17 April 2017

Vegetarianism and our favourite black bean tacoes

You can't trundle along the green living route very far before you bang into vegetarianism and its hard-core cousin veganism. Sheep and cattle burp out potent greenhouse gases, so we need fewer of them, not more.

But perhaps something that's good for the planet is bad for us personally? The two things that have swayed me most to believe that this is not the case is the Blue Zones research, and (far more subjectively) Jane Goodall. She's vegetarian, in her 80s, sharp as a tack and travels something like 300 days a year to raise environmental awareness. If that kind of mental alertness and physical stamina comes with vegetarianism, I'll take it, thanks.

The beautiful simplicity of a pot of soaking beans.

The family problem

For many of us, the decision doesn't lie fully with us, because we eat as part of a family. The key to persuading others is finding vegeterian meals they like. I haven't found enough of these meals yet, so we are still eating red meat about once a week, chicken once or twice, and fish once.

But here is our favourite vegetarian meal - in fact it is my thirteen-year-old's favourite meal of any that I cook! He loves to have leftovers on rice for breakfast. I have them for lunch. Yum.

Over Easter I made this for extended family. My 10-year-old nephew ate FIVE tacoes, and kept asking if there was still more meat. He couldn't believe it was all beans!

You can use tinned black beans, but it's much cheaper to buy the dry ones from the Bin Inn.

Some key ingredients.

Black Bean Tacoes 

Feeds four, at least.

Black bean mixture (this is the main event)
2 cups of dried black turtle beans, soaked overnight and rinsed twice (I admit I don't measure the quantity these, but the recipe is forgiving)
1 chopped onion
1 Tblsp Tio Pablo Mayan Gold mexican seasoning mix (optional, but good... add at least double the cumin and oregano if you don't have this)
2 tsp cumin
3 tsp oregano
1 tin chopped tomatoes in juice
3 cloves finely chopped garlic
2 Tblsp La Morena chipotle sauce*  (optional, but really adds something extra)
chilli to taste (chopped fresh chilli, or dried powder)
salt & pepper

Gently fry the onion in olive oil until soft.
Add the spices and fry for a minute or two.
Add remaining ingredients apart from salt (add this once the beans are soft).
Add water to cover the beans if they are uncovered.
Cover the pot and simmer for about two hours (longer is good). Ensure the beans are covered with liquid by adding more water if necessary. They need to be so soft that you can squash them against the roof of your mouth with your tongue. The mixture shouldn't look like beans floating in liquid, but a thickened, stew-like mess of filling deliciousness. If it's too wet, boil it with the lid off for a while to reduce it.

Mmmm, what's that smell?
(Don't worry about what it looks like!)

Check that the flavour is full and spicy. Add more of what you need - sufficient spices are the key to this.

Don't worry that the beans are not cooked before you start! Cooking them this way means that as they cook they absorb all these wonderful flavours. It does NOT mean you will be crippled with flatulence.

Serve with guacamole, shredded lettuce, grated carrot and grated cheese. Each person should stuff these goodies, along with the bean mixture, into either their taco shells (baked for 5 minutes to warm and crisp them) or tortillas (home made ones are awesomely cheap and miles better than bought ones, but do take a while to prepare). Also very good with rice.

* Available from some supermarkets and the Tio Pablo website.

27 February 2017

Cake-faced and feminist

Last night I went to see comedian (comedienne?) Michele A'Court's latest show, Stuff I Forgot to Tell My Daughter. It was at the end of an extremely busy weekend (next weekend you'll find me doing precisely nothing). Two minutes before I had to leave the house I hauled on the clothes I'd worn to last night's do, and wondered if I should put on some make-up. Alas I couldn't find it. I own some foundation, lipstick and a mascara. I haven't seen it for months and realised I no longer know where it is.

So I left the house anyway and never thought of it again.

Middle-aged woman's barefaced selfie (mine)

That is, until Michele said she forgot to tell her daughter that when you start feeling comfortable with how you look is about the same time you in fact start to look like shit (her word).

This is quite possibly true. She followed up with 'This is also when you are too tired to care'. Which is also true! Or, in my case, you think you have far more important places to expend your energy.

Cake face

She, however, did not appear to be too tired to care. She appeared to be sporting what my 13-year-old son calls a "cake face". She described putting on a face in front of her face, which at some point in the evening collapses, so she carries around her grandmother's compact to check it, which inexplicably now still contains her granny in the mirror! It was pretty funny.

