Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Chocolate Peppermint Lotion Bar/Lip Balm

I don't know why I'm posting this recipe right now.  Really, I should have posted this way before Christmas, when all the Pinterest folks were scouring the Internet for homemade Christmas gift ideas.  But let's face it, I can hardly keep my act together around the holidays, despite my numerous charts, lists and repeated attempts at organization.  I used to be one of "those", an organized soul who could keep everything straight, who had binders full of schedules, routines, lists, ideas...  Then I had kids.  It's like my brain exploded and I couldn't make sense of anything anymore. Heck, we consider it a good day if we all get our teeth brushed by noon.  Wait. Where was I?  Oh yeah...Christmas.

Well, let's just say gift funds were a bit tight this year, so I officially declared to my family that this was going to be a Homemade Gifts Only Christmas.  And much to my delight, everyone was thrilled with the idea!  During the summer, I had planned ahead a bit (shocking!) and made some canned goods intended for gift giving, such as jams, pickles, bruschetta topping, pickled jalapenos and salsa.  But after we harvested our honey in October and I found myself with a pound of beautiful beeswax, I decided to try my hand at making a lotion or lip balm for gifts as well. 

This recipe looked so easy and fabulous that I just had to try it out.  It passed my test of "recipe with less than 5 ingredients" (I'm no gourmet, folks.  More than 5 ingredients in  a recipe makes my eyes cross and I totally lose interest). Even better,  I already had most of the ingredients.  For what I didn't have, I went to the website Mountain Rose Herbs and bought it there.  Mountain Rose Herbs has an excellent selection of herbs and oil for culinary and body care use.  They also sell all sorts of containers for body care products, such as lip balm tubes, round tins, glass bottles with droppers, and glass or plastic jars.  To be honest, I found the website to be a little overwhelming, so I requested a catalog in the mail, which allowed me to see everything at once, instead of jumping around from page to page. 

I ordered a few items - Cocoa Butter for the balm, glycerin, some essential oils, small tins and lip balm tubes.  Everything looked lovely, even the box they arrived in!

My loot from Mountain Rose Herbs

As Christmas approached, I gathered up the supplies needed to make the lotion bar/lip balm.  In case you are wondering "what is a lotion bar?", it's quite simply a lotion in solid form.  When you rub the bar on your skin, the heat of your body melts the bar and allows the lotion to spread.  Lotion bars also make excellent lip balms.  They are especially nice because they don't make a mess and are easy to travel with. 

Only four ingredients!  Coconut oil, cocoa butter, beeswax and peppermint oil.

Here is the recipe!  I can't remember exactly how much this recipe makes, but I think I filled at least 12 lip balm tubes, 6 lip balm tins and a muffin pan (1/2 dozen pan).  You will need:

  • 3 oz or 1/3 cup beeswax, in chunks or pastilles (you can buy it from Mountain Rose Herbs or check your local health food store, like Smart Choice Market or Harvest Health Foods )
  • 3 oz or 1/3 cup cocoa butter
  • 3 oz or 1/3 cup coconut oil
  • 2 tsp peppermint essential oil
  • Scale for weighing the ingredients.  If you don't have a kitchen scale, you can just measure using measuring cups, but it's a little tricky because the beeswax and cocoa butter are hard.  You'll have to find a way to chop them into small pieces so your measurements will be somewhat accurate.
  • Containers for the lotion bar/lip balm.  If you are making lotion bars, you will need to find molds to pour the mixture into (check at craft stores for candy or candle molds).  Or you can pour into muffins tins to make round disks which can be stored in a container (grease the tins with coconut oil).  Lip balm can be poured into tubes, pots or tins. 
  • An old double boiler, or an old pot or bowl that will fit propped up inside another pot.  Make sure this is a pot that you don't intent to use for any other purpose.  It will be very difficult to get clean, so you don't want to use your everyday pots. 

1.  Heat the water in the bottom part of the double boiler.  While waiting for the water to boil, lay down some newspaper or wax paper on the counter and arrange your containers on it.  This will make clean up easier if you drip on the counter.

2.  Add the beeswax, cocoa butter and coconut oil to the top part of the double boiler.  Beeswax is flammable, so make sure you melt it in a bowl/pan over boiling water, NOT directly over the heat source. 

