Monday, January 31, 2011

Tomato sauce

One of the harvests from the veggie patch is a mix of Italian plum and Italian beefsteak tomatoes. I had to share the harvest with birds and mice. It's rather nice not feeling angry as a bulbul munches happily on one of my juicy ripe tomatoes especially considering the harvest wasn't that great. I rather enjoyed watching him and felt good that my garden is a source of healthy unsprayed fruit and veg.

There is no set recipe for my tomato sauce but it goes something like this:

Saute a very large chopped onion in some olive oil, with three or four freshly picked bay leaves. You want to get the flavour of the bay leaves into the olive oil.
Add a kilogram or so of fresh tomatoes. I don't even cut them, they will break down. Simmer very gently until the watery tomato juice has reduced by half. Now add several whole cloves of garlic.
Pop into the garden and pick some fresh basil and some fresh oregano or marjoram. Add as much as you fancy to the mix. Add about 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, some khoisan sea salt, black pepper and some organic brown sugar to taste. Not too much sugar!
Reduce the whole lot a bit more until it is no longer watery. Rub through a sieve, or do it the lazy way like me and use a machine. I use my Bosch which has an attachment for this purpose - at least it works very well.
This sauce smells so good while it cooks that you'll want to cancel all dinner plans and make pasta instead. I'm going to freeze mine to enjoy with guests next month.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Plastics in the ocean

All photos (except where noted) courtesy of Paul Joyce,
Sea Education Association

Plastics in Our Oceans

by Kimberly Amaral
Strolling through the average supermarket, shoppers find literally hundreds (if not thousands) of items to make their lives easier. Individually wrapped snack cakes, plastic baggies to store sandwiches for lunch, unbreakable soda bottles, and disposable razors, diapers, and shampoo bottles. Unless specifically requested, even the bags we use to carry home our goods are often plastic.
To humans, these are items of comfort, if not necessity. But to marine animals, they can be a floating minefield.
Photo by K. Amaral
Plastic--whether it be for a container, a wrapper, or the product itself--has become an everyday part of our lives. This isn't necessarily a bad thing--plastic is also the material diabetics use for their disposable syringes; arthritic patients have for their replaced hips; and construction workers wear to protect their heads.
But when plastic reaches our waters, whether it be plastic bags or drifting fish nets, it poses a threat to the animals that depend on the oceans for food. To a sea turtle, a floating plastic bag looks like a jellyfish. And plastic pellets--the small hard pieces of plastic from which plastic products are made--look like fish eggs to seabirds. Drifting nets entangle birds, fish and mammals, making it difficult, if not impossible to move or eat. As our consumption of plastic mounts, so too does the danger to marine life.
Before the days of plastic, when fishermen dumped their trash overboard or lost a net, it consisted of natural materials--metal, cloth or paper that would either sink to the bottom or biodegrade quickly. But plastic remains floating on the surface, the same place where many genuine food sources lie--and can remain so for 400 years. Plastic is durable and strong--precisely the qualities that make it so dangerous if it reaches the ocean.

It can get there from here

But how would a syringe that a diabetic uses make it into the ocean? If plastic objects make it into the main sewer system (say, by being flushed down the toilet, or carried by the rain into a street drain), and the water treatment plants are overwhelmed by excessive rain, then those floating objects can float right out to sea. This is precisely what happened on the New York and New Jersey beaches in 1988, when medical waste was floating up onshore. After an unusually dry spring, litter began accumulating on the streets and in storm sewers. When heavy rains arrived in mid-summer, they swept the streets clean and overloaded combined sewers. After floating out to sea, the debris was blown back onto the shores.
In a more direct route, boaters may dump their trash right into the sea. In the past, this has been the main cause of plastics in the ocean. In 1975, the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 14 billion pounds of garbage was being dumped into the ocean every year. That's more than 1.5 million pounds per hour. More than 85% of this trash was estimated to come from the world's merchant shipping fleet in the form of cargo-associated wastes. According to the Academy, the United States could be the source of approximately one third of this ocean pollution.
Fortunately, since the last day of 1988, it has been illegal for ships to dump plastics into the ocean. But that law is difficult to enforce, and cannot account for the thousands of miles of driftnets and other gear set by fishermen, which can ensnare and kill birds diving for the fish below, or come loose, only to be discovered later by an unfortunate humpback whale.