And then the contradiction flew out into the audience and hit me. She started talking about feminism, and taught the audience a lot of feminist history. She also put up a photo of craggy old Leonard Cohen, barefaced, and everyone sighed in admiration. I can't remember why she put it up, but I don't think it was anything to do with feminism.

The pot accused the kettle


Not only does the feminist have to apply the mask at least once a day, and wash it off at night, she has to take the time to buy the cosmetics, spend the money on them, and be comfortable with the amount of plastic rubbish they generate. They might also contain chemicals that have dubious effects on the body (the skin absorbs so much).

And she's doing it because (she thinks) she chooses to do so, enjoys doing so, loves how it looks and how it makes her feel. Which, I suppose, is how women felt when they strapped on body-deforming corsets, or bound their broken feet still tighter. Maybe us feeling that way is the secret of the prison's success: it makes us build our own walls and valiantly defend them.

Image result for clay plate lower lip
Not my photo

I know people have been trading their goods for bone necklaces and combs since the dawn of time. They make gaping holes in their lower lips, wear so many rings around their necks that they distort their ribcages, file their teeth into points, etc. We care so much about how we look that we go to lengths that are blatantly ridiculous - but the ridiculousness is evident only to those outside the culture in which it's happening. Those inside the walls are blind to it.

I reckon it's worth thinking about the trade-off - what we could be doing in lieu of all this - since we're all feminists now and can so clearly see the myriad ways that our culture forces women into submission.

Or can we?

P.S. It's quite possible that Michele would be out of work if she wore no make-up. That's show-biz - in her industry she probably has no choice.

21 January 2017

Mountain Frond Feather

In this family we (led me by me) are trying to grasp every fragment of the combination of summer weather, conveniently aged children and natural beauty. Feet are meeting mossy paths, hands are swinging on branches and mountains are being climbed.

Unfortunately, a bit of petrol's being burned, but we've travelled no further than two hours from home.


Pureora is a State Forest Park in the centre of the North Island. It's a place of giant totara, stunning bush and wonderful birdlife. The camping's $6 a night for an adult, which makes up for the fact that the toilet's a long drop (but strangely, otherwise clean and completely unsmelly). The roads are unsealed and pot-holed, but that just adds to the character. The ex-logging village is now almost a ghost town, with just a handful of occupied houses. Perfect. See ya later civilisation.

Once upon a time I worked here. It's on a plateau well above sea level, so it gets chilly. We had frosts in March and piles of ice in May.

This time around we climbed Mt Pureora, which took about 1.5 hours and gave us stunning views of Lake Taupo and snowy Mt Ruapehu.

Everything gets mossy approaching the treeline.

The view, and a rest.

Coming down felt good....
I'm a bit in love with ferns.
The children gasped: the dead tree fern fronds look like they've been spray-painted gold!
In all my 43 years I've never noticed that. Now I'll never un-notice it..

We climbed a forest tower that took us into the tree tops (and these are big trees). It is near the site of an historic protest that moves me greatly. This is how the story goes: the New Zealand Forest Service, a government department, was logging Pureora forest. Of course most of our country's forest was clear-felled in the last 150 years or so, and that had largely stopped. But they were still doing 'selective logging' of the huge old totara trees. Naturally, felling enormous trees and dragging them out of the forest involves a lot of collateral damage.

A mighty old totara tree, playing host to many guests.
Some barefooted greenies decided that it had to stop. "Over our dead bodies," they virtually said as they climbed into the trees, ready to camp out there as the loggers approached. Others went into the forest and hid in the vicinity so that the loggers couldn't tell where they were. (They had tried all the sensible ways first, like petitioning parliament, begging and presenting rational arguments.)

There were some very angry loggers and millers, and a lot of money lost, but the logging operation was paused and then cancelled. Native logging eventually ended in New Zealand. It was also proven that the old trees, with their Thidwick-the-big-hearted-moose burden of vines, perching plants and moss, were vital to the endangered kokako bird's diet (that is true for many other bird species, too). It was once called the 'organ bird' for its song, which I hoped to hear on our trip but didn't, despite knowing there are now plenty of the birds around.

Aah, bloody greenies, what would they know?

