Category Archives: Blog

Homesteading, Food Preservation, Frugality, and Simple Living.  At Pantry Paratus, we mix it up with good old-fashioned “how-to”, food science, and recipes.

Demystifying Processed Food

“The last three decades have seen tremendous growth in sales of processed food—sales now total $3.2 trillion, or about three-fourths of the total world food sales” (Regmi & Gehlhar, 2005).

Assuming that anyone reading this blog has heard the admonition to eat healthier at least once in their lifetime, it can probably be assumed as well that you should cut out “processed foods.”  How can you tell if something is a processed food or not?  Being able to know that difference is significant when you consider that three of the four bites of food sold is “processed” according to the above USDA quote.

Furthermore, the studies are in to show that the industrialized societies who choose to industrialize their food supply as well, have industrial sized health problems to go along with the data trends.

[As] people in developing countries become better off, they acquire more stable resources and change the way the eat.  They inevitably replace the grains and beans in their diets with the foods obtained from animal sources.  They buy more meat, more sweet foods and more processed foods; they eat more meals prepared by others.  Soon they eat more food in general.  They start gaining weight, become overweight, and then develop heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic diseases so common in industrialized societies.  Here we have the great irony of modern nutrition: at a time when hundreds of millions of people do not have enough to eat, hundreds of millions more are eating too much and are overweight or obese.  Today, except in the very poorest countries, more people are overweight than underweight.  (Nestle, 2005)




Some working definitions for processed foods cover anything done to the food that would change its state as found in nature.  Hmmmmm, so a trout that was swimming in the stream that is currently in my hand (i.e. no longer swimming) might be called “processed?”  Answer: no, not really.    “Most every food eaten by humans is processed, altered from its form found in nature. Processing includes chopping, slicing, salting, seasoning, mashing, grinding, shelling, separating, mixing, peeling, bleaching, drying, Pasteurizing, fermenting, filleting, gutting, butchering, baking, cooking… you get the idea.” (Colon, 2010).   Public service announcement: conspicuous by its absence from the above list—irradiation.

USDA Chart for SupermarketsThe best way that I have found to triangulate on what constitutes “processed food” is asking the question, “Where did you get it?”  If the answer is, “from the tree/plant/bush that produced it,” or “I hunted/raised-then-butchered it,” or “from a farm stand,” then chances are it is not processed, and you can pronounce everything on the ingredients label.  If you answered, “from the grocery store” then the answer becomes more nuanced.


The last decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in supermarkets among developing countries, particularly in Asia and Latin America where rising income levels have increased consumer demand for many higher valued processed food products. The trend has led to increasing centralization of distribution networks and also closer geographical integration (Regmi & Gehlhar, 2005).


We follow Summer Tomato on twitter, and I think that she has the right take on proper sustenance.  Furthermore, I like on her posts because she is an actual food scientist.  Whether it is the low-carb diet plans, Paleo diet plans or real food practices will all generally advise you to shop for your food  on the perimeter of the grocery store, because it is different than the items that you find on the inside.  If it comes in a box, can or bag it is going to be processed unless we are talking about something like brown rice (which may still be subject to irradiation).  The fresh produce section would be “unprocessed” foods, but may still contain waxes or “bud nip” (Chlorpropham).




Fresh cuts of meat, also unprocessed, have a high chance of being CAFO products or fortified with pink slime.  Dairy in the form of milk is most-definitely processed assuming that it is pasteurized, ditto for cheese.  The exception to the perimeter rule would be the bakery section—not all bread is baked equal.  We will cover this in part two in the next blog.




It becomes hard to eat healthy and to un-tether from processed foods.  Luckily, the USDA came up with a further distinction to bring clarity here for us; the term is called, “land-based.”  If that is new to you, this link may (or may not) be helpful.


Living things depend on formerly living things to survive, just as forests are built on decaying forests.  Food is raw energy that every living thing needs to ingest and metabolize in order to live.  As it turns out the best way to train your consumer eye to spot processed foods is to study the genuine article.  The man who is arguably the most famous for attempting to classify the reasons why some people are healthy and some are not based on demographics and geography (branch of medicine called epidemiology) was a dentist from Cleveland, Ohio named Dr. Weston A. Price.  Dr. Price took sabbatical to travel to the remote corners of the world looking for correlating factors (some say that epidemiology cannot prove causation) for healthy people.  All results pointed back to the fuel that the people took into their bodies via their “traditional diets.”  Here are eleven succinct correlations between healthy people (and teeth—he was a dentist after all) and the unprocessed foods that they ate:


Characteristics of Traditional Diets

1. The diets of healthy, nonindustrialized peoples contain no refined or denatured foods or ingredients, such as refined sugar or high fructose corn syrup; white flour; canned foods; pasteurized, homogenized, skim or lowfat milk; refined or hydrogenated vegetable oils; protein powders; artificial vitamins; or toxic additives and colorings.

2. All traditional cultures consume some sort of animal food, such as fish and shellfish; land and water fowl; land and sea mammals; eggs; milk and milk products; reptiles; and insects. The whole animal is consumed­–muscle meat, organs, bones and fat, with the organ meats and fats preferred.

3. The diets of healthy, nonindustrialized peoples contain at least four times the minerals and water-soluble vitamins, and TEN times the fat-soluble vitamins found in animal fats (vitamin A, vitamin D and vitamin K2–Price’s “Activator X”) as the average American diet.

4. All traditional cultures cooked some of their food but all consumed a portion of their animal foods raw.

5. Primitive and traditional diets have a high content of food enzymes and beneficial bacteria from lacto-fermented vegetables, fruits, beverages, dairy products, meats and condiments.

6. Seeds, grains and nuts are soaked, sprouted, fermented or naturally leavened to neutralize naturally occurring anti-nutrients such as enzyme inhibitors, tannins and phytic acid.

7. Total fat content of traditional diets varies from 30 percent to 80 percent of calories but only about 4 percent of calories come from polyunsaturated oils naturally occurring in grains, legumes, nuts, fish, animal fats and vegetables. The balance of fat calories is in the form of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids.

8. Traditional diets contain nearly equal amounts of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids.

9. All traditional diets contain some salt.

10. All traditional cultures make use of animal bones, usually in the form of gelatin-rich bone broths.

11. Traditional cultures make provisions for the health of future generations by providing special nutrient-rich animal foods for parents-to-be, pregnant women and growing children; by proper spacing of children; and by teaching the principles of right diet to the young.

(Cowan, 2000)



It seems that some of the points above defy outmoded diet trends: low fat diets, eggs/red meat/salt will kill you, etc.  Moreover, bacteria (point #5 above) is necessary to healthy bodies.  It is a shame that you lose that to irradiation.


S. Truett Cathy Quote




Pro Deo & Patria


Photo Credits:

Meat by n7gRnws

Chocolate Éclairs by mVLBLTc

Trout by mjYxRA6

USDA Supermarket Chart broken down by country taken from

Chlorpropham from EPA

Bread by mgid8Bm

Sushi by mhgn9jS



Regmi, A., & Gehlhar, M. (2005, February). Processed food trade pressured by evolving global supply chains. Retrieved from

Essay by Nestle, M. Titled: Dinner for Six Billion, which appears as the forward to the book on page 8 of: Menzel, P., & D’Aluisio, F. (2005). Hungry planet, what the world eats. (p. 8). Napa: Material World.

Colon, T. (2010). Unnatural empty junk food words. Retrieved from

Cowan, T. (2000, January 01). The weston a price foundation. Retrieved from

Irradiation, Part II: Trying to ask the Right Questions

We need to dive a bit further into the role irradiation plays when getting food transported and to the table.  Let’s talk about why it is so common and whether it is fulfilling its promises to keep people safe.

If your child knowingly drank after a sick friend, and then said “hey, that is what antibiotics are for!” what would be your first reaction?



