Archive | March, 2011

Sing Out!

21 Mar
I wasn’t going to post this just yet, but I’ve got ants in my pants and a full week of unrelenting busy-ness to look forward to. So I shot a couple low quality videos of solo songs I’ve been working on, just to give you a taste. I’m hoping to get some better quality audio recordings done soon.
First, I have some older recordings from the Good Coffeehouse on October 29th, 2010, where my dad, Ralph Litwin, invited me to the stage and I played these three songs:
Next, we have a couple new songs I’ve been working on that I shot in one go last night:
Sugar in My Bowl
Down on Me
I hope you enjoy them!

Cast Off Your Shackles!

21 Mar
Myth #1: People who don’t shampoo their hair on a regular basis are dirty and gross.
Myth #2: Shampooing is a good and healthy thing to do for your hair.
Myth #3: You should shampoo every time you shower.
Fooey! Look at me; I’m going on 8 months without shampooing my hair. Notice how lovely my hair looks:
Hair care is maybe a little astray from my blog mission statement, but none of my current projects are ready for publishing, and I’m just chomping at the bit to write something. So here I am, spreading the gospel of hair care au natural.
My hair has never been healthier! No dandruff, no split ends. Instead of dull and dry, it’s shiny and lustrous. This is starting to sound like a commercial. But you know what you need to buy? Flippin’ nothing!
Last spring I went to a fancy salon for a haircut from a very rude hairdresser who was completely appalled by how dry my hair was and what awful split ends I had. She told me that by no means should I wash my hair more than twice a week. But who can keep track of that? I can never remember when the last time I washed my hair was, so I started just waiting until the grease buildup got unbearably unattractive, and then I’d wash it. Before I knew it, days between washings turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, and soon, months will turn into years. 
Now, there will be an initial withdrawl. You might want to wash your hair, but if you put it in a braid or wear a hat on those days you can hasten yourself over that hump.
I recommend combing your hair with a wide tooth comb every time you shower. It helps to carry the natural oils your scalp produces down to the ends of your hair as well as providing some good, old-fashioned scalp stimulation. Another good tool for evenly distributing your God-given oils is a boar-bristle brush:
This one has intermittent plastic bristles to increase its detangling power.
Just don’t use it on tangled hair; it isn’t good at detangling and it will probably just cause breakage. And no one wants that.
Unfortunately, if you use hair products like gel or hairspray and just can’t give them up, you have trapped yourself in a freaky circle of consumerism and hair pain. And to you, I can only hope that someday you can find the strength to win back your hair from the corporate machine.


Cast off your shackles, my friends. Be free from the tyranny of shampoo!


Behind the Scenes

17 Mar
Who am I to preach about making everything for yourself when here I am, broadcasting over a pre-made blog template. Now, I’m no computer whiz, but the least I could do is give this place a little something of my own, right? I thought so, too.
It started with a sketch:
 When dealing with a background, fabric design, or any sort of image meant to be repeated over a continuous surface, getting your image to tile seamlessly is the most important and most difficult task. I went for a fail-safe gridded design to save myself the agony this time around.
I overlaid my sketch with (conveniently translucent) marker paper and began to fill it in with my very favorite artist/designer markers, Letraset Promarkers (the recent reincarnation of my old standby, the Letraset Pantone Tria) and Koh-I-Noor Rapidograph pens (Pigma Microns are good too, if you’re not in it for the investment).
Finished Drawing

Scan it in, straighten it up, crop it just so (if you don’t have an editing program, Picnik has a decent, free, online image editing program), upload it, and voilĂ ! Homemade web page background.


