Thursday, 12 April 2012

Green cleaning.

I recently spoke with my friend, Christine, and we were talking about cleaning products.  We discussed what sorts of products each of us used and I mentioned how it's really easy and cheap to clean your house using all environmentally friendly commonly available ingredients like baking soda, vinegar and water.  She suggested that I put together a blog post on the subject, and here we are!

If you would like to get started cleaning your home in a greener (and cheaper) way, here are my suggestions:

  1. If you don't already, it's time to make the switch to reusable cleaning implements (I'm not sure if you can tell, but I didn't know exactly what word to use there).  For instance, and I have been guilty of this in the past, using paper towel to clean counters, mirrors, or anything else, for that matter, is a complete waste.  Get yourself some cheap cleaning rags to use.  If you also stop using harsh chemicals to clean with, you could even wash them in your normal laundry or with your towels, so you won't even have to answer for the extra load of laundry.  Also, if you use a Swiffer (sorry everyone!), the reusable heads and the cleaner that are used are both bad for the environment.  You can buy reusable mop-heads and then just wash them in the laundry as well.  We got e-cloths and they work great with just water (I actually use the handle from my old Swiffer with the e-cloth mop-head). If you're looking for something with a little more power than just plain water, you could always add vinegar.
  2. Embrace vinegar!  It's cheap and it works much the same as a multi-purpose cleaner.  The next time you run out of a cleaning product in a spray bottle, clean the bottle out thoroughly, then fill it with a mixture that is half white vinegar and half water.  This will clean almost everything in your house, but keep it away from marble surfaces and make sure to dilute it, otherwise it could eat away at the grout in your bathroom.  That's right folks - diluted vinegar is a strong enough deodorizer and disinfectant to clean your bathtub, toilet, sink and countertops.  You can even use it (undiluted) to clean the inside of your toilet.  And... it does floors!
  3. Baking soda is not just for baking.  It is great for scrubbing anything that would require a non-abrasive cleaner, such as toilets, sinks and bathtubs.  I also use it to clean my hair. It's great stuff!
With these three tips you should be able to clean about 99% of all household surfaces and messes.  I encourage everyone to try these techniques because they truly are better for your wallet, your environment, and your health, so what do you have to lose?

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Vipassana Meditation Retreat

Surprise, surprise!  It has been a very long time and to be honest, I considered deactivating my blog because for a while my heart just wasn't in it.  But lately I've occasionally been thinking that the things that I've been doing would be a good subject for blog posts.  So for the past month I've been trying to motivate myself to get back at it, but it has been an uphill battle.  But I'm back, perhaps not permanently, but back for now, at least till I get all these stored up posts out of my system.

This particular post is one that is very special to me, because it relates to many of the things that are near and dear to my heart: meditation, inexpensive vacations (!) and self-improvement.  From February 1-12, I attended a ten day silent meditation retreat at the Northwest Vipassana Center in Onalaska, Washington.  Onalaska is about four hours from where I live in North Vancouver, British Columbia, so the trip was not entirely without a carbon footprint, but at least I could drive, instead of flying.

The first thing that I should mention is that a vipassana retreat is not quite what you would think of as a "vacation".  I did, indeed, take some time off of work, and I was not at work during those days, but that is about where the retreat and the concept of a vacation depart.  Actually, one other way that it was like a vacation was because the food was provided for us, and it was delicious!  It was vegetarian with vegan and gluten-free options at every meal, which was amazing.  I'm so used to having to struggle to find food that this was a welcome change in itself.

Vipassana meditation is also known as insight meditation.  I won't get into the technique because it took nine of the ten days for me to learn and I won't be able to do it justice, but the actual experience of being in a new environment with eighty other people, none of whom you can speak to, fascinates me.  Last year I went on a five day meditation retreat (it was a different style of meditation, not vipassana), but there was actually a fair amount of talking on some days.  At this retreat there was no talking, except to the instructor and the assistant, so maybe a total of a dozen words a day.  It is shocking how easy I find it to slip into silence, and how jarring it is when you are allowed to speak again and you're so used to thinking that you no longer know how to carry on a conversation.

What was also special about this retreat was that the rooms and facilities were very nice.  Here are a picture of my cubicle/room that I slept (we had two people to each room and you share a bathroom with that other person, but you have a separate cubicle area so that you aren't tempted to speak), along with our bathroom:

It was much nicer than the place that I went last year, although I don't care that much if the places I go to are more "rustic".  But it was nice to not have to deal with being cold, or having to walk long distances to use the washroom.

