Archive for the ‘Sustainable living’ Category
Barley is great in soups, but the real test of a grain is: Can you make bread out of it?
Lately I’ve been experimenting with barley, as new research has come out about what a healthy food it is. For one, barley is low on the glycemic index, meaning that it doesn’t spike your blood sugar the way wheat bread does. Barley also promotes a beneficial form of fermentation in the digestive system, so, like yogurt, it’s good for our intestinal flora. And it’s low-carb. Research has shown that when you eat barley, you eat less at the next two meals. That’s the opposite of what high-carb foods do. High-carb foods make us hungrier at the next meal.
Barley contains little or no gluten. That means that you can’t make bread out of 100 percent barley. It won’t rise. It’s the gluten that gives bread its structure. Usually this problem is solved by mixing about 1 part barley flour with 3 or 4 parts wheat flour. But then you have a carby bread that’s only marginally healthier than wheat bread.
Googling around, I found many versions of barley bread. But no one seemed to think of the obvious solution for barley bread: Just add enough wheat gluten flour to give structure to the bread.
That’s what I did yesterday, and the result was delicious. I used about 1 part gluten flour to 4 parts barley flour. It rose beautifully.
Both barley flour and gluten flour can be bought at places like Whole Foods.
Barley bread has a delicious taste. It’s not all that different from wheat bread, but it’s an old-fashioned, rustic taste that I would describe as hobbity.
March and April were cold. Spring is about three weeks late this year. Not only that, but the long-range forecast shows below-average temperatures through mid-May, with above-average rainfall. This will do no harm to the spring crops. Cabbage, lettuce, onions, etc., love cool, wet weather. I’m a bit concerned, though, that these early crops will mature so late that we’ll be behind getting the summer crops started — tomatoes, squash, etc. We’ll do everything we can to rush the spring crops to maturity. The irrigation system is in place, though it has been very little needed so far.
This year, we’re mulching heavily, hoping that it will conserve moisture and keep down the weeds. Back in 2011, I recommended a book: Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, by Steve Solomon. In retrospect, though this book contains lots of good information on water frugality, it steered me wrong in some ways. The author is of the opinion that, if you live in an area with enough rainfall to support deciduous forests, then you can garden without irrigation. He also does not think that mulching is very important. I strongly disagree with him. With summer weather like the weather we’ve had here for the past five years, I am strongly of the opinion that having a reliable garden without irrigation just is not possible. Even when there is rainfall, as summer temperatures rise daily to 95 and above, such rainfall as we get is rapidly dried up, and heat stress and water stress become severe. Mulch, I’m hoping, will help keep the soil cooler and conserve water. As a bonus, the hay we’re using as mulch will decompose into the soil, helping to feed the worms.
Ken has worked like a dog in the garden this year. Sometimes when I look out the window from the comfort of the kitchen and see him working so hard, I feel guilty. But Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times, has reminded me of a very important principle: a garden without a kitchen (and someone slaving in that kitchen) is useless. Every well tended and productive garden must have a kitchen running at full tilt, with someone working in that kitchen who understands what to do with the stuff coming from the garden. We’ve got that process down. Here at the abbey, the garden and the kitchen are a smoothly functioning unit.
Ken has a longish piece to be published in Sunday’s New York Times. It was released to the web today.
It’s a sort of preview of his book, which will be released May 14.
There is life at the abbey, but a never-ending winter and a calendar clogged with a heavy burden of anti-fracking political activities has kept everyone down. As for winter, blame a persistent disturbance in the jet stream, which sent arctic air too far south and warm air too far north. Greenland was melting while it was snowing in the southern U.S. The pattern seems to be breaking. There is still time, I think, for April (as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay said) to come babbling down the hill like an idiot, strewing flowers. Shake a leg, April.
Ken Ilgunas is back and will be here at least for the next few months. He has, I think, been soaking up solitude here at the cloistered abbey, resting up from throwing himself at the world-out-there in his last adventure. He promises to post to his blog soon. We have some spring projects planned, of course. And Ken will have a busy time soon around the release of his book on May 14.
Why are ditches universally treated with scorn? They are a symbol of the low and degraded. Even Oscar Wilde, speaking of the ditch’s cousin, the gutter, said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Human activities constantly create ditches, and constantly we neglect them, though they are critical to the quality of our soil and water. It is very rare to see a ditch treated well. I’ve had my eye on one such ditch since last fall. It’s in a pasture-like area along N.C. 8 north of Germanton that was reseeded last fall. At the bottom of the ditch, the critical part, someone took care to spread an excelsior mat to prevent erosion. They also placed straw bales to slow runoff. To whoever did this good deed, I commend you.
This article at Smithsonian.com is fascinating. It’s about about six members of a Russian family who fled into remote Siberia to avoid religious persecution. They lived there for 40 years, surviving on food that they could forage and what little they could grow.
I find this story inspiring. It shows just how adaptable ordinary people can be, and how little little we can live on.
I like wild weather, and around here we’ve had our share of it this January. Yesterday we were under four watches — a flash flood watch, a severe wind watch, a severe thunderstorm watch, and then just after nightfall a tornado watch. When the front hit, it was brief but intense, with rain lashing the windows and the wind roaring. The storm left another 1.6 inches of rain, bringing the total rainfall for January to 10.15 inches. That is real rain, and most of it fell slowly enough to load the aquifer, which needed it badly. I’m just hoping that 2013 remains a good rain year, as 2012 was.
This morning colder air is blowing in. It was a beautiful morning for a winter walk. The storm left no damage other than a dustpan blown into the yard. The streams are gushing. And there is a mysterious hint of spring in the air, even though the low forecast for tomorrow is 18F.
