Monday, February 24, 2014

Musical Mondays: Say Something by Pentatonix

Musical's a filler post while work keeps me hoppin'.

I absolutely adore a capella/doo wop music, and the group Pentatonix (one of the winners of The Sing Off) is one of the most interesting and innovative a capella groups in many ways.

Here is their beautiful new cover of a real tear-jerker. The arrangement is amazing. Love the cello and how it combines with the vocals. Technically not totally a capella, but wonderful in its intensity and originality.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Singing the Praises of Dehydrating Frozen Veggies

Last year, I got a food dehydrator as an experiment to see if it was useful in preserving our garden harvest.

Although I'm still pretty new at this dehydrating thing, I'm really liking it so far.

I wanted to see if using dried veggies and fruits are as tasty and useful as people say. Are they really a good addition to your food storage efforts and everyday cooking, or are they redundant to frozen foods?

Because we weren't sure about how much we'd actually use a dehydrator, we didn't buy the expensive Excalibur brand that many folks recommend, just the cheaper round type you can get nearly anywhere.

We've been slowly putting our new dehydrator to the test. And I have to say I'm a fan! We've dehydrated sliced apples (HUGE hit with the kids) and a number of different kinds of vegetables. We'll try to do more of other types of fruits and veggies next year.

But what I'm really excited about is how easy dehydrating frozen veggies is.

Using Frozen Cuts Down on Prep Work

As I have developed my gardening skills, I find that we have more food than we will typically eat right away. So last year I worked at cutting, blanching and freezing my extra veggies so that when I needed some, I could just open the freezer and get them. And it was handy to have them already prepped in the freezer, I have to say.

However, I have to be honest...I am extremely lazy. I can't stand doing lots of prep work if I don't have to. So while I enjoyed having a bunch of chopped carrots from my garden in the freezer, I wasn't too enthralled with the long process of washing, peeling, chopping, blanching, and then freezing them individually on cookie sheets, then getting the whole mess into a storage container. Why not just buy frozen? Not organic but waaaay less work.

Dehydrating would involve a similar process; wash, peel, chop, blanch, and then put them in the dehydrator. This kind of prep isn't hard, just time-consuming and repetitive. With four kids, teaching, and writing, I prefer to do other things with what free time I have instead of standing around in a kitchen doing prep work.

So while I LOVE having fresh veggies from our garden all through the year, I had to be honest with myself that I wasn't likely to spend a ton of time doing all this prep because I find it so boring and repetitive. Some people enjoy that kind of cooking and fussing; I really REALLY don't. Yet I didn't want to give up on adding more vegetables to our diet. So I looked around to see if there were any shortcuts we could take.

What I found was that it's way easier to dehydrate frozen veggies from the store.

Get some bags of frozen veggies on sale, toss them on the dehydrator trays, and plug in the dehydrator. Simple as that. About 8-12 hours later, you have dehydrated veggies!

What's the advantage of dehydrating frozen vegetables? Frozen veggies in bags have already been made into uniform sizes, blanched, and individually frozen.

All that prep work, already done for me?  SOLD!

Yeah, it's not my home-grown veggies, which are tastier, and yeah, it's not organic (which I strongly prefer), but the convenience factor can't be beat. So I'll probably continue some of both....freezing, canning, and drying my garden surplus, plus dehydrating frozen bags of veggies.

My next goal is to make homemade fruit leather by drying my homemade Spicy Ginger Applesauce in the dehydrator. I might even try dehydrating some of my special Oven-Roasted Spaghetti Sauce to make a quick and easy addition for things like soups or chili.

Why Dehydrate?

I'm sure some people are wondering, though...why go to the trouble of dehydrating? Why not just keep bags of frozen veggies and use them? You can certainly do that if you want, but the advantages of dehydrated foods include:
  1. You always have food on hand, even when you are too busy to get to the grocery store or when circumstances like illness prevent getting fresh food from the market or garden
  2. Dehydrated veggies are lighter and smaller to store. You can store much more food in the same amount of space, which is far more efficient storage
  3. You don't need electricity to store dehydrated food. If power goes out, you won't lose as much food storage if some of it is dehydrated. You'll lose refrigerator and freezer stuff eventually, but the dehydrated stuff will still be good as long as you store it properly
  4. You can save money by buying big amounts of food when it's on sale and then dehydrating it
  5. Dehydrated veggies will save a bunch of prep time during cooking on busy days. Just put dehydrated veggies into hot water in a pot or a slow-cooker and start a good soup or stew
  6. In an emergency, you will have easy-to-fix food that is either ready-to-eat (dehydrated fruit, fruit leathers, beef jerky) or quick-to-fix (dehydrated veggies in soups)
  7. Dehydrated foods are handy and lightweight for backpacking or other forays into nature
Remember, you don't have to make a choice between types of food preservation; combine them so that you have several different types of food storage available. You can still use the freezer for the stuff that really needs to be frozen, and you can still do canning of foods that you prefer canned. Dehydration just gives you more choices in your storage. The more diverse your storage is, the more resilient it is.

