Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Upside Down Tomatoes?

I don't know how many of you have seen the Topsy Turvy ads on T.V.  I have and thought to myself, why spend $20 for something you can make yourself.  Grow Great Grub by Gayla Trail suggested using a bucket with a hole drilled in the bottom instead.  What a great idea!
Tomato bucket with drill and drill bit.

Two weekends ago we went to Crown Point Ecology Center, our CSA (Community Supported Agriculture), for their organic plant sale.  I bought a heirloom grape tomato plant with hopes of transplanting it into a bucket.  Since the weather has been so warm, I thought I would do it today.

The whole process wasn't that difficult.  My only problem was drilling the hole in the bucket.  I think because the bottom was very thin, I used the wrong kind of bit (1 1/4") with my drill.  I should have used a hole saw which I didn't have.  See DIY Maven's blog for a better method.  I decided not to use the coffee filter that she suggested since my plant was fairly large.

Now Gayla Trail has a terrific suggestion for using an upside down tomato planter.  She proposes putting herb plants in at the top of the container to maximize soil use.  Trail suggested basil which was fine with me.  I did read on the Old Fashion Living blog that oregano or marjoram aren't good choices for this application.   They tend to grow too thickly and absorb much of the moisture from the soil.

Sweet basil grows on the left with Thai basil on the right.
For some reason I feel better knowing I am turning my planter into a multi-tasker.  I decided to plant sweet basil and Thai basil at the top of my bucket.  The only thing that worries me is what happens when there is a strong wind.  Will the plants survive?  I will let you know what happens after a storm.

Here is my homemade upside down planter.
The cost for my planter is $4 versus $20 for a manufactured planter.  Not bad.  Luckily I had a bird feeder post lying around in the garage.  The three plants cost me $9 at the organic plant sale.  Half a bag of potting soil fetched $4.  Total price for my upside down tomato planter, $17.  That's well below the twenty dollar mark for a mass-produced container with no plants and no soil.  I get so much more satisfaction when I make an apparatus myself.

Save some money this weekend.  Buy a bucket, some soil and a tomato plant.  Instead of putting your tomato plants in a garden plot, consider growing some plants upside down.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

It's Bubble Tea Time

Now that the weather is warmer, my afternoon drink of choice is bubble tea.  For the uninitiated, it is an asian drink that incorporates cold tea, fruit flavor, tapioca pearls and simple syrup or honey.  It is a bizarre but refreshing drink.
Here is a sample of Diane's green bubble tea.
It took me a while to figure out how to make this drink.  I first tasted it when I visited Superior Pho in Cleveland.  Mike and I went to get a bowl of pho (which is a Vietnamese noodle soup).  I noticed that there was bubble tea on the menu and I decided to try some.   After sipping this delectable drink I was  hooked.

Now every time I go to an asian restaurant, I have to try their version of bubble tea.  I went with my sister to TreeCountryBistro on Coventry in Cleveland Heights and sampled their green bubble tea.  It fueled my interest in making my own at home.

Mike went on a food trip to CAM Asia Market and came back with tapioca pearls for my bubble tea.  I was so excited.  I wanted to make it that afternoon.  Unfortunately, the bag had instructions in Mandarin.  I looked online using the Google search and came up with multiple instructions (here's two examples: A and B).  I tried boiling the large white pearls that I had for fifteen minutes.  They were still white after boiling so I let them sit in the hot water for another fifteen minutes.  The end result was soft clear exterior with a hard white interior.  The pot also had a lot of tapioca residue from pearls that were crumbling.  I was not encouraged.

I started out steeping my own green tea for the bubble tea.  I also chose coconut milk for fruit flavor.  Likewise, I made simple syrup (boil one cup of water, add one cup of granulated sugar and mix until dissolved) for the sweetener.

I found out that chilling the tea before adding it to ice in the blender enhanced the texture of the drink.  I also decided that I like the full flavor of regular coconut milk as opposed to lite coconut milk.  Yes, I know it adds more calories but I don't eat anything else with my bubble tea.

Here are the ingredients for green bubble tea:  Black Minute Pearls, matcha powder and coconut milk.

My quandary was how do I boost the green tea flavor without using a pre-made bubble tea mix.  I found my answer with matcha powder.  Currently matcha is being used in green tea lattes that you can order at Starbucks.  I wanted to transfer that flavor to my bubble tea.  Matcha normally is expensive and is prepared traditionally with a bamboo wisk.  It didn't matter since I could find only a tea bag with green tea leaves and matcha combined.