3.  Heat the beeswax, cocoa butter and coconut oil until melted.  Stir to combine with an old spoon  (one you don't mind sacrificing) or bamboo skewer. 

4.  Remove from the heat.  Stir in the 2 tsp of peppermint oil

5.  Quickly (and carefully!) pour the hot mixture into your waiting containers.  The mixture will begin to harden up almost immediately.  Use caution - hot wax will burn your skin!
6.  If the mixture begins to harden in the pan before you have a chance to pour it all out, simply scrape the hard parts to the bottom on the pan and remelt over the hot water.  Repour. 

7.  Clean up.  Uggggg.  The worst part.  Do your best to scrape the pot clean with a butter knife or plastic scraper.  After that, you will have to use VERY hot water and soap to melt the beeswax and get the pot as clean as you can.  This is why you don't use your everyday cooking pots.  This pot should be set aside for body care products only. 

Lotion bars on the left and balm on the right.

I ended up using 3 different pouring methods.  Some I poured into lip balm tubes, some I poured into round tins to be used as lip balm,  and some I poured into muffin tins to make bars ( I popped them in the freezer for a few minutes and they came out of the tins easy as pie).  The lotions bars from the muffin tins fit nicely into the round tins as well, but could be removed from the tin and rubbed over the whole body. 

This lotion/balm smells absolutely delicious and the peppermint leaves a pleasing tingle.  If you like chocolate and peppermint, then this is the lotion/balm for you!  Everyone loves it, especially my kids (and bonus - I don't have to worry when they eat it, because it's perfectly edible. You might want to eat it too because it smells so good!).  It makes a fabulous lip balm, hand cream or all over body moisturiser.  I love multi-purpose products!

You could have all sorts of fun giving this lotion/balm as gifts.  The options for molds and containers are endless.  If you are crafty like a fox, I'm sure you could figure out some way to decoupage some pretty fabric or paper onto the container.  Get wild and crazy. 

So now, all you organized souls, go write this down in your binder labeled "Ideas for Christmas Gifts".  Because I know you have one. Don't try to deny it.   Enjoy!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Don't Let Perfect Be the Enemy of Good

"Don't let perfect be the enemy of good."

Such words of truth.  I have been chewing on these words, rolling them around in my mouth... and trying to figure out where I stand.

Here's the deal.  John and I have been brainstorming, throwing around ideas for how a small farm (micro-farm, if you will -we have 3 acres) like ours can best support itself by selling products.  Produce?  Honey?  Hogs?  Goats?  Meat chickens?  Eggs?  All of the above?

We have been researching, planning, scrapping ideas, going back to the drawing board... and each time we find ourselves letting perfect get in the way of good.  Inevitably, we keep finding ourselves drawn back to chickens and hogs, 2 creatures we have come to enjoy immensely. 


But here's the problem. Chickens and hogs, in order to grow to the size that people expect and in order to be financially viable, must eat corn or soybeans or both (well, I guess "must" is a strong word.  Hogs can be raised on pasture, vegetable/table scraps and milk.  Dairy farms and cheesemaking operations are the perfect candidates for raising hogs - the hogs will eagerly gobble up the leftover milk or whey from making cheese, and the proteins in the milk/whey will make them grow quickly).  This dependence on corn and soy creates a huge set of problems, along with moral, spiritual and ethical issues for John and I.  We want to be responsible stewards of God's creation, but things are far from simple. Let me explain.

First, almost all corn and soybeans grown in the US for animal feed are Genetically Modified.  We called around to the feed mills in our area and they told us all their animals feeds are GM (except Organic feed, which cost nearly twice as much).  Many GM seed patents belong to a giant corporations, such as Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont and Dow Chemical Company.  These companies personally go against everything I believe to good, pure and trustworthy. In my humble opinion,  GMO seeds are an abomination against nature - these are organisms that could never occur in naturally - they have to be created in a lab.  As Joel Salatin says, "Folks, this ain't normal."    However, if they want to develop GM seed and sell it, fine. I hate it, but I can't stop them.  But one of the major issues comes when one farmers GM plants pollinate another farmers non-GMO plants.  The farmer with the non-GMO plants can and often is accused of "stealing" patented seed.  These farmers end up being sued by giant corporations and losing their farms... for no reason other than happening to be downwind from another farmer's GMO plants.  I have a big problem with this.  If we buy conventional animal feed, we will be padding the pockets of this despicable system that preys on anyone who doesn't join their "club".  And yes, every time you buy non-organic pork, chicken or grain-fed beef, you are also supporting this system. 