In winter, when we are so busy with school activities and rushing about, having dehydrated food already prepped and ready to just throw in a soup stock to rehydrate will save a bunch of time when cooking. I really like that. Convenience food without the junk food health penalty....definitely a bonus.

For example, when I cook chili, I usually add shredded or diced carrots, corn, onions, etc., and sometimes zucchini or other veggies. Before, I had to take the time to chop up the veggies while I was cooking the meat. Not that hard, but sometimes we were too pressed for time and so I didn't add as many as I would have liked. Having already-chopped dehydrated veggies takes away a lot of that prep time and makes my life easier.

Same thing for cooking in the crock pot. It can be a hassle to chop and prep everything in the morning before leaving for work, and it's not easy to fit it all in as you get the kids ready for school. Having dehydrated veggies you can just throw in along with the fresh ingredients would shorten the process considerably, making me more likely to do crock pot cooking more often.

So it seems to me like dehydrating frozen veggies is even more of a WIN-WIN situation. Gives us more emergency food storage, frees up freezer space, keeps me from having to do all the blanching and chopping myself, saves on prep time during cooking, and encourages more use of veggies. What's not to like?

If money is an issue, it's perfectly fine to get one of the cheap round dehydrators (which can be found even more cheaply on eBay and at garage sales). Start small, see if you like it, and then if you really get into it and want to do a ton of dehydrating, consider upgrading to the Cadillac version, the Excalibur. For most of us, the small round dehydrators are perfectly adequate and store more easily.

To find out more about dehydrating, click here, here, or here, or google it for even more links. There's plenty of information, videos, and helpful hints out there on the internet if you are interested.

Do you dehydrate?  What foods do you dehydrate?  Any hints for dehydrating newbies?

Monday, February 10, 2014

Have an Emergency Food and Water Reserve

The view out my back window earlier this week;
that's nearly a foot of snow
People amaze me sometimes. Usually that's in positive ways, but not this time.

Much of the country has had significant wintery weather recently, and more is coming in some areas. We ourselves had nearly a foot of snow this week, which is unusual for our area. Then we had ice on top of that, which made for very treacherous travel indeed.

Now, rarely do these things come without warning; there is usually some kind of notice that a big storm is a possibility.

Yet still, I saw all kinds of news reports of people who had to leave their house in the middle of the snowstorm in order to get food. What?!?

First of all, it's not like they didn't have notice that there was going to be a storm. No one knows how long these things will last, so for heaven's sake, go to the store and stock up ahead of time! Err on the side of getting extra food and water, just in case. Duh.

Second of all, EVERYONE really should have a good reserve of emergency food. You never know when an emergency is going to hit, so it's important that every household have at least some emergency stores of food and drinking water.

Those people in the news stories who ran out of food in the space of a few days obviously did not have enough food reserves.

To make a food reserve, you need some non-perishable food stocks that don't need electricity or refrigeration, and a non-electricity way to heat them if at all possible. Think cans of food, insta-soups, dried fruits, nuts, rice, beans, beef jerky, even mac-n-cheese. For healthier choices, get a food dehydrator and start drying frozen or fresh vegetables and fruits, then vacuum seal or freeze them for longer-term storage.

Don't have enough money for buying a bunch of food reserves? Just buy a couple of extra things each month and put them away; in time you'll build a decent food reserve. For building up water reserves, read here.

In our recent storm, I was appalled at the number of Facebook posts I saw from friends talking about starting to run out of food, or worse yet, having to leave the house in icy, unsafe conditions in order to have enough food to eat. What?!? Really?

