Because I Can

Photo: Homemade ToothpasteEverybody does certain things for no particular reason—sometimes to show off just a little, sometimes to test our limits a bit, and sometimes for the Everest-scaling excuse “Because it’s there.” Some of the things we do with the latter brand of casual offhandedness might, of course, be far better thought through, given that the utterer of that famous phrase died on the mountain and his body wasn’t even found until about 75 years later. But I’ll grant you that sometimes, too, a seemingly aimless act can lead to more useful ends.

As a person seriously devoted to both comfort and safety, I am more than content to leave any because-I-can acts of physical or psychological derring-do to anyone who wishes to live on the edge. I like my secure and restful life, thankyouverymuch, most especially the life part of it. But I’m willing, on occasion, to do small and non-dangerous experiments, if they seem to offer any interesting byproducts of use or entertainment.

Like making home-mixed shampoo, skin lotion, and toothpaste.

Sorry, if you were hoping for something really exciting! My inner life of fantasy has all of the elements of danger that I have the slightest interest in experiencing. But my day-to-day life and its practical requirements offer plenty of areas for potential improvement. If I can make my chores simpler, my needs smaller, the products I use slightly less expensive or toxic or complicated, and any other kinds of fixes that seem likely to make daily living pleasanter in any way, I’m generally glad to make the attempt at some point.

I don’t like most perfumed products. Nature gives me lots of wonderful smelling stuff to enjoy without my wanting to complicate those scents with artificial add-ons, so I’m more likely to buy an unscented, hypoallergenic version of any product if I can, and just enjoy the benefits of some of my favorite real-life ‘byproduct perfumes’: coffee brewing, freshly cut alfalfa hay, wet sidewalks after a long-awaited rain, a sleepy baby’s milky breath, sun-heated cedars and Douglas-fir trees, yeasty cardamom bread coming out of the oven. Flowers bursting into bloom in the garden. Salt spray at the shore. Spiced cider steeping on a cold night. Maybe it’s because I just recovered from a two-week cold, saw my poor spouse go through his own afterward, and woke up stuffy-headed again this morning, but the idea of all of those very lovely perfumes is the more alluring without thinking of their being masked by any artificial ones.

Then again, not only do I like to be clean both in my home and my person, there are some scents that do enhance my sense of cleanliness and good health in their ways, so I am not averse to adding those that I like, in the quantities I find appealing, to home-brewed stuff of personal- and home-care when I do make them.

My shampoo is almost always the all-purpose blend of a very plain liquid hand soap like Ivory (one could also use a similarly simple, if slightly more expensive, liquid Castile soap like Dr. Bronner’s) with nothing more complicated than tea tree and peppermint oils added in for their refreshing and slightly antimicrobial/antiviral qualities. The plain, oil-free soap is good for nearly any sort of (personal or house) cleaning that doesn’t require scrubbing, and with the oils it’s sufficient for my showering or bathing and hair care, no creme rinse needed. I don’t invest in any special skin treatments beyond the same home-mixed blend of skin moisturizer I’ve used on my face since my eccentric old dermatologist gave me his “recipe” of one part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin cleansing lotion + 1 part oil-free, hypoallergenic skin moisturizer + 1-2 parts water to use daily about 35 years ago. I have far better skin now than I did back then, so I guess it still works just fine.

The toothpaste-making is a work in progress, but I’m generally happy with that little science project as well. I have excellent teeth to begin with, so I wouldn’t recommend everyone jumping into fiddling with homemade toothpaste without consulting your dentist first, but these are also pretty standard toothpaste ingredients, so I’m not especially fearful of ruining my pretty white choppers. The blend at the moment is 1 cup baking soda (very mildly abrasive, and has some ability to remove or lessen stains and freshen breath—not, mind you, baking powder, unless you’re intending to bake your teeth into some sort of snack food) +1 cup coconut oil (melted for blending) + 1/2 cup powdered xylitol (the sugar alcohol sweetener, currently thought to be a cavity-fighter when used in moderation) + 2-3 Tbsp peppermint extract (flavor and breath freshening) + 2 drops blue food coloring. The latter is primarily to remind me that it’s toothpaste, since it’s just stored in a 2-cup jar in the medicine cabinet at the moment and I am, after all, occasionally forgetful. I might try the addition of a little Bentonite clay for better light abrasion, but didn’t have any on hand.

