Archive for Kitchen

Pesky drains

People don’t talk about clogged drains too much. I guess it’s not a really exciting topic of conversation. But that does mean that when the water starts flowing too, too slowly out of your sink (you spot that tell-tale soap and dirt ring), you can feel rather alone.

How do other people deal with this problem, I ask myself? Or is it just me and my four fine children that create the gunk that narrows the pipes that prevents the water from disappearing when it should?

My hunch is that I am not alone. But that is of little benefit to me as I ponder my options: (a) call an expensive plumber (b) pour some noxious chemical down the drain, or (c) as I have been known to do –draw down on my friend Bob’s reserves of goodwill and ability to dismantle a drain.

I have tried the vinegar and baking soda trick, but had relatively little success or found only temporary relief. So I was pretty happy to be sent a nifty little product called Drain-FX which promised to do the job in an efficient and eco-friendly way.

Drain-FX essentially turns your faucet into a mini pressure washer which blasts all that gunk out of your drain. Hey presto, you are good to go again.

The kit, which sells on-line for $19.95, consists of a thin piece of tubing, a quick connector and a variety of attachments that screw onto your tap in place of the aerator. By doing this you increase the pressure from about 50 psi (city standard) to around 250 psi. The flexible piping allows you to spray the concentrated stream of water around your drain with gay abandon. Because drains typically become larger the further down they go, the gunk, once dislodged, ceases to be problematic.

I must admit, though, that the whole thing looked pretty off-putting to me when I first received it. But once I made the commitment to get on with the job, I found it quite easy and even managed to avoid spraying myself. There’s a You Tube video in case you get stuck.

Best of all, you can use the kit again and again, or lend it to your neighbours (if they buck the trend and share tales of their plumbing problems). It wil work on most taps, so long as you can find an aerator to remove. Sadly, that was not the case for my charming old powder-room taps. But Drain-FX did work in my kitchen despite my initial misgivings (I have a extendable sprayer-type tap).

So, as I pack my bags for my upcoming move to the UK – a land of fine plumbing I feel sure – I will be certain to take my Drain-FX with me. I hope they have the same aerator fittings there: according to the website 99% of the world’s aerators fall into four sizes, all of which can handle Drain-FX. So I’d be unlucky to be in that 1%.

While I am on the topic, though, let me say that my postings are likely to be few and far between over the next few months as I make the move. I don’t think that news will ruin your summer. I just hope you won’t turn your spam filter against me as I intend to pop up in your mail box again sometime in the fall.

Green veggie bags

I seldom extol the virtues of plastics, but there are always exceptions. I am a long time user of various types of green plastic ‘stay-fresh-longer’ produce bags to store my vegetables in the fridge.

The special thing about these bags is that they contain zeolite which absorbs ethylene gas…which is supposed to make your veg last longer. Looking on line, there is a wide range of opinion about whether this is true or not. Some people swear by them, others are less impressed.

Me: I am equivocal. I have used them so long that I no longer know what the counterfactual is.

So why do I like them if I am not convinced by the freshness claims?

First, I do worry (a lot) about food wastage. In western societies we waste a huge amount of food which is a big greenhouse gas problem. If you think of everything in your fridge as embodied carbon (for transport, processing, production) you may feel less inclined to waste it. Then think about the methane (a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon) that is released when wasted food ends up in landfill and your concern should grow.

So, bottom line: I hate to waste food and am attracted to anything that may limit food wastage.

Second, these bags are green. Green in colour. Colour coordination in my kitchen is important, of course, but the primary benefit is that I know these are reserved for veggies and veggies alone. So I reuse them with confidence.

Third, these are tough bags. They wash and dry very well. The Debbie Meyer site suggests that the bags are reusable 8-10 times. I suspect each of mine has been used hundreds of times. I like that longevity.

Fourth, knowing I have a bunch of these back home removes any temptation to help myself to a flimsy plastic bag off the roll in the grocery store. I always mean to have my reusable produce bags with me, but I do sometimes forget.

Fifth, the extra large bags are long enough for celery, and that’s nothing to be sneezed at!

I really believe that these bags have reduced my plastic use (and hopefully my food wastage) considerably over the years. Even though I swore, as a kid, that I would never, ever wash plastic bags (my most hated job was hanging wet bags on the clothes line), I do now. All the time. And I feel good about it.

