Saturday, September 27, 2008


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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

lakewalk expansion

Today was the first time I've biked down the new Lakewalk expansion out to 36th East, and it is beautiful, even if it doesn't go along the actual lake at that point. It passes through some very pretty wooded property, over Tischer Creek and some little tributaries. It's hard to believe you're sandwiched between two fairly major thoroughfares; it feels very secluded and woodsy. It actually reminds me a little bit of the Tri-County Corridor, which I used to ride all the time when I lived out in Ashland. (Never quite worked up the guts or stamina to attempt going all the way to Superior, about 70 miles one way; I wasn't in super good shape back then, and while I may have been able to make it *there*, I wouldn't have been able to make it back.)

It was a warm, sunny, Indian summer day today, and the air smelled like apples. For my entire ride I was racing dragonflies, and I really should have brought my binoculars with me because there were warblers and sparrows everywhere, and most of them just too far away to ID (at least by me, who relies on markings and is not so great IDing by song/behavior).

Monday, September 15, 2008

chokecherry syrup

Most people wouldn't want to eat something that has the word "choke" in the name. Most people don't know what's good for them. But I digress.

Sometime around 1633, in a book called "New England Prospect," William Wood wrote, They be much smaller than the English cherry, nothing near so good, if they be not very ripe; they furr so the mouth that the tongue will cleave to the roof, and the throat wax hoarse with swallowing those red bullies (as I may call them) being little better in taste; English ordering may bring them to an English cherry, but they are as wild as the Indians.

Henry Thoreau, feeling a little more charitable and adventurous, wrote, They are a rich, fatty-looking fruit. However, though they are scarcely edible, their beauty, especially when they are half-ripe, atones for it. See those handsome racemes of ten or twelve cherries each—dark, glossy, red; semi-transparent? You love them not the less because they are not quite palatable. However, finding some once near the end of August dead, ripe, and a little wilted, they were tolerable eating—much better than I had ever tasted—yet the stones are very much in the way.

It's true that they are not exactly a free-snack-on-the-trail type of wild food—though I have never tried them dead, ripe, and a little wilted—but behind that choking astringency is a powerful cherry flavor just waiting to be coaxed out with some sugar. Last year I bought a little bottle of local chokecherry syrup at the co-op, and it was amazing, so this year I was determined to make my own, even though I've never made fruit syrups or anything like them before.

It's a little late to be going a-chokecherrying (two weeks ago would have been ideal), but I found two trees still heavy with berries and a handful of other with some stragglers, and limiting myself to the easy fruit, leaving plenty for the birds, I still managed to come home with about three and a half pounds of chokecherries. The berries grow in bottlebrush-like clusters (I've also heard them described as grape-like) and the ripe berries come off easily in your hand if you just start at the top of the cluster and pull down, wiggling your thumb and forefinger as needed. I set out a little late, just before dusk, and it was dark by the time I started heading home, but by then I had picked enough chokecherries that I didn't need to see them, because I knew the fruit by touch.

Three and a half pounds of chokecherries measures out to about ten cups, and cooking them down brings you to about six cups juice. I juiced them by first mashing the cooked berries with a potato masher, then pressing them though a sieve, then squeezing the pulp through a cloth, although mashing and squeezing would have sufficed. It should be noted that chokecherry juice will stain your hands and kitchen utensils and countertop and everything you love a red-pink-purple. I made the syrup four days ago, and the crevices of my hands are still lined with purple cherry juice.


10 cups fresh chokecherries
4-5 cups sugar

Rinse chokecherries and pick out leaves, stems, and bugs. Place cherries in a very large pot and cover them just barely with water. Cover the pot and cook over low-medium heat for half an hour, until the cherries are very soft and the flesh begins to loosen from the stone and the water turns pink. (Simmering chokecherries smells sweet and fruity, and it says something about my cultural heritage that the first thing that popped into my head was, "Smells like jell-o!")

Juice the cherries by mashing them and pressing them through a sieve, cloth, or fruit press. Discard the pulp and stones (I've heard rumors that the stones will sprout even after being cooked, so make of that what you will; I dumped mine in the abandoned, weedy lot behind the house that I call "the woods," in the hopes to populate it with chokecherries.)

Dissolve the sugar in the juice and boil steadily for five to ten minutes; the more sugar you use the less you have to boil it. You can adjust the sugar to your taste; I used 4 1/2 cups and wish that I would have stopped at 4, so that it would have a little bit more of a tart cherry zing. Stir constantly to prevent it from boiling over. The syrup will thicken as it cools. Yields a little under four pints. It will keep for several months in the fridge, or you can can it and keep it longer. Use on pancakes, waffles, ice cream, etc.

The little bottle I bought at the co-op last year was eight ounces and cost me $10; five hours "work" (hiking through the woods and picking berries, then cooking them down on the stove) yielded me about eight times that. Factoring in my hourly rate at my day job, it's far more economically profitable to make my own chokecherry syrup, and even if it wasn't—how would I rather spend my time? It's not much of a contest, really.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

green living, pop culture style

I was cruising the freelance writing job boards this morning, and I saw that a major blog network was looking for someone to write for their "green living on a budget" blog, and I thought, gosh, that's right up my alley since I am both poor and eco-conscious. So I went to check out the blog and, uh, yeah. Of the seven posts on the front page, five of them are encouraging the reader to buy some gadget or bauble or otherwise spend money.

One of the posts is about buying compostable plastic bags for picking up after your dog, when the actual green and budget-minded option would be to compost your pet waste (it's free, and unlike plastic bags—even compostable ones—in a landfill, it will actually biodegrade). Another post was about buying recycled envelopes made from old magazine pages, and hooray for supporting independent artists on etsy, but the truly frugal cannot afford 24 envelopes for $10, and it is very easy and completely free to make your own envelopes.

I am not linking to or naming the site in question, because one should not badmouth potential clients, even if one has no intention of applying for this particular job. And really, it doesn't matter, because this sort of thing is all over the internet and in magazines, and it's so disheartening to see fluff passed off as green living. But this is what people want. They want to be good without expending very much real effort or changing their lifestyle in any significant way, and they want to buy things (or woo advertising dollars from the people selling things).

There are exceptions, but it seems like the majority of website, blogs, and magazines that claim to be about "green living" are really about fluorescent lightbulbs, carbon offsets, and recycled glass bric-a-brac. And apart from Mother Earth News and the like, it's tough to find information on actions that will make a real difference, like gardening, composting, eating lower on the food chain, eating whole foods, buying second-hand or handmade consumer goods, buying fewer consumer goods to begin with, etc.

It's also tough to be a freelance writer trying to break into the green living niche while refusing to write about fluff. I'll write about fluff for other topics—if the eHow people want to pay me $15 for "How to Make Lime Juice," that's totally fine with me—but I refuse to write about how buying a $300 pair of hemp jeans is going to save the planet.