10 Mar
Now, if you’re hip, young, and hot on the natural foods scene, I’m sure you’ve had kombucha before. For those of you who aren’t, kombucha is a fermented tea, an ancient Eastern remedy. If you’ve never tasted it before, pick up a bottle next time you’re in a natural foods store. It has a complex sweet and sour flavor, punctuated with a light effervescence, and, like all live ferments, boasts extensive health benefits.
Unfortunately, at around $4 a bottle, kombucha can become an expensive addiction. Fortunately, it is incredibly simple and inexpensive to make yourself.
The first step is finding a mother. Kombucha is fermented with a specific culture, often called a mother, SCOBY, or mushroom. It looks like a thick, rubbery, white pancake. Kind of like this:
Traditionally, cultures are passed along between friends and family. Every time you brew a batch of kombucha, you grow a new culture, a baby. So anyone who brews will likely be more than happy to turn over one of their many babies to you. But if you don’t know anyone who brews, you can also purchase them from G.E.M Cultures for entirely too much money, or search Craigslist or Kombu for individual brewers who sell them inexpensively. No matter where you get it from, your mother should arrive soaking in her own mature kombucha juice.
You will also need:
A large glass or ceramic container (lid not necessary) (and, no, you cannot use plastic or metal, they are generally not considered safe for any fermentation processes).
– Some variety of covering that will allow for airflow, but keep insects out. I use a piece of muslin fastened with a rubber band.
Tea, bagged or loose
Sugar of your choosing (can include honey, agave, maple syrup, etc., but no chemical sweeteners)
Bottles or a jug for refrigerating your finished kombucha. I recommend using swing top bottles which can be attained either by drinking a lot of Grolsch, or by buying them from a homebrew supplier. I got mine from Brooklyn Homebrew, if you’re from the neighborhood. I’ve seen people bottle their kombucha in jugs, but if you care about the preservation of your bubbles, as I do, I recommend single serving bottles. 
This is my basic recipe:
You may need to alter the amounts, depending on how large your container is. But the basic ratio is:
1 quart water : 1 tbsp loose tea or 1 tea bag : 1/4 cup sugar : ~1/2 cup mature kombucha
Don’t forget that this recipe assumes the use of granulated sugar, if you are using anything else, consult The Joy of Cooking or another source for conversion; you cannot always replace sugars at a 1:1 ratio.
Now, for the fun part!
Heat up your water on the stove, dissolve your sugar in the water, and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and add your loose or bagged tea.
Some people preach kombucha brewing as an exact science in which you can only use green tea. This is total hogwash. Any variety of sugary liquid can be fermented with a kombucha culture. I can’t say I’ve ever brewed the same combination twice.
This time I brewed a blend of rooibos, hibiscus, and sencha green tea.
Brew any single tea or combination that strikes your fancy.
You don’t have to, but I like to throw some extra goodies in there, as well. This time I added fresh, sliced ginger, lemon wedges and a cinnamon stick.
Have fun with it! Get creative!
Keep in mind you can also add juices to your kombucha when bottling or just before drinking. Juices can help to cut the edge if you aren’t a sourhead, if you want to convince children to drink it, or if you forget about your kombucha and overbrew it (overbrewed kombucha can also be left to overbrew further, until it becomes vinegar).
Mature kombucha and culture awaiting freshly brewed tea
Allow your tea to cool to lukewarm; extreme heat can kill your culture. 
Add the lukewarm tea, mature kombucha, and mother to your jar. 
If you’ve thrown in chunks of good stuff like I have, take care to keep them at the bottom, separated from the surface of the tea by your mother. A new culture will grow on the surface and if there are bits floating there, they will become forever lodged in your baby.
Cover your brew and set aside in a safe place for fermentation.
How long you wait depends on the temperature and how strongly you prefer your kombucha. Taste your brew once a stable baby culture has established itself (usually about a week, in my experience). Taste you kombucha on a regular basis until you are satisfied with the degree to which it has fermented.

Now it’s time for bottling! Remember, even after you’ve removed the culture, your kombucha will continue fermenting unless you refrigerate it. If you want to bottle your brew for ultimate effervescence, it would be wise to bottle shortly before your kombucha has reached satisfactory levels of fermentation, as your bottles will need to remain unrefrigerated while the yeast works its carbonating magic.
If you don’t care so much about effervescence, you can bottle your brew in any old bottle. Strain it through a few layers of cheesecloth to weed out most of the goopy culture strains (I say most because I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to keep them all out. Get over it, they’re good for you.) Throw it in the fridge, it’s ready for drinking!
But if you want the bubbly stuff, get out your airtight single serving bottles and your funnel, fashioned with a few layers of cheesecloth for straining.
Fill your bottles to capacity. The kombucha culture contains both yeasts and bacterias. The yeasts are anaerobic; they do not require oxygen to survive. The bacterias are aerobic; they do require oxygen to survive. The yeasts, and not the bacterias, are the carbonating agents. If you fill your bottle to capacity so that there is no oxygen available, the yeast will prevail and carbonate your kombucha more fully and more quickly. If you leave some airspace, it isn’t the end of the world, but your kombucha won’t carbonate as well, and you may end up with little bottleneck sized baby cultures.
Especially if you’ve brewed your kombucha sour, it is a good idea to throw 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in the bottle to feed that yeast. Another way of adding sugar for the yeast, as well as flavor, is to mix in some fruit juice when you bottle, as I mentioned earlier.
Seal your bottles and set them aside. Again, the brew time depends on the temperature. For your first time, I would check your first bottle after two days and judge how much more time, if any, is needed from how effervescent the bottle you’ve opened is.
Remember, don’t go opening the bottles all willy nilly. Reintroducing oxygen and letting the carbon dioxide out will set back the carbonation process. 
Warning: I’ve heard tell of exploding bottles. Now, I’ve done it enough times and seeing my own results, it seems highly unlikely. However, if your kombucha seems to be producing a powerful carbonation, be forewarned and take care.
Once you’re satisfied with your kombucha, pop it in the fridge and you’re ready to start a new batch!
If you catch the fermentation bug and need more juice, check out my fermentation bible: Wild Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz. 


