Minor health concern

Recently, I’ve had a number of health-related things to do, and a few tests were on that list.  A few days ago, I got the email.  The one from the information nurse saying that someone at my doctor’s office needed to talk with me.  The one with the subject line that might as well say, “Prepare to freak out, frail human”.

It took a long time and an eventual trip to campus, but I finally got in touch with the information nurse, who told me that my cholesterol was off.  This was better news than my runaway imagination was expecting, given that it had over three hours to ponder the possibilities and had finished with all of the reasonable options within the first half hour and had moved to the progressively scarier options.  Trouble is, the information nurse didn’t actually have that much information beyond her pronouncement that “something is not quite right”.  She had some numbers, but the not the ratio or any of the important details on what exactly was the problem, and she didn’t know how to calculate them out or figure out where the problem was.  She suggested a low-far diet and exercise, but when I explained that I was already on top of those things, she didn’t have anything esle to suggest.  So, that was about as helpful as you’d imagine, and I was left largely to my own devices.  On the up side, I’ll be talking to my doctor soon to work out a plan and get more details, which I hope will help.

In general, this is a bit frustrating.  Admittedly, my parents both have slightly high cholesterol, and genetics play a huge role in cholesterol.  But I eat well, and I exercise regularly, I’m not overweight and I don’t smoke, and I’m reasonably young.  Basically, I do all of the things you’re supposed to do to keep your cholesterol low, and mine’s just…not.  It’s more than likely genetics, but this is a concern since I’m going to need to figure out what needs to be done to improve my results when most of the standard advice is stuff that I already do.

In the meantime, I’ve taken a few steps on my own.  I’ve added omega 3 and 6 supplements to my diet and will be eating a bit more fish.  I’m increasing my fiber intake, especially soluble fiber which helps to reduce bad cholesterol.  This means steel cut oats every morning, a veggie-and-legume soup for lunch, and extra nuts, seeds, and fruits and vegetables every day.  I’m drinking more green tea.  And I’m making sure I get in some exercise absolutely every day.

Happily, none of these changes require any great sacrifice – at most, they demand a bit of extra planning for things like making oats ahead of time, or soaking beans for the next day’s lunch.  They’re also not that expensive – most of the food I already had, and picking up some extra seeds, green tea, and dried fruit didn’t add much to the grocery bill for the week.  I did need to pick up the supplements, but they were on sale.  But even if they weren’t, I think it’s worth spending a bit of money to try and get this under control now before it turns into a bigger issue down the road.  It’s certainly not ideal, but things could be much worse.  After all, this is something that should be manageable once we figure out what my body needs and how best to keep this under control.

Despite my frustration and concern, I’m actually a bit…well, glad.  I’ve recently been talking about stepping up how I take care of my health, and this seems like a good way to get that going.  I’ve taken the last few days to read up more on whole foods recipes in general – Nourishing Traditions, Laurel’s Kitchen, and Super Natural Cooking were a great help – and I have some more ideas about recipes to try and things to incorporate.  I’ve had an easier time saying “no” to the things I shouldn’t be doing, and I’ve been better about making healthy choices in terms of what I eat and how I exercise.  Basically, I’m stepping up the things I already do, and the things that I’m adding are really things I should do anyway.  This is the direction I wanted to go.  Now I just have a more pressing reason to do so, and a bit more motivation to keep on track.



I don’t know that I’d have expected it, but it was really quite pleasing to bring in a fresh-picked salad for lunch today, only to have to go out again to return the snail that I found clinging to one of the leaves.  Food at it’s freshest.

Back to food

Occasionally, I forget about food.  Sure, I eat (well, mostly, anyway – I find it harder to get myself to eat when things are nuts).  But sometimes when things get busy, or hectic, or stressful, I start to lose sight of the importance that I think food should play in my life.  When this happens, I reduce or even stop cooking.  I don’t store or preserve food.  I don’t make it to the farmers’ market.

I’ve been feeling like this recently – rather unmotivated, and inclined to let things slide.  But (and this is a big but)…food is important for health.  It’s fundamental to community and to culture.  And it’s especially important to be careful with what we have now and to make sure that we’re able to feed ourselves adequately in the future.

