sustainable food Feed

Homegrown and weedy herbal teas

A pot of homegrown lemongrass tea. Little eco footprints

If I had to choose one drink I couldn't do without - it would be tea. My day is littered with many quick cuppas.

The moment is as important as the contents of my cup. It's time to stop, reflect, relax, and when I'm fortunate to be with friends - a time to chat.

But you'll rarely find tea bags dangling in my cup.

I prefer my brew to be herbal, homegrown and weedy – and often the contents reflect the season, my mood, and my health.

If it wasn't for herbal tea I suspect I'd rarely drink sufficient water throughout the day.

Drinking herbal tea is an easy way to increase water intake, particularly when it's chilly and the last thing you feel like drinking is cold water.

It's also an easy way to take healing herbs and increase your intake of antioxidants. Far more pleasurable (and cheaper) than popping a pill.

You can buy herbal teas bags. But often the contents are stale, highly processed, and of a volume far too small to be of benefit.

And it seems silly to buy herbal teas when they are so easy to grow and forage.

Many herbs that can be used as tea thrive in pots and tolerate neglect.

My favourite is lemongrass. 

To make lemongrass tea, simply pull off a stem or two, squash them into a ball and roll between your palms. This bruises the stems and helps to release juices and oils. Pop the stem into a tea pot, cover with boiling water, and brew for around ten minutes.

Other herbal tea plants that are easy to grow and can be picked all year round include lemon balm, the mints (common mint, peppermint and spearmint), sage and thyme.

Thyme, lime and honey is one of my favourite teas for helping to speed up recovery from colds and flu. The thyme is antibacterial and antiviral. The lime gives you a good dose of vitamin C. And the honey is antibacterial and soothes the throat.

Calendula petals can be dried and used as a tea. Little eco footprints

There's other herbal teas that can be harvested from your garden when in season, like raspberry leaf, rosehips and calendula and chamomile flowers. 

Herbs can be brewed fresh or dried and stored for later use. 

To dry herbs you can hang bunches upside down for a couple of weeks, spread leaves or flowers out on racks, or use a dehydrator.

Dried Lemon Myrtle and Nettle tea. Little eco footprints

Once completely dry, herbs can be crushed and stored in a glass jar.

Drying Stinging Nettle to make nettle tea. Little eco footprints

I'm currently drying bunches of stinging nettle by hanging them in our shed. Nettle tea is one of my favourite teas. It's delicious, rich in minerals, high in iron, and a gentle natural diuretic that is good at flushing out toxins.

Nettle season is short in my neck of the woods, so I'm doing my best to collect and dry a years worth of nettle tea.

Chickweed tea. Little eco footprints

Chickweed is another favourite brew at this time of year. I simply toss a handful of stems into a pot or a few stems into a cup.

Most herbal tea leaves can be reused to make a second and third cup.

They continue to release goodness and flavour. Today I started with nettle tea. Next I added a lemongrass stem to the remnants of nettle leaves. After enjoying the nettle and lemongrass tea, I added a handful of chickweed. Each brew was unique. And as a bonus I didn't have to wash the pot between uses.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 17th August 2015.


Benefits of bone broth - the original fast food

Slow cooked nourishing bone broth. Little eco footprintsHomemade bone broth is inexpensive, easy to make and loaded with health benefits.

In their book 'Nourishing Broth: an old fashioned remedy for the modern world', Sally Fallon Morell and Kaayla Daniel remind us that "Until the modern era, most households kept a cauldron simmering over the fire or a stockpot on a stove’s back burner. People regularly ate from it and continually added whatever ingredients became available, making long - cooked soups and stews the original “fast food.”"

When bones are slowly cooked they release all kinds of goodness.

Gelatin - which is good for our digestion, skin, hair, nails and joints.

Minerals - like calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and silicon - which are released in a form that our bodies can easily absorb.

Broth made with plenty of cartilage and tendons also contains chondroitin and glucosamine - compounds sold as expensive dietary supplements to relieve joint pain, inflammation and osteoarthritis.

Among the many benefits of broth, Fallon Morell and Daniel claim it "even contributes to emotional stability and a positive mental attitude."

Convenient stock cubes or cartons of ready to use stock contain none of these benefits.

Nouishing bones ready to be made into broth. Little eco footprints

I mostly make broth from waste or leftovers.

I have a bag in the freezer where I toss carrot tops, onion skins, garlic peels and other vegetable scraps.

I have a second bag where I toss bones such as the carcass from a roast chicken or bones from a roast leg of lamb.

You can also buy bones especially for making broth.

Chat to your local butcher about what they have available. I use bones from organic, free range or ethically farmed animals - partly because I want bones free of residues from intensive industrial farming.

If using bought bones - rather than leftovers from a cooked meal - it's a good idea to roast your bones first to improve flavour of the broth.

How to make bone broth

To make the broth, place your leftover or roasted bones into a large pot or slow cooker.

