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Earth Day Reevaluation

Sheila JulsonSpring is a time of rebirth and renewal, and April welcomes an unofficial holiday that really makes me want to take stock and start fresh — Earth Day. During this time, I take stock of sustainable lifestyle choices that I’m proud of and also look for ways to improve.

At the beginning of the year, my household made it a priority to further reduce plastic waste. (A Google search of “Are plastics really being recycled?” turns up countless articles about how some plastics, especially #3 through #7, are not.) While it’s difficult to avoid all plastic in today’s world, in the spirit of Earth Day, I figured that now would be the ideal time to take stock of what has worked well for my family over time to reduce plastic use, how we’re succeeding, and in what areas we can improve:

Things we’ve eliminated/reduced:

Shampoo bottles: I gradually switched from commercial shampoos to homemade liquid shampoo crafted from castile soap and essential oils. But even castile soap is sold in a plastic bottle. I went a step further and found a locally made, small-batch artisan bar shampoo, packaged in nothing but a biodegradable paper wrapper. It has that luxurious lather, as well as a pleasant scent and no harmful added chemicals.

Condiment bottles: For a minimal time investment of making our own condiments, we’ve not only created tastier, healthier foods, but we’ve also reduced excess plastic bottles. Our homemade barbecue sauce, salad dressing, jams, salsa and more are stored in Mason jars or repurposed glass jars.

Plastic wrap/food storage bags: I think we’ve all fought with plastic wrap and have either ended up with a wadded useless clump, or with bandaged fingers from that wicked serrated metal edge on the box. I also can’t help but wonder how many single-use food storage bags and discarded plastic wrap is clogging the earth. We reuse grocery produce bags or wrappers that tortilla shells are packaged in as our “baggies”. We also cover a half-eaten bowls of leftovers with a saucers or plates, thus saving money and plastic waste.

Beverage bottles: We have gone years without buying bottled water, but the occasional iced tea or other plastic beverage bottle occasionally made it into the home.  No more — we now brew large pots of fresh tea and pour it into a pitcher over ice, which we then pour into stainless steel travel bottles for work or on the go. We can also sweeten the beverages to our liking.

Plastic Grocery Bags: No explanation necessary; single-use plastic grocery bags are generally bad news. They have some rare uses, but like any convenience item, they’ve flooded landfills and waterways to excess. There has been one stuck in our neighbor’s tree for months, flapping in the breeze when we walk by as if giving the middle finger to Earth and all who care about it.  We don’t leave home without our reusable canvas or cloth totes.


Garbage bags: My grandmother had always used paper grocery bags as trashcan liners, and we thought we could do the same. We have a compost bin, but that is fairly full and will be so until we Wisconsinites get some mild weather and I can empty the compost bin into the garden (and not all refuse can go into a compost bin). Our garbage got a bit sloppy during the paper bag experiment, and sometimes it overflowed while trying to close the bag and secure it shut with twine, like grandma used to do. So we’re back to commercial garbage bags until we decide to try again or come up with a different idea.

Some Toiletries: I’m not sure how to avoid the plastic packaging of things like dental floss or deodorant. I have yet to find spools of floss sold in cardboard packaging. I tried making my own natural deodorant — that didn’t work so well.

What plastic reducing tips do you have? If any readers have suggestions for how to turn my Earth Day failures into successes, please share! 

Switching back to bar soap is one of many ways to reduce plastic waste. 


Hearty Healthy Soup Reminds Us Spring is On the Way

Sheila JulsonThis healthy soup is loaded with healthy spring veggies.

My windowsill is lined with seedlings sprouting their little green tops from pockets of soil. Just above the seedlings, my window frames a picture the Wisconsin winterscape, which can be impressive in December, but it gets rather gray and dreary by the end of February. I’m over it, and I want to think Spring.

To combat the late winter chill and think Spring, I whip up a pot of soup that has some of the best spring/early summer ingredients — spinach, leeks, and broccoli — all loaded with cold-fighting, energy-boosting vitamins, antioxidants, and fiber that provide the perfect energetic pick-me-up to get through winter’s final blast.

I bought some fine organic spinach and broccoli from a local co-op, and as I prepped my vegetables for the soup, I looked at my seedlings on the windowsill and took comfort in the fact that it wouldn’t be long before I would be pulling spinach, broccoli, and leeks from the dirt in my own backyard.

Spring Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 leeks, thinly sliced
1 garlic clove, minced
12 oz. fresh broccoli florets
1 large russet potato, peeled and diced
4 cups vegetable broth
8 oz. fresh spinach leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Shredded cheese or sour cream for garnish

In a soup pot, warm olive oil and sauté leeks and garlic over medium heat 5 minutes. Stir in broccoli and potato and cook for about a minute. Add vegetable broth. Turn up heat and bring mixture to a boil; boil for about 10 minutes or until broccoli and potatoes are tender, but not too soft.