One was from the daughter of some Scout friends. Whatever happened to "Be Prepared"? Sure, she wasn't a Scout herself but her parents are Scout leaders, she went on many family camp-outs, and she was on staff at several Scout camps. Her parents are generally well-prepared but she wasn't, despite all her training about the importance of preparedness.

I understand that she's in college and has limited funds (been there done that myself!), but that's what Dollar Tree and such are for. You can do an amazing amount of cheap prepping at Dollar Stores. Not the healthiest food but at least you'd have a reserve for an emergency.

I realize, of course, that everyone is always on a learning journey and not everyone is perfectly prepared for every happenstance. It's okay not to be perfect, but it is important to be working towards sensible precautions, and a decent food reserve is one of those really important precautions.

Am I perfectly prepared myself? No, of course not. In my college years, I had almost no reserves because I was simply not conscious of the need to have reserves. Had a severe storm hit, I would have been in bad shape. In my initial post-college years, I was incredibly poor and so did not have a lot of reserves, but I at least had some and could have survived a week-long storm. I would have been in bad straits if a longer emergency had occurred, though.

Nowadays, our family's food and water reserves are still a work in progress, but at least we're making progress and are conscious of the need to have reserves. My concern is that I don't see many people even trying to build a reserve, or even conscious of the need to do so. Others are openly dismissive of having a reserve or of making reasonable preparations.

Really?!? How do they think they are going to survive if an unexpected disaster hits? Do they really think they're going to live their whole life without any disaster, ever? History shows that every area is vulnerable to some sort of natural or man-made disaster sooner or later, and of course, modern society is very vulnerable because of our over-dependence on the electrical grid and interstate transportation systems. NO ONE is completely safe from a potential long-term disaster and its interruptions to the food and water supply.

My area is subject to earthquakes; we are overdue for a really major quake. I've read the emergency planning predictions; if a truly major quake hits, we'll be without new food supplies for a number of weeks and possibly several months. How do these people think they will feed their families in that situation, when they can't even feed them for a few days during a winter storm that they had advance notice of!?!

Many people expect to be okay because the government will help. Sure, FEMA will help out as best it can, but people overestimate the government's ability to help in emergencies. Logistics mean that help is sporadic at best, often does not arrive in a timely manner, and is extremely basic when it does arrive. Government and charities can help, but they can't possibly take care of all the needs that will arise in a real emergency.

People need to help themselves, first and foremost, and not expect to be rescued or taken care of. And that means having non-perishable food reserves on hand, a way to heat them, and having enough drinking water for immediate needs (plus a way to filter and purify additional water for longer-term needs). A good first-aid kit (and knowledge of how to use it) would also be a smart addition.

Disasters like earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes take enough lives. Sadly, there are many more lives lost afterwards because of poor water sanitation, unsafe food, and poor planning.

Don't let your family members be some of those unnecessary victims. Plan ahead. Start building your food and water reserves NOW.

It's not paranoia; it's simple common sense.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Supraumbilical Incisions Associated with Greater Risk in Obese Women

Here is yet another study showing that vertical incisions (supraumbilical, in this case) results in suboptimal outcomes, even in "morbidly obese" women.

To review, doctors have assumed for many years that vertical (up-down) incisions would lessen the risk of infection and wound complications in very fat women by avoiding an incision in the moist area underneath the belly. This was based more on assumptions than on real evidence, but it was taught as a medical truth for many years.

However, a number of recent studies have shown poorer outcomes with vertical incisions, showing the need to re-evaluate this medical teaching. Yet some doctors still believe and promote that a vertical incision is necessary in high-BMI women.

New Study

This study reaffirms (yet again) that vertical incisions do NOT improve outcome. 

It found that women who had a supraumbilical vertical incision experienced more blood loss, longer operating times, and nearly 25 times the risk of a classical cesarean, which is a far riskier uterine incision with long-lasting implications for future pregnancies.

In addition, the study showed that doing a vertical incision did NOT reduce the risk for infection or other wound complication. In fact, although the difference did not rise to statistical significance (probably because of the small sample size), there was a clear trend towards more wound complications in the group with the vertical incision (19% vs. 8% in the horizontal incision group, a 2.7x risk after adjusting for confounders).

Discussion of Cesarean Incision Research

Many providers are catching on that vertical incisions generally result in poorer outcomes, even in the most obese women. I'm happy to report that there seem to be fewer women of size being pushed into classical cesareans purely because of weight, and that more educational institutions are teaching that low transverse (side-to-side) incisions are preferable in most cases, regardless of the woman's BMI.