If you are at all interested in meditation, I would strongly recommend attending a 10 day vipassana meditation retreat.  There are centers all over the world, it is free to attend (you make a donation at the end, if you want), so you really have nothing to lose.  And the silence, although different from our normal lives where we speak and otherwise communicate way too much, is not as intimidating as it seems.  We have so much of our egos and personalities tied up in the way that we communicate that it is nice to take a break from once in a while.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Raw vegan avocado lemon pie.

Stay with me on this one.  I know what you might be thinking ("Gross!"), but if you like avocados and lemon, then this just may be the pie for you.

But first, I need to provide you with a bit of a backstory, because there is quite the backstory that goes along with this pie.  On Thursday night I went to Gorilla Food, a raw vegan restaurant located in Downtown Vancouver.  I've never eaten there before, but I love raw food, so when my friend Keith and I were trying to come up with a place to eat, I suggested it.  I ordered my dinner, then, when I was waiting for Keith to finish ordering, I saw a beautiful piece of pie in the display case and saw that it was labeled "Avocado Lemon Pie".

Now I love avocado, I love lemon, I love pie and I love raw foods, so this was my kind of dessert.  I asked the lady behind the counter if she would put the pie aside for me (there was only one piece left), and she said she would. Dinner was terrific, but I had my heart set on that pie.

I went up to buy my pie and quickly dove in.  Something was not right almost immediately.  Although the texture was divine (sort of like a mousse cake), the taste was all off.  I ate a few bites but couldn't taste it properly.  Then my mouth started to tingle and I was getting thirsty and just started feeling... off. Halfway through I told my friend Keith to eat the rest of the pie and I got up to get some more water. I asked the lady behind the counter whether there were brazil nuts in the pie.  She said that there were.  I have anaphylactic reactions to none other than brazil nuts.  I had asked about brazil nuts in my dinner, but had forgotten to ask about the pie.  Maybe deep down I knew that there were death nuts in it and if I knew I would never get to try it.  In any event, an Epipen and a trip to the emergency room later, I'm still alive, and still thinking about that damn pie that got away!

So today I made my own version (without brazil nuts, of course).  Here are the ingredients I used:


  • 10 dates
  • 2 cups cashews
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil
  • 1/4 cup raw honey (I know, honey isn't considered vegan, but I eat honey.  I'm sure you could easily and tastily substitute maple syrup)
  • 1/2 cup lemon juice
  • 3 ripe avocados
  • 1/4 cup raw honey
  • 3 tablespoons chia seeds (I would pre-grind the chia seeds next time)
Blend the ingredients for the crust in a food processor until crumbly, then transfer into a pie dish or springform pan and press into shape. Then put it in the fridge while you put the filling ingredients through the food processor as well.  

Poor the filling into the crust then allow to set for two or more hours.  I also made a couple of small bite-sized pies to bring in to work to share with a couple of co-workers that enjoy raw food.
My husband and I just had our first pieces, and I have to say, I'm impressed.  Not only does it not taste weird because I'm not allergic to it, but the texture is heavenly and it's so healthy!  My husband is less of a fan of the avocado and even he liked it, particularly the crust.  I don't find that it tastes like avocado very much at all, but he assures me that it does!
In any event, I'm glad that I decided to make it after the near-death experience a few days ago!

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Vegan pumpkin pancakes

I don't know exactly what possessed me, but around Thanksgiving, I thought I should make something incorporating pumpkin because I wasn't going to be able to partake in the pumpkin pie this year.  I don't even really mind, because I've never been a huge fan of pumpkin pie, but I know pumpkin is really good for me, so I thought it might be fun to try a couple of recipes incorporating it.

Enter the vegan pumpkin pancakes!  We have now started having these pancakes every Sunday, they're so good!  Here are the ingredients that I use:

  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 Tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4 cup coconut beverage (any type of milk or milk substitute would be fine) - plus extra (or you could use a bit of water instead, that's what I do), if the mixture isn't appropriately runny
  • 1 tbsp maple syrup, plus extra for serving with pancakes
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • 1/2 cup pumpkin puree, canned
Mix all the dry ingredients in one bowl, then the wet ingredients (including the pumpkin), in a separate bowl.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix until incorporated.  I use a whisk and get it pretty smooth.  Make sure that the batter is runny enough that it will work well for the pancakes!

This recipe makes five large pancakes (I can only eat two, so they're pretty big and oddly filling).  I 
suggest using maple syrup on them, if at all possible.  Enjoy! 

(I'll add a picture next time I make them!)

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Car-free month (or two).

