. I also use an insulated glass panel found on the street, to cover the top.  About four hours later, the yoghurt is ready.  Make sure your container is clean and freshly washed, otherwise the milk will curdle when heated.  People who have had my home made yoghurt say it is delicious and my children do not want to eat shop bought yoghurt again! You can keep aside a bit of the yoghurt to make a starter culture for the next batch of yoghurt but after awhile you will need to purchase a small amount of shop bought yoghurt again as the culture starts to get ‘diluted’ with use.

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Cost of buying 1 kg organic yoghurt= £2.75

Cost of making 1 kg organic yoghurt by my method= about £1.28 (assuming 1 litre=1kg and taking into account some heating and the price of the bought yoghurt). Plus no waste. If not using bought yoghurt, then the cost would similar to the price of 1L milk from Tesco, i.e. around £0.97/ L

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The yoghurt is ready!

Mindful cooking and happy eating

I love cooking and even though I have a chronic illness and suffer from tiredness and pain, I feel it is something I can do and actually enjoy it!  So over the years, I have devised ways to cook well, easily and cheaply.  The money saving is essential because the ingredients I use are organic and fresh, and cost much more than conventional stuff. Also, obviously it has to be healthy cooking too.  So money has to be saved in other ways. So here are my top 20 tips. You may not agree with all of them and some of these go against ‘conventional wisdom’, so please feel free to comment below.

  1. Eat between the hours of 8-00 am and 8-00pm.  Apparently this the optimum time for food to be digested properly as the body clock starts slowing down. In fact, it starts to do that by 6-00pm but as I usually don’t finish work by then and have to cook from fresh, the food is not ready until about 7-30pm.  Try to make your first meal the biggest and the last one the smallest and don’t snack in between.
  2. Oil is one of the most expensive ingredients, so use it sparingly. It is also healthier to use less oil. On the other hand, I use butter and ghee for cooking too. I have found that these ingredients add a richness to bland starchy foods such as pasta, potato, breads and rice so that you end up eating less of such foods. A dollop of butter in pasta sauce adds amazing flavour.
  3. Put a lid in the food that is cooking- it makes it cook faster, save energy and therefore cheaper, and the flavours get locked into the food by doing so.
  4. Eat seasonally and fresh- so that the ingredients will be cheaper and have more flavour.  More flavour also mean that less salt and other condiments will be needed to make the food more tasty.
  5. I don’t agree with the concept of mise en place, i.e. getting all the ingredients ready and then cooking, for all types of cooking.  Stir frying is one example where this technique would be useful.  But the leaving the chopping until you are ready to cook is better as the ingredients are fresher.  I often let the oven or pan warm up while I am preparing the vegetables.
  6. We don’t eat ready prepared desserts anymore. Not only are they expensive, wrapped in plastic but also do not taste nice.  We might have healthier desserts such as fruits or my homemade yoghurt or even a piece of dark chocolate.
  7. This trick I learnt from my grandmother- no more than three flavours together.  This gives such a clean but tasty flavour.
  8. We have at least one component of the meal that helps with digestion as I have real problems. So we can have yoghurt or fermented vegetables (kimchi) or sauerkraut along with the main course.
  9. The bulk of the food is vegetables, with about 30% meat or other protein.
  10. Clean up as you go along, putting away items in the dishwasher/sink for washing and removing peels and other waste from the work surface. It makes tidying up later much easier.  One pot cooking is marvellous- so much less to wash up and also saves money.
  11. I cook in steps. So I might marinade something a day earlier or defrost something couple of day earlier and so on. Some of the cooking such as gravy or fried vegetables might have been made earlier.
  12. Always have something in the freezer that can be defrosted the day before so that you can eat as soon as you can, instead of rushing to get a chilled meal from the supermarket.  It has been many years since I’ve had a supermarket meal and now if I have a small mouthful, I realise how ghastly they taste.  I suppose our tastebuds get used to such food and only until you’ve had a good long break, that you realise that these foods have no flavour at all- mostly salt and sugar to give it some.
  13. Find ways to reduce food waste.  So I use the potato skins, broccoli stems, bottoms of lettuce, carrot or radish leaves, etc. (I will put some recipes later on).IMG_4358.JPG Even with meat, there is hardly any waste- only after using the bones to make broth, I throw them away.  I don’t have a big composter (I have a home made composter which can only handle a small amount each time) or a garden, but our bodies are the best composters.  Avoiding buying foods that have parts that need to be thrown away is also good.  But some are inevitable such as lemons and bananas. So I will use the skins of the lemons for making washing up liquid or lemon zest. Banana skins can be used for polishing shoes and wood but I don’t like the smell and these skins tend to be my biggest throw aways. If you have a garden composter, then you can be a bit more wasteful.
  14. You can wash out ketchup, jam and sauce bottles with water and add that flavoured water to soups or curries. Then your bottle is also ready for recycling. Soups are nourishing and filling- you tend to eat less if you have the liquid and solid together as with soup.
  15. Many bloggers advise buying in bulk. I live in a flat and there is little space to store sacks of grains or pasta. Also I have found that spices lose their flavour if kept for too long. So buy little and often. It might be more expensive but it is better value.
  16. I have problems cutting hard vegetables such as pumpkins and squashes. So I bake them whole and make soups or mashes out of those.  The seeds can be dried and eaten.
  17. This is a great trick I learnt- if some of the ingredients have been in the fridge and freezer, take them out so that they are at room temperature before you cook them. Not only does it save energy but also improves flavour.
  18. I get my vegetables and meat delivered from the farm- local, seasonal and fresh. This saves me trudging from the supermarket carrying bags of shopping which I can’t really do.  It is also expensive. I can plan out the meal for the week depending on what I receive- so it also saves time and money.  Also there is less packaging to deal with as these come with hardly any and if they do, they are taken away by the delivery company. One less thing to do!
  19. I try not to have drinks with food. I keep them separate.  Juices can be expensive. Water is good enough!
  20. Finally, try to eat mindfully with those you love. My uncle used to say that food eaten in good company always tastes better!