Remove from heat and stir in spinach. Working in batches, blend mixture in a blender or food processor until smooth. (The ideal consistency is similar to cream of broccoli.)

Return mixture to clean soup pot and reheat, if needed. Season with salt and pepper.  Ladle into bowls and garnish each serving with a dollop of sour cream or shredded cheese, if desired. As I admire this fine spinach purchased by my local co-op, I take comfort that I will soon be pulling spinach from my own backyard.

Herbin' It Up

Sheila JulsonWe’ve had a freakishly mild fall here in Wisconsin — can’t say if that’s good or bad. Despite my climate change concerns, I enjoyed taking advantage of a longer than usual growing season, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I rescued the last of my herbs from an upcoming cold front that by now has blasted its way through the Great Lakes region.

I’ll have fresh sage just in time for Thanksgiving cooking. I’ll also dry some out to use throughout winter. I rarely buy basic dried herbs from grocery store spice department anymore, since they’re so easy-peasy to grow and use, fresh or dried.

Except for basil. That’s one herb that when I try to grow from seed, has stymied me for years. Pre-purchased plants seem to do okay, but my basil starts from seeds grow so ridiculously slow that my husband and I coined the term “basil-ing it” to describe anything that takes a long time. But more on basil later.

Since early October, I’ve dried dill, rosemary, sage, lavender, parsley and thyme, as well as Thai chili peppers to crush into pepper flakes to sprinkle on pizza. For the herbs, just pick a cluster, tie the end of the stalks with baker’s twine, and hang upside down from just about anywhere there’s room. I’ve already dried herbs from the ends of kitchen curtain rods, plant hangers, and hallway coat hooks.

Once the herbs are hanging to dry, you can forget them for a few days, but don’t let them stray too far off the radar because it’s possible for herbs to get too dry (too brown, they lose flavor and become compost). It’s best if the herbs retain a slight green tone, but still crumble when rubbed between your fingers.

Now about that basil. When my outdoor and indoor basil plants are spent, I buy living basil grown by a local aquaponics/hydroponics business. The live basil plant is rooted in water and is usually good for two to three cuttings. Someday I might try growing basil the aquaponics way and I'll be sure to share the story if I'm successful.

Back to herb drying. For small hot peppers, I just leave them in a bowl until they’re shriveled. At this point, they’ll usually break into pieces. If not, use kitchen shears to cut them into smaller pieces. Use a mortar and pestle and smash away the pieces until they’re reduced to flakes.

To bring out the oils in herbs, I crush most of them with the trusty mortar and pestle. To store the herbs, I reuse jars from previous spice purchases, small sampler-sized jam jars, or even baby food jars. A friend recently gave me some baby food jars, and they’re the perfect size for storing in a spice cabinet. You can also poke holes in the lid if you want a shaker-style jar. To protect the herbs when not in use, cut a small circle from a piece of cardboard (approximately the size of the jar lid) and pop it underneath the lid to block the holes.

Herbs can go bad. They can lose their punch, or even smell mildewy if there’s still a bit of moisture in the leaves if they were crushed too soon. I usually make sure the jars are dry and just crush a small amount at a time—no more than one-third cup of each—which usually gets me through winter cooking and baking. Placing a single penne or rigatoni pasta noodle in each jar can help absorb moisture.

As for the lavender, I use that precious plant primarily for steeping in herbal tea varieties, or for one of my winter hot toddies: stayed tuned for my upcoming post about those.

And if anyone has any indoor winter basil growing tips, please share!

Fresh herbs to dry and store.

Homemade Condiments Offer Better Quality, Less Plastic Waste

Sheila JulsonFor years, I’ve made my own salad dressing. I started with simple vinaigrettes and branched out to ranch, vegetarian Caesar salad, and Thousand Island. I serve and store the dressings in my rustic corked-topped salad dressing bottles, which not only impress guests, but also keep a few glass and plastic bottles out of the recycling bin. (Is all of that plastic really getting recycled?)

My household progressed to homemade enchilada sauce and savory-seasoning blends created from our own spice cabinet, guaranteeing that our condiments are free from partially hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, and any other synthetic concoctions that had been slipped into our commercial foods over the last 60 years.

But there were some crucial condiments I had ignored, and the reality stared me in the face as I grabbed our household recycling bin to take outside for pickup. An empty plastic mayonnaise jar sat at the top, razzing me with its label that had the words “partially hydrogenated soybean oil” tucked away in the fine print – just like a credit card statement that hides all the nasty details.