The time has come to say goodbye to my car.  Well, not completely.  But kind of.  I still own my car, but have taken the plate off and switched the insurance over to storage insurance only.  No more driving, at least not with that car, until December.

Before I handed in my plates an hour ago, I did lots of driving, unfortunately.  I had lots of errands to run that would be very hard to do on foot or using public transit.  So I took a few hours today and stopped by my friend Leyna's place to pick up some suits, stop by no less than three different grocery stores (Whole Foods, Superstore and Save On Foods), along with London Drugs and the farmer's market at Lonsdale Quay (today is the last market until next spring, so I thought it would be good to stop by).

I spent most of the time driving in silence, and, of course, I was alone. I took the time to reflect on the nature of driving and what it means to our society and to me personally.  I didn't even have a car until I was 25, and used public transit until then as I was always living in a large city, so the public transit system was more than adequate to get me around.  This was true in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Vancouver.  Then, when I was working in Kamloops, I biked to work for the first few months that I worked there.  Then... I got my car.

After using public transit for my entire adult life to that point, my car represented freedom.  I no longer had to plan out my every movement, because I had a car.  All that mattered was that I had the money to fill it up with gas, as the car came with an excellent warranty.  Oh, and I had to make car payments and pay for insurance, which I still do, to this day.  My car will finally be paid off next August and I am hoping to never make a car payment again after that.  Rest assured, I will never buy another new car.

So, if getting a car means freedom to me, then making it so that I cannot drive my car has definitely resulted in a feeling of being trapped.  Or it was.  What is so funny about our society today is that we feel like we only have one choice.  I felt like when I had a car.  If I was going to go anywhere, I would obviously have to drive.  No distance was too long or too short.  I always had to think of where I would park.  When I still used to drink, I would have to plan around that as well.

But now, I have so many more options.  I could walk (short distances), jog, run, rollerblade (remember rollerblading?), bike, use public transit, carpool, use a Zip Car, or take a taxi.  Although some of the options involve a car, now that I don't have my own car, taking a cab once in a while hardly compares to the daily driving I've been doing for six years.

In the past month since one of the partners at my firm loaned me a bike lock, I've been biking to work as much as possible and not driving on weekends (except today).  I've managed to only use one tank of gas this month, which is about half as much as I normally use.  I'm looking forward to a month of saving money by not driving!

I am also looking forward to a month of living consciously.  Have you ever noticed that when you drive, you don't pay attention to much other than driving?  Which I'm quite sure is the point, but it's not a particularly pleasurable or engaging experience.  Tim always makes fun of me because I spend a lot of time when I'm driving making up back stories for other drivers.  I have been listening to podcasts a lot, which is stimulating, and I get to learn while I'm driving, but generally, city driving is a stressful waste of time for me.

Now compare that to biking to work.  When I bike to work I get exercise first thing in the morning and at the end of the work day.  I am actively thinking the entire time, because I am very careful when I'm driving.  I get to look around, appreciate (or mentally curse!) the weather.  I notice stores that I drive by every day but never really look at.  I love biking.  Every time I bike to work is such a pleasant experience.

However, I live in North Vancouver, which means that some days are not going to be good for biking.  It rains here, particularly over the winter.  And as much as I like biking, I don't like biking when it's pouring.  So I plan to bike on sunny days and cloudy days, but not when it's raining hard in the mornings.  On those days, I'm going to take public transit.

I've already been using public transit when I have to go downtown after work for classes, so I've had some experience with it.  I love public transit because you can read or listen to music or podcasts.  Or you can just stare out the window and get lost in your thoughts.

So, I'm going to try to bike to work as much as possible for the month of November and possibly December, and when I can't bike, I'm going to use public transit.  Also, October 31-November 4 is Vancouver Area Cycling Association's Bike to Work Week, so it's great that it coincided with my first week of being car-free!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Focaccia bread.

I have, once again, outdone myself.  In our harvest box this week we had three sprigs of rosemary.  I was thinking that we might make rosemary potatoes, but then we ended up making a soup that used up our potatoes, so it was back to the drawing board.  I decided to try my hand at making focaccia bread.

Here are the ingredients that I used:

  • three four inch sprigs of organic rosemary (about 1 tbsp)
  • 1 and 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1/2 a package active dry yeast (I was making a half batch because we couldn't eat a full batch by ourselves)
  • 1/2 tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp fresh Italian seasoning
  • 1 tbsp olive oil from my jar of sundried tomatoes
I dissolved the sugar in the warm water, then poured it into a large bowl and added the yeast.  Once the yeast was frothing, I stirred in the olive oil, salt, 1/2 a tbsp of the rosemary and the Italian seasoning.  I mixed in one cup of flour, then added flour from the remaining 1/2 cup until the dough held together.  Then I turned it out onto the counter and kneaded the dough, adding flour until it reached the appropriate consistency and tackiness.