I feel incredibly grateful to those people. Now we have this priceless, stunning forest (actually it's a bit patchy, but the good bits are great). Importantly, it's not just for us to enjoy. It, and its many inhabitants, are there for themselves, surviving, and the world is a better place for it.

Mount Maunganui

I grew up climbing this old volcano, which juts up bizarrely at the end of a flat sandy peninsula (on which many houses are built - foolish, I still say so many years after that Sunday School song, to build on sand!) and guards the entrance to Tauranga harbour. One summer evening after Christmas I climbed it. It was cool and windy, and I almost had the place to myself, despite it being a tourist mecca these days.

I got a few snaps amidst the huffing and puffing.

 And then, at the bottom, the surf beach. On it - one of the country's most popular tourist beaches, nearing the height of the season, had nested a pair of variable oystercatchers.

Spot the eggs in the 'nest': merely a scrape in the sand.
White sandbags protecting the nest from high seas, and rope and a sign to keep people away.
The incubating bird kept getting off its nest when people came near.

Last I heard, about a fortnight ago, the chicks had hatched!

10 January 2017

Barefoot walking three years on

A bit over three years ago I embarked on a year of walking, and I'm pleased to say I've never stopped. (In fact I walked a lot before then, anyway.) When it's not winter, I wear these shoes to walk:

Vibram FiveFingers, well used.

Ugly to look at, but so beautiful to feel - like bare feet, but with no risk of bee stings or a stone in the foot. In winter I wear socks and leather boots with a vivobarefoot sole, which is definitely second best in terms of sensitivity, but warm and dry. The vibrams aren't at all waterproof, which is a pity. I also dislike the colours - I'm not a neon kind of person.

This was one of my most memorable recent walks, up Mount Maunganui:

More on that in my next post, because walking in a beautiful place is as important as what's on your feet!

A local track.

What I've learnt in three years of (nearly) barefoot walking

After three years of removing propped-up-at-the heel, stiff and separate-from-the-earth conventional shoes, what have I noticed?

1. 'Normal' shoes feel like barges under my feet. I hate the feeling and never wear them.

I use the boot as a doorstop. Literally.

2. Barefoot shoes are much safer. When scrambling up or down a bank, conventional shoes feel like skis in comparison. The barefooters allow instant, sensitive, subconscious feedback of what's underfoot. Which would be safer, climbing a slippery bank with bare hands or in hands with thick leather gloves?

A barefoot shoe line up: vibram FiveFingers flanked by vivobarefoot shoes.

3. The feet change when unconstrained, as do their messages to the brain, and the brain's ability to 'hear' them. When scrambling up or down that bank, the strong, flexible feet that develop over months and years make instant adjustments to compensate for what's underfoot. They can mold, flex and grip to the surface. No thinking required.

3. The interplay of nerves between the brain and the feet takes months or years to re-develop. I'm not sure if I've got full feedback yet, but I think it took at least two years to really sense little undulations, textures and hardness of the ground. I thought it happened very fast, but only after more than two years did I realise how much had continued to change. The big realisation came when I found I could walk on completely flat paved surfaces quite happily in my vibrams (although I still prefer softer, undulating surfaces). My feet naturally take on a lightness of step to compensate for the flat, hard ground. To be honest, I don't really know what compensations they're making - my feet and the pertinent part of my brain team up to do it without any conscious oversight from me. I can merely peer at the adjustments from the outside.

4. Something I've learned from watching others walk in built-up shoes: If the feet and ankles can't mold and flex to encompass undulations, the legs and body wobble instead. It looks like teetering. What does that do to knee joints?

5. Who decided that it was 'better' to improve on hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and prop our heels up above the toes? This is a fundamental change to how our feet have evolved to stand and walk, and requires compensation by other parts of the body. Even running shoes have elevated heels.

My husband's newish shoes. How many blokes have toes
arranged in this shape? His toes are distorted inwards
in these. It's a very mild version of Chinese foot binding.
From Wikipedia
6. We don't notice. That's the maddest thing: until we experience the opposite, we don't notice that we are propping our heels up where they're not meant to be, squeezing our toes together so that the exterior shape of our shoes is fashionable, and putting a big fat layer of stuff between what is meant to be an area of sensitive interaction between soles and the ground they traverse.

7. Modern technology is fantastic. Now it can allow that sensitive interaction while still providing some protection. And yet I am almost always the only person around with weird shoes. Most people haven't got there yet. Give it 10 years.