Let us look at it this way: you are in the passenger seat and the driver is texting, talking or otherwise preoccupied with anything but the road. The driver looks up at you and says, “hey, that’s what seatbelts and guard rails are for…” it is time to panic.


Empty Road

I just spent some time on the “Center for Disease Control & Prevention” (CDC) government website and I am pretty sure that I just read the above scenario (stated differently) on there.  Except in this case, it is referring to raw meat and other foods.  You see, who needs to worry about the quality of the meat, the condition of the CAFO’s or chicken houses, quality of the feed, or the care of the animal when you can just blast away all of the ickies with a mega dose ofir radiation?

Please read the statement for yourself:

Treating raw meat and poultry with irradiation at the slaughter plant could eliminate bacteria commonly found raw meat and raw poultry, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. These organisms currently cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations in the United States every year. Raw meat irradiation could also eliminate Toxoplasma organisms, which can be responsible for severe eye and congenital infections. Irradiating prepared ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and deli meats, could eliminate the risk of Listeria from such foods. Irradiation could also eliminate bacteria like Shigella and Salmonella from fresh produce. The potential benefit is also great for those dry foods that might be stored for long times and transported over great distances, such as spices and grains. Animal feeds are often contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella. Irradiation of animal feeds could prevent the spread of Salmonella and other pathogens to livestock through feeds. (CDC, 2005)

The above highlights are mine, and here is my reaction in the greater context of the situation:

1) Excuse me, but those are living animals!  Forget what you can nuke their carcass with after the fact, they are alive.  I agree that their purpose is to produce food.  However, they need not be disregarded as dumb machines.  Treating animals poorly is a precursor to seeing everything and everyone as utilitarian objects.  Try starting with these questions:  “What is the purpose of a cow/pig/chicken?”  “What does the cow/pig/chicken need?”  Instead of questions like this: “What can I get away with legally?”  It may be legal, but it is immoral.


2)Joel Salatin is known for saying, “We are excellent at hitting the bull’s-eye on the wrong target.”  Have you seen the average slaughter plant?  Of course there is illness-inducing bacteria on the meat!  It does not need to be that way, though.  But is anyone asking how we can bring safe and ethical food production back to the local level?

3)  If the just-heat-ready-to-eat-meat has Listeria, it is not exactly ready to eat, is it?  When did grocery store shelves get so dangerous?

4) Transporting food over greater distances—sure, we can see some merit in that.  Let us face it, I just cannot grow bananas in Northern Montana.  But zapping food to make it last longer?  If your food is no longer perishable, it is not food.  If the bacteria that causes composting does not want touch something, then chances are I do not either.  Put a pre-packaged yellowish tubular crème filled dessert cake on the counter and see when it begins to perish.


Cow on Pasture

5) Animal feeds are often contaminated—really?  And if we know this, why are we feeding it to them?  Is the animal eating appropriate feed for that kind of animal?  Most people might not know this—but cows were never supposed to have full-corn diets.  They are supposed to eat grass in the field still growing or even properly hayed.  Salmonella on prairie clover is quite unlikely.

They must have known I was reading this.  The CDC continues:

Irradiation is not a short cut that means food hygiene efforts can be relaxed. Many steps need to be taken from farm to table to make sure that our food supply is clean and safe. Irradiation is a major step forward, but it does not replace other important efforts, including efforts to improve sanitation on the farm and in the food processing plant. For irradiation to be effective, the food that is to be irradiated already needs to be clean. The more initial contamination there is, the higher dose of irradiation it would take to eliminate possible pathogens, and the greater the change in the taste and quality of the food. The protection of irradiation will be overcome if the contamination levels are too high.  (CDC, 2005)

Yes, I am a critic.  Would I rather have the (current) alternative to irradiated food? Of course not!  If you are only offering one alternative, that being to get sick or not, to poison my family or not…then yes I suppose I will take the zapped meat.  But why accept just this one alternative?  Perhaps it is time to loosen city ordinances to encourage “kitchen poultry” and “victory gardens” once again!  Get to know your local farmer.

The CDC seems quite proud of sterile food production.  No bacteria?  That is like saying, “The good news is that we solved the termite problem.  Bad news, we had to burn down the house to do it.”  All bacteria is killed off in the food.  Has anyone asked if this is healthy?  Do you realize you have 3 trillion living beings within your own body?  Not all bacteria is Salmonella, Listeria or E. Coli O157:H7.  Bacteria are necessary for life and for your immune system.

car crash


We can keep building bigger, faster, higher capacity ambulances or we can ask the right questions to avoid generating more crash victims in the first place.  More ϋbersterile food, or better food production methods?

I want to leave you with this thought—what are our alternatives?  Be sure of this, we can actively speak a message with our purchasing power, with our voices, and with our backyard gardens.  Let us get back to the basics of producing and processing our own foods as much as it is possible, and buying locally wherever possible.  Let us aim for transparency when it comes to food production and smarter consumers to drive market forces.


Berger, M. E. (2003). Oak ridge institute for science and education. Retrieved from


Centers for disease control and prevention. (2005, October 11). Retrieved from


Centers for disease control and prevention. (2005, October 11). Retrieved from


Organic Consumers Association. (2008, 08 25). History, background and status of labeling of irradiated foods. Retrieved from


Organic Consumers Association. Induced radioactivity from electron-beam irradiation.  Retrieved from


Potter, J. (2010). Cooking for geeks: Real science, great hacks, and good food. O’Reilly Media, Inc.


Weston A. Price Foundation. (2003, December 8). Irradiated meat: A sneak attack on school lunches.  Retrieved from



Photo Credits:

Cocktail Franfurters by mOGTT4w

Antibiotics by nnLUem2

Empty Road by moNVEUQ

Sheep by mk4qyEe

Cow by mmqIkCS

Wrecked Car by mg21u9m

FOTPOTUS — Foods of the Presidents of the United States



Pizza in the oval office?  Sure, it has been done.  But if your tastes are more regional specific, more simplistic or even pushing the envelope for gourmet—the people want to know what are the foods of the Presidents of the United States (FOTPOTUS).


It turns out that of the 43 men who have served in the nation’s highest office, their tastes are as diverse as their politics.  President George H. W. Bush swore off broccoli (which is one of my favorite vegetables) claiming it as a perk of the job.  President Ronald Reagan loved Jelly Belly® jelly beans (fun fact: a special jar was designed for Air Force One so that the candy would not spill during turbulence), more specifically the black licorice flavor—so much so that he sent some on the Space Shuttle for the astronauts to enjoy in orbit.  Truth be told, that gesture would have been wasted on me (I always pick out the black licorice jelly beans)—then again NASA never responded to my application to become an astronaut either.  It turns out the President Barack Obama and I both enjoy chili, and President Bill Clinton and I would both enjoy a good cheeseburger.


Jelly Beans


History has proven that the First Ladies also have quite an influence on the food served for the first family.  First Lady Nancy Reagan was very health conscious.  In spite of the Gipper’s sweet tooth and love for Monkey Bread, she opted for simple breakfast courses.


Both President George Washington and President Thomas Jefferson were avid farmers at Mount Veron and Monticello respectively.  Although First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt is credited for the first (victory) garden at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the Clintons did have an inconspicuous garden on the roof of the Whitehouse, but the most famous garden at the White House goes to First Lady Michelle Obama.  Composting, gardening, food production—I really hope that idea catches on!