Sadly, though, there are still some stubborn hold outs who insist that very obese women "need" a vertical incision, and some educational institutions and materials are still promoting this approach.

And it's important to note that even though fewer providers are using vertical incisions in obese women now, about 1 in 10 to 1 in 15 obese women having a cesarean are still being subjected to a vertical incision.

This flies in the face of the fact that the vast majority of research clearly indicates that vertical incisions carry more complications and often result in the risky classical uterine incision that has tremendous short- and long-term health implications for the mother. 

Furthermore, research on vertical versus horizontal incisions in non-maternity abdominal incisions confirms the general superiority of horizontal incisions.

Some recent researchers are resisting the move towards low transverse incisions in women of size. They have claimed that the evidence is not yet conclusive on whether vertical or low-transverse incisions are better. They point out that most study samples are not randomized and do not rise to the "gold standard" research that is most desirable, and that some studies have not found a statistical difference in wound complications between incision types.

While the call for gold standard research is a legitimate concern, there have been enough studies that have found worse outcomes with vertical incisions that they should be curtailed while we wait for the results of a randomized controlled study. (There is a randomized study currently being conducted but it won't be finished for several years yet; if we wait until this study is finished and published before changing policy, many more high-BMI women will likely suffer major wound complications and associated morbidity by being subjected to vertical incisions in the interim.)

It's true that a few studies (like the one discussed today) have not found a statistical difference in wound complications between vertical and low-transverse incisions. However, if you read the full studies more closely, all found a strong trend towards worse outcomes in the vertical group. These differences simply did not rise to statistical significance because of the small sample sizes involved, not because results were truly equivalent.

It's also important to point out that not a single study has found improved outcomes with vertical incisions. If vertical incisions really resulted in superior outcomes, that trend would be clear, and it most definitely has not been. Instead, the trend is markedly in the other direction and only fails to be clear because of the small sample sizes in some studies.

Clearly, more research needs to be done. But in the meantime, considering the strong trend in the existing research, vertical incisions should be reserved only for times when it is truly medically indicated (certain placental presentations, certain fetal positions, extremely emergent situations, etc.).

Bottom line, vertical incisions should NOT be done routinely simply because a woman has a high BMI.

It's time for all the educational institutions and clinicians to acknowledge this and adjust their teaching and practices accordingly.


J Pregnancy. 2013;2013:890296. doi: 10.1155/2013/890296. Epub 2013 Nov 20. The effect of cesarean delivery skin incision approach in morbidly obese women on the rate of classical hysterotomy. Brocato BE1, Thorpe EM Jr1, Gomez LM1, Wan JY2, Mari G1. PMID: 24349784 (Free full text can be found here.)
OBJECTIVE: To assess the risk of classical hysterotomy and surgical morbidity among women with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 40 kg/m(2) who underwent a supraumbilical incision at the time of cesarean delivery. METHODS: We conducted a retrospective cohort study in women having a BMI greater than 40 kg/m(2) who underwent a cesarean delivery of a live, singleton pregnancy from 2007 to 2011 at a single tertiary care institution. Intraoperative and postoperative outcomes were compared between patients undergoing supraumbilical vertical (cohort, n = 45) or Pfannenstiel (controls, n = 90) skin incisions. RESULTS: Women undergoing supraumbilical incisions had a higher risk of classical hysterotomy (OR, 24.6; 95% CI, 9.0-66.8), surgical drain placement (OR, 6.5; 95% CI, 2.6-16.2), estimated blood loss greater than 1 liter (OR, 3.4; 95% CI, 1.4-8.4), and longer operative time (97 ± 38 minutes versus 68 ± 30 minutes; P < .001) when compared to subjects with Pfannenstiel incisions (controls). There was no difference in the risk of wound complication between women undergoing supraumbilical or Pfannenstiel incisions (OR, 2.7; 95% CI, 0.9-8.0). CONCLUSION: In women with a BMI above 40 kg/m(2), supraumbilical incision at the time of cesarean delivery is associated with a greater risk of classical hysterotomy and operative morbidity.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Trench Composting

Do you compost your food and garden waste?

