Monday, November 30, 2009

Passive House

In a recent issue of Dwell magazine, there was a home featured which was certified as a Passive House. For those of you who are not familiar with this term, it is a European system for creating and certifying energy efficient homes which has recently come to the US. As one who has studied LEED in depth and frequently lamented the inelegance of LEED for Homes, I was initially seduced by the simplicity of the Passive House system and their consistent results in performance.

A closer look makes it clear, however, why Passive House is so neat where LEED for Homes is so messy: it focuses almost entirely on one aspect of green building, the heating and cooling load. While LEED attempts to cover every relevant topic from sustainable site selection to reusing materials, Passive House is primarily concerned with making the building envelope (ext. walls, roof, windows, doors, and accompanying insulation) as efficient as possible.

While this focus has led Passive House to generate a much easier to follow program with much more consistent results, it can by no means be considered a complete guide to green building. LEED still offer the only comprehensive guide that I know of for addressing all of the many concerns of sustainability (even if it addresses each imperfectly).

That being said, Passive House is still an excellent program. They boast a measured and verified energy savings of about 90% over conventional construction, and many Passive House homes can be heated sufficiently by the waste heat of a hair dryer, or even just the body heat of the occupants. Since Buildings consume a whopping 60% of electricity consumed in this country, that kind of efficiency has a substantial and direct impact on sustainability.

The home featured in Dwell, for example, used a form of passive geo-thermal heating (as opposed to a ground source heat pump), in which the air intake ran through buried coils to be warmed without any energy consumption before it even entered the house. The temperature was maintained with an extremely efficient insulation system. This simple, elegant solution to thermal comfort can be implemented in any climate (coils are buried below the frost line) and works for both heating and cooling, because the temp. below the topsoil is constant, and conveniently a pretty comfortable 60ish degrees F. If the incoming air is that warm, it requires only the slightest additional push to reach cozy levels (hence heating with a hairdryer).

In summary, passive house offers an in depth analysis of one important aspect of green building, and in its focus provides excellent solutions. In conjunction with a more holistic approach like LEED, the result is a vastly more sustainable building.

And after all that serious stuff, here is another BB post about what may be the cutest thing that you will ever see, ever. A little tip: it gets better the more you watch it.

Understanding Energy

[Update:  I probably should have included this disclaimer originally, if you have a solid understanding of physics this will probably be redundant] I just finished reading this post by Boing Boing guest blogger Saul Griffith, and it is an absolute must read for anyone who is interested in energy, efficiency, sustainability, going green, or the way things work in general.

I recommend that you have a little spare time when you read this, so that you can follow the links and really get into what he is talking about. It is not light reading (I would call it medium) and gets a little technical, but mostly puts the information into plain English that anyone (English speaking, that is) can understand.

Mr. Griffith is clearly a person who both understands the realities of the situation and is not at all deterred by the complexity (which he shouldn't be, he has a PhD from MIT). Even when talking about trade-offs and the difficulties of alternative energy sources (like electricity for cars) there is no hint of despair or defeat, just the kind of straightforward analysis that leads to better problem solving.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gluten Free Gumbo: Begin With a Gluten Free Roux

Signature gumbo from Bozo's Seafood Restaurant...Image via Wikipedia
I made gumbo last weekend, which as we all know, starts with a roux. Gumbo is the ultimate comfort food
for anyone with a southern mother (like me), and as the house was filled with the signature smell of Cajun cooking, I felt at home here in Oregon for the first time. The recipe below does not contain exact portions, because I always just make it up as I go. Instead I describe the process and give some guesses.

As those close to us know, Courtney is allergic to wheat, which is one of the only two ingredients in roux. I had made gumbo once or twice with a quinoa flour roux, which was alright but somewhat disappointing. The quinoa did not thicken up the way roux should, and added a strange nutty overtone. So this time I consulted the all knowing Internet, and was shocked by the dearth of information on gluten free roux. There was only one decent link to Gluten Free Girl and this video, but that is a french roux and I needed a Cajun one.