The First Lady's Garden


Enough of the history lesson, here are some recipes that have been the favorites in the White House:

Barack Obama’s Chili  (A nice warm treat for a cold winter day)

George W. Bush’s Huevos Rancheros  (On my list to try soon)

Bill Clinton’s Burgers  (Mmmmmmm)

Ronald Reagan’s Monkey Bread  (It is bread—we love bread here at Pantry Paratus!  I will be trying this one soon)

Jimmy Carter’s Grits  (I grew up in New England and never heard of grits until I went to school in the South, but these would warm the heart of any Yankee)

John F. Kennedy’s Chowder  (Classically lampooned as “chowdah” I have to tip my hat to JFK on this one for loving one of my favorite soups)

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Dogs  (FDR even served them to the Queen of England!  Must have been some good hot dogs)

Theodore Roosevelt’s Oysters (Since Teddy liked to hunt up here in Montana, I was thinking that he would be associated with a good elk recipe)

Ulysses S. Grant’s Turkeys  (never moving past “good ol’ Army chow” President Grant appointed an Army cook as White House chef)

Dwight Eisenhower’s Vegetable Soup  (evidently, it took days [plural] to make)


A really cool resource that I found on this topic:



I doubt that I will ever be able to meet a President of the United States (POTUS) in my lifetime, it is good to know what kind of food fuels the top office.



Pro Deo et Patria



Photo Credits:

White House Kitchen by Macon Phillips at
Pizza by mgyph6A

Jelly Beans by Bill Longshaw

First Lady’s garden by Jesse Lee at

Altitude Baking & Bread Recipe

I thought I’d show off; I’d learned how to bake at sea level, but I was staying with friends in Colorado, at roughly 7,000 ft.  Disaster.  I had to learn quickly about altitude baking.  After I’d moved to Montana things evened out for me at just less than 3,000 ft.  I did not find much difference between sea level and Montana as far as the outcome of baking, even though a few minor adjustments were still necessary along the way.

Chaya holding high altitude loaf

          That’s Pike’s Peak in the background.

We are visiting our friends now, and I baked two loaves of rather concave bread yesterday.  I have to laugh at myself, at how much I’d forgotten—the formulas for re-writing the recipe, the texture of the dough while kneading.  Every two minutes I was showing the dough to my friend: “Am I done kneading yet?” I would ask.  So much of baking for me is in the hands.

If you find yourself above 3,000 ft altitude, my bread recipe might not work entirely well for you.  You may have to try a few substitutions until you create your own perfect recipe.  For a more complete understanding of high altitude baking, let me suggest this high altitude baking site to answer your bread baking questions.

The science of altitude changes things.  The boiling point is lower (it drops about a point for every additional 500 ft incline).  The air is drier and moisture evaporates much more quickly.  It’s extremely difficult to have a muffin top or a dome on a loaf of bread.  Although baking is as much art as science, ignoring these changes will not work to your favor.  One of the more notable differences is the need for extra moisture.  This makes the dough stickier and wetter.

wet dough

  My recommendation is to start with a high altitude recipe instead of attempting to modify a sea level recipe, if you are higher than 3,000 ft.  Here are a few tips for you if you are higher than 3,000 ft and really want to try modifying your own recipe:

            *Decrease rise time to once, and only approximately 30 minutes!
           *Decrease fats, increase moisture--since the moisture decreases faster, the remaining imbalanced ratio
                 of fat  will  weaken the bread.
           *Increase the baking temperature by 10-15 degrees to keep the leavening gases from collapsing your 
                 beautiful loaf of bread.
           *Extra Moisture!

My friend graciously gave me her recipe, which she adapted over time  from a local breadbaker.

Her one comment was, “I wish my bread held together better”.  A typical troubleshooting tip I give is to add an extra egg.  I did that yesterday and the bread was much more “cakey” than I had anticipated, but it does make great toast.  Thought I’d pass that along to you—I think next time I would adjust the cooking temperature.  If anyone plays with this recipe, please comment and let me know what you have tried!

High Altitude Bread

Preheat oven to 375˚

Makes 2 loaves

2.5 cups warm water
1 ½ Tbsp yeast
¼ cup oil
¼ honey
1 egg
½ tsp lecithin
½ Tbsp lemon juice
½ Tbsp salt
5 cups hard wheat flour
  1. Proof your yeast in hot water and a tablespoon of sweetener for approximately 10 minutes.
  2. Combine other ingredients.
  3. This batter will feel much moister, will require more stirring initially to thicken the batter.
  4. Oil your hands before turning out onto the counter.  Avoid adding more flour, and knead bread for 15-20 minutes.
  5. Immediately put dough into bread pans and let rise.  I used the Excalibur dehydrator for the temperature-control factor.
  6. Bake for 30 minutes.

bread rising in dehydrator

Dehydrating: A simple Q & A

We just finished a wonderful weekend in Dallas, Texas, as a store and as teachers, at the Self-Reliance Expo.  What a wonderful venue—if you ever have one come near you, please take the time to go.  You’ll find a wide variety of things, from homeschooling to homesteading to survival supplies.


The first reaction most people have when walking into our store is this—they head straight to our “pantry”, a 6 foot shelf full of jars.  The colors range from the bright yellow pickled eggs steeped in tumeric to the deep green of dehydrated spinach, to the red homemade jams and jellies.  The fruit leathers, the jerky, the thinly sliced dehydrated peaches, and the raspberries that melt in your mouth—these draw passers-by into our booth.  They take in the colors and produce.

pantry shelf


“I didn’t know you could dehydrate that!”

“I tried dehydrating potatoes once but mine turned black.”

We love these conversations because we often learn something new, too.  We also find that many questions are echos of the ones asked by others coming to our booth earlier.  Because of this, we thought that perhaps we’ll relate some common dehydration questions now in case you share them.


Q: How do I know if the food is fully dehydrated?


A:  If this food item is going to be an immediate snack food, such as fruit leather or chewy apple rings, you will want to leave moisture in and dehydrate to taste.  This will be based on your personal preference, and this process stops short of what you will need to store foods over long-term.  If you are dehydrating for long-term food storage you should be able to hear a “clunk” when you drop it onto the table, or it should snap when you break it in half.  Remember, these foods will partially rehydrate with moisture in the air (and start the rotting process) if you do not immediately package them properly.


Q:  How do you clean out your dehydrator?


A:  The bottom of an Excalibur is easily wiped clean with a cloth and your cleaner of choice, but it is true that the sticky trays are sometimes frustrating.  We found a foolproof way (through a customer’s brilliant suggestion) to clean the trays.  Run warm water in your bathtub and add Epsom Salts.  Let the trays soak overnight.  They will usually only need a quick rinse when you return to them.  If they need further cleaning, it will just be a simple wipe-down.

jar of dehydrated peaches


Q:  Those jars are beautiful—where did you get them?


A:  Many are standard canning jars and we pick as many up as possible at thrift stores and yard sales.  Others are empty product jars, such as spaghetti sauce.  We always save glass jars!


Q:  Can I put my food in glass jars for long term food storage?


A:  Yes!  Any jar of spaghetti sauce that comes home from the store with us is on a one way trip.  After the commercially packed contents are consumed, we save the jar.  Why would we do that?  Because the jar can either go into the waste pile or the asset column.  If I preserve part of my food surplus, I will need to put it some where.  A glass jar is impermeable by vermin, is portioned properly for use (I do not want to open up a 5 gallon bucket of cornmeal when I only need 4 cups).


The biggest variable is the lid of the jar. If the vulcanized rubber ring on the inside of the far is still pliable when you poke it with your finger nail, then chances are it will seal just fine with an oxygen absorber on the inside of the jar.  If the oxygen absorber is valid, it will mitigate the oxygen and create a seal.  Keep your long term food storage in a dark, cool place, and remember to ROTATE!


Q: What considerations are there for storing dehydrated food?


A: There are four enemies of food storage: Moisture, Oxygen, Light and Heat.  Any living thing needs moisture and oxygen to live.  Dehydrating will eliminate the moisture.  The oxygen can be mitigated with an oxygen absorber.  This also (depending on the condition of the jar and lid) create a sealed container where the “button” on the lid does not pop.  Lastly you need to protect the food from light.  The energy carried on a ray of light will have a negative effect on the nutritive value of the food according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  If you store the food in a mylar bag, this is much better for protecting from light.  Lastly heat, think cool and a dark place for your food storage.