Toss in any vegetable scraps.

Add a carrot or two, a couple of onions, a bay leaf, a couple of peppercorns and a handful of parsley.

No need to chop or peel anything. Just toss everything in whole.

The more bones and veggies you add - the more flavoursome your broth.

Cover everything with water and add a good dash of apple cider vinegar. The vinegar helps extract the minerals from the bones into the broth.

Cook covered on very low heat for a day or two. A slow cooker is ideal.

The larger the animal, the longer it takes to extract all the good stuff from the bones.

Fish bones only need a couple of hours. Chicken bones need at least a day. And beef, pork or lamb can be simmered for days.

The longer you simmer the more mineral rich your broth will be.

Once your broth is ready, strain using a colander.

The broth can be enjoyed straight away or cooled so that any fat can be easily removed from the surface.

There's endless ways to enjoy broth.

Straight - with nothing but a pinch of salt and pepper.

Or as the base for soups, stews, curries or risotto.

I especially like having broth in the fridge ready to make a simple meal in minutes. I add finely chopped vegetables and briefly boil - making an easy soup in minutes that is far more nourishing than any tin or packet of soup could ever be.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 20th July 2015.


Reliable rhubarb - how to grow and what variety to choose

A beautiful bunch of Sydney crimson (aka Gran's Red) Rhubarb. Little ec0 footprints

Rhubarb is one worthwhile garden plant. It’s beautiful, hardy, low-maintenance and delicious. I especially love that you plant it once and, if you care for your patch properly, you can be harvesting rhubarb indefinitely.

Right now – late winter and into early spring – is a good time to plant rhubarb.

It’s typically planted as crowns. You can raid a friend’s garden and divide crowns from an existing plant, or you can buy crowns or potted plants from a nursery.

Winter red varieties of Australian rhubarb

Much of the literature regarding growing rhubarb talks about it going dormant in winter. But not all varieties do this.

Numerous beautiful red winter rhubarb varieties were developed in Australia in the early 1900s.

Winter Red Rhubarb stems. Little eco footprints

These rhubarbs not only survive year round, they are actually at their best in winter – a time perfectly suited to warm stewed or baked rhubarb.

I suspect I'm growing Sydney Crimson – a winter rhubarb variety that was very popular with market gardeners in the 1940s and 50s.

It’s been in my family for more than 60 years. I call it Gran’s Red. Gran called it Sydney Red. She was very proud of her super red rhubarb. I've maintained a pot or patch of this rhubarb for the past 20 years and so have many of my relatives.

Other year-round varieties of rhubarb available in Australia include Wandin Red, Ever Red and Next Generation.

How to plant Rhubarb

Choose a sunny to partially shaded spot for your rhubarb. It can tolerate a little shade and appreciates afternoon shade in summer.

How to grow rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Rhubarb thrives best in rich soil with good drainage. Improve your soil with plenty of aged manure or compost.

Plant the crowns at least 50 centimetres apart. The growing surface of crowns should sit at or just below the surface. Water well and mulch.

How to harvest rhubarb

Give your plants plenty of time to establish and don’t harvest any stems for the first year or so after planting.

When harvesting rhubarb, hold the stalk near the base and gently pull it away from the crown. This ensures the whole stem comes away and doesn't leave a stump, which can cause rot.

Harvest the thickest stems and always leave behind plenty of stems or you will exhaust the plant.

I have enough plants so that I only harvest a couple of stems from each plant each time.

Gran's Red Rhubarb. Little eco footprints

Remove the leaves from the stalks.

Rhubarb leaves cannot be eaten but are safe to compost. Little eco footprints

The leaves are high in oxalic acid and shouldn't be eaten or fed to poultry or other stock. They can be composted safely. I keep a compost bin next to my rhubarb patch so that I can easily toss leaves straight into the compost. 

How to keep your rhubarb patch happy

To keep your rhubarb happy, top-dress it with well-rotted manure or compost before and after its peak growing season. For me, this is spring and autumn.

Regular liquid fertiliser is also a good idea.

It is almost impossible to overfeed rhubarb.

Don’t let rhubarb dry out, especially in summer. Keep your patch well watered and mulch generously. It is best to thoroughly water infrequently rather than give them a little frequently.

Adding plenty of high-nitrogen organic matter should discourage flowering. But if flowers do appear, remove them and increase feeding and watering, otherwise your plants will put energy into flowers rather than stems.

Healthy, large rhubarb plants can be dug up and divided for replanting. Use a spade and dig the whole clump from the soil. Shake off excess dirt and divide into large pieces using a sharp spade or knife. Ensure each piece has at least three growing points and good roots.

Stewed rhubarb with citrus and honey. Little eco footprints

Stewed Rhubarb on porridge - a selicious winter treat. Little eco footprints

My favourite way to enjoy rhubarb is simply stewed with orange juice and a little honey. What's yours? 