Second, even if we do decide to give Monsanto and the like companies the finger and purchase organic feed instead (the only way to avoid GMOs), we still cannot escape the fact that we are directly causing massive amount of fossil fuels to be burned.  Organic systems are far from perfect.  Contrary to popular belief, simply "buying organic" is not going to save the world.  Fields still have to be tilled, planted, fertilized, and then harvested by diesel guzzling tractors.  Then the crop is transported to a grain elevator and ground up.   From there, it's packaged and sent to a feed store.  More fossil fuel, more pollution, more destruction.  We don't have enough land to grow our own crops, so we're stuck supporting this system.

Third, the way America farms commodity crops (such as corn and soybeans) is not sustainable.  It's a broken system reliant on exhaustible fossil fuels.  When oil prices spike (when, not if),  the system will slowly collapse and food prices will skyrocket.  Animal feed will become ridiculously expensive and farmers who raise hogs, chickens and grain-fed cattle will find themselves underwater.  With limited oil to run the tractors, there will be smaller harvests.  There will be less animal feed.  There will be less conventionally-raised chicken, pork and grain-fed beef.  America will be in an uproar over food prices and lack of availability.  We're already worried about being able to afford the cost of animal feed this year, due to the crippling droughts of 2012. 

John and I are considering these facts and don't know where to go from here.  In our opinion, the only sustainable meat option today is grass-fed beef.  Unlike hogs and chickens, which are omnivores, cattle are herbivores and thrive on a grass-only diet. Grass is a perennial that regrows each year by itself, unlike the annual crops of corn and soybeans that need to be planted each year (and fertilized and sprayed with herbicides).    Grass keeps growing  and the cows harvest it themselves by grazing.  Yes, we will still need to use tractors to cut hay for the cows to eat in the winter, for those of us living in northern states, but southern states could graze cows all year long. 

Unfortunately, we only own 3 acres, which is barely enough land to support 1-2 cows and we would have to buy hay because we don't own enough land to grow our own.  So, do we pursue raising hogs and chickens, these animals that are almost completely dependant on a broken, unsustainable system?  Do we overlook our moral and ethical objections to these problems?  Or, if we choose to feed our animals organic feed, will we be able to find any buyers willing to pay the higher price? Is this what it's like to be a farmer?  Wishing you could do what your heart feels is the right thing, but finding it nearly impossible to do it, because the very people that say you should farm the "right" way will start complaining the minute their food prices increase? 

Friends, WE the consumers are the problem.  We have been living in a world full of illusions, carefully constructed by the food industry.  We demanded more and farmers delivered.  These are intelligent, resourceful and hardworking people.    But in doing so, we forced the farmers to do things that make all of us uncomfortable.  We demanded cheap food, but it comes with great hidden costs.... and when these true costs are finally revealed, they will shake our foundations and change the world as we know it.  Now many of us are asking for "clean" food, but then complain when it costs more than conventionally grown food.  What is a farmer to do?  Grow clean food, but not be able to sell it because people say it's too expensive OR grow cheap food with toxic synthetic chemicals and then have people blame them for using them?  Geesh. They're damned if they do, and damned if they don't.

I wish I didn't have to think about these issues.  Many people dismiss me, and say that I'm being a pessimist, that I should just not think about these things so much. But I'm here to say that we don't have the luxury of NOT thinking about rising fuel costs, our broken food systems and it's effect on human, animal and environmental health.  We need to pull our heads out of the sand and admit there is a problem.  A huge problem.  And it won't resolve itself.  I look into my children's faces and sometimes want to weep thinking about the enormous debacle we have created for them to deal with.  We have selfishly sacrificed our children's future so that we could maintain our greedy, self-indulgent lifestyles.  This fact fills me with such shame, such regret that I live so carelessly, so flippantly. 