Let me just add that this little project is not my attempt to avoid fluoride. You are all free to choose to use it or not, but I am delighted that my first dentist happened to be among the first adopters of dental fluoridation and my home water district among the first adopters of fluoridated water. I have as near to perfect teeth as any 50-something I know, along with my three siblings, and our parents had typical earlier-generation rates of cavities and other dental problems; my dentists since then have agreed that early and consistent application of fluoride is very probably a significant contributing factor in this one-generation upgrade on general oral health. I don’t doubt that there are potential problems with overexposure or tradeoffs in other areas of health and well-being, and yet I wouldn’t trade any of those for a set of strong, healthy teeth with no caps, fillings, or other major interventions having been necessary, never mind growing up without fear of dentists and their tools. That’s my story. But I’m dubious that the occasional batch of homemade toothpaste without fluoride, at this point in my life, is going to threaten my dental magnificence. If my dentist tells me otherwise, I’ll switch back without a fuss. I’d hardly risk my teeth any more than I would life and limb for a little experiment.

I’m not, after all, that much of an adventurer.Photo: DIY Dentifrice

Things to Remember

Apparently I am sucked into the Throwback Thursday vortex, for amid my housework wanderings I stumbled across some dish-drying towels that brought a flood of memories over me. The first thing that came to mind was curiosity about whether there are many others who grew up using tea-towels like these made of flour sacking material and hand-embroidered, often with a small posy or aphorism in the corner, and usually by Mom or some older relative, at least until we ourselves were conscripted for the task.

My mother enjoyed embroidery as a relaxation mode as well as art form, and the last batch of dish towels that I know of her having made were a series of line drawings of local native flora, based (with the author’s permission) on a book of lovely little watercolors of the same plants and flowers. I chose one representing a favorite alpine blossom, even though the creamy white blooms were guaranteed to fade quickly against the pale fabric, and the outline of them remains faintly visible even after many years of hard use. That’s a perfect representation, in its way, of how my memory works. I began to reminisce, seeing this embroidery, on the alpine plants that have always signaled peace and freedom to me as I day-hiked on the flanks of Mt. Rainier. So I meandered over to search online for native alpine plants of the northwest, and as soon as I began looking at the images I was struck with an infusion of the very scent of those hikes, a spicy, earthy, fresh and herbal blend of tree resins—cedar, pine, alpine fir—and sun-baked earth, lightly perfumed flowers, crushed needles and fallen leaves underfoot, the brisk dash of elevated air. What a lot of fine things to be contained, in addition to the treasury of love and family history, within my mama’s embroidered dish drying cloth.Photo: Mama's Embroidery

You might think I’d’ve inherited an embroidery gene, because in addition to my mom’s fine handiwork, I grew up seeing and using Grandma’s embroidered towels and pillowcases and enjoyed them, too. I did not, and since I had these two sources readily available, I didn’t mourn the gap in my skill set. I could always go to one or the other of them and find some new kitchen linens in a time of need.

My father’s mother never got so inventive as to design her own embroideries based on book illustrations like Mom’s were, but Grandma chose for her projects the resource of hand-me-down and found patterns, most of them quite out of date already (hence the ease of her collecting them), and almost all of them much quirkier and tackier than her normally refined taste would have allowed. These were, however, mainly destined to be given to charity or sold for the proceeds that would go to the charity in their stead, so she had no attachment or agenda for showing them at home. I, on the other hand, bought a few not only out of any little do-gooder intentions but because the sheer silliness of some of the designs so delighted me.

This one, for example, that was my inspiration for joining now in the Throwback Thursday brigade, was highly amusing to me in its ridiculously fantastic subject, its period style, and its girly goofiness. I couldn’t resist it. I found no other Days of the Week as companions, so I can only imagine what happened on those days, but it was enough to find this towel that could simultaneously remind me of my grandmother and my youth and make me laugh, all while getting my dishes dried.Photo: Throwback Thursday

Fashions change, and with them, the decor and even tools that fill our lives and homes. Yesterday’s dish towels are probably more often machine-made of some high-tech sort of microfiber or super-absorbent bamboo fiber blend with an artful printed-on design in the proper Pantone colors of the year. But do they do a more artful job, as well, of wiping dishes dry after washing? Can they strain soup broth into crystal clarity? Do they make perfect wraps for ice packs when a sore neck or bruised arm is in want of one? No better than the old standbys of my youth, I imagine. Old as I am, I come from good stock that valued something a bit quaint and very handmade, and if it managed to accomplish the task and carry memories for decades at the same time, why, I suspect I’ll do well to try to be a human imitation of it myself.

Foodie Tuesday: Con Mucho Gusto

So many meals, Latin-inflected or not, are best enjoyed with a nice cold glass or two of sangria. Particularly helpful is the knowledge that sangria has so many tasty potential variations that it can be made the perfect complement to nearly anything. Or substitute for it, if such dire need should arise. But I’ll concede that the many magnificent flavors of the Latin cultures are also, often, what make the sangria so wildly delicious.