Today, I’m spending a good bit of the day focused on food, both to actually do something productive, but also to remind myself of why this is important and how much I enjoy doing it.  Thus far, I have:

  • Biked to a local cafe that sells kombucha mothers to buy a new one (half the price of the last place I bought one!)
  • Brewed sweet tea with which to make kombucha
  • Picked up a gallon jar at the thrift store for storing food (I much prefer glass to plastic, and finding large containers for cheap is always a challenge)
  • Stopped on the way home to forage for garlic in the park across the street
  • Separated out the garlic flowers to use for cooking
  • Set out the small foraged garlic bulbs to dry off
  • Cleaned the cultivated garlic given to me by a friend’s mother
  • Made garlic scape pesto

But why stop there?  I have a few other things that I’d like to get taken care of.  Truthfully, I have a whole mess of frozen cranberries, strawberries, and rhubarb that are supposed to become jelly and jam, but I’m not sure that I’m up for water bath canning today (or that the kitchen is anywhere near clean enough for that kind of endeavour).  Instead, I’m hoping to:

  • Finish a few rounds of dishes so I can actually cook something later
  • Clean off (and clean) the kitchen counters and the cutting board
  • Figure out if the new cart/island that I have my eye on will fit where I want it to in the kitchen (always a challenge)
  • Start planning how to reorganize the pantry and my food storage, and decide what should stay in the kitchen and what can go to the cupboard

Few things feel as productive to me as dealing with food, or the places where I prepare and store food.  I enjoy a lot of elements of my job, and I feel good when projects are done, but there’s something deeply satisfying and grounding about cooking a good meal, putting food away neatly in the fridge or cupboard, or making something to store away for later.  Even though I sometimes falter and wind up a bit of a ways off the path, I always seem to come back to food in the end.

Food solutions

I try to be a positive person, and am usually pretty hopeful about things.  But at the same time, I find myself increasingly concerned about our present food situation.  The long-term story is that our food system has been taken over by companies that have little interest in good, healthy food, and that instead offer a variety of unhealthy processed options.  But th short-term story right now is that droughts this year means that farmers are running into serious issues, and that the already-rising price of food will continue to climb, likely fairly drastically.

It’s not a happy situation, and it does have me seriously concerned.  At this point, although I’m still hoping for the best, I think it’s worth thinking about solutions to help prepare for any issues that are likely to crop up around food this year.  I’ve been working towards improving our food security for awhile now, but this summer, with what feels like a whole lot of crazy stuff churning around us, I’ve been spending even more time on it than I have in the past.  Here are a few things that I’ve found really helpful, and that I anticipate will help us navigate whatever comes this year with a little more ease.

Stockpiling: When food is on sale, I usually try to stock up.  This is especially true of staples.  While I do like a good sale on a favourite brand of canned soup or tinned beans to have on hand, my favourite sales are for things like dried beans, rice, and tinned tomatoes.  I’d rather buy ingredients that I can cook my own food with than pre-made foods – it’s healthier, and usually results in a lot more food for the same amount of money.  There aren’t usually coupons available for this kind of sale, but I keep an eye on the weekly grocery fliers to see what basics are on sale where, and then I stock up accordingly.

Growing: Unfortunately, it’s a bit late in the season now, but there are still foods that can be planted and grown.  Late season crops that do well into the fall are a good bet, and once I’ve worked my way through some of the summer crops, I’m going to be trying out things like kale, chard, cabbage, and hardy lettuces.  I haven’t planted a lot – I have a container garden and a community garden plot – but every little bit helps.

Micro-growing: Recently, I’ve also started experimenting with micro-greens.  This basically amounts to growing various greens and then harvesting while they’re still small.  They can be grown inside, in tubs and containers.  Because they don’t grow very big, they can be planted a lot closer together than normal, so they don’t require a lot of space.  I’m not sure how well this will work inside during the winter, but I’m going to give it a try, and I have grow lights that I can set up, if need be.

Sprouting: Most beans and grains can be sprouted fairly easily.  I use old canning jars with the zinc rings, and cut a sheet of plastic cross-stitch canvas to fit where the lid would go.  Beans and grains should be soaked for a day and then drained, and then rinsed twice a day until they sprout.  They’re very healthy, very inexpensive, and are great in salads, stir fry, and sandwiches, to name just a few.

Preserving: When I find good produce on sale, I’ve try to preserve some of it so we can enjoy it later.  Despite the fact that farmer’s market prices are on the rise, I can still find better deals than at the grocery store, and I really like to help support local food producers. This one I find the toughest, though.  Preserving tends to take at least some time and space, and our kitchen really doesn’t work that well.  But I still can jam and fruit butters, ferment pickles, beets, and sauerkraut, and dry herbs and fruit.  This year, I’m trying to do even more, and I have my eye on a pressure canner.