"We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children."
- Native American Proverb

I keep hearing these food experts (most likely working for Big Ag) saying that in order to keep "living life as we know it", we need to blah, blah, blah... (insert plug for how GM crops will save the world here).  And I want to scream at them "But we SHOULDN'T continue living life as we know it!  We are on a path to destruction and it will only get worse until we admit that "life as we know it" cannot continue.  We must change."  Life as we know it is bad.  Very bad, but most of us don't care to enough to pay attention - it's easier and much more fun to ignore the problem.  We're torturing animals, polluting the waterways, pumping the soil full of toxins, throwing away half of the food we produce because of lack of distribution systems and resulting spoilage, filling our bodies with genetically-engineered food, toxic synthetic chemicals and other modern food "inventions",  mindlessly filling the earth with trash (there is not such thing are throwing things "away" - away is just a place where someone else - our children - will have to deal with it later). We're sick, animals are sick, the earth is sick. Why in the world would we want to continue living this way?

So where do we start?  Boy, I wish I had the answer for that.  I suppose the first step to any sort of change is simply recognition- admitting there is a problem.  Asking questions and truthfully evaluating ourselves comes next.  Sometimes the truth is painful. 

Now, to get back to the point.  What do John and I do?  How are we to farm?  Do we stick to our moral, ethical and spiritual values?  Or do we end up having to sacrifice those values in order to make a profit?  How do we keep perfect from being the enemy of good? 

 As Jen Hatmaker says in her life-altering book "7: An Experimental Mutiny of Excess", " Do the best with what you know.  When you know more, adjust the  trajectory."  Even though we will not be able to raise our hogs and chickens "perfectly", we can at least comfort ourselves with the knowledge that we are providing a humane, comfortable existence for the animals in our care.  Our animals will be raised outdoors, with room to roam and engage in the very activities for which God created them.   We may not be able to solve the world's problems, and perhaps some of our choices will exacerbate those problems.  We are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  We are doing the best we can with the skills, knowledge and resources that we have available at this time.  And that will have to be good enough.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


This is what my counter has looked like for the last few days.  A bright ray of hope and light to brighten up the cold, dreary days of February. 
Yup, it's that time again folks.  Time to oogle over the seed catalogs, circling the promising-looking varieties, hemming and hawing about choices... and being filled with a sense of absolute delight and anticipation. 
We do this every year.  Every spring, we gardeners are filled with a ridiculous amount of enthusiasm and hope.  All our tomatoes died last year from blight?  No worries.  This is a new year, a new beginning.  Droughts last summer?  No biggie.  We'll be fine this year.  We gardeners are a hopelessly optimistic bunch.    I suppose we have to be, or we'd have given up long ago!

Last year, my garden was astonishingly successful, producing more than my wildest dreams.  By the time fall rolled around, the canning shelves in the basement were groaning under the weight of all the canned goods and we ended up having to buy another chest freezer to hold all the produce.  It almost made me feel like I knew what I was doing!  Almost...

If there is one thing I have learned about gardening over the years, it is this:  Gardening can be as simple or as complicated as you make it.    If I want to, I can take soil samples and have then analyzed by Michigan State University (I did), I can test the pH of my soil to determine optimal growing conditions (I did), amend the soil with compost (I did), analyse seed/plant spacing for increased production (I did), graph out garden beds (I did), orchestrate crop rotations so the same plants won't grow in the same beds year after year (I did),  and carefully record in detail when, where and how I started each seed in the garden (I did). 
Or, I could just walk around the garden and randomly stick seeds in the dirt and see what happens (I did that too). 
Gardening doesn't have to be so complicated, friends.  When you boil it down, gardening just is sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow.  The beauty and wonder of gardening is based on this simplicity.  As it says in my Seeds of Change catalog: 
"One of the most satisfying activities in the history of the world is the act of planting a seed in the ground, tending to that seed and eventually harvesting a vegetable that provides sustenance and happiness.  Plant a seeds and open wonder."
I am in my early 30's and I still feel a thrill course through my body when I watch a seed sprout.  It never gets old. Ever.  Watching something grow that you purposefully planted is a powerful moment.  My husband laughs as me when I come rushing into the house, breathless with excitement "The peas are sprouting!  My babies are coming to life!"  And yes, I do consider them all babies.  They are living, breathing beings, each one full of endless potential. 
Many people ask about my gardening plans, wondering if I plan everything out, make graphs, charts, etc.  The answer is yes and no.  Over the years, I have realized I have a unique brain (that's a nice way to say weird).  Part of me adores organized lists, charts, graphs, plans and notes.  I like things to be logical, sequential, orderly.  Then the other part of my brain, the artist side, thinks only in flowing lines, colors and shapes.  This part of my brain seeks beauty, balance and varieties of textures.  I was told these separate and distinct qualities made me a successful art teacher, able to handle both the creative and analytical sides of teaching.  And I think they also help me immensely as I plan and plant my garden.  In order to garden well, in my opinion, there must be a marriage of these two mindsets.  There needs to be form and function - not only should the garden be beautiful, but it should also be productive.  Of course, you can garden according to just form or just function, but what fun is that?  A garden should be a place of beauty and peace, somewhere you desire to linger...
and just be. It should nourish both your body and your soul.
So each spring, I draw up a graph of the garden and spend hours deciding what to grow in each bed.  There are many things to take into consideration, such as:
  •   What did I grow in that bed last year?  I don't want to grow another crop in the same "family" because they may harbor similar pests or diseases. 
  • Was the crop I grew last year in that bed a heavy feeder of nitrogen (or phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, etc.)?  If so, I need to amend that bed or grow a crop that requires less nitrogen, etc.
  • What other plants will be growing around this bed?  Will they attract pest insects to this crop? Or will they deter pest insects? 
I try my best to arrange the garden in a logical way, taking these things into consideration.... but sometimes I have to break the rules.  It's ok.  And if I decide to change something, no big deal.  Everything is written in pencil.  It's a flexible plan, a rough draft, if you will.