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 17th July 2015.


Thermal + Haybox cooking: new ways to use an old technique {Milkwood}

Thermal-cooking-wonder-box-5-milkwood

Our great-grandparents didn't have slow cookers to make their life easier. But they may have had something similar – a box of hay. Haybox cooking involved placing a hot pot of food in a nest of hay and leaving it there to complete cooking.

Thermal cooking is an efficient and convenient way to cook – so it’s not surprising its making a comeback.

Thermal-cooking-pot-2-milkwood

I use my thermal pot often. I make dinner in the morning when things are less chaotic. I toss the ingredients for a curry in one pot and put rice and water in the other. I boil each for a couple of minutes and pop them in the thermal flask. Hours later I open it and dinner is ready.

I'm sharing more ways to use this old technique over on the Milkwood blog.

I'm thrilled the Milkwood team has invited me to be a regular contributor over there. 


How to make simple sauerkraut

How to make sauerkraut. Little eco footprints

Fermented foods are gaining popularity - and rightly so. Laden with probiotics, beneficial enzymes and vitamins - they are great for our digestion and health. They are also easy to make and extremely frugal.

Most organic food stores stock a range of fermented vegetables. They are convenient and delicious - but at $15 a jar I quickly learnt to make my own. An equivalent amount of home made sauerkraut can cost less than $1.

You don't need fancy ingredients to make sauerkraut.

How to make sauerkraut 1. Little eco footprints

At its most basic you combine only cabbage and salt.

Nor do you need special equipment.

I've made many batches using a large wide-mouth glass jar and a bottle that fits neatly inside.

I've only recently invested in an air lock. For less than $10, an air lock and stopper from a brewery supply store converts a large jar and lid into a safe fermenting vessel. 

You can also get beautiful ceramic fermenting crocks - but it's easy to make do without. 

How to make Sauerkraut.

1. Thoroughly clean your hands and equipment.

Rinse well, especially if your detergent is antibacterial as it will kill the good bugs you want to encourage (primarily lactobacilli).

2. Shred cabbage and weigh.

Save a nice big outer leaf. You'll use this later.

How to make sauerkraut 2. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 3. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 4. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 5. Little eco footprints

3. Sprinkle salt over shredded cabbage.

Use a good quality unrefined salt such as sea salt or rock salt.

The salt inhibits the growth of bad bacteria until the lactobacilli increase and produce sufficient lactic acid to preserve the cabbage.

The recommended amount of salt varies considerably. I add 1 - 2 tablespoons of salt for every kg of cabbage.

You can also add additional flavors (e.g caraway seeds, oregano, garlic, ginger or chilli) or vegetables (e.g grated carrots or sliced radish). Although I suggest it's probably best to keep it simple for your first few batches.

Whey can be added to speed up fermentation. The whey inoculates the cabbage with additional lactobacilli. You can safely decrease the amount of salt used if you add whey.

Whey can be strained from yoghurt and speeds up lactofermentation. Little eco footprints

Whey can be obtained by straining good quality yoghurt through muslin (or a fine old curtain as I'm doing above). The leftover strained yoghurt makes a delicious cheese (labneh) spread. I add around 1 tablespoon of whey per kg of cabbage.

4. Massage the salted cabbage with your hands for up to ten minutes to release juices.

How to make sauerkraut 7. Little eco footprints

I can only manage to massage around 1 kg at a time so I do it batches. I massage the first kg for a few minutes and then let it sit for a while and go on to shredding the second kg. Letting it sit for a few minutes helps to release the juices. 

How to make sauerkraut 6. Little eco footprints

How to make sauerkraut 8. Little eco footprints

5. Pack the cabbage and juices into your jar or fermenting crock.

Press down firmly with your hands until the juices entirely submerge the cabbage.

The outer leaf you set aside can be pressed on top and used to hold the shredded cabbage below the surface.

6. Exclude oxygen.

Making Sauerkraut. Little eco footorints

Lacto-fermentation is an anaerobic process and the presence of oxygen during fermentation will spoil the sauerkraut. Using an air-lock or fermentation crock will provide the right environment. You can also use a bottle filled with water (or any other clean weight) to weigh down the cabbage and keep it submerged.

Making sauerkraut  using a ordinary jar and air lock or weight. Little eco footprints

If using an open jar, cover with a fine cloth to keep out insects. 

7. Wait.

Keep your jar at room temperature. Start tasting after 4 days. You can leave you sauerkraut at room temperature for anywhere from 4 days to 4 weeks.

8. Once you are happy with the degree of fermentation, move your sauerkraut into the fridge where it will keep for many months.

Having a jar of sauerkraut in the fridge means a simple healthy meal can be made in minutes. A generous scoop of sauerkraut, a couple of boiled eggs and a handful of carrot sticks. Done. Simple, frugal healthy food.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 4th May 2015.