I think one of the scariest things about where we are now is that there are no definitive predictions.  There are calls for sudden, abrupt shifts and claims that we’ll be facing long, gradual declines.  No one really has any idea which it will be, or if we might wind up looking at something completely different.

But right now, at least one of the threats is very real and, barring any significant change in weather patterns, almost certainly bearing down on us as we speak.  There is drought.  Food prices will rise even more than they already have.  And we will likely start to feel it, especially given the economic insecurity that is already a hallmark of this time.  Taking measures to try to prepare for these eventualities is a useful thing for the practical reason that it’s good to be able to eat.  But these are also endeavors that help to build and refine skills that are also likely to be very helpful in long-term scenarios.  Knowing how to grow and preserve food, for instance, is a hugely valuable skill that not a lot of people have anymore.  While it will be helpful now, it’s also likely to be helpful for a long time after that as well.

A few of my friends have teased me about the things I do around food security (particularly when I haul home huge bags of sale lentils from the grocery store, and spend hot summer days putting plum butter through, but here’s my logic.  If I prepare for something bad to happen and it doesn’t, the worst thing that happens is that I’ve spent some time and money working on food security, and (here’s the really important bit) I still have the food, which I can always use.  There’s virtuall no downside.  But…if I don’t do anything to prepare, and something bad does happen…well, you can guess the result of that one.

Fermented beets

I’m just getting into fermentation, but I’m already a big fan.  I’d never much liked pickles until I tasted a proper full sour, and realised that it was pickles treated with vinegar that I didn’t like so much.  The flavours are better, and because they’re rich in probiotics, they’re a lot healthier.  I’ve just finished reading Wild Fermentation, which has a lot of great ideas (including the recipe on which I based yesterday’s beets), and I’m looking forward to additional inspiration from The Art of Fermentation.  It takes a bit of practice to make sure that the taste and texture are all there, but it’s surprisingly easy, and something that humans have been doing for ages.  It’s nice to produce something that is healthy, tasty, and deeply rooted in human history and cultural tradition.

Last night, in an effort to step up my food preparation a bit more, I got some fermented beets started.  These were leftovers from a farmers’ market purchase – I’d actually used some already and forgotten about it, and so once I got them chopped up and peeled, they made less than I thought they would.  I’m hoping to buy some more this week, though, and get another batch started (this time with some extra spices).

The recipe – such as it is – is pretty simple: a bunch of peeled and sliced beets (I had a pound and half) and some salt (I used just over a tablespoon of uniodized sea salt).  As I sliced the beets I put them in a bowl and layered them with the salt to draw out some of their liquid and help make a brine.  When I was done, they went into a clean glass jar.  They didn’t produce a lot of their own brine, so I topped them off with another tablespoon of salt mixed into a cup of water.  I put another canning jar on top as a weight, and now all I need to do is wait for them to ferment. I can’t wait to taste them, and to see how things turn out.

Two gardens

After a semi-falling through of the community garden plot I was semi-supposed to have this summer, I’ve been gardening in a few different places – a plot across the street, and with some other people in a yard a few blocks from here.  But with less access to land than I thought, I’ve decided to do some more experimenting with a container garden.  I’m treating this year as a trial run to see what will grow well in pots and in the conditions that I have.  If I know what works well, I can do more of that next year, and work on finding better ways of growing the things that don’t.

I’ve planted a number of seeds in the plot across the road: spinach, parsnip, radish, broccoli, and beans.  But with my late start this year, I’m relying more on plants that have been started than I’d like.  This weekend, I stopped off at the local nursery – which a friend who used to work there assures me is quite good, as nurseries go – and picked up basil, tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, kale, celery, and chard to try out.  They’re went alongside the rhubarb, thyme, mint, chives, and violets that I’ve already got going from earlier this year.  I’m still considering a few more herbs, starting some quick-growing lettuce and peas from seed, and wondering about whether potatoes might somehow be doable out there as well.

I live in a north facing apartment with a balcony overhead.  I’d like to grow on the patio, but there’s simply not enough sun, and what sun it does get doesn’t hit until mid afternoon.  There’s also a retaining wall and shrubs to the north. This makes for a lot of shade, and not great growing conditions unless I prop my pots on or beside the wall itself.  Having few other options, that’s just what I’ve done for now, until I come up with a better solution.  I’m sure the people who mow the lawn aren’t super thrilled with me, but I think growing food – even little bits here and there – is hugely important.  On the up side, I’m really pleased with what I have out there so far, and I’m hoping that it does reasonably well over the remainder of the summer.