I decided to wing it. Believe it or not, the most simple solution turned out perfectly. I grabbed a bag of GF All Purpose Baking Flour from Bob's Red Mill (a lovely company) and used it exactly as I would regular flour. It thickened up just the right amount, browned well, and tasted delicious. I almost think they should market it separately as 'GF Roux Flour.'

Cajun roux is different from french roux primarily in that vegetable oil is used in stead of butter (any fat can be used for roux, but different regional cuisines have different traditions). It is also used differently, as a thickener for stews and soups (gumbo, jambalaya e.g.) and not so much as a thickener for sauce (veloute or bechamel would be thickened with a french roux).

Cajun roux is made with vegetable oil for two reasons: first it is cheaper than butter (a lot of Cajun recipes use ingredients that are cheap and abundant in the south), and second because you can make the roux much, much darker in oil. With a french roux, the butter will burn before the roux cooks to the right color, which various cookbooks have described as "the color of peanut butter," "a deep nutty brown," "walnut," etc. Whatever you call it, you'll never get there with butter.

Gluten Free Basic Gumbo

Canola or other high heat oil (about a half cup)
GF all purpose flour (about a half cup)
Chicken stock (about 4 cups)
Andouille Sausage (a link or two) cut into bite size bits
Left over or pre-cooked chicken (about a pound)
The holy trinity: onions, green bell peppers, and celery (about 2 cups, roughly diced, even portions of each)
Shrimp (half to a whole pound)
Fresh herbs (bay, thyme, parsley, etc.)
Cooked plain white rice
Gumbo File (ground sassafras leaves)

For gumbo, make the roux in a heavy pot or dutch oven (cast iron is best) by mixing roughly equal part oil and flour. Cook over a high heat, stirring constantly, until the flour reaches the desired color (several minutes). When the roux is dark enough, add the holy trinity and the chicken stock to cool it off a bit and stop the flour from over cooking. My mother always sauteed the trinity in the roux for a few minutes before adding the stock, allowing them to brown a little. Either way tastes very good. After the stock, add the chicken and the fresh herbs.

In a separate pan, grill the andouille sausage until it is well browned all over. Remove with a slotted spoon, adding the sausage to the gumbo without transferring the extra fat. Bring the gumbo to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook for about 20 minutes.

About 5 minutes before serving, add the shrimp. When the shrimp is cooked through, remove the pot from the heat. Serve over rice sprinkled with gumbo file, with Tabasco or other hot sauce at the ready.


For those with a heat tooth: adding a jalapeno or two with the trinity will please. Alternatively (or additionally) add cayenne pepper with the herbs.

For those with a taste for Thai: serve the finished gumbo with fish sauce and sriracha instead of Tabasco. I did this last time I had it, and I thought it was just about the most delicious thing I ever had, and I now believe fish sauce is the perfect condiment for gumbo.

Seafood Gumbo: instead of (or in addition to) chicken add crab legs, crayfish, scallops, or any other fish or crustacean really. Add it with the shrimp, careful not to overcook.

Vegetarian/vegan: Gumbo z'herbes is a traditional lenten version of gumbo for catholic southerners. Leave out the chicken and andouille sausage. To get some of that andouille flavor add cayenne pepper, black pepper, paprika, garlic, and plenty of sea salt. In place of the meat, throw in a mix of greens such as collard greens, spinach, dandelion, etc. This site gives an excellent list of greens to include, but I think the extra step of par boiling the greens is really unnecessary, just trim and chop into spoon able size and boil in the gumbo itself. Obviously, use vegetable stock instead of chicken.

Gumbo on Foodista
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Wind and NIMBY

An interesting post on Boing Boing about the politics of getting wind turbines constructed. The comment thread is also (a little less) interesting, but basically the response to most of the comments is "these are precisely the issues that would be worked out with more dialogue and planning, which is what the original poster is advocating."