After I did a search on Amazon, I found a Japanese brand of matcha.  I ordered it and started brewing it for my bubble tea.  I discovered through trial and error that I needed less than a teaspoon of matcha with a cup of boiling water to make my bubble tea.  If I used more than a teaspoon, the drink tasted bitter.

Subsequently, I wanted to solve my tapioca pearl problem.  I switched to smaller tapioca pearls in hopes that I could boil them in fifteen minutes.  They were chewier than my first batch but were tiny for bubble tea.  I wanted bigger bubbles for my tea.

I found Black Minute Pearls from Boba Tea Direct online.   The pearls only needed to be boiled for five minutes.  They were the traditional black, chewy pearls that I had with restaurant bubble tea.  Hallelujah!  I achieved my bubble tea dream.
Black Minute Pearls are boiling away.
Here is my recipe:

1/2 tsp matcha powder
1 cup boiling water
1 cup ice
2 oz. coconut milk (preferably regular not lite)
2 oz. simple syrup (see text above)
2 handfuls Black Minute Pearls*

1.  It is advantageous to chill the tea 45 minutes before consuming so allow for refrigerator storage.  Boil water and add matcha powder.  Stir until mixed well.  Chill in refrigerator for at least 45 minutes.

2.  Heat three cups of water until boiling vigorously.  Add Black Minute Pearls and boil for 5 minutes.  Drain and let pearls cool.

3.  When tea is cool, add to the blender.  Combine it with ice, coconut milk and simple syrup.  Puree mixture until uniform in color.

4.  Add pearls to tall glass.  Pour contents of blender over pearls.  Add a bubble tea straw and enjoy!

*Black Minute Pearls don't taste as good the second day.  Boil only as many as you want to consume that day.

**Bubble tea straws are available at Boba Tea Direct.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wildflower Walk

My son, Tim and I have been doing various hikes during the mornings when he's home from school.  He and I have been enjoying it.  Our favorite activity is to search out all the different wildflowers on our trek.
Virginia Bluebell at O'Neil Woods
This Spring we have noticed a bounty of wildflowers.  Tim's favorite is the Jack-in-the-Pulpit.  While at Nature Realm, we found about thirty to fifty Pulpit plants on the Seneca trail.  Tim favorite pastime is to lift the Pulpit or hood to locate the "Jack."  It's interesting how the "Jack" or spadix varies from green to dark brown.  We do have to be careful, Jack-in-the-Pulpit has three leaves which are trifoliate and can be confused with poison ivy.
A Cut-leaved Toothwort near Yellow Creek

When walking in O'Neil Woods on the Deer Run trail we have found a plethora of wildflowers.  The trail skims Yellow Creek which is a tributary to the Cuyahoga river.   The moist woodland floor is a suitable environment for wildflowers.  We've seen numerous Virginia Bluebells, Cut-leaved Toothwarts, Common Blue Violets, Downy Yellow Violets and Yellow Trout Lilies.  I have to admit that the Yellow Trout Lily is my current favorite wildflower.  It's petals are such a charming shade of yellow and are drawn back.  An additional identification is the lily's green leaves mottled with brown.  

Another stomping ground for Tim and I is Silver Creek Metro Park.  We love to ramble through Pheasant Run Trail since it loops through the woods.  There are a couple of nice ponds and fields to walk by which promote the growth of wildflowers.  I was amazed at how many wild strawberry plants we found.  We also saw countless Mayapples.  The plant looks somewhat prehistoric but has a beautiful lone flower found at the axil of two leaves.  Tim and I hunt for the Mayapple plants that have white flowers on them.

The last impressive wildflower that Tim and I saw was the Large-flowered Trillium at Nature Realm.  Seeing this flower is a real treat.  It is the official wildflower of Ohio and there are few plants around.  If you see a Painted Trillium in the woods (I haven't yet), you are witnessing a plant with an uncertain future.  So when you walk through the woods, contemplate but don't tamper with nature.

I hope I have inspired you to take a stroll through the forest.  I know Tim and I will be soon.  Remember to stop, listen and look for the wildflowers.  You will be impressed by their understated beauty.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Psyching up for Summer

It's swimsuit season soon.  Some of you may be groaning already.  If you need some help to get ready, I have a great workout video for you.  It will help you prepare for the body-revealing summer.
Ellen Barrett's video requires just a yoga mat and dumbbells.

I've been working my gluteus maximus off all spring thanks to an exercise DVD by Ellen Barrett.  As I mentioned before in my "Million Ways" blog, I keep searching for new workout DVDs.  My latest find is "Slim Sculpt" by Ellen Barrett.  It's a great exercise program that includes both cardio and strength training.