My first bags were bought over a decade ago in the UK at Lakeland. Lakeland bags are a proprietary product made in Thailand. In north America there are a few choices: Debbie Meyer, Peak fresh, Evertfresh and I am sure some others. I can’t tell you which works best, but I can tell you that they are worth a try. I’d be interested to know if you agree.

Repurposing your Mason jars

I am a great believer in repurposing. I cut forlorn sweaters up to make mittens and I hoard old shoeboxes in my basement in the hopes of identifying future uses.

I am also a big believer in canning, but it is a skill I have failed to nurture in myself. I make delicious tomato chutney every summer and, very occasionally, jam. But wrestling bushels of vegetables into neat glass jars is beyond me.

Nonetheless, I delight in all the Mason jars and canning accessories that appear in the stores late summer, marking the fleeting weeks of abundance here in Canada.

I use large Mason jars to store my dry ingredients (sugar, rice, nuts, etc.) and have designed my kitchen drawers with this in mind. I love the wide mouths and the easy access of the jars, not to mention the uniformity, the low cost and the squeaky clean-ness when they come out of the dishwasher.
(NB. It seems I am not alone in my love of Mason jars: see here for 31 ways to use a Mason jar in your kitchen.)

I was thrilled, the other day, to find two clever new Mason jar add-ons that substantially increase the range of possible uses for my smaller jars.

The first is the cuppow. This is a slightly raised plastic (BPA free) insert that replaces the disc lid of your Mason jar and turns it into a drinking cup. Just screw it on and you have a convenient on-the-go cup.

The cuppow comes in two sizes to fit widemouth (76mm) or regular (60mm) Mason jars. It does not close completely so cannot withstand really bumpy rides, but does a great job if you want to sip a drink in the car, for example.

I don’t love the feel of the drinking rim/spout, but I am very fussy in that regard and like really thin edges to my mugs (see my earlier recommendation for vacuum mugs). It retails for $8. The price seems a little steep as there is not a lot to the product, but it is US-made and claims to be recyclable plastic.

The second option is the reCAP, which entirely replaces your Mason lid, both disc and screw collar. It is a fully close-able pouring/drinking spout for your jars. I prefer the way this feels on my lips, but it does present a large (about quarter-sized) round hole which might be a bit abrupt for hot drinks on the go (though great for gloopy things like smoothies if you want to grab these as you head out of the house).

It could also be used to turn a Mason jar of any size into a pouring dispenser, for example for sugar, rice or liquid honey. Its founding purpose, according to the website, was to turn a jar into a salad dressing dispenser. You can shake away and still pour with ease.

The reCAP is also BPA free and made in the US. It retails for $7-$7.50.

Both are available in Canada from a neat eco product site called Greenmunch (I should mention that they did send me free samples of both products after I enquired about them). Greenmunch also specializes in hard-to-find paper straws, another alternative to the glass straws I wrote about in the early days of my site.

Glass plates: Another great alternative to plastic

If I have learnt anything this week, it is that I am getting old. My youngest made her way to full-day school for the first time and tomorrow is my birthday (before you ask, I am very ancient). But what surprised me most was that when a friend asked for suggestions on baby shower gifts, I had no ready answers. Have I really moved that far beyond the baby years?

Shortly after giving her a lame, holding response, I realized what I should have recommended: Brinware plates.

I wish these had been available when my kids were in the early stages of eating food. Back then I struggled to avoid plastics and melamine. It was tough to part with those hard plastic plates that seem to do so well in the dishwasher, but when I learnt that the full name of melamine was melamine fomaldehyde and that cats, dogs and infants were suffering from melamine poisoning it became easier.

The challenge lay in finding alternatives. Many ceramic bowls and plates have come to a sad end on the hard stones of my kitchen floor.

I didn’t know it at the time, but what I needed was a tempered glass plate with a non-slip silicone `sleeve’. Thankfully the folks at Brinware have provided us with just that option and made it pretty, to boot. The glass in the plates is not only tough, but etched with cute designs from owls (my favourite) to frogs, pandas and butterflies. And the sleeves, which can be removed for washing, come in some of my top colours: orange and green (I am hoping that purple will come soon).

