Zero Waste Week – Day 2 – What Makes a Soup?

Growing up I only knew one kind of soup. It required chicken, white rice, carrots, celery, corn, cabbage, salt, pepper, comino, garlic powder, and part of a can of tomato sauce. That was the only soup I knew, so if I had planned to make soup for dinner and didn’t have one of those ingredients on hand, I ended up eating something else instead.

Well, that was just silly. Soup can be made from anything, and it’s a perfect way to use up random veg in your fridge.

So today, into a pot half-filled with water I added veggies that I had on hand: carrots, onion, bell pepper, garlic, and corn. At the last minute I also discovered a potato hiding away and threw it into the pot. There’s so much potential for food waste prevention here. I had a couple of bell peppers, so I chose the one that was slightly softer to add. (Sometimes bell pepper seeds add a nice texture, but unfortunately my pepper today was not seed-rich.) Got ugly carrots? Slicing and boiling them makes those cosmetic blemishes totally disappear.

For seasoning, I added the standard salt and pepper. Plus some red pepper flakes (I have a ton of flakes from pizza lunch leftovers at work), comino, coriander, and oregano. If I had other seasonings in my pantry, I’d use those instead. Just don’t add something like cinammon unless you’re really adventurous. We’re trying to keep food out of the trash, remember?

Did I need chicken? Not quite. Strangely, I saw two of them walking through different parts of the neighborhood on my way home from work today, but I wasn’t tempted to slaughter them for dinner.

Of course, if you have a half-eaten chicken leg in the fridge or other random leftovers, throw those in too. It’ll only add value.

Some people use mushrooms as a meat replacement. I had some in the fridge, as well as some chickpeas that were ready to go. I totally forgot about them. Did the soup suffer? Nope, it was still delish. (The shrooms and chickpeas will get eaten later this week, no worries.)

For carbs, I added a bit of everything–brown rice, wild rice blend, and also barley for texture. Every once in a while I’ll throw in a bit of quinoa because my husband loves it. Other times we’ll just throw in some kind of pasta. Pretty much anything will work here. The only thing is if you use something that generally cooks fast, wait a bit longer before throwing it in to keep it from getting too mushy.

That’s it! Water and whatever else you have on hand. That’s what makes a soup.

So good I ate most of it my bowl before snapping a picture. 🙂

What recipes do you have to help prevent food waste?


A Graduation Celebration, Or “The Day I Totally Pigged Out”

My oldest nephew graduated from high school today! I still remember him best as a small child, and it’s so strange to see him now ready to fully embark on the journey of independent life. He’s a lover of animals and a vegan, and has a beard the likes of which would definitely have kept him from walking back at my high school graduation (although it’s nothing compared to his dad’s).

Deciding on a gift was easy. My husband and I gave him cash. He recently earned an honor for Economics, so there’s some hope that he may use it wisely. 🙂

We didn’t go out and buy a five dollar greeting card for him. I could have made him a card from some nice paper that has printing on only one side, but I still had a pack of generic blank greeting cards that I picked up at Goodwill a while back. As it turns out, another family member needed a quick card, and we did make that one out of a sheet of paper that was laying around and some markers. It was a fair decision because later on, the graduate was happily counting all the cash he had received while the various cards were laying about totally neglected.

My cousin (his father) hosted the celebration party at their house. Many other relatives were there, and even my grandmother made it in to town for the festivities. But we were nowhere near enough people to eat the smorgasboard of food that unfolded before us. We started with crackers and hummus dip and chips with pico de gallo. There were vegan cookies. Someone brought chocolates. Then food started coming into the house from the grill. Burgers and sausage. It was surprising that with a vegan graduate there were no veggie burgers, but I was hungry and immediately gobbled up the beef delight before me. By that time, more food appeared and fortunately included many fruits of which I ate some pineapple, strawberries, and grapes. A batch of veggie kabobs made their way in, but those were specially for the birthday boy and not enough to go around. The trays kept coming, though. Some chicken kabobs. Shrimp kabobs. Being surrounded by food, I helped myself to a sausage burger. Within one hour I had eaten more meat than I would normally eat in a week! Then veggie burgers appeared, only after I was stuffed enough to avoid any more entrees. More veggie kabobs appeared, but those again were just enough for the graduate. So much food around me! One of the chicken kabobs also somehow disappeared into my mouth. After that, I kept nibbling for the duration of our stay, barely managing to stick to strawberries and grapes.