My initial reason for choosing this video was due to Barrett's low impact method.  She uses Pilates techniques with resistance training.  Her added benefit is that you can do it in your bare feet!  A yoga matt is suggested but not required for this workout.  Likewise, three to five pound dumbbells are useful for this exercise routine.

For the unfamiliar, Pilates was created by Joseph Pilates of Germany for rehabilitation of World War I veterans.  Just like yoga, the practice entails you focusing on the breath.  The Pilates method has you breathe in through the nose and exhale through the mouth (unlike yoga which has you inhale and exhale through the nose).  Barrett is excellent at reminding you to be mindful (see my last blog) as you perform the exercises.

At first, I wasn't sure this exercise routine would be rigorous enough for me.  However, by the time Barrett has you doing upper arm circles with the weights, I was feeling fatigued.  Since Pilates incorporates stretching while strengthening, Barrett has you perform leg stretches while you are working your arms.  It is amazing how many muscles are being utilized while exerting her moves.

Barrett's video also contains floor work.  Central to Pilates is fortifying core muscles, so Barrett has a number of abdomen exercises.  Her simple maneuvers work out the torso as well as the gluteus maximus.

Overall, I highly recommend her "Slim Sculpt" video.  It is an excellent approach to integrating aerobics, strength training and Pilates.  If you like this DVD you might want to try her "Barefoot Cardio" which doesn't require dumbbells.

So remember, summer doesn't have to be a body concealing time of the year.  Make time to do some "Slim Sculpt"-ing.  You will look splendid in your new tankini.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Being Mindful

If you go back to my December 2009 blog, I resolved to meditate more in 2010.  Increasing my meditation frequency has been time well spent.  I just finished my finals and still feel energized.  Last year after finals, I noticed I was lethargic and tense.
Diane is practicing mindfulness.
Today I meditate twenty to thirty minutes once a day.  If I have a particularly bad day, I meditate twice in one day.  In my December blog I mentioned about using the Healing Waterfall for my meditation time.  Since then, I was able to find some additional sources for reflection.  I tend to need variety in order to be consistent in my practice.

Because I am a yoga devotee, I discovered a DVD by Yoga Zone with Alan Finger.  He guides you through two methods of meditation.  The first session uses alternative nostril breathing which seems strange at first, but it works.  Finger also incorporates the Kriya breath to help with preparing for internal reflection.  I always feel transported after completing this part of the DVD.

In the second segment of the DVD, Finger has you focus on the various chakras with colored shapes.  I like his use of imagery which assists in reaching contemplative mindfulness and calmness.  For me, guided imagery is best for my meditation practice.  Both sessions on the DVD last about twenty minutes (yoga poses before meditation add an additional ten minutes) which is ample time for meditation during a busy day.

Some of you may be scratching your head at my use of "mindfulness."  The word refers to a type of metacognition.  Metacognition is the psychological study of an individual's awareness of what he or she is thinking at the present moment.   It is hard for me to stay connected in my thoughts with the present moment.  I am usually thinking about plans in the future or events that have already occurred.  The act of mindfulness teaches me to be conscious of the here and now.  The purpose behind mindfulness is to let go of stressful situations that may have just happened (like my final exams) and concentrate on experiencing the present moment (this beautiful Spring weather). 

That is why I love yoga.  My yoga practice gently brings me to awareness of my breathing and sensations that are occurring in my body.  It relieves my accumulated tension.  Yoga does this by prompting me to to be mindful, observe my thoughts and let them go while I am practicing my poses.  I am remarkably relaxed after practicing yoga.

Meditation has the same application.  It helps me to let go of worry about my daily activities and to zero in on my breathing.    I found an excellent iPhone app and podcasts to assist in my mediation practice.  Meditation Oasis has a selection of podcasts for guided meditation by Mary Maddux.  If you download the iPhone application, it has a larger selection of guided mediations with Maddux.  I especially like her meditations on "opening the heart" and "the inner child."  

For those of you who know me, I am a spiritual person.  I wanted to incorporate a more mystical aspect to my meditation.  I came across a guided meditation by Dr. Raymond Lloyd Richmond.  His guided imagery relaxation meditation centers on the Catholic faith and is extremely praiseworthy.  I realize that meditation is very personal and not everyone will agree with me that his recordings are beneficial.  However, after a month of listening to Richmond, my faith in Christ has strengthened and I feel an intense peacefulness throughout my daily activities.

Yes, my finals are over and I feel wonderful.  I believe the difference has been due to practicing mindfulness.  I think our society needs to unplug on a regular basis.  Meditation is a great way to disconnect from humankind and find a path to inner peace.  Now, when I am in the car, I don't always turn on the radio.  I enjoy the quiet more.  I enjoy being mindful now.