I cursed the fact that we let our guard down and vowed to research homemade mayonnaise recipes. It was a process that frightened me, as I remembered the one and only time I tried to make homemade mayonnaise. I was a teenager, and I tried making mayonnaise with the commercial corn oil we happened to have in the house.

homemade mayonnaise 

After I discarded the mayonnaise jar, my husband Doug and I ran out to pick up a few groceries. Knowing that we were going to grill out that evening, he wanted barbecue sauce. After examining almost every brand on the shelf, all of the labels revealed high-fructose corn syrup as a top ingredient. I also thought of all those plastic bottles and where they really ended up after use. We left without purchasing barbecue sauce, another condiment I knew we could make ourselves.

The homemade barbecue sauce was so easy that I’m embarrassed I hadn’t tried it sooner. Most recipes I found called for a base of 15 ounces unseasoned tomato sauce, 1/2 cup vinegar (I used apple cider), and 1/4 cup each of honey, tomato paste and molasses. Worchester sauce, liquid smoke, paprika, garlic powder, pepper and onion powder are added according to taste. I threw in a pinch of chipotle powder to my batch. Whisk all ingredients together in a saucepan and simmer over medium heat for 20 minutes or until thickened.

My batch filled three pint-sized Mason jars. Doug claims it’s the best barbecue sauce he’s ever tasted.

homemade barbecue sauce 

The mayonnaise was a little trickier. Proper emulsion seems to be the key, so no wonder why my teen experiment – mixing by hand homemade mayonnaise with heavy oil –resulted in a gloppy paste not fit for man or beast.

Most oils are too thick to use for homemade mayonnaise. My successful batches of homemade mayonnaise involved light oils – canola, sunflower or safflower. Sunflower leaves a pleasant nutty taste, but it can be expensive.

Whisk 1 egg in a deep bowl (you’ll find out why a deep bowl is needed) with 1/4 cup canola (or sunflower or safflower) oil. Add 1 teaspoon ground mustard and a dash each of black pepper and paprika. Whisk again. Using an immersion blender, slowly add 1 additional cup of oil, a couple teaspoons at a time, while blending. This is where it can get messy if your bowl is too shallow. The splash factor is high, especially with my old immersion blender.

Once all the oil is blended in, manually stir in about 3 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar. Refrigerate in a reusable container.

Homemade Croutons Save Bread Waste

Sheila JulsonOne of my favorite literary classics is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. In the novel, protagonist Francie Nolan describes how her mother would save money by purchasing day-old dried bread from the bakery and give the loaves new life by pouring water over them. I had also seen that trick on Rachel Ray’s show. The guest ran baguette loaves under a faucet of rushing water (a luxury that Francie Nolan and her family didn’t have in their New York tenement in the 1900s), and then she popped the wet loaves into a warm oven for a few minutes to soften the bread, making it edible again.

My family devours homemade and artisan bakery breads – baguettes, ciabatta, multigrain – but there are usually leftovers. The water trick is one option to revive crusty leftover bread; another is grating the brick-like heel into breadcrumbs. But one of my favorites is making croutons, especially with the spring salad season approaching.

Preheat the oven to 350 F and line two baking pans with parchment paper. Slice (or saw) any leftover bread into cubes about the size of dice. I use almost any type of bread. When you have about 2 cups of cubes, put them in a large bowl with enough room to stir without the cubes spilling out like dice on a Las Vegas craps table.

In a separate bowl, whisk about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and an Italian seasoning blend. I make my own with equal parts of the following dried herbs: oregano, basil, garlic powder, onion powder, rosemary and thyme.

Drizzle the oil mixture over the bread cubes and toss to coat them evenly. Dump the oiled cubes onto the prepared pans and bake for about 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes, until you achieve your desired crunch level. Store in a loosely covered container, or in a leftover bag from the bread.

Cubes of leftover bread can be tossed in seasoned oil and toasted to make croutons. 

Cubes of leftover bread can be tossed in seasoned oil and toasted to make croutons.

Winter Skin Care

Sheila JulsonI’m not one of those New Year’s resolutions people, but I do like to begin each year as a time of reflection, to build off past successes and to learn from previous mistakes. To set new goals and to build upon my values of caring for community, environment, family and for myself.

So during this brutal snap of cold weather Wisconsin is experiencing, the care starts with eco-friendly skin treatment. As long as I’m reflecting on years gone by and what’s yet to come, I’m proud to say that with time comes awareness.