Oh, but it wasn’t just the excess of meats. (Or the fact that the kabobs were probably store-prepared and excessively wrapped on foam with plasticwrap in addition to the kabob stick.) The drinks that were available at the party were canned sodas and bottled water. I had considered bringing my own, but the auditorium where the graduation was held had a no outside food or drink policy and I was afraid they’d confiscate my favorite water bottle. I drank from the water fountain at the arena, but I was out much longer than anticipated and needed something more. Since bottled water is so repulsive to me, I opted for the soda. Full corn syrup. Full caffeine. Full plastic-lined can. In retrospect, bottled water is still probably better than canned soda in every respect — for the environment, for my health, for the wallet of my hosts.

So, there you have it. My confession of how I succumbed to the pressures of the day. It’s not so bad though. Another time, I might have eaten multiple burgers or several chicken kabobs. I might have really pigged out on the individually-wrapped chocolate candies instead of filling up on fruit. I could also have partaken in the cake and ice cream. This was moderation and progress. I can only hope that the ton of food left over also left an impression that maybe less food should be bought for the next time. Then again, in our family I’m not sure if there’s ever been a celebration where we didn’t all leave with achingly full bellies. We haven’t learned yet.

Book Review: The Third Plate

Dan Barber’s The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food is full of stories of people who are trying to create a more sustainable food future, from eating smaller fish to growing local grains. We haven’t gotten to this book yet in book club but I read it anyway because I’m curious to see what foods other people consider to be the most sustainable.


The stories are those of people who are working to create more sustainable versions of fois gras, Iberico ham, fish farms, wheat, veggies, and more. Considering how eating less meat is recognized in the intro as a necessity for sustainability, it amazed me how much time Barber spent describing how geese, pigs, and fish were being raised with minimal harm to the animals and with minimal or even positive impacts on the ecosystem. But I suppose if a foodie is eating less meat, the meat s/he does eat had better be damn good.

The book also discussed how wheat flour became white–less healthy but longer-lasting. How farmers are growing veg from heirloom seeds to help protect seed diversity in a world where many seeds are now owned by corporations and can’t be saved for replanting. How companion planting can create better plant health, improve the soil, and prevent the other dangers of monocropping.

The following quote was particularly interesting:

If you have a hankering, as I do, for the old days of our young republic, when farming was what farming should be–small, family-owned, well managed and manicured, a platonic paradigm of sustainable agriculture–think again. Today’s industrial food chain might denude landscapes and impoverish souls, but our forefothers did much of the same.

This is something I’ve read more about since. When Europeans discovered the Americas with so much fertile land that had been well-tended by the Native Americans, they felt no qualms about sapping the life from an area before moving on to another plot. (In the past week I’ve also read a bit about how Native Americans were used as slave labor before the Europeans realized they succumbed too easily to smallpox and other diseases and opted for African labor instead. I need to look into this a bit more, but what I’ve heard so far is really disturbing.)

On the seed front, although heirlooms are trendy right now, this book presents a counterpoint which is actually pretty compelling. Heirlooms are varieties that are as much as possible unchanged from older generations. But they’re usually not local to our area. And our environment has changed, too. So there’s something to be said for scientists who do the work to continually breed new varieties that grow well in different areas, that are resistant to diseases, that have been developed to make that variety economically viable to farmers as an alternative to the same old monoculture varieties. As long as the seeds are open-pollinated and not patented, it doesn’t seem so bad to me.