The next task I have is to figure out the timing of starting seeds.  Some plants need to be started from seed indoors and allowed to grow for a few weeks before being planted outside. Other plants can be "direct sowed", which means you simply walk out to the garden and plant the seed.  About half of my crops need to be started ahead of time and kept safely indoors until the danger of frost has passed.

 I ended up finding a 2013 calendar and using that as my guide.  First, I determined the Estimated Date of Last Spring Frost in lower West Michigan, which is April 30 to May 30.  I chose May 12 as my date and then counted the weeks backward to determine when I needed to start growing tomatoes, peppers, etc.  According to this, the first week of April is when I should start the majority of my warm season plants, as most should be grown for 6 weeks before being transplanted outside.  On this same calendar, I also determined when I should direct sow crops and how often.  I learned last year that I need to stagger my plantings of some crops so that they don't all mature at the same time and leave me with a fridge full of cucumbers or radishes. 

Then, of course, we need to buy seeds.  I've been known to drool over seed catalogs.  So many colors, so many options, so many wonderful crops to try!  I have a hard time narrowing down my choices, but after countless lists with lines scratched out, I finally have my picks.  As much as I love ordering seeds, I don't love the cost that goes along with it.  Last year I decided I was going to start buying as many Heirloom and open pollinated seeds as possible so that I could gradually start growing and saving my own seeds.  Many modern vegetable seeds are hybrids, which means they don't breed true.  If you try to save the seeds and plant them, you end up with the genetics of one of the parent plants, not the plant you were trying to reproduce.   
I also like to buy certified Organic seeds as much as possible.  In general, these plants have been bred to grow and thrive under organic growing conditions, not requiring pesticides to survive. 
Here are some seed companies that I like to buy from:
  • Seeds of Change - 100% Organic seeds
  • High Mowing Seed Company - 100% Organic seeds.  My favorite.   I feel they have the best prices and selection of Organic seeds.
  • Territorial Seed Company - wide selection of conventional and Organic seeds. 
  • Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds - not certified organic, but all seeds are heirloom/open pollinated, meaning you can save your own seeds to reuse year after year.  Their catalog is stunningly beautiful, like a fashion magazine for vegetables. If you are looking for rare or unusual seeds, look no further! Click on the link and scroll to the bottom and click on "Request Catalog". 
I also love to visit garden centers and check out the seed selections there.  I'm like a moth to a flame - there is no resisting those colorful displays of lovely seeds.  So many possibilities!!!  My favorite store in West Michigan for seeds is Fruit Basket Flowerland.  They have a great selection of conventional and Organic seeds.  They also sell seed potatoes, onion sets and flower bulbs.  Be sure to stop by!
Are you busy planning your garden too?  What are you going to grow this year?  Where do you like to purchase your seeds?