Living an ecological life with long term illness- part I

I suffer from an incurable debilitating illness which can suddenly cause blood clotting. It has given me five miscarriages and a stroke while also causing tiredness and pain on a daily basis.  You may find I don’t post regularly- this is why.  So I work flexibly from my home and go out only when there are meetings with other colleagues.  While restricting my income and ambitions considerably, in some ways, it has also been a gift.  I’ve had to learn to save money, find ‘easy’ ways of going about daily life and while doing so, I found that I could also be ecological.

For one, before I start, I can’t live a ‘zero waste’ life style- I have waste that can’t be recycled or re-used easily for contamination reasons, for example plastic blister packs with foil backs, bandaging, wipes, etc.  I also need to regularly clean areas such as the bathroom and toilet and throw the wipes.  So here is a photo of a small bag of such items- for scale, I have put the fork next to the bag. This is rubbish that is non organic and can’t be composted that I have collected in one month that will need to be thrown ( I will save the bag for another use once I have thrown the contents).

IMG_4397.JPGBut you might agree that this is a very small amount for a month, right?

Being ill and being ecological are not mutually exclusive- there are many things one can do.  For those who are lucky to be perfectly healthy, these will work even better.  So here are the ideas that I have been using for many years.

  1. Keep your horizontal surfaces clean and clear and get rid of (or store) small items that need constant dusting. This is the quickest way to appear tidy!  I have used a sheep skin duster which I’ve had for about 25 years for this. This duster can be washed using the dishwasher liquid (see below). Some linen scraps are also good for dusting but not for wiping.
  2. I have found that cotton cloths from old clothes, particularly underwear, can be cut up and used for wiping.  Old clean socks are also good for cleaning and you can put your hand inside the sock to get to difficult areas such as window blinds and corners. I never buy kitchen paper, dish cloths or any other kind of cleaning cloths or wipes.
  3. I don’t use wipes for cleaning toilets- I spray tap water using an old spray bottle and then wipe clean with toilet paper which can be flushed away.  Wipes have been known to clog up sewerage systems in London and should not be used. Spray bottles containing water and perhaps a few drops of tea tree oil and lavender are lovely to use and help to combat infection while keeping the area smelling beautifully.
  4. I make my own dish cleaning liquid the lazy way.IMG_4277.JPGThis made by soaking orange or lemon peels in vinegar for about 4-6 weeks and then adding half measure of washing up liquid. This is less expensive than using pure washing up liquid and also smells lovely apart being very effective.  The peels can be used to clean the sink or oven surface and then either composted or thrown- they are quite reduced in mass after all this.
  5. You can tidy up a small areas daily as and when needed– the most used areas get untidier faster.  I tidy up the living/dining areas and kitchen as they are used the most and also tend to hoover the stairs. Then there isn’t a huge big tidy up needed if people turn up. If I see a place that is dusty or untidy, then I dust or tidy it- I don’t have a regular schedule. I find that most of the time, visitors don’t notice anything!
  6. I use an Indian grass broom, Jharu, to clean the floor.  Unless the there are difficult to reach places which necessitate the use of the vacuum cleaner which can be difficult for me to manoeuvre, I use the Jharu.  These can be found in Indian shops (there are ‘Western equivalents’ but not as effective).  IMG_4402.JPG