It's a great big world out there

Anyone who's been on a boat far from the sight of land will tell you how enormous the ocean feels. Wouldn't this debris simply get dispersed, virtually eliminating the possibility of an encounter with a marine animal? The answer is no. While the ocean does disperse the trash, it also runs in currents, which can keep the floating trash traveling constantly in "gyres," concentrating it in areas where currents meet. The largest of these movements, is called the central gyre. It moves in a clockwise circular pattern, moving inside the Gulf Stream, and dominates the western North Atlantic. Studies begun in 1984 have tracked how these currents keep plastics migrating, with heavy concentrations in the northern Sargasso Sea (coincidentally, a favorite spawning place for fish). The Northeast United States, "upstream" of the central gyre, has currents that keep most of the locally generated marine debris local. Usually the only ways to escape this constant circular pattern is if the plastic decays enough to sink, or lands onshore to be (hopefully) picked up by a passer-by.
And apparently, the ocean isn't large enough to avoid marine life encounters with debris. Plastic's devastating effect on marine mammals was first observed in the late 1970s, when scientists from the National Marine Mammal Laboratory concluded that plastic entanglement was killing up to 40,000 seals a year. Annually, this amounted to a four to six percent drop in seal population beginning in 1976. In 30 years, a 50% decline in Northern Fur Seals has been reported.
Elephant seal entangled in fishing line. Photo by John Domont.
Courtesy of the Center for Marine Conservation.

These curious, playful seals would often play with fragments of plastic netting or packing straps, catching their necks in the webbing. The plastic harness can constrict the seal's movements, killing the seal through starvation, exhaustion, or infection from deep wounds caused by the tightening material. While diving for food, both seals and whales can get caught in translucent nets and drown. In the fall of 1982, a humpback whale tangled in 50 to 100 feet of net washed up on a Cape Cod beach. It was starving and its ribs were showing. It died within a couple of hours.
Along Florida's coasts, brown pelicans diving for fish sometimes dive for the bait on a fisherman's line. Cutting the bird loose only makes the problem worse, as the pelican gets its wings and feet tangled in the line, or gets snagged onto a tree.
Plastic soda rings, "baggies," styrofoam particles and plastic pellets are often mistaken by sea turtles as authentic food. Clogging their intestines, and missing out on vital nutrients, the turtles starve to death. Seabirds undergo a similar ordeal, mistaking the pellets for fish eggs, small crab and other prey, sometimes even feeding the pellets to their young. Despite the fact that only 0.05% of plastic pieces from surface waters are pellets, they comprise about 70% of the plastic eaten by seabirds. These small plastic particles have been found in the stomachs of 63 of the world's approximately 250 species of seabirds.
Wildlife is not the only area to suffer from the effects of marine debris. Plastic bags are the leading external cause of marine engine damage in Massachusetts. Other plastic items foul propellers and interfere with fishing tackle.

What's being done about plastics

In 1987, a law was finally passed restricting the dumping of plastics into the ocean. The Marine Plastic Pollution Research and Control Act (MARPOL) went into effect on December 31, 1988, making it illegal for any U.S. vessel or land-based operation to dispose of plastics at sea. It is part of an international treaty, where countries representing at least half of the shipping fleet tonnage in the world agreed to Annex V of the treaty, preventing "pollution by garbage from ships." It prohibits the dumping of plastics anywhere in the ocean, and the dumping of other materials, such as paper, glass, metal, and crockery, closer to shore.
The plastics industry has also stepped in, taking measures to reclaim plastic resin pellets that often get lost during production or transport. The Society of the Plastic Industry has produced many public service ads for trade magazines, and was a strong supporter of MARPOL Annex V.
Plastics manufacturers are also investigating ways to create "degradable" plastics. Although all materials eventually break down, a plastic soda ring can take up to 400 years to biodegrade. So researchers are working with two types of degradable plastics: photodegradable and biodegradable.
Photodegradable plastics are made to become weak and brittle when exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods. At least 16 states--Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island included--have passed laws requiring six-pack holders be biodegradable (these are marked by a small diamond between the rings).
Biodegradable plastics are made with cornstarch, so bacteria and other organisms eat away at the plastic, breaking it up into smaller pieces. Neither of these methods, however, solve the problem of plastic in the oceans, since they are only broken up into smaller pieces--creating an even more dangerous situation for animals that mistake smaller plastic pieces for food.
Perhaps the most effective method right now for solving the persistent plastic problem is beach cleaning. Coastal cleanups gather volunteers to collect trash that has washed up on the beach--or has been left by beachgoers to be carried out by the surf--and removed it from the marine cycle.
The Center for Marine Conservation has been coordinating coastal cleanups since 1986. (The first nationwide cleanup took place in 1988, just four months before the MARPOL treaty took effect. Canada and Mexico joined in on the act in 1989.) The CMC also keeps careful track of all the debris that is collected. Data cards list 85 debris items in eight categories: plastic, styrofoam, glass, rubber, metal, paper, wood and cloth. During the 1993 coastal cleanup, over 3.1 million pounds of trash was collected--more than half of that was plastic.
The CMC also divides their data into debris found, listing the "dirty dozen"--twelve items found most frequently:

    1) cigarette butts 2) paper pieces 3) plastic pieces 4) styrofoam 5) glass pieces 6) plastic food bags 7) plastic caps and lids 8) metal beverage cans 9) plastic straws 10) glass beverage bottles 11) plastic beverage bottles 12) styrofoam cups
Debris that can be traced to recreational fishing and boating, galley-type wastes, and cruise ship debris all declined in 1993--perhaps a glimmer of hope resulting from the MARPOL treaty. The laws, enforced by the Coast Guard in the United States, are difficult to monitor. Instead, they rely heavily on an educational campaign, bringing about "voluntary compliance through awareness."
There is still much debris floating around our seas and endangering marine animals. But as more laws are passed, and as more people become involved in projects like beach clean-ups, perhaps the only plastic will be in our supermarkets.