Q: What is “case hardening”?


A:  It is when the outside of the food dries out too quickly and the interior has moisture locked in it.  When I am trying to cook a roast, I set the oven to a high temperature and put the meat in there to sear the outside, then continue to cook it a much lower temperature so that it stays juicy.  When I want to dehydrate a food, I want to avoid doing that.  Dehydrating is best done with low heat over a longer time.  Case hardening is when the outside is dry and the moisture has sealed into the interior of the food product and it will deteriorate and rot.  There are a few things that can cause this.  Many dehydrators have the bottom-to-top heating unit that means some trays get too much heat while others are dried insufficiently which requires rotating the trays.  Because of this, we highly recommend a dehydrator like the Excalibur because of the back-to-front design where all trays heat evenly.  We also recommend lower heat for a longer time!  Even using Excalibur’s suggestions, we typically turn the heat down ever-so-slightly and plan for a longer dehydration time (36 hours is typical).


Q:  What is “blanching” and do I need to do it?


A:  Foods that are high in cellulose and fiber such as a carrot will need to be blanched.  I suggest looking at the Preserve It Naturally book for food-by-food instructions as to whether an item needs this process.  (Note: We give this book free with the purchase of a 5 tray or a 9 tray Excalibur Dehydrator or you can purchase the book separately).  Blanching softens the outer skin of food and is easy to do.  Get a pot of boiling water and drop the food in very briefly.  Blanching does not generally take more than a minute or two (if you are at a full rolling boil).  Other items can be quickly steamed instead such as cauliflower.  Items like a potato are best to be boiled thoroughly until cooked, cooled, sliced then dehydrated.

Dehydrated potatoes

Basically, foods with a thicker outer surface than interior, such as cherries and other berries, carrots, etc. should be blanched. If an item needs to be blanched prior to freezing, it should also be blanched prior to dehydrating.  Here’s our favorite trick:  If you find frozen vegetables on a great sale, stock up!  Any items that require blanching will have already received the necessary treatment by the vegetable packers.  Just put the veggies straight onto the trays without thawing!  You have now saved substantially in both the purchase, labor and in the storage.


Q:  Did you really do this yourself??


A: This is our most common question, and I think that it conveys the notion that this is too much work or too difficult.   The home economics of dehydration means that I save exponentially by being able to buy sale items in bulk and preserve my own summer harvest—no wasted spinach for us!  With this in mind, dehydration and food storage becomes a natural way of life.  An Excalibur Dehydrator is the work horse for the do-it-yourself food storage minded family.  And yes, you can do it too.  I promise.




Chaya’s Review: Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway

Note:  We do not sell Gaia’s Garden.  We thoroughly enjoyed the book and would like to share our opinion of it with you as well as some basic Permaculture principles that you can find within its’ pages.  If you would like to read the book for yourself, you can find it here.

Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway


What is Permaculture? Hemenway barely catches his breath when he tackles this question, and I’m rather glad he did in his typical systematic way because I’m asked this constantly in different forms—“What makes it different than organic gardening?”, “Isn’t that gardening-for-hippies?”.  Just last week I was asked, “If my mom went to a Permaculture meeting, would she just think it was another gardening club?”


“Permanent Culture” and “Permanent Agriculture” have joined to mean an interconnected ecosystem that is rich, diverse, and healthy by stacking the functions of the soil, water, and animal life.  Every piece of the garden impacts the other living organisms in that garden and you plan accordingly.  For instance, one plant attracts a pesky insect, another attracts the bird that dines on them.  You have now created a relationship between two otherwise unrelated plants.  Perhaps one of those plants is also known to improve the nitrogen content of the soil, but another needs strong nitrogen to flourish.   What that means is that the end goal isn’t just food or floral output.  It isn’t just about attracting birds or butterflies, nor is it just about preventing soil erosion or even just about rich soil. It’s about all of it—and using all of the pieces simultaneously to improve the quality of the other pieces.


It’s more of a gardening paradigm.  Organic gardening refers more to what is not done to the plants; it does not necessarily encompass the sets of processes by which those plants are grown (i.e., irrigation, recycling, composting, monoculture vs. polyculture, or harvesting practices).  Organic principles are excellent and Permaculture utilizes those, but it does not stop there.


And as for your mother, would she think it was another gardening club?  I would hope she’d bring her experience to the table for others and walk away with a few solutions, a few “never-thought-of-that” moments, and a few new friends.  She would likely see some distinct differences in approach.

Gardening Pottery

This book opened my eyes to both the beauty and purpose to ecological design.  It is not about color coordinating flowers.  It’s about creating a living, multifunctional, thriving ecosystem.  One of Hemenway’s stronger suggestions is to think of your garden in terms of zones.  Start right out your door!  Zone 1 is where you spend the most time, and so it needs to be logical for you; what do you need most from the garden?  This zone is also for those high maintenance plants, like things that will need to be covered and uncovered during those frosty nights, or the herbs that are easily choked out by weeds.  If this is out your door, you are far more likely to pick a weed here, or notice yellowing leaves in time to apply much needed water. These are your most utilized plants (if you eat tomatoes everyday in the summer, for instance) and the plants that are the neediest to grow. The zones going out from there should require less care, eventually leading to the “food forest” zone that only requires minimal maintenance.  In this way, you can increase your garden production without enslaving yourself to the garden.


Hemenway also focuses heavily upon multifunctionalism, and it’s this emphasis that brings the best charts to this book!  You can see the many functions of many, many plants in order to plan your garden for optimal performance.  He speaks of “stacking functions”; if every carefully chosen plant provides multiple things to the garden, and multiple things in the garden provide each one of those functions, you will not have a “weak link”.  No plant only does one thing and yet many of us grew up gardening that way.  For instance I have always loved lavender and used to grow it for the beauty in the garden and as a cut bouquet.  Apart from beauty and scent, what role does this single plant play?


A chart on page 278 shows this to grow well in my current zone (yay!) and shows that it’s an evergreen shrub (meaning that it retains foliage all year around and is a woody perennial with multiple stems arising from the base) and it does prefer full sun.  Okay, so most gardening books would have told me as much.  But continuing on I can now see the multiple functions of lavender: It does have aesthetic uses (as I mentioned),  and it’s a wonderfully plant for human medicinal use.

Bee on Lavender

It attracts many beneficial insects, it’s a windbreak species, and it’s also a hedgerow species.

Lavender as a hedge

So perhaps I can plant it next to species that need pollinating insects, perhaps I can plant that tender partial-shade plant next to it that would benefit from the wind break, and it would make a wonderful border to separate garden areas.  This is what garden design and “stacking functions” is all about.  Now, “Butterfly Bush” has the same windbreak and insectary functions, and would look quite nice interplanted.  Why repeat myself? Because if something were to happen to one plant, I have a backup plan!


If a chicken is something that only outputs eggs, then it is hard to understand Permaculture.  But if you look at a chicken as something that eats insects, and that my garden is an insect nursery.

Chicken in garden

Consider further that if I require the outputs of both the chicken and the garden—now you can see that stacking the functions is beneficial for every living thing involved.  My backyard (whether I realize it or not) is a complex ecosystem.  If I address it as such, start stacking the functions of all the components involved, now I am practicing Permaculture.


I have spent much of my life fighting the natural succession of plant life; I never understood the greater principles at work.  Think of plant succession as linear.  Bare earth, followed by fast-growing weeds and grasses.

prairie grasses in Colorado

These would then be replaced by taller perennial grasses and bushes.  Animal and bird life really move in at this stage, bringing life, insect management, and fertilizer.  Ultimately, grass lands are teenagers striving for the “adulthood” of forest.  This explains all of the thousands of oak saplings I’ve pulled from between my peony buses!  Those “weeds” are part of the process of healing barren earth.  The roots penetrate hard ground, the weeds die back and compost, and there is now food for a whole host of other living creatures.  Left alone that oak would start producing leaf litter by the metric ton adding precious organic matter to the soil.  How do we get this process to work for us?