For years we didn't. I wanted to, but my husband was convinced it would be too messy and would attract wild animals. Eventually we invested in a composting bin that was completely enclosed to address his concerns.

We did have some fly issues and it was a bit yucky at times, but in time we realized this was because we needed more "browns" (dried leaves, straw, etc.) in proportion to the "greens" (fruit and vegetable peelings etc.) we were putting in. Once we worked that out, our little enclosed compost bin worked fine for our small suburban lot. And it was great to be able to harvest the finished compost and put it around my plants in the yard. Much better than feeding the plants a bunch of artificial chemicals.

Once we moved to a larger place out in the country, we wanted to increase our composting efforts. The little compost bin was just not going to cut it out here. We've tried several different things instead, including a couple of different rotating compost bins and a traditional compost pile. However, since we put the kids in charge of taking care of the compost, we've had more problems, as they rarely added "browns" to the "greens" of our food waste. We tried to do that ourselves, but just didn't get out there often enough to really do it well, frankly. And rarely did anyone get around to turning the compost to aerate it properly. So the compost has been a bit rank at times.

This year I decided to try trench composting instead. There was a whole bunch of rather slimy compost from the bins that needed some major resuscitation, and it didn't seem to be responding very quickly to adding more browns. So this fall, after we finished harvesting our raised bed gardens, we dug a sizable trench in most of the raised beds. (This is not very difficult in the nice loose soil of raised beds.)

Then I had the boys dig out all the slimy half-compost from our compost bins and spread it in the trenches. That was the worst part, but only because we'd let the bins get so rank via procrastination and laziness. If we were adding fresh food scarps, it wouldn't be nearly so onerous, I think.

We then added straw and dried leaves and mixed it in a bit. In some areas I added a little bone meal too, as well as some alpaca manure we got from local alpaca ranches. I also added some remineralization dust from a gardening store to restore the calcium and other minerals that tend to get depleted from the soil by heavy feeding plants. Then we covered it all over with dirt and left it. Really, we didn't do that much, and it wasn't hard at all. If we hadn't had to dig half-finished compost out of the slimy bins, it wouldn't have been a difficult or yucky chore at all.

Frankly, I was pretty pessimistic about trench composting, considering how cold the weather was. I just didn't think the compost would get warm enough to effectively "process" all the materials very quickly. I figured I might be planting my garden in the spring into a bunch of slimy, half-rotted food. But I had all this nasty half-compost from the rotating bin that had to be taken care of, and burying it seemed a lot less offensive than trying to process it above ground in the rain and snow this winter. So we buried it and crossed our fingers.

We had some nice weather recently so I decided to go out and check on it and see how it was doing. I was pretty tentative at first because I was expecting it to still be rather rank.

But to my surprise, it was doing really well! Some of the trenches had already almost completely turned to full compost! I couldn't believe it went so much quicker than what it had been doing in the bins. And animals hadn't bothered it at all.

Now, not all of it has completely broken down yet in every location. You can see some "bits" left in places. One bed, whose contents weren't very buried at all because of a lazy child, still has a ways to go, so we tried to bury that area more and give it some more carbony browns (plus some alpaca poo). Fortunately, we won't be planting much for another month or two anyhow in that bed, so hopefully it will be fine by the time we are ready to plant there. If not, we'll just plant around any leftover bits.

On the whole, I was surprised at just how quickly things had broken down in just a couple of months (and rather cold winter months at that).  Sure, the compost was half-done already from the compost bins, but really, it'd been going extremely slow in the bins. This was much faster and a lot less nasty. I'm looking forward to seeing how my tomatoes do this summer with all this wonderful compost in the soil, refreshing it!

As the kids take out the food scraps now, I ask them to dig a hole somewhere in one of the raised beds and bury it. If it's too dark or the ground is too frozen, they still use either the traditional compost pile (which is still going) or the rotating bin. So we don't do trench composting exclusively; we have multiple types going. But based on our results so far, I think we'll be doing far more trench composting as our garden allows.

I know trench composting isn't totally practical in some areas or living arrangements, but if it works for your situation, it really is a nice way to take care of your kitchen food waste and benefit your garden at the same time. Long-term gardening is all about replenishing the soil and building it up, so trench composting is a great way to accomplish two goals (taking care of food waste and replenishing your soil to increase garden yields) at the same time. It helps you towards both sustainability and self-reliance. Definitely a win-win proposition!