Since my kids are now older, I have been using the plates without the sleeves. That frees the sleeves to be employed as useful all-purpose small toy displays and even frisbees, at a pinch. Meanwhile, the plates – which are gently curved to keep the food in the right place – wash well in the dishwasher, though without rinse-aid (which I seldom use these days) the glass does get a bit blotchy, as you might expect.

Brinware plates cost about $10 each and can be purchased on line or from various US retailers. The sole Canadian supplier is Jess’ Crunchy Store, a great little on-line business out of Kitchener, Ontario. If you act fast, Jess currently has the plates on sale at 20% off: you get two for C$17.59 (shipping and taxes extra).

If you want to reach the free shipping threshold of $79 at Jess’ store, you might also want to try the silicone placemats (also from Brinware, but I have not tried them) or the lip balm that I recommended in a recent post.

So there you have it, Alessandra, a great baby shower gift suggestion: sorry it is late.

Food storage: the final frontier

OK, that might be overstating things: more my final posting on this topic for a while. I hope that there is infinite innovation on (eco) food storage in my future.

So, I have posted on stainless steel containers (one of my most popular pages, by the way…) and I have posted on silicone containers. Now it is the turn of glass.

I have been using glassware to store my food for about 15 years. Glass containers used to be hard to come by, but now they are everywhere.

Trueseal 1

Glass has so many advantages: it is inert, so no nasty leaching; it goes in the dishwasher, no problem; it can go in the oven as well as the freezer; and it does not stain or retain flavours. The only downsides are that it breaks (of course), though do bear in mind that unless you buy the very cheapest containers you will be purchasing borosilicate glass, which is far more robust that regular glass. Having said that, I really only use glass for in-home storage, partly because it is quite heavy (I did try the lunch bag thing once…not again).

The French were ahead of us all on tempered glass (think about those Duralex glasses that I like so much), or maybe they were just the first who discovered how to make lids.

My oldest glass containers are from Luminarc. I bought them in the UK around 1998 and they are still going strong, though the lids are somewhat split at the edges (I do not always observe the `top rack only’ instruction when it comes to my dishwasher, but since I always wash on the delicate setting to save energy, I figure I get a break).

But now everyone from the dollar store up seems to be making glass with lids (it is the lids which are key to food storage, of course).

trueseal 2

As noted, the cheaper the glass the less robust it seems to be (in my experience). It is also not clear to me what the plastic lids on the cheap containers are made from. There is little point in moving to glass if you are going to cover your food with an off-gassing, BPA-laden lid.

I have, as is my wont, tried most of the glass containers on the market today. I like the idea of the Glasslock type with the flaps that snap shut and make things water- and air-tight. But I don’t like them in practice. You seldom need this degree of seal and I find it hard to get them to close completely. You are also limited to rectangular or square shapes …. I have a soft spot for circles.

My new favourite glassware comes from no further away than the US (yes, the glass itself is actually made there, though the lids do, I am afraid, come from China).

The TrueSeal range from Anchor has flexible (possibly partly silicone?) BPA-free lids with a see-through panel in the top to help you see what is inside. The lids are super-easy to put on and seem to last well. The manufacturer claims that by pushing down the lid to squeeze out air you can make things pretty water-tight. There are differing views on this in web reviews, but I put water in one of mine and turned it upside down and the seal did indeed seem to be true.

The range includes round containers (which nest) as well as square, loaf-shaped and taller containers.

trueseal set

They are all microwave, dishwasher, oven and freezer safe. And since I have a soft spot for lime green (did anyone guess that ?), I like the way these look in my kitchen. They are also fine for serving which cannot be said for plastic.

In the US TrueSeal glassware is available most everywhere, it seems (so Target, Walmart, etc.) and is good value at $25 for a 10 piece set (5 round containers with lids) at Walmart online. I am not sure whether Walmart stocks the TrueSeal range in Canada (I guess I should visit and check it out but I can’t quite bring myself to do that, even for you, dear readers).

I bought the ones I have in a larger Loblaws store, but they certainly don’t sell them in my local Loblaws. I found a better selection at Canadian Tire. Of course they are more expensive here in Canada, around $6 to $12 per container or $19.99 for a set of 3 round containers with lids.