  7. I haven’t bought bin bags for years, I simply use the bags/packets I get from my grocery shopping to put rubbish as these would have to be thrown anyway.  So, for example, the frozen fish comes in plastic bags which can’t be recycled, so I use them as bin bags.  (For those who ask why I don’t take my own container to the fishmonger, I don’t buy ‘fresh’ fish anymore because they are least fresh. Unless you’ve caught them yourself, most of these so called fresh fish are actually defrosted fish and they start to decompose when displayed at the fishmonger’s shop window. These fresh fish are also more expensive.)  My recycled toilet paper also comes in plastic packaging but I use that plastic as a larger bin bag.
  8. As another example of ‘secondary use‘, I use water left from cleaning other things to use for more cleaning before throwing it.  So if I clean out my dishwashing liquid bottle, then the water from that can be used to clean the sink or washbasin.  Shampoo bottles can be rinsed before recycling and that water used to clean the bathtub.  Rice or lentil water, i.e. water used for cleaning these, can be used to clean low grease items such as the sink or plates.
  9. Don’t be afraid of using the dishwasher- the modern dishwashers are energy and water efficient and can be quicker and better than hand washing.  Some of my utensils that are cast iron or brass hand me downs from my maternal grandmother need to be hand washed and I use the left over hot water from making tea or coffee to wash them.
  10. I buy clothes that don’t need dry-cleaning and even if the label says ‘Dry cleaning’ I will try to use the washing machine on it.  I have spoilt a few clothes, I admit, but by not using the dry cleaners, I have made much of a saving!
  11. I generally use the washing machines at the lowest possible setting for the shortest time– usually about 53 minutes at 30C for clothes and 27 minutes for the dishwasher. Once in awhile, I will put a cup of vinegar and turn on the dishwasher for the highest temperature setting- this gives it a good clean.  You can also do this for the clothes washing machine using a three table spoons of bicarb.
  12. I have a steam cleaner that I use for deep cleaning the bathroom.  This doesn’t need any chemicals and while doing the cleaning, I get the benefit of steaming my face and nose too along with some exercise.
  13. My cleaning equipment is very basic as I can’t lift much and my supplies are limited to Sodium bicarbonate, soda crystals, vinegar, eco-friendly laundry liquid and dish washing liquid.  I do use a small amount of bleach from time to time to disinfect and to clear stains.  To keep the sink pipes clean, put down some bicarbonate and then some vinegar (it will fizz) and then pour down a kettle of hot water.
  14. I don’t follow the advice, ‘If it is brown, flush it down; if it yellow, let it mellow.’ I found that my toilet bowls get stained if pee is left around too long and so I do flush- it is better than having to use bleach later to remove stains.  Dental tablets are excellent for removing limescale from toilets- I chuck couple of these and after half an hour or so, the toilet is free from lime scale.
  15. Finally, remembering that fresh air and sunlight are one of the best germ and insect killers and deodorisers.  Strong can also bleach away stains. Even in winter, I try to ‘air’ and sun the rooms when it is not raining.  Airing also helps to get rid of dust mites on the bed before it is remade.

As a quote attributed to Albert Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made simple, but not any simpler.’  My home is not minimalist– there are things that bring me joy and I keep them. So the tidying and cleaning is made simple but not any simpler so that the joys of seeing and remembering is lost in extreme minimalism.

Too much cleaning can be bad for health too- and not just from the work.  As a BBC report tells us, ‘being too clean is also wrong, because it might help cause asthma and allergies. So is there a balance between keeping obsessively clean and learning to live with the bacteria all around us?’  Quite so, that is the middle way which we can discover for ourselves, for our particular life styles.