Gentlemen, start your engines!

4 Mar
I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about those winter-doldrums-blues lately.
You know, I get it: March rolls around, you’re brow-beaten by the long months of cold through which you’ve come, March teases you with the occasional sunny day, but the cold and the wind just stretch on, despite your yearning for the warmth of spring. If you’re nodding your head, I ought to call you a sissy, but I will refrain and simply point you in the direction of light at the end of the tunnel. You can see it from here! Some of my fellow plant-deprived city-dwellers may not have noticed, but I have. The little green heads of those ever-resilient chives snaking up through last season’s dead leaves…
Well, that’s the only action so far in my pathetic excuse for a “garden” (quotation marks used to distinguish my landless, apartment deck potted garden from that glorious kind of real garden that doesn’t require transporting soil, and where at the end of the day you’re left with mudcakes on your knees.) But if I still had my irises and day lilies and daffodils, I bet they’d be sending out some little green feelers right about now, too.
I’m telling you, plants are the cure for your long winter blues. If you’ve never grown a plant from seed, my God, are you missing out! Spring isn’t just about warm weather; it’s about new life, the hope in beginnings. Giving life, watching your little seeds grow into beautiful, fruitful beings. It’s thrilling; it’s empowering. Bring some life into you city squalor!
Now: an overview of my (albeit overly ambitious, for my itty bitty deck) garden plan for the summer.
I ordered my seeds from Underwood Gardens, who offer a wide selection of heirloom varieties.
Sweet Jupiter Peppers
Oregon Spring Tomatoes
Early Dell Celery
Scarlet Runner Beans
True Lemon Cucumbers
Mesclun Medley
Golden Midget Watermelons
Cilantro Santo
Mariska Dill
Hairy Mountain Mint
White Sage
English Thyme
A mix of basil varieties
and Roman Chamomile
(I had also planned on growing lavender, but sadly, while working outside this morning, the wind picked up and carried my packet of lavender seeds off into the abyss.)
The average last frost date in New York City varies from source to source, but are all within the first couple weeks of April, so approximately 6 six weeks from now (for yours, you can check the Farmer’s Almanac). Which means, of course, that I am behind schedule, but not by much. A marked improvement from years past!
Last night, I started by painting my markers–markers are most important at first planting, since that’s when it’s hardest to tell what’s what. It’s easy enough to scribble a name on a popsicle stick or plastic plant marker, but attractive markers can really make a huge difference in how attractive your garden is, especially in small, city gardens like mine. When surrounded my cement, I like to take every opportunity for beauty within my power. There is so much ugliness around me that I can’t change, all the more reason to improve what I can. So, I picked up some nice, sturdy, wooden plant markers and got out the paint!
Colorful Plant Markers:
8″ wooden plant labels from Burpee–I got mine from Home Depot. You could also use tongue depressors, though they aren’t as sturdy, or appropriately sized wood scraps if you have them.
Acrylic paint–Available at any art or craft store. Don’t use tempera, it’s water-soluble. You could also use latex-based paints leftover from your home-improvement-past, or in sample size from the hardware store. Oil-based works too, but they will take a couple of days to dry completely.
Paint markers–paint markers offer a unrivaled opacity if you’re writing over strong colors, and most importantly, they aren’t water-soluble. You can buy them for a couple bucks a pop at any art or craft store.
Varnish–not necessary, but nice. Adds a smooth sheen and brightens up your colors. I used Modge Podge, available at any craft store.
And this morning I got my seeds started! Sown in the simplest of recycled, homemade egg carton greenhouses:
I’ve been saving my egg cartons, both plastic and paper. Cut the cups out of your paper egg carton, poke a hole in the bottom of each with an awl, and set them inside the cups of your plastic egg carton (remove the cupped flap that covers the egg tops). With this setup, you have biodegradable seedling pots that can be watered from below by filling the plastic cup with water and placing the paper cup in the water–this is preferable to watering from above for some plants, especially those that are most susceptible to damping off (a fungal ailment). Always read the directions on your seed packets before planting, they should alert you of these kinds of things, but if they don’t offer enough information for your liking, there’s plenty of helpful information online. After the last frost, your paper cups can be planted directly in the ground, minimizing the risk of disturbing or shocking your delicate seedlings, and the plastic covering creates a small greenhouse to keep your seedlings toasty on that drafty windowsill.
Today I sowed the rosemary, sage, thyme, and celery, which boast the longest germination periods of all my varieties. I’ll start the basil, chamomile, peppers and tomatoes as soon as I can scrounge up a couple more egg cartons, and the rest will be sown outdoors, in April.
Now I’m just crossing my fingers that those mischievous cats don’t disturb them! 
(Dinah, the troublemaker.)
Happy germinating!