In addition, the simplicity of combining the marvelous ingredients for either the food or drink portion of such a meal adds the appeal of quick preparation. While a number of recipes, including many for sangria, are improved by a little time spent melding their flavors together with heat or chilling, the actual labor time might not be terribly lengthy nor the effort especially challenging. Just gather the supplies, put them together in a dish or bowl, and wait for them to come to full fruition. Fruit being, of course, a hallmark of a refreshing batch of sangria.

The dish of the day is so easy it can be assembled and heated in minutes. Even the slowest portion of the prep, the cooking of quinoa, can be accomplished with little trouble, particularly if like me you have a rice cooker. I use a brand of quinoa that requires no rinsing or soaking, and it works easily to prepare it in my rice cooker by combining cooking liquid (usually my ubiquitous homemade broth) with the grain in a 2:1 ratio. I do this in larger batches, refrigerating all but the day’s portion for later meals.photoNestled Eggs [one hearty serving]

In a microwave-proof bowl, put a cup of cooked quinoa and make a hollow in the center of the grain. Break two eggs into the nest and puncture the yolks a little; cover and heat the dish on High for two minutes. [A nice optional variation: stir eggs with steamed fresh spinach leaves that have had the liquid pressed out of them.] Remove the bowl from the oven and top the eggs with a handful of cheese (cotija, queso blanco or sharp cheddar, for example), re-cover, and continue to cook on High for another minute or two, until the eggs are lightly set. Spoon some nice chipotle salsa [see my semi-handmade chipotle salsa hack here] on top, add a tablespoon of cilantro-tequila pesto [just a bunch of fresh cilantro finely pureed with tequila] and some crunchy salt, and serve with a glass of cold sangria.photoCherry-Peach Sangria

Combine a Jeroboam [four bottles] of Cabernet-Merlot blend wine with a magnum [two bottles] of Riesling, one 32 oz bottle of Just Black Cherry juice, 2 cups of dark pure maple syrup, one orange, thinly sliced (including peel), and one 23.5 oz jar of sliced peaches in juice; stir gently to blend, chill, and serve.

Foodie Tuesday: Clean Hands and a Cooked Chicken


photoNo fingers must be licked for chicken to be considered notably delectable. Still, being no stickler for any particular sort of manners, I am not averse to slurping at any remnants of good food stuck to my fingers no matter what they are or, possibly, where I am. And I find that some of the appeal of eating chicken is that it lends itself to an enormous range of edible iterations that are a pleasure in the making, in the dining, and in the finger-licking aftermath of it all. Chicken plays such a lovely supporting role to any number of costars among the pantheon of possible flavorings and ingredients that it’s never difficult to imagine yet another wondrous way to enjoy a chicken dish. Add to that the potential for re-imagining the chicken in numerous follow-up dishes if there should happen to be any left over from dinner, and you’ve got one fine, fine companion in the kitchen.photoOur friendly chicken on this occasion, a handsomely fat-breasted creature of purportedly wholly organic origins (and who am I to argue), was gently consigned, in a Dutch oven larded with a generous quantity of sweet pastured butter, and wearing a good dusting of homemade lemon salt and pepper, to lie on a bed of neck and giblets, celery chunks and quartered limes that suspended it above the cupful or so of white wine pooled underneath. The oven, set at about as low a temperature as it could sustain below the mere warming of its interior light could generate, brought the chicken up to moist-cooked interior temperature over a long, slow afternoon before being brought out from under its protective lid for browning under the broiler at the last moment. Not the fast food version of ‘finger-lickin’ good’ but rather a lengthily slow-cooked bit of tenderness that deserves hand-cleaning after the fact all the same.photoThe simple sequel to this supper can come from any number of inspirations. On the latest occasion it was pairing the chicken with some crisp-tender hash browns, along with warming some leftover marinara sauce, butter-cooked mushrooms and herbs together to create a facsimile of Chicken Parmigiana. Rather than create the breaded cutlets in the traditional style, I simply layered the slices of moist chicken next to the potatoes, spooned on some mushroom marinara, sprinkled on some shredded Parmigiano, and melted the cheese just a little to round out its flavor. Far from the heights of authentic Italian culinary art, but let me tell you, it wasn’t hard to eat all the same. Might be having some again soon, since there’s still more of that nice chicken that I cut up and popped in the freezer after roasting it the other day. Of course, I could veer off toward some Tikka Masala . . . or chicken noodle soup . . . or quesadillas con pollo. photo