I washed out the bowl then sprayed the inside of the bowl with olive oil and put the dough in, spraying the top with oil again and covered it with a towel. When I am allowing my dough to rise, I usually put it in the oven after I've turned on the oven for a minute (and turned it off, of course) to warm it up just a little.  I also leave the light on in the oven.  I let the dough ball rise for an hour, until it had doubled, then took it out to punch it down.

I shaped the dough into a round loaf and placed it on parchment paper that had been sprayed with olive oil on a baking sheet.  I sprinkled the remaining 1/2 tbsp of rosemary over the top of the dough.  I covered the dough with a towel then again put it in the warm-ish oven with the light on for another hour, at which point it had again doubled in size.  After the hour was up, put it in the oven at 375 degrees fahrenheit for 15 minutes.  Here's what it looked like going in:
When the bread came out it was nice and golden brown:
This bread was so light and fluffy and flavourful!  I ate mine with vinegar and some more of the olive oil from my jar of sundried tomatoes, while Tim opted for the balsamic vinegar with plain olive oil, and later used two pieces to make a steak sandwich!

Going car-free for month of November.

I mentioned this in my last post, but didn't realize that I haven't actually put this up on my blog yet: I am going car-free for the month of November!  In my Introduction to Sustainability course, we are required to do a Personal Social Responsibility Plan.  Something that became abundantly obvious to me in completing this assignment is that I drive too much.  Although I drive a lot less now that I have in previous years (for a couple years Tim and I were living in different cities, so there was a lot of driving between where I lived and where he lived, then, when we moved to the Lower Mainland, I first was working in Downtown Vancouver and later in Pitt Meadows, both of which are a bit of a drive from where we live in North Vancouver), it is still too much.

I also notice that for all of my eco-sensitivity, I just take driving for granted.  I jump in my car and drive to wherever I need to be and let it be someone else's problem.  Well, now it's my problem.  I'm going to get used to biking wherever I can, and using public transit as well.  For the rest of this month I'm just going to dabble in both, but next month, it's really on!

So my first order of business was obtaining a lock for my bike.  I've been looking for a lock on Craigslist for a month or so, but have so far been unable to find one that doesn't require me driving a long distance to pick it up.  I guess now I could bike to pick it up and make an adventure out of it!  So I sent out an email at my office and asked if anyone had an extra lock, and immediately three or four people offered to check and see if they had one at home, and one of the partners brought one in after lunch that same day! As I already had my trusty repurposed seatbelt courier bag, I didn't have to worry about that either, although I am thinking after this weekend that I might need paniers.  I am either going to get some second hand or get them from U.S.E.D., the same company I got my courier bag from.  I probably won't absolutely need to get paniers, though, because I'm going to try to plan out the food and clothing that I need to bring to work so that they will already be there for the days that I bike in - I'll just bring them the day before.

So the real question that must be asked is whether all of this effort is "worth it" in the economical sense.  Biking is great exercise and both biking and using public transit are a better choice than driving for the environment, but is it cheaper and if so, does the inconvenience outweigh any savings?

First of all, I will have to buy a bus pass for the month of November.  Since I have to go downtown frequently for school in November (but only about three times per week during peak hours), it makes sense to buy a one zone pass, which costs about $81, but then purchase an Add Fare ($1.25 each time) when necessary, which should be about 12 times during November.  So using public transit will cost me about $96 for the month.  I will also have to purchase parking insurance for my car, which I have not priced yet, but I will assume it will be $20.  I will come back and correct this post if it is wildly more expensive.

However, the insurance for my car costs about $170/month.  I also end up buying two tanks of premium gasoline, which costs about $70/tank, so another $140.  I can't accurately factor in or account for the maintenance costs of my car for the month, but generally during the year I pay about $800 for maintenance, oil changes, etc., plus the extended warranty, which ended up costing about $1,000 per year for the three and a half years that it covered my car.  When you think about it, cars are just unreasonably expensive.  For the purposes of calculating the savings that will accrue from not driving for the month, I'm only going to use the absolute bottom line costs of insurance and gas.

So to use public transit for the month of November, I will end up paying a total of $116.  This would have been even less if I had just sold my car, but I'm not ready for that yet.  The costs I would have paid to operate my car for the month of November, assuming no mechanical or maintenance work was required, would have been $310.  So by using public transit for a month, I will end up saving $196.  Money well saved!