In my 20s and early 30s, my bathroom was stocked with almost every fruity, flowery scented skin and hair care product available. But it wasn’t until later into adulthood that I started to question why pure lavender essential oil is clear, but the lavender-scented body wash I used was tinted deep purple. And really, how can a large corporation succeed in trapping the fresh scent of the ocean into a bottle?

The answers were in the paragraph-long lists of unpronounceable ingredients on the back labels. I gradually learned to screen those marketing gimmicks aimed to sell skin care products chock full of synthetic scents and artificial colors that can actually dry the skin (to sell more lotion?) and cause sensitivities.

These days, I’m a minimalist when it comes to body care products, and many ingredients right in my own kitchen provide nourishment for not only the inner body, but also for the outside. Pure coconut oil makes an excellent moisturizer. Just dab a little right from the jar and blend into any dry areas on the skin. I use it around my eyes, on my legs after shaving, and on my hands. Coconut oil has immensely helped soothe my dry skin during winter.

Olive oil also works well. It’s a little more greasy than coconut oil, so just swipe a tiny bit from the lid of the bottle and massage it under the eyes or on the back of the hands.

A raw whipped egg mixed with 1 teaspoon olive oil works great to moisturize dry hair. Just massage the mixture into damp hair after a shampoo, let it sit about 20 minutes, and rinse clean. I’ve been doing this since my teens, which garnered a lighthearted mocking of “egghead” from my mom.

Nourish the hair and scalp with ingredients found right in your own kitchen. 

Liquid Castile soap can be a base for just about anything – body wash, shampoo, hand soap and more. It is mild and won’t dry the skin and scalp like some commercial soaps. I like to reuse empty shampoo or pump bottles by filling them with liquid Castile soap, adding a couple tablespoons distilled water, and several drops of your favorite essential oil.

I have also used unscented dish soap in the bathroom hand soap dispenser. Again, just add a little essential oil to produce the scent you desire.

Soap is often just soap, regardless if it’s packaged specifically for the hair, hands, or as a body wash. With time also comes more clever corporate marketing. But these days when I walk through the health and beauty sections of larger stores, I wrinkle my nose at the harsh scents wafting from the purple “lavender” shower gel or the bright blue “ocean” scented body spray.

DIY Drink Gifts

Sheila JulsonI’ve always seen shopping as a chore, and I had never really been one of those women who sees a day at the mall as a fun outing. As an advocate of buying local, I like walking around the older urban neighborhoods in my city and stopping at the small mom-and-pop shops. But I even tire quickly of that, so I just end up grabbing a cup of java from a coffee shop and calling it a day.

So when Christmas rolls around, my family and I like exchange homemade gifts. Everyone in the family has a unique talent. After sewing and crafting tote bags, trinkets, and ornaments for people, I’ve moved on to foodie gifts, which always go over well.

Yet after a few years of giving homemade goodies – the dry cookie mix in a decorative Mason jar, homemade tea breads, candies, spices that I blended myself – I started running out of ideas even for yummy treats. After a late-night brainstorming session, I thought drinks instead of eats would be the way to go this year.

Since I started experimenting over the fall season with raw tea blends made from bulk herbs available at my local co-op, I decided that everybody’s getting tea this year. I researched more flavors and the health benefits of some of the most popular herbs. Equal parts raw chamomile and lavender can be blended into a calming tea. I’ve noticed that after a cup, I feel any stress melt away. Spearmint just by itself makes a great relaxing tea, but try adding ginger and fennel to give the digestive system a boost. Rose hips, lemongrass and lemon zest (dried) makes a tasty citrus variety, and rose hips have vitamin C to help combat winter colds. With a little research, you can make endless combinations customized to your taste. One tablespoon of tea blend per one cup of hot water makes a hearty cup of tea on a cold winter's night.

Various raw herbs can be blended into tasty teas.

Various raw herbs can be blended into tasty teas.

For chocolate lovers, I made a gourmet hot chocolate mix by simply blending three parts sugar to two parts unsweetened cocoa powder (like the kind you’d use for baking). Then add a dash of cinnamon. My two excellent sources for cocoa are Penzeys Spices and fair trade chocolate experts Omanhene Cocoa Bean Co.

I packaged my teas and hot chocolate mixes in half-pint Mason jars (is there anything those jars aren’t good for?) and prettied them up with fabric, ribbon and stickers. The beverage gifts were a hit with the people we’ve exchanged presents with so far this season, and the cost was very economical.

I’m already brainstorming next year’s foodie gifts. Happy Holidays!

Put your herbal tea or hot chocolate mixes into decorated Mason jars to present as gifts.

Put your herbal tea or hot chocolate mixes into decorated Mason jars to present as gifts.

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