What you can do

1) Look for alternative materials or avoid excessive packaging when deciding on purchases. Use paper bags, milk and juice in cardboard, and cloth diapers. Insist on paper bags and glass bottles.
2) Recycle. Many communities currently offer pick-up recycling programs for #1 and #2 plastics. Other forms of plastic may be accepted by a local recycling business. If your community doesn't have a recycling program, contact your city or town hall to request one.
3) Educate others about the problem of marine debris, enhancing "voluntary compliance through awareness."
4) Get involved. Locate or start a coastal cleanup in your area.

For Further Reading:
    Campbell, Lee Anne. "Plastics Are Forever." Nor'easter. Fall 1989. Weisskopf, Michael. "Plastic reaps a grim harvest in the oceans of the world." Smithsonian. March 1988. R. Jude Wilber. "Plastic in the North Atlantic." Oceanus. Fall 1987. O'Hara, Kathryn J., Suzanne Iudicello, and Rose Bierce. "A Citizens Guide to Plastics in the Ocean: More Than a Litter Problem." Washington, D.C.: Center for Marine Conservation, 1988.

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  • Monday, January 17, 2011


    This beautiful dragonfly is the same blue as agapanthus when in flight. I have a small pond with two koi, which is surrounded by mini agapanthus and the dragonfly loves it there. It is a delight to see it visit this part of the garden which was created to be a very peaceful nook for contemplation..... Luckily it can be observed from the deck above too.

    Saturday, January 15, 2011

    Herbs for bees

    Most of us have probably not spent too much time observing insect life. Since I have been alerted to the bee crisis in the world, I have taken the trouble to observe more, which plants seem to attract bees. Here are some of them:
    The bees were working hard in the lavender this morning. Makes me want to plant even more!
    Chicory flowers are very popular with bees. I let my chicory self seed and it comes up all over the place. The leaves would not be too popular with most people because of their bitterness, but a small amount added to a salad really makes the salad much more interesting, and is good for the liver at the same time.
    Evening primrose

    Evening primrose flowers are absolutely loaded with pollen, and attract night flying insects more than those that fly in the day, because they bloom at night. But this morning I took this picture as the bloom was starting to fade. Exquisite! Other herbs that attract bees are thyme, basil, clary sage and sage, marjoram, oregano, melissa and many of the mints. There are many more, but this is a start! 

    Friday, January 7, 2011

    Oats and sunflower seed loaf

    After the intensity of my last posting, here is some light relief in the form of a new recipe I developed for a loaf that turned out to be moist, of lovely texture and healthy, especially for those with high cholesterol.

    Oat and Sunflower Seed Loaf

    Baking bread is an intensly satisfying and grounding activity. It has (in my view) another element to it, and that is liberating one from the monopoly of bread providers in general, and taking a step towards independence. So many of the world's practices involve one's dependence and it is extremely difficult to break away from many of them. Apart from that, most commercial bread is full of additives which are blatantly unhealthy for one. Even the "healthiest" seed loaves are loaded with chemicals. Bread is such an important food for busy households, but is the source of daily toxins for the majority of growing children.

    I prefer to buy food where there is no label to read. If it needs a label ( such as baked goods), I rather make my own. This bread's "label" only has a few ingredients, and they are all recognisable.


    One and a half cups of (organic) oats soaked in 2 cups of boiling water until the mixture is cool
    1 kg stone ground brown flour
    Half a cup of (organic) sunflower seeds
    1 sachet instant yeast
    2 teaspoons sea salt ( I use Khoisan)
    1 free range egg
    One and a half cups of luke warm water.
    2 tablespoons olive oil


    Place the flour and sunflower seeds in a mixing bowl and add the salt and dried yeast. Mix thoroughly. Make a well in the centre, and add the cooled oats, egg, olive oil and water. Sometimes one needs a bit more water depending on the flour used, but only add a little at a time. Mix well into a nice dough. (I use a machine to do this and knead for 5 minutes). If you knead by hand, you will have to knead for quite a while until your dough has an even distribution of small bubbles in it, and is no longer sticky, but smooth and elastic. Allow the dough to rise for at least an hour in a warm place, or until it has risen to double its size.

    Punch the dough down and knead it briefly. Divide it into two and shape it into loaves. You can either place the shaped loaves on a baking tray lined with baking paper or in baking pans which have been greased. I have two non stick baking tins and I merely flour the loaves very well, and don't need to grease the tins.

    Allow the loaves to rise again until about double in size and bake in a very hot oven  200 deg c for about 30 - 35 minutes.

    PS. I add the egg and olive oil because I find it improves the texture. The bread keeps very well for a week wrapped in a cloth. You can also keep it in the fridge. I freeze one loaf so that I don't have to bake every week. ENJOY!