I love these, but they only made them big enough for my daughter, not me!

8. Barefoot shoes don't last as long - only about two years. But they are much cheaper than the orthotics I used to have to wear to avoid pain, or the physiotherapist/osteopath/surgeon fees. Of course this early expiry date is an bad thing environmentally.

Split vivobarefoot boots after two winters of solid wear.

Split vibram five-fingers after a year - but I did buy them second-hand.

9. It goes like this: once we didn't realise the importance of eating food that's as close to 'natural' as possible. Now there is overwhelming evidence to support that, and everybody's doin' it (or not, sadly, which is expensive for the health system). It's increasingly becoming apparent that there's not a lot you can interfere with in nature without some unpleasant side effects. My feet are revelling in that realisation, and triumphantly and comfortably shouting that footwear is one of those things.

20 December 2016

Biochar, our new trick in the garden

As is usual for us at this time of year, we're spending a bit of time cultivating our future food. Often I think about how much we get from our garden for the time we put into it. For days or sometimes weeks we'll do nothing but harvesting - these days we are gathering lettuce, zucchini, herbs, kale, peas, some carrots and a disappointing few, but delicious, strawberries. (Broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will come in next week.) Then we have spurts of energy in there, and work hard for an hour, or two or three, sometimes day after day.

Biochar: it's for real

I'm always on the lookout for promising new ways to make the garden easier/better/more productive. One idea that's intriguing me and my fire-loving husband is biochar. Biochar is this: chunks of charcoal, preferably pea-sized, that have sat around in compost for a while before being incorporated into the soil.

The magic of the stuff is this that it locks up carbon in the soil (in the form of burnt wood), and is an excellent storehouse for two vital soil elements, microbes (sourced from the compost) and water. These goodies are housed in the charcoal's hollow channels that were originally the vascular structures in the tree that was burnt.

I keep reading about it in slightly alternative magazines, but please don't make the mistake of putting it in the same category as aerated compost tea or burying stuff in cattle horns (my apologies if I'm mistakenly putting those in the loopy category). This is a real thing - Massey University even has a research centre looking into it. Here's an 11-minute interview with one of the researchers.

How to make it

Note that this is a very down-home method. If you've listened to the interview in the link above, you'll realise that this method is very crude! For example, there are optimal temperatures at which to make the charcoal, and we have no idea how hot our fire gets.

1. Burn some wood incompletely to make charcoal (my husband does this as we sit around a fire that makes an ugly bald patch in our lawn - but it's worth it and is always a social occasion). Burning prunings is a good way to use them up. We put the chopped-up prunings in old milo tins with holes bashed in the lid. Another way to do it would just be to turn the hose on the fire while the burnt wood is still in lumps, before it burns away into ash.

Us with neighbours around a fire.

Milo tins, collected from a workplace tearoom

2. Once the charcoal is cool, it's ideal to crush it up into pea-sized chunks. We haven't done a lot of that because it's probably a horribly dusty process. We might sort out that side of it out one day, though. It tends to break up quite small during the composting process, anyway.

3. Chuck it in the compost heap or bin.

4. Distribute the compost in the garden once it's ready. The biochar chunks will be strewn throughout the soil.

I saw a weed growing out of a piece of biochar in the garden today. I'm not sure what that proves, but it seemed proper! There is good stuff in that there biochar!

Splashes of colour

Our garden's doing really well so far this year. It's the tomatoes, beans and cucumbers I'm looking forward to most.

(Plenty of garden photos here - scroll down if you just want more words!)

Climbing beans
Rampant tomato plants with NZ spinach in the foreground

Little carrot seedlings

A cabbage awaits harvest

The tomato garden from the other side

Most of our tomatoes are black - although they're supposed to be
yellow underneath and dark red on top. They're  'Eclipse Fireball'. 

Will the broccoli be ready before Christmas?

A zucchini plant happily feeding from the compost bin next to it

In the meantime, we have plenty to eat, and I'm loving the splashes of red in either corner of the garden: red alstroemerias flowering in one corner, and chickens with red combs in another. One fills the vase, the other fills our bellies in the form of eggs, and they both fill my eyes with beauty and my soul with happiness.

Ironically, I nearly lost one to the other shortly after I brought the baby alstroemeria plant home from a church fair. Chickens love alstroemeria leaves!
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