Hemenway does a great job—better than I—of explaining these principles and giving practical application in this Permaculture primer.  The photos were inspirational.  I have seen mature permacultured gardens firsthand and so I know the wisdom of this methodology.  I didn’t know quite where to begin myself, though, until Gaia’s garden.  I now have a starting point.


Design, water constraints and solutions, extending the growing seasons, utilizing microclimates, building humus-rich soil, balancing the insect and animal life, developing nurse plant relationships, how to interplant for maximum production, and “guild building”—this book was not like the other gardening books I have read in the past.


The Negatives


For those of us who look at this amazing design and see a Designer, we often have to swallow the meat and spit out the bones of the modern evolutionary cliché.  I have heard Hemenway lecture with tremendous passion about Permaculture in which he makes great conclusions based on evolutionary assumptions.  I would depart with Hemenway in his assumptions, but his conclusions for a positive way forward are largely correct. Moreover Hemenway approaches Permaculture with a heavy hand in science (which I love), so his conclusions are even more convincing.  This book does reflect his evolutionary paradigm but is not heavy-handed with it.


I am naive enough that I did not know where the title came from—“who’s Gaia?”  According to some traditions, she is the goddess of earth.  Apart from the title of the book, there is no other mention of her.  I did see a pagan paradigm come through in the smallest of ways, such as the personification of earth as “mother”.  Again, those of us who worship the Creator and not the creation can agree with the large strokes of the conclusions but disagree with the philosophical underpinnings.




I could say that this book, listening to Paul Wheaton’s podcasts, along with the documentary “Back to Eden” have shifted my gardening approach 180 degrees.  I think that if you have the least bit of curiosity towards Permaculture, or if you have watched “Back to Eden” but do not know where to start, this book will put feet to that vision!





Photo credits:

Gardening pottery 

Lavender as insectary

Lavender as hedge row

Chicken in garden

Prairie grass

Interview: Cathy Cromell talks Composting


Composting for Dummies


Wilson: Cathy tell us, you are a Master Gardener—how did you get into that line of work?  Did it all start off as a hobby?


Cathy Cromell: I grew up in a family that gardened and spent a lot of time outdoors, so a love of plants and nature is embedded in me. I have a communications degree from UCLA and my background is in publishing. When I moved to Arizona, I read a newspaper blurb about the Master Gardener program and signed up for their extensive training class to help me sort out desert gardening. It was 3 hours per week for 16 weeks, covering basics such as soil and botany; the specifics of typical landscape plants, such as cacti or citrus; and local issues, such as drip irrigation and water conserving landscapes. I started volunteering for the program, writing about a youth garden that Cooperative Extension sponsored, and my career path rambled along from there. I eventually was employed by the Master Gardener program to write, edit and publish books specific to desert gardening and landscaping. At the time, bookstore shelves were loaded with lovely options for gardening in the East, Midwest, or Northwest, which had no relevance to conditions or plant palettes in the Southwest. Career counselors always advise to “do what you love,” so the opportunity to combine writing, publishing and gardening has been terrific for me.


Here’s my shameless plug for the volunteer Master Gardener program. It’s available in each state, as well as some Canadian provinces, and is overseen by the Cooperative Extension Service of that state’s land-grant university. (The land-grant university is charged with public outreach, sharing useful research-based information geared to residents’ needs, in this example, gardening and landscaping.) Specifics vary locally, but university and industry experts teach courses and offer training, and in exchange, you volunteer a number of hours annually (in my experience it was 50 hours the first year, and 25 hours annually thereafter), sharing what you learned in a variety of ways with the public. According to a 2009 Extension survey, Master Gardeners donated over $100 million worth of time.

Maricopa County, AZ Master Gardner Logo

Volunteering as a Master Gardener is a wonderful way to develop friendships with other gardeners, learn from them and enjoy continuing education workshops, lectures and conferences. It’s also great for plant sharing! Here’s the national Master Gardener site link or do an internet search with your state or county Cooperative Extension office and master gardener. Okay, end of plug!


Wilson: No problem, that was a judicious plug!  I was stationed at Ft. Huachuca, AZ back in the early 2000’s and that is where I fell in love with the beauty of the Southwest desert.  I can only imagine how necessary it was to have someone put a voice to all of that knowledge set about growing down in that climate.  We have gotten lots of help when we first moved to Montana from a local master gardener at church.  Seek those people out and get educated!  Sharing the harvest is a proper way to say, “Thank you!” (by the way).  


Cornell Master Gardener Logo


Wilson: I look at the natural order and I consider your quote on page 9, “A single gram of soil–about the size of a navy bean–holds 100 million to 1 billion bacteria, 100,000 to 1 million fungi, 1,000 to 1 million algae, and 1,000 to 100,000 protozoa” (Cromell, 2010), and I think “Wow!”  You also talk about on page 32 of who is doing all of the work.  Do you still carry that sense of awe with you into the garden even after all of the scientific study? 


Cathy: Absolutely. I was enchanted by nature as a kid and still am. I think it helps that I also write profiles of gardeners for a living. Gardeners are the most entertaining, inspiring, engrossing, cheerful and downright helpful people on the planet. And generous. Admire one of their plants and they’ll start potting up an offshoot or cutting for you while you continue chatting. There are a zillion distinct passions that gardeners dive into, so I learn something useful and/or miraculous—lots of things actually—every time I talk with another gardener.


Wilson: It was only after I discovered Permaculture that I truly appreciated how balanced nature is.  For example, no plant-based system survives without animal input and no animal system survives without plant input.  On page 36 you mention the nemesis of the gardener–“snails and slugs.”  Would you care to comment on Bill Mollison’s quote, “You do not have an excess of slugs, you have a deficiency of ducks”?


Cathy: That’s both an elegant and common sense way to approach the issue, isn’t it? I recently interviewed a long-time desert dweller who remembered seeing huge 6-foot rattlesnakes on a very regular basis around his landscape back in the 1970s and 80s. Rodents and rabbits were present, too, but not a problem in numbers. As development encroached, the rattlesnake population went down, due to fear and loathing, as well as being run over by cars when their 6-foot bodies stretched across the road. Now, he very occasionally sees much smaller rattlers. Of course, the rodent and rabbit population skyrocketed, creating indignation from new residents as creatures munch on recently installed landscapes! Nature provides tidy checks and balances if we could figure out how to stay out of her way.


From comments I hear and questions I often get asked, it seems obvious that advertising has done a bang-up job in the last couple generations to demonize “pests.” They must be eradicated swiftly and conveniently before threatening the family! (And, in fairness, the media sometimes piles on with sensational stories about lurking creatures to grab ratings during sweeps week.) Not enough people are asking, “What is this insect/creature? Do I need to do anything about it? What are my options?” before jumping directly to, “What can I spray on this pest it to kill it?”


I like to share information whenever I can on Integrated Pest Management (IPM), a method that covers all available means of coping with specific pests, starting with identification and using chemicals only as a last resort. (It astounds me how many people spray chemicals around their house without knowing what the insect is, or what the chemical is.) UC Davis IPM is a good starting point for your readers throughout the West: Or they can check with their local County Cooperative Extension.


Wilson: You are so correct about the bad rap of “pests” or “invasive species.”  I love what Toby Hemenway says about local councils organized to eradicate “invasive species” plants.  Funny, how they are often cooperating with chemical spray companies who can recognize a repeat customer when they see one.  Hmmmm . . .  What is nature’s function for the insect or plant?  What natural enemies does the plant or insect have?  Too many snakes?  Give cats a try.  In Afghanistan I saw other NATO troops keep cats around the camp so that the cats predator skills could out compete the snakes for the rodent link in the food chain.  “No mice, no snakes.” 