The problem, he said, is that farmers are often, like Klass, planting very old varieties with low yield–the problem with heirloom anything–or they’re planting conventional varieties with  no flavor. “Without a breeder to support the continual betterment of the plant, an alternative to conventional wheat will never establish itself.”

But the focus with farming is on improving the soil to create plants that are nutrient rich instead of fed artificial NPK fertilizer. This may mean growing perenials that grow deep and persistent roots to improve the soil. It may mean rotating crops, growing cover crops, and providing compost as the ideal soil amendment. Not building the soil could have devastating consequences, as he described from the wisdom of Dr. William Albrecht.

Of the diet-related diseases that have spiked in the past century, the obesity epidemic would seem to have been impossible to predict. And yet, in the 1930s, Albrecht came close. He knew that cows grazing from well-mineralized soils ate balanced diets. But when kept in a barn and fed a predetermined grain ration, they never stopped eating, overindulging in a vain attempt to make up with sheer volume for what they weren’t getting in their food. Albrect believed our bodies would likewise stuff themselves for the same reason. Starved of micronutrients, he said, we will keep eating in the hope of attaining them.

Although this book was really oriented towards foodies, I found most of the stories very compelling and informative. Personal changes this book has helped influence:

  • In the future if I’m craving seafood I may try eating smaller varieties of fish. (Although if I go to Luby’s I’ll probably swap out my usual fish for some broccoli.)
  • Not sure if this will happen, but I’m seriously considering growing some of my own grain next year. Not much but some.
  • Next year I’ll definitely also try out the Three Sisters planting of corn, beans, and squash.
  • On my next seed-shopping trips, I’ll look more at open-pollinated non-heirloom seeds (still staying away from the patented stuff) in addition to the heirloom options.
  • I’ll continue to cut down on eating out. (It’s rarely anything good for me).
  • I’ll regularly buy our whole wheat flour from the vendor at the farmers market. It’s way more expensive, but I have to support it to help make sure it stays available.
  • (But no, don’t expect to see any foie gras or Iberian ham on my plate.)

In conclusion, the best note to leave on is the wisdom shared throughout all of the stories, that “knowing about the natural world is a more enjoyable way to be in the world.”

Eating Less Meat

I was looking at the Extinction Facts campaign today, and no matter how many times I’ve heard it already, it always strikes me the amount of resources that go into meat.


And the really sad part of it is that about 20% of the meat that gets to market doesn’t get eaten. A huge contributor to the following:




At the start of the year, my husband I decided to drastically cut back on meat and dairy consumption for our health and for the planet. And so far, so good. It’s given us a chance to try new veggies, new fruits, new grains. He’s lost weight. I have more energy. And my favorite part is not having to deal with stinky meat wrappers.

Initially I thought this would just be temporary. I am, after all, a Texan and love some brisket. But amazingly it’s become normal now. We eat meat only a couple of times a week and even then in much smaller portions than previously. Sometimes our normal meals are something as simple as lentils and rice. Or we chop up a variety of veggies to go into our fried rice or vegetarian chili.

My husband is still generally sold on the concept of meat as part of every meal but is more than happy to get some tofu, chickpeas (which to him really do taste like chicken), black bean burgers, TVP (soy shaped like beef crumbles) much of the time. Surprisingly, he also loves the lentils and rice. I wish I had known that back when money was really tight!

If you’re a meat-eater, I’d encourage you to also try going vegan every once in a while and try new foods to see what you like and what you love. If that’s unthinkable, I encourage you to just take your leftovers to go at the restaurant. Even if that means taking home a foam clamshell. Eat them for lunch the next day, or reinvent them into a new food creation. If you buy meat at the supermarket and aren’t going to eat it right away, freeze it until you need it and put it in the fridge to thaw the day before to ensure it doesn’t go bad. And don’t ridicule you’re uncle Harry for gnawing on the chicken leg until every last bit of meat is gone; that’s the way to do it.