Happiness is some woods, water rushing over rocks, healthy chickens, a rich garden, a snug little house, and not having to go anywhere: the way most Americans lived before we all took jobs and left the farm for, um, a better life. It’s fun to walk this place and pretend that it all never happened, that we never took that wrong turn. But we did. And it would be convenient to ignore the fact that forces much richer and more powerful than we are (see my previous post on the North Carolina General Assembly) are doing everything possible to continue to drag us under as fast as they can and to make it impossible to turn back.
My post yesterday was about how many kilowatt hours of electricity the abbey uses on a cold winter day. Though I use about half as much energy as the average American, there are no grounds for boasting. When that energy use is translated into pounds of coal, it is substantial.
Here’s how we can do the math. Most of my electricity here probably comes from a coal-fired steam plant, because that’s the nearest generator. That’s Duke Power’s Belews Creek Steam Station. The Wikipedia article on the steam station gives some statistics on the station’s efficiency and tells us how many Btu’s of thermal energy are required at the station to generate a kilowatt hour of electricity. At Belews Creek, which is a pretty efficient steam plant, 9,023 Btu of heat is needed to generate 1 kWh of electricity.
Coal varies in its energy content, but a reasonable average for coal is 20 million Btu of heat per 2,000 pounds of coal. So one pound of coal releases 10,000 Btu of heat when it’s burned. Now we can do the math for roughly how much coal is required to supply the abbey’s electricity.
On the coldest day of January, I used 37 kWh of electricity. Translated to pounds of coal, that means that the abbey required 33 pounds of coal for heat, light, cooking, appliances, etc., on the coldest day of January. On the warmest day of January, it works out to 11 pounds of coal. For the month of December, I used 625 kWh of electricity. That works out to 563 pounds of coal for December. That doesn’t sound so good, does it? But at least my energy consumption is on the low side for an American.
In 2012, I used a total of 6,764 kilowatt hours of electricity. That means I’m responsible for burning just over 3 tons of coal in 2012. Now look at our sprawling suburbs, our bright lights, our wasteful buildings, and use your imagination.
If you’d like to do the math to roughly translate your own electrical consumption to an equivalent amount of coal, multiply the number of kilowatt hours on your electric bill by .9023. The .9023 number represents the coal-to-electricity ratio for North Carolina’s Belews Creek plant, but your local numbers probably don’t vary too much, and with a little Googling you may be able to localize your calculations.
A year or two ago, my electric company — a regional electric coop named Energy United — installed “smart meters.” The purpose of these meters is to save the power company money, because no one has to be sent around to read them. The meters call home over the electric lines, reporting data back to the power company. Not to mention letting the power company know if your power is out, and automatically tracking widespread outages.
But this calling home doesn’t happen just once a month. It’s a regular thing. This allows the power company to track daily usage of electricity and report it to their customers on their web site.
I’m almost obsessive in collecting data on my electricity usage. I keep records of the abbey’s electrical usage in a spreadsheet, going back to when the lights at the abbey first came on in June 2009. When the weather is exceptionally cold, as it has been at times this month, I like to see how many kilowatt hours it takes to get through a really cold day.
Yesterday, January 25, was such a day. The low was 16F when the day started, and 19F when the day ended. The temperature did not rise above freezing all day, and snow and ice pellets were falling. I used 37 kilowatt hours yesterday. That covered the heat pump’s usage, plus my normal electrical usage. My stove is electric. I baked bread and did a lot of cooking yesterday. I also kept water boiling in a kettle for part of the day to raise the humidity in the house. My electrical cost for the day was $2.82. If I look at kilowatt-hour usage for the lowest-usage day of January (when I used very little heat) and do the arithmetic on the difference, I calculate that my heating cost yesterday was $1.91, while the remaining $0.91 was for other electrical usage.
This blows my mind. Partly it’s that electricity rates are low in North Carolina compared with some other areas, and partly it’s that the abbey is a very efficient building and isn’t too big (1,250 square feet). Plus the heat pump, a Trane unit of the same age as the abbey, is pretty efficient. Heat pumps are by far the most energy-efficient source of heat, though they lose efficiency when the outdoor temperature is low. When the outdoor temperature is, say, 45 degrees, a heat pump is about four times more efficient than when the outdoor temperature is, say, 16 degrees. It is, after all, capturing heat from the outside air and pumping it into the house, so they don’t work as well in cold weather. All heat pumps, as far as I know, having heating coils that kick in if the outdoor compressor can’t produce enough heat. They really are quite amazing machines, and modern heat pumps are much more efficient than the heat pumps of 20 or 30 years ago. Modern heat pumps also use ozone-friendly gases. The old freon systems are getting old and are rapidly being replaced.
These calculations led me to a thought experiment. What if that heat had come from, say, gasoline rather than electricity. If the gasoline had cost $3.69 a gallon, then the $2.82 would have bought me three-quarters of a gallon of gas. The cost of the heating portion of my electricity equals half a gallon of gas. That means that I heated the abbey on the coldest day in January for the amount of energy (calculated according to cost) that it would take to drive an SUV about 8 or 9 miles! How the carbon load compares may tell a different story, but that’s a calculation for another day.
I plan to do a future post on how I’ve used my energy consumption data to roughly calculate my carbon footprint. We all should know what our carbon footprint is.
Note: The abbey has a propane fireplace, and I did use the fireplace some yesterday for the entertainment of myself and the cat. However, the BTU output of the fireplace is much less than the house’s heating system, and the fireplace is never used at night, when the heating system works hardest. Though the fireplace contributed some heat yesterday, the amount of that heat would be minor compared with the heat provided by the electric heat pump system.