Wilson: I am pretty new to all of the science behind composting, more specifically the C:N ratio (Carbon/Nitrogen).  I had no idea that you could tune your compost pile to make it hotter.  Have you heard of Jean Pain’s work with compost hot water heaters?  Any thoughts on that?


Cathy: Thanks for sharing the link, I wasn’t familiar with it. It’s encouraging to me that there are people who identify a problem or issue, and then devise creative solutions that push the envelope. In the best-case scenario, their ideas can be incorporated or adapted by others in a variety of circumstances. I can return your favor and share a local example with you. Brad Lancaster lives in Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran desert. It’s hot and dry, obviously. City streets are paved, and existing sidewalk medians are typically barren, with very few trees lining streets as they do in some regions. All that hardscape adds to the urban heat island effect, which is rising. Although average rainfall is about 11 inches, development codes typically required that rain be shunted off residential and commercial properties as fast as possible, sending it on down the pike. Brad looks at the existing situation (Why do we waste precious rainwater? How do we get more shade to cool things off?) and over time he implements a system to retain rainwater on his property and surrounding neighborhood. Rain is channeled to soak into sidewalk medians that are now planted with desert species. The sidewalk has been transformed to provide a shady and inviting stroll, with all sorts of plant material and the urban wildlife attracted to it. Similar projects spread around the city, and Brad has become a well-known authority on rainwater harvesting, authoring two books on the subject. My description of his effort is greatly simplified, but you can find more info and photos of some of the projects at Brad’s website:


Wilson: Wow, any “system” designed to get rid of water as fast as possible is really in need of a reconsideration.  Permaculture would say make the water take the longest, slowest, most productive route out of the area—so that it accomplishes the most good.  Geoff Lawton describes a desert as a “flood waiting to happen.”  I really wish that more Permaculture principles were taken into consideration with municipal design.


Wilson: I love your quote opening chapter 5 on page 59, “Mother Nature doesn’t enclose her organic debris in containers, yet aromatic black humus–the beneficial result of her successful composting process–covers forest floors” (Cromell, 2010).  I get a real appreciation for history when I pick up a handful of humus in a forest and sift it through my fingers.  What would you tell the readers about the Permaculture principle of observing nature? 


Cathy: Hiking through the desert, it’s easy to spot dozens of examples of “nurse” plants. Stately saguaro and other cacti get their start in life growing in the shady canopy of desert trees such as mesquite and palo verde, which are called nurse plants. Birds sit in tree branches, leave a “deposit” that drops to the ground, and some of the seeds germinate. As the cacti mature, they grow up and through their old nannies’ canopies, no longer in need of protection. So, how does observing that natural scenario help someone grow plants in their landscape? Lots of native and desert-adapted species thrive beneath the understory of a tree where they receive sufficient light, but protection from too-intense sun, especially in summer.

Saguaro Tree

  Saguaro growing beneath the protection of a Palo Verde Tree nurse plant.

You can see mature Saguaro growing in full sunlight in the background.


Getting out and about in nature is invaluable in many ways, but what nature has to teach us may not be immediately obvious. For example, I don’t know that a hike in the desert will automatically help me return home and grow better vegetables! I highly recommend that people absorb the knowledge of local experts, who are generally delighted to share it. When I moved to Arizona, I learned so much, so quickly, from others that would have taken me quite a long time to figure out on my own, even though I grew up gardening and had a fair knowledge bank. (The nurse plants were explained in a class I took at Desert Botanical Garden when I first moved here.) I encourage people to check with their County Cooperative Extension office, public gardens, municipal parks and/or water conservation offices, local garden clubs, any nature related group, such as bird watchers, plant societies, hiking groups, and so on. Groups devoted to permaculture are becoming more prevalent as the concepts spread. Of course, online sites are great, too, especially for folks in rural environments.


Wilson: I am also a huge fan of Joel Salatin who also says the same thing about soil—it truly all starts there.  Soil is not just something to hold up the plant!  Nurse plants are one more example of nature’s efficiency.  I grew up in New England where every fall we would rake up all those “pesky” deciduous leaves.  Looking back at that now, I cringe at the wastefulness of exporting all those nutrients out of the system. 



Wilson: Your funny anecdote on page 105 about the softball infield benefiting from the chicken feathers really got me thinking about how many other things can be composted as opposed to sitting in a landfill.  As you studied composting, what one ingredient surprised you the most as being useful for composting? What is the average family overlooking as a common composting source?


Cathy: Well, basically anything that decomposes can be composted, so people should use whatever is convenient and safe for them, but funny timing with your question. Today I was on a walking path near a desert preserve and I saw enormous puffballs of cream-colored fur, like from a cat or dog. I thought, “Oh, oh, a coyote grabbed someone’s pet,” which is not uncommon here if pets are allowed to roam at night. But a few minutes later I saw a woman on the path who was vigorously brushing one of her dogs, letting the fur globs float off in the breeze. It was no doubt much tidier than brushing fuzzy dogs in the house! Pet fur and human hair both contain nitrogen, and they are two things that most people don’t think about composting. If you know a barber or pet groomer, voila!  Another really obvious source that people seem to forget is shredded documents. When shredding your personal papers to prevent identity theft, soak them in a bucket of water and add to your compost. They also make perfect worm bedding.


Wilson: Amazing!


Shredded documents, RGB Stock

Wilson: I loved chapter 10 on vermicomposting.  My wife Chaya and I did a hilarious podcast with Paul Wheaton where he retells a funny story about his vermiculture epic failure.  Are there any down sides to worms? 


Cathy: None whatsoever! Well, maybe a few, depending on one’s personal tolerances and where you live. If you have worms indoors, sometimes a worm or three may escape, making a run for the border, and you’ll find a little worm body in an unexpected place. Worm bins usually support some mites as part of their ecosystem, but in my experience, this is not a problem, although I live in a very arid climate. Odors can arise. However, as I explained in Composting for Dummies, potential problems are likely the human’s fault for overloading the bin with more food than the worms can eat or not balancing the essentials such as moisture and air for your region’s temperature and aridity. Just like a regular compost pile, vermicomposting systems can be managed and problems prevented by understanding the elements required and making necessary adjustments. Like Goldilocks, it may take a few attempts to get the conditions “just right.”

On another note, people may think you peculiar for keeping worms. Although, this can just as easily be considered an advantage! I used to keep my Wormingtons in a bin in the guest bathroom. The majority of people who came out had a smile on their faces and said something like, “Wow, cool, you’ve got worms in there!” If it wasn’t someone I already knew well, I could be pretty sure that they would make congenial like-minded friends. As for the other folks—with quizzical looks and scrunched up faces, asking something like, “Why are there WORMS in your BATHROOM?” I could tell I probably wouldn’t have much in common with those vermiphobes!


Wilson: Worms inside, cool. I love these new ideas for sequestering nutrition out from the waste stream.  My friend puts it this way, “take it to the dump or take it to the bank.”   


Wilson: Last question: You say on page 130, “A healthy garden starts with healthy soil.  You don’t need to worry about applying miracle elixirs or wielding new-fangled tools.  Adding compost to garden beds is the best–and easiest–thing you can do to produce a bumper crop of vegetables and bountiful bouquets of flowers.  Reread that sentence and commit it to memory!”  With the ever-rising cost of food, I envision a sea change in food production hopefully not to far away in the future.  Can you envision a paradigm shift in agriculture where people or even communities produce say 20% of their own food?  If so, in addition to composting, what would help spark that initiative into reality? 


Cathy: Wow, you raise a huge topic with all sorts of offshoots. As a kid, everyone on my street had a large productive vegetable garden, partly as a way to affordably feed a family, but also, I think, just because that’s what everyone knew and did. Kids learned from grandparents and parents how to plant, harvest and preserve. Compost piles were just there as part of the process, not something to be thought about in particular. Nobody needed to read a book about composting.