With some simple changes, we can make less food go further. We can prevent meat waste and savor every delicious morsel. Apologies to the vegetarians out there, but I still find meat to be truly appetizing and appreciate it even more now that I don’t eat it every day.

New Years Resolutions – 2016

I didn’t have any explicit resolutions last year, but I love making lists and tracking things so this year I’ve picked five of my top goals to resolve to in 2016.

Buy Nothing New

I’ll declare 2015 a success for BNN. I did buy a few things new like a tea ball, a sink drain basket, and a new faucet to replace one that was leaking and in worse shape than expected, but it averaged out to much less than once per month. Last year, though, I took this as a call to buy more used stuff. I learned my lesson and will be staying away from the thrift stores this year unless there’s something I explicitly need.

To keep the household happy, my husband’s purchases are exempt from this rule. And I’ve already promised him that he can buy a new tv set after we get our house, which reminds me…

Buy a house

Many simple living people are content with renting a home, but it has long been my dream to have one of my own. I want to be able to build the soil in my yard into healthy soil. I want to be able to put in a water collection system or experiment with grey water. And I’m totally not minimalist in this sense, that I want a place to call my own (in the inclusive sense meaning belonging to my husband and myself both, of course).

I was actually hoping to find a house last year, but in Austin’s market with the limitations of budget, desired neighborhoods, and scorning any square footage over 1000, good houses don’t come on the market that often. There was one house I really wanted in late October but unfortunately was out of town and it was under contract before I could act. 😦

Getting a house may raise some new challenges, but since I already have all the furniture I’ll need and have never been too stylish, it should be limited to what’s essential only.

Eat less meat & dairy

Since reading The China Study over Thanksgiving break and a couple of other books more recently, I’ve been motivated to do this for my health. But it’s for environmental reasons too. Reducing the amount of meat and dairy I consume will reduce my water, energy, and methane footprint, and I’ll have to worry less frequently over what to do with the icky plastic bags that meat comes in covered with bacteria.

My husband’s on board with going totally meat and dairy free for the first two weeks of this year. This will give us a jumpstart in learning how to prepare and eat vegan fare that otherwise might be harder to ease into.

Try at least one new food every month

This worked really well in 2015, so it’s definitely time to try it again and see if I can expand my horizons further. You can see from the lists below that there’s way more foods that I tried and liked than tried and grimaced. Having more options at the farmers market will also help me to spend less in the future.

Foods I tried last year and really enjoyed: kale / persimmon / canary melon / watermelon radish / lentils / black bean (burgers) / chard / fennel / barley / collards / cabbage / pomegranate / grapefruit

Foods I was less taken with: parsnip / beets / dates / baby bella mushroom / sweet potato

Reupholster the couch

Last year was mostly about learning how to use discarded tshirts as a resource with tshirt yarn, but I also made a throw pillow and a pieced slipcover for my ottoman from discarded jeans. Those projects were both in preparation for this much larger project of reupholstering the couch in repurposed denim. The couch is made up of some kind of fake leather that’s been flaking all over the place, and we need some comfy and attractive seating for our new house.

I have no illusions about this being a weekend project. Before I even get started, I need to get some sewing machine oil and figure out how to get my sewing machine cleaned and in peak condition. I’m targeting February just for completing the first seat cushion. Just like the tshirt yarn projects though, it will all be done with discarded jeans salvaged from the Really, Really Free Market.


The following didn’t quite make the list, but they’re still things I’ll be working on in 2016.

  • No more soda. I quit over half a year ago but have still been drinking on special occasions. It doesn’t even taste good to me anymore, time to quit.
  • Reduce eating out to once per week. Lately I’ve been going out for lunch with some of the work crew twice a week, and it’s usually not healthy fare and sometimes even comes on a foam plate.
  • Continue striving towards zero waste. Maybe learn to make my own milk alternatives for my husband.
  • Keep a daily journal of food consumption and exercise with how my body feels each day, so I can learn what works well for me.
  • Go to the park once a month.
  • Grow more food. I already have some planted but this may be the year to try tomatoes also.