How to pack a peach

….so that it does not squash in your child’s lunch bag? That is the question I ask myself every year as school kicks off at the peak of the domestic peach season.

I love peaches, my kids love peaches (sadly for them, they only get them at this time of year as I fret about peaches’ constant appearance on the dirty dozen list of the most pesticide-drenched fruits). But nobody loves a brown mush at the bottom of the lunch bag.

Help is at hand! I was sent some Kinderville bigger bites storage jars, by my friends at Rockpretty Baby. I had never heard of or seen these `jars’ before, but it turns out they are ideal for peaches (and a number of other things too).

big bites large

They are made from silicone. This seems to be the material of choice for flexible food grade products these days. It is more or less natural (being a product of the abundant silicon in sand and rock) although I’m not so sure the same can be said of the lovely primary colour dyes. It is also chemically inert, tolerant of a wide range of temperatures (so can be boiled to sterilise) and is apparently resistant to bacteria. Health Canada reassures me of its safety and other sites seem to concur.

The silicone is soft enough to cushion your peach and the neat thing about it is that because it is flexible, when you push the lid down, it creates a vacuum seal and your jar becomes almost watertight. Yet little hands can remove the lid with ease (and have fun at the same time, sealing and popping the top off).

Now, when I say `almost water-tight’ I sound a note of caution. I sent a slightly oily salad to school in my jar the other day and found everything scattered around the lunch bag on return. I think things had been fine until the kids tried to replace the lid. Maybe the oil interfered with the seal. Or maybe it was recess that did.

Anyway, for really messy stuff in lunchbags, I would still opt for the clamp sealed stainless containers that I wrote about before. But I do love these bigger bites containers for awkward shaped items; they are appreciably taller than most stainless jars. And, for those of you who might be toting your own (or a baby’s) snack, food can be microwaved directly in the container and the jar itself won’t get hot. I just wouldn’t carry, store or heat anything too smelly in them as all plastic-type materials tends to hold smells after a while.

Kinderville is a US company that specializes in squishy silicone products, mostly targeted at the baby end of the spectrum (e.g. silicone plates, freezer cubes for baby food).

little bites

The items themselves are made in China and Korea (apparently responsibly, exceeding all safety standards).

Bigger bites jars are not cheap @ $17.99 for two, or $22 – or more – in Canada (sigh). This is about the same price as stainless. The company also makes smaller jars – little bites - which are half the price (4 instead of 2 for the same price) and they are currently 30% off on the US site (though shipping to Canada is ruinous). I would be interested to know if these minis would pack a peach too (can anyone tell me?).

Kinderville products are available at a variety of bricks-and-mortar and online retailers in the US and Canada. The best online price in Canada is through rockprettybaby.ca.

Non-stick baking options

I am pretty sure that everyone reading this will be aware that the one thing that Teflon cannot stop sticking is tales of toxicity. Teflon, and other generic non-stick coatings made from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) have a tendency, at high heat, to break apart and emit a toxic – and probably carcinogenic – gas that can kill birds and causes a delightful condition called `polymer-fume fever‘ in humans.

Great to know this, but what to do about it? Abandon all non-stick pans and dedicate ourselves to scrubbing? Or seek non-toxic, non-stick alternatives?

For me, it is a combination of the two. Fortunately I can scrub my stainless pans to death with the Lagostina abrasive stainless cleaner that I wrote about before. I have also been experimenting with – and will later write about – different ceramic frying pan coatings.

When it comes to baking, I use silicon sheets under my cookies. The best-known brand is Silipat. Another, possibly slightly cheaper, brand is Exopat. The sheets are around $20 each which is not cheap but they really do last (several thousand uses according to the manufacturer). They also do double duty as they are great for rolling out pastry etc; they grip your worktop not your food.

I used to use non-stick sheets from Lakeland in the UK, until I saw that these were PTFE coated too. (While baking sheets are unlikely to be heated high enough to generate toxic fumes, the whole idea of PTFE puts me off, especially since Dupont – Teflon’s maker – paid out on a class-action lawsuit for elevated birth defects surrounding a PTFE manufacturing plant). So look closely at the label when you buy.

For loaves I use silicon or stoneware but, as I hate greasing pans, I am still on the look out for an easy option.