In a relatively short time frame, many drifted away from gardening for significant food production and we lost that cycle of passing information along to the next generation. I’m encouraged that growing food is on the upswing again, fueled by a variety of factors that have been well-covered elsewhere, such as health and environmental concerns about chemical use, soil depletion, and the direct and indirect costs of transporting food thousands of miles. Flavor is another factor. No wonder kids despise fruits and vegetables if they are raised on the tasteless cardboard bred for shipping and shelf life!


Movements such as Slow Food (http:/, Locavores (, Community Supported Agriculture (, chefs seeking out local food producers, and an increase in community and school gardens ( and help people understand their options and point the way to the paradigm shift you mention. Getting kids involved is key. We observed locally with a Cooperative Extension supported youth garden that kids who sow, tend and harvest their own veggies will consume those veggies with gusto and pleasure, and take the experience home to share with their family! I recall reading formal research that supports similar results. So how can we encourage school or children’s gardening in a widespread way? I appreciate that Michelle Obama is helping to shine a spotlight on the benefits, especially as related to nutrition, obesity and long-term health to jump start the conversation. It’s a huge issue.

On the other hand, I’ve seen development in my area swallow up significant productive agricultural land. The Phoenix area used to be covered with orange groves, but only a smattering remains. Recent news reports covered the expected spike in juice prices because of the fungicide scare related to Brazilian oranges.  Is it economically and environmentally feasible to get enough people growing citrus in their desert backyards (often inefficiently in regards to water and fertilizer use and/or productive harvest) to replace a significant portion of our better-managed but lost local orchards? I don’t have the math skills to figure that out!

There’s also been a cultural shift in how we value (or don’t) our food preparation and meal time that needs addressing—that “fast food nation” component of gulping junk food in our cars and at our desks in lieu of a slow-paced meal that includes conversation and appreciation for carefully prepared food. Wilson, I don’t have easy answers to your question but I appreciate that you raise it for discussion!


Wilson: Sounds like we could do a whole other interview just on that topic.  We have not even gotten to cover crops yet!  Thank you for all of the links, and the food for thought.  There is so much potential for individual contributions and plain old-fashioned backyard ingenuity. 


Wilson: Cathy, great book and thank you so much for stopping by.  The door is always open to you here at Pantry Paratus.  Your Composting for Dummies is not available in our store, but I would tell people to check with local independent book sellers to see if they have it in stock.  It is definitely within easy reach here on my shelf!



Click here to read Part 1 where I review the book Composting for Dummies.



Pro Deo et Patria



Cromell, C., & Association, T. N. G. (2010). Composting for dummies. (p. 9). For Dummies.

Ibid. (p. 36).

Ibid. (p. 59).

Ibid. (p. 106).

Ibid. (p. 130).

Wilson’s Book Review: Composting for Dummies

In ground, on the ground, in a bin, on your counter top—if it was once living, chances are you can compost it.  There is so much great information in this little book that it will really make you want to start reclaiming so many of those “waste” items.

Counter Top Compost Keeper

Cathy Cromell definitely has the bona fides to write such a work.  Moreover, she has the correct approach to gardening by starting with the soil.  And she is in very good company when she talks about soil with the likes of Joel Salatin bucking the trend of those who advocate for “plant food.”  You know “plant food,” it comes in a bag, has a price tag so that you can put it in the shopping cart and feel good about hauling it home.


If you take the other course of action in building the soil first, rest assured your plants will have everything they need.  As a matter of fact if you walk into the forest, kneel down and pick up a scoop of chocolatey brown coffee-ground like soil (or humus), you are getting to see the natural order at work.  Nature seldom wastes anything and is constantly composting.  “Compost is a mixture of decayed and decaying organic matter that improves soil structure and provides nutrients for plants” (Cromell, 2010).


I could go on and on about specifics in this book that I liked so much.  The graphs, pictures and side bars in this book are a great means to tell the story of how nature produces topsoil.  I contacted Wiley Publishing, Inc. to get permission to reprint the following three graphics from the book to help give you the scope and expertise captured so well here.


1. On page 43, we see the different phases of decomposition require different organisms to accomplish that.  They each work in their own temperature range.  Amazing!  (Cromell, 2010).

Temperature Chart P. 43


Excerpt from Composting For Dummies®, posted with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


2. Great sidebars throughout the book.  Here is one on page 171 that I like particularly well that talks about the importance of Rhizobia bacteria.  They are the secret weapon of legumes to pull valuable nitrogen out of the air and convert it into a form that plants can use (Cromell, 2010).  The natural order is simply fascinating!


Fixating on Nitrogen P. 171


Excerpt from Composting For Dummies®, posted with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


3. The biggest and most valuable thing that I learned from the book is the Chapter 7 covering the relationship between Carbon and Nitrogen.  I knew that they were both important, but I did not know how much that they depended on each other (30:1 to be precise).  This chart on page 108 is an excerpt of just how rich with useful facts this book is.   (Cromell, 2010).


C-N Chart P. 108


Excerpt from Composting For Dummies®, posted with permission from John Wiley & Sons, Inc.




In the classic For Dummies style of top ten lists, here is Wilson’s top ten things about this book:

10. Composting is one of the least expensive hobbies that you can do (p. 15).

9. Classic 5th Wave comics throughout the book.

8. Compost takes billions of participants (primary, secondary and tertiary consumers) all working together (p. 31).

7. You can compost with children (p. 14).

6. If you can construct a container—you can compost. Failing that, you can just stack it up on the ground and you can still compost (p. 77)!

5. Compost needs 35-40% moisture.  Ants like very dry conditions and flies prefer very wet conditions—the upside is that if you like the benefits of compost (good soil) and you also like chicken, but you do not want to measure the moisture, chickens like both flies and ants (p. 73-74).

4. Compost (as a process) is extremely observable, and is a great project for science fairs and home schoolers (p. 38).

3. If done properly, compost should not smell (p.33).

2. Worms, the more you know about them the more you love them.  They actually get their own chapter (p. 149).

1. Compost happens—you can help on the time scale, but Nature is ultimately driving.



It is wintertime folks, not much gardening to be done these days.  Other than daydreaming with seed catalogues, there is not much else that can be accomplished.  The good news is that the compost process happens year round, albeit much more slowly in winter.  This book is a quick read and a great resource.


Please check back on Friday so that you can help me welcome the author of Composting for Dummies Cathy Cromell as she stops by to chat with us!





Pro Deo et Patria

Cromell, C., & Association, T. N. G. (2010). Composting for dummies. (p. 7). For Dummies.

Ibid. (p. 43).

Ibid. (p. 171).

Ibid. (p. 108).


Photo Credits:

Composting for Dummies book cover, Wiley Publishing, Inc.

Humus, photo by moptop8

Leaves, photo by mHdZdfM

Parenting, Peels & Pinwheels: Confessions, Dehydration, and a Recipe

Seven years old, sitting in the Radio Flyer wagon with my best friend, handle turned in and racing down the steep hill, middle of the road.  Thrilling, fun, and scary.  Fast forward 28 years.  Parenting.  I have not experienced the outer rim of sanity since I was seven years old and flirting with a traumatic brain injury, and here I am.


I was excited about converting this recipe for you.  I’ve re-written and adapting old ones, knowing what I do about flavors and textures, aesthetics.  For a week I’ve anticipated this day when I knew I’d have time to attempt these delicious and gourmet cookies.  I’ve cheered and assigned duties (“you scoop sugar” and “can you crack that egg for me?”) and I’ve had those grandiose delusions of being Mom of the Year with baking time—and I succumb to this emotionally destructive roller coaster practically daily (the “oh yeah, THIS will secure the ‘Mom of the Year’ title!” delusion).