For larger baking pans (think brownies), my new favourite is a line of non-stick glass bakeware sold under the President’s Choice label at Loblaws stores in Canada.

The pans are coated with silicone nano-particles

nami close

(are these nano-partcles we can love? I hope so), that go under the brand name Nami. A company named Green Apple used to sell similar pans in the US, although it looks as though they may have gone out of business. In Germany, Wesco sells a nice range of ceramic pans (including ramekins) with Nami-coating.

The President’s Choice Nami bakeware looks like normal pyrex (and is made of borosilicate glass, just like glass drinking straws), but with a lightly frosted surface. And it really works. No greasing required so no baked-on oil or food to scrub off.

The downsides are price

nami pan

(pans range from $11.99 to $19.99), available shapes (bring on that loaf tin) and the fact that sharp utensils can cause scratches (though the label says this will not damage the Nami’s non-stick properties). Plus the carbon footprint of this range is likley to be high, since pans are heavy and made in China (much glass cookware is still US-made).

Oh, and the big catch: handwashing is recommend. So you take your pick: handwashing or greasing. I have to say that I prefer the former, though I may be alone in this (I have also risked the delicate cycle on my washing-up machine and seen no damage yet).

Sipping soda through a straw

So, I have already let you in on my secret for unbreakable glasses and my friend Amélie has provided you with a green option for endless soda, but something is still missing….Yes, the straw!

Kids especially enjoy straws.

glass in cup

But adults like them too and they have a particular advantage for long, summer drinks: it is hard to inadvertently suck up a wasp if you are using a straw. This may seem a little far-fetched, but wasps are, of course, attracted to sugary drinks and it does not take much to gulp down a flailing wasp (especially if you are drinking from an opaque can). This issue is of particular relevance to me as my daughter has a severe wasp allergy (after having been stung in the mouth: the closer to your head the sting, the worse the reaction).

Anyway, back to straws. We all love them, and they can be had very cheaply at any plastic emporium. Since, however, we suck and chew on them, it would be nice to think that they don’t contain anything nasty (I am not sure my local dollar store can guarantee this…). Beyond that, though, single-use plastic really bugs me for its contribution to landfill and carbon/pollution. The solution? Glass straws.

Now I know that sounds a bit alarming since straws don’t usually get treated with much respect, but the glass ones I have are (nearly) unbreakable. They are hand blown from borosilicate glass which is very resistant to breaking (the type of glass used for laboratory equipment and kitchen measuring jugs, etc.). The ones I have are made in upstate New York (not so far from me) and sold through this website, for approximately $5 each.

(A note on the website: it is not the slickest looking site, but customer care is good. All payments are through PayPal and, a bit disconcertingly, you receive only a Paypal receipt after the transaction, not a receipt from the site itself. But it all works.)

The site offers a range of straw options (bent, straight, coloured, wide, narrow). I tried a sample pack and I found the standard width, straight, 8″ or 10″ straws to be the best bet. The `thick’ feel of the straw in your mouth does take some getting used to (which is why I don’t like the wider straws or the ones with coloured bubbles on the end so much), but the novelty of drinking from a glass straw and knowing that you can throw it (not too vigorously) in the dishwasher after easily makes up for that. It is also nice to think of each straw being handblown in an artists’ studio. The optional coloured dots on the straws reinforce this feeling.

One note on cleaning. I would recommend purchasing the cleaning brush that fits through the straw (another $5), as smoothies and thicker drinks do tend to deposit bits that the dishwasher cannot reach.

straw and brush

Finally…do they break? Yes, one of mine did break very early on (not quite sure how as my youngest was in charge). But they come with a lifetime guarantee. If you email a picture of the broken straw and send another $3 through your PayPal account, you will get a replacement in the mail, no questions asked.

(N.B. I was sent a sample pack of straws to try for this review, but only after having previously purchased a set of straws.)

Soda water maker: a sparkling, green alternative

This is a guest review by Amélie Crosson.
We have a new toy in our house. It sits on the kitchen counter and when you pull a lever it makes rude noises. It’s a carbonated drink maker—a Father’s Day present for my husband, or “The Faj”, as he’s been christened by his daughter. The Faj loves fizzy water, but he also loves the environment, and between lowering the thermostat in winter, pulling blinds in summer and triaging garbage for recycling and compost, he’s been muttering angrily about the environmental footprint caused by shipping fizzy water in heavy green bottles all the way across the Atlantic. Not to mention that bottled water was, for us, a $700-$1,000 a year habit.