Everything was going well.  Kids were having fun.  And then they got bored and meandered off.  The pinwheels were rising on the cookie sheet, covered with a tea towel. The most beautiful ones on the first sheet inspired my photographic creativity and I thought “THESE will be the ones for the pictures, for the blog!”   My four year old decided to come join in again, and touches the edge of the cookie sheet which I had haphazardly shoved to the edge of the table…not the edge, just beyond the edge.  His little hand hit the corner and flipped the cookie sheet into the air.  Pinwheels indeed pinwheeled into the air, beautiful cream cheese pinwheels spinning in slow motion, crashing onto the floor.


My reaction was immediate—I drew a deep breath which was to be exhaled in some form of overdramatic disappointment, and on the exhale I looked down.  A beautiful baby boy stood before me, his blonde hair sticking up in the back, his blue eyes welling up with tears, his lip quivering.  I exhaled deeply.  I wanted to scream about how he ruined them.  I wanted to shout “OOOOOUUUUTTTT OF MOMMY’S KITCHEN!!!”

But what was my prayer just this morning, about the atmosphere in our home?  Dear Lord help me!  He stood there looking up, with teardrop-shaped eyes and a look of utter fear and disappointment on his cute little cheeks, his fingers clutching the brown neck strap of his CARS movie apron.


“Peanut, do you know you are more important to me than cookies?” The muscles in his face relaxed and he dropped his hands to his sides, making eye contact.


And you know what, the cookies taste better than they look.  I was at a friend’s home last week to make Challah bread with her.  She was kneading and looked up to tell me, “I always pray for the eater when I knead.  My most important ingredient is love.” Kneading Challah

So I could have had perfect pinwheels.  The picture would have been beautiful, you might have forwarded the link on Facebook, and everyone would forget them two days later.  But I would have not experienced the love of sharing cookie-baking time with my children.  My son might not learn what a cup of something looks like, or what it means to whip the egg white.  And I might have permanently damaged a hurt little boy who needed unconditional love in the face of his mistake.


So my cookies, this time, were made with love.  I hope that you enjoy this recipe.


Dehydrating Orange PeelDehydrating Orange Peel

Be very sure to by organic and/or local oranges if at all possible.  If not, please wash them extremely well with a vegetable wash to get any type of residue off of the peel.   Simply grate the peel, place it onto a paraflexx sheet, and approximately 12 hours later you will have dehydrated orange peel for your pantry!

 I would put this recipe into an Intermediate category because of the number of steps and the various rise times.  Also, these are not very sweet cookies and compliment a cup of tea very nicely! My husband thought that a few minor modifications would transform this into an appetizer recipe!

Oh, and make sure you don’t dangle your cookie sheets off the edge of the table!


Orange Cream Cheese Pinwheels

Makes 2 dozen


  • 3 3/4 cups flour (soft white is best)
  • 1/3 cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbs yeast
  • 1 ½ Tbs grated orange peel (less if dehydrated)
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1 egg
  • 1 egg white


  • 1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese
  • ¼- ½  cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbs lemon juice
  • Chocolate Chips, optional, or…
  • Apple Butter, optional


  • 1 egg white
  • 1 teaspoon water
  • Powdered sugar, optional


Step 1: In a mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour, sugar, yeast, orange peel and salt. In a saucepan, heat milk, butter and water just until the butter has melted, and then add it to the dry ingredients. Stir just until moistened. Whip the egg & egg white in a separate bowl for 2 minutes. Stir in enough remaining flour to form soft dough. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes. Turn onto a lightly floured surface. Roll out into a square and cut into smaller squares (approximately 3 inches).

Cut into squares

Step 2: In a saucepan (re-use the original from step 1), warm/melt the filling ingredients, careful not to burn (or use the microwave for 15 seconds).  To form pinwheels, diagonally cut dough from each corner to within 3/4 in. of the center. Then put the dime-sized dollop of filling into each one, placing a chocolate chip or two in there if desired.  Fold every other point toward the center, overlapping pieces. Pinch to seal at the center. Place 3 in. apart on greased baking sheets. Cover and let rise in a warm place for 30-45 minutes.

Cut slits, dab of filling

Step 3:  Grease cookie sheets. Beat egg white and water; brush over pinwheels. Sprinkle with sugar, extra orange peel, or leave plain. Bake at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes or until lightly browned. Remove from pans to cool on wire racks.



Gear Review: Stronghold Haywire Klamper

We plan on rolling out a lot of new products in 2012.  This is a review of the Stronghold Haywire Klamper.

I am especially proud to present this product because not only are we the only retailers for this product on the internet, it is also made right here in NW Montana where we live.

We called upon our independent gear review staff member Jackson to put this item through the paces, assess its strengths, weaknesses and possible uses.

Gear Review: The Stronghold Haywire Klamper by Jackson


I received this interesting little tool after Wilson contacted me about this product.  He was looking for someone to test it out for functionality, durability, usefulness and uses.  I never buy a tool or an item unless I can come up with multiple uses for it.  Granted I do have tools that only have one use but not every tool can be used for multiple tasks.  This little Haywire Klamper is one that has untold amounts of useful applications.


I received the Haywire Klamper in the mail and excitedly pulled it out of the plastic bag and all I could do was gaze at it. I then said out loud, “What in the world is this thing?”  As I moved it between my hands turning it over and over trying to figure out how it was used my smarter side walked up and grabbed the instructions and began to read.  She quickly showed me how it was supposed to go.  If only I would have looked at the instructions I would have seen the pictures showing its proper use.  I like having pictures as that is the kind of guy I am.


The instructions are extremely clear and easy to understand, even for a simple guy like myself.  As mentioned though the pictures help for those more inclined towards that method of learning.  The instructions also include proper lengths of wire needed for the size of clamp you are making.  I pulled the rest of the items out of the bag which included a roll of 14 gauge wire and a pre-made 5/8 double strength clamp.


Here is the tool itself.

close up


Of course next on the agenda was to find my first klamping victim.  I grabbed my wooden hammer to just see how the tool worked.  It does not take a lot of force to tighten down the wire as I discovered as it sunk deeply into the wood.  Twisting the handle is very easy and you do not encounter a lot of resistance while doing it, yet the klamp is extremely tight, but with just the lifting of the wire ends the klamp becomes loose and can be removed.


The first step is to cut your wire to the proper length.  The instructions give you the length of wire needed for klamping ¾ inch all the way to 4 inch hose.  Here we are experimenting with klamping two metal pipes together.  Form a loop in your cut wire.


Now rotate the wire in a “x” pattern around the metal bars.




You can see the loop just sticking over the metal bars.


Picture 5


Insert your free ends into the loop and connect the Haywire Klamper.


Picture 6


Picture 7


Begin tightening by rotating the handle until it is as tight as you need it and then rotate the klamper (by pivoting on the notch) off of the wire and trim the ends.


Picture 8


Picture 9


The final product should look something like this.


Picture 10


Picture 11


 It takes a little practice but once you have the hang of it, it proceeds very quickly and easy.


I took this over to a friend who does a lot of work on cars and motorcycles.  He absolutely loved it because of all the clamping he does and the cost of wire versus buying clamps.  He attempted to distract me and get me to forget the tool as I was leaving.  No such luck.


I also took it out to my uncle’s farm.  Showed it to him and he was amazed that he hadn’t thought of it first.  (Things tend to work that way.)   But he used it to mend one of his fences, lashed a bale of hay and banded a bundle of wood with a little loop on the free end side to be able to carry a lot easier.


The applications for this tool are only limited by your imagination.  I am going to experiment with building a shelter in the woods and continue to look for “outside of the box” ideas.  This is a definite for your shop, emergency kit or bug out bag, its light, durable and extremely handy.


Remember, hope for the best, prepare for the worst, and keep looking up as our redemption draws near.



Pantry Paratus Gear Reviewer