I’m not a mail-order person, so once I knew what I was looking for I went directly to the best kitchen supply store in Ottawa, C.A. Paradis. There they sell the old-fashioned seltzer maker dispenser—the comedic prop made famous by Vaudeville and I Love Lucy, but also the more modern Sodastream line of drink makers. They start at C$99 for a plastic model and get sturdier and sleeker in design the more you pay. I went midway and found a smart stainless and grey model that looks elegant on the counter for C$179. Had I wanted a model that carbonates water in glass, as opposed to plastic, bottles, I would have had to pay an extra $100 to buy the Penguin model.

sodastream

The machine is beautiful in its simplicity: nothing to plug in, just insert the CO2 cartridge, fill the BPA-free plastic bottle (supplied) with tap (or filtered) water, screw it into the machine and pull the lever until it buzzes—and yes, it sounds rude. Nearby children will chortle.

One cartridge provides 60 litres of sparkling water. When it runs out, we take the cartridge back to the store, pay $20 and exchange it in for a new one. So after the initial investment of $179, we pay an average of $20 a month for our 60 litre a month habit. This is easily a third of the price of the bottled stuff plus a lot less schlepping and recycling. (N.B. on the Sodastream website the cost calculation is 30c/litre for carbonated water and 88c/litre for flavoured drinks, post machine-purchase).

Two other advantages:

  • Replacement cartridges and all accessories and machines can be purchased on line.
  • You can tailor drinks to your own requirements, making them as fizzy or as euro-flat as you wish.
    sodastream clear

    You can also buy syrups for around C$7 that flavour up to 20 litres of soda (so that adds about 40c/litre to the price of soda, less if you like just a wisp of flavour). I have not tried the syrups, but there is quite a range from regular to diet and the `clear’ range which has no artificial flavours, colours or sweeteners and includes such delicious-sounding flavours as passion-fruit/mango and kiwi/pear.

So, at this early stage, it seems to me that our new soda water maker will help us reduce our carbon footprint significantly, enjoy our fizzy water, and keep the Faj happy. What more could you want?
(if the answer is “more information” then see this dedicated review site for a really full analysis of the various Sodastream machines and product claims).

Glasses to last a lifetime

I have many children (which I know is not eco friendly). During their short lives they have all broken many glasses, usually at the dinner table, at the end of the day, when I am not feeling particularly forgiving.

One way to get around this would be to use plastic glasses. But I don’t like plastic in any form, even when it is BPA-free, etc. You never get quite the same sense of clean and fresh with plastic as you do with glass.

So, I started hunting for the glasses of my youth which were, I was certain, virtually unbreakable. We had the same glasses at home (I know these never broke: my sister still uses them, 45 years later, in a kitchen with stone floors) and at school (anyone else remember reading the little numbers off the bottom while struggling to consume inedible school vegetables?).

duralex-picardie-hiball

A bit of research led me to Duralex a French company that has been making tempered glassware since the 1930s. The tempering process is achieved through heating the glass to over 600C and then rapidly cooling it (needless to say, that means no worries about hot/cold when you use the glasses). Glasses come in various classic styles: I like the Picardie Hi-ball 12oz (pictured), though for school memories, you will need Gigogne. The company also makes bowls and plates, which is great if you are worried about microwaving in plastic.

Yes, all glasses are made in France and shipped around the world and, yes, there must be considerable energy used in their manufacture. But, the pleasure of a well-balanced glass that you can use for decades, indoors and out, that won’t chip in the dishwasher and that can, apparently, double as a hammer at a pinch, makes that all worthwhile for me.

Duralex glasses are generally sold in sets and retail for about $5 each. See here for US stockists. In the UK, try here. In Canada, you can find the Picardie glasses in various sizes at Bed Bath and Beyond ($26.99 for 6 Picardie 12oz). You can find the full line, including bowls, plates and ramekins through the Duralex Canada distributor. See here for a list of retail locations.

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