On the aesthetic argument, I don't think they are particularly attractive or ugly, but when you see a field of them all rotating at the same time, there is definitely something mesmerizing and fascinating about them. The more important issue, however, is how they look compared to the alternatives.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Greens and Beans Part III: What I Miss About Meat

I posted a long time ago about how cooking vegetarian and vegan is more green, and suggested a few basic ideas for vegetarian cooking. But vegan cooking, now that is a lot harder.

As mentioned previously, for someone new to non animal cooking it is really easy to make food that tastes like cardboard. Vegans will tell you that they don't miss it, but meat adds a lot of flavor to food, in a lot of ways. Vegetarians get much of it back with butter, cheese, eggs and cream, which vegans eschew. However, by taking a look at what meat brings to the table, one can start thinking of ways to replace the flavor aspect of the meat, and not just the protein and iron.

First, animals are mostly salt water. Meat naturally contains a lot of moisture and a lot of salt, along with several other organic compounds that create the complex flavor. Remember when your 7th grade science teacher told you that your blood is chemically similar to seawater? Well the same is true of cows, chickens, pigs, and all other tasty animals. So, to get that complex saltiness, the best replacement is Sea Salt. Sea salt tastes better because of random inclusions, and if you are cooking meatless do not be shy about sprinkling a little extra in there. Also, if your ingredients are generally dry, adding some moisture can help break down food and bring out flavors. I always use some water, some acid like vinegar or citrus juice, and some alcohol like wine when I cook.

Next item: fat. Most meat contains a lot of fat naturally, to which restaurants almost always add more fat. Fat serves a lot of purposes in cooking, lubrication and moisture retention e.g. It also makes food taste richer and more satisfying. At this point a health conscious person will probably protest, saying "so your answer to tastier food is to add salt and fat?" I know it sounds like a recipe for a heart attack, but think about this: if you have chosen to cook a vegan meal, you have chosen to remove a ton of fat and salt, I am just recommending you add some of it back in. Also, you can use healthier sources of fat like olive or canola oil.

Finally, there is the slightly lesser known concept of umami, which is basically the savoriness of meat. Think of a simple chicken or beef stock, and that is exactly the flavor of umami. It comes from the amino acids in protein rich foods, and it is sorely lacking in many vegan recipes. But don't despair, there are several simple ways that you can get it into your meatless dishes.

The first is mushrooms. I personally feel that the "white" and "brown" mushrooms you get in the grocery store have no flavor at all, a dissatisfying texture, and may not actually be real food. But if you are saving $$ by not buying meat you can splurge a little on fancy mushrooms, and you will be rewarded for your extravagance with excellent flavor. Other umami makers: seaweed (in its many forms), soy sauce, and wonderful miso paste. Miso paste is the basis for miso soup, as you might have guessed, but when used in place of bullion it is excellent as a base for any vegan sauce or soup, especially when flavored with soy sauce and served with delicious fried chanterelle mushrooms... mmmumami.

In short, we evolved to love the flavor of meat, but that doesn't mean that we have to eat it with every meal. And with a little creativity, we can trick our tongues into getting that salty, fatty, umami sensation without a single animal product involved. Since meat and dairy production is way more damaging to the environment than vegetable production, cooking vegan on a regular basis actually makes a big difference. Especially if your vegetables are local. Also, since animal products are more expensive (generally) than vegetable, you can save a ton of money too.

Homegrown Electric Vehicles

So, yesterday I went to a little social event for greenies at Davis' Restaurant in downtown Eugene (I would have put a link to their website, but they have not one). It was hosted by Helios Resource Network, and co-hosted by Arcimoto, and the CEO (who I kind of hate for being successful at 23) gave a brief speech about their company.

Arcimoto is a start up producing electric vehicles, and they are doing it a little bit differently. They are working with technology that has been around for long enough to be cost effective to produce an affordable car, one that you can plug in to a conventional wall socket for all of its juice needs (they claim it charges fully in 6 hours), and they are making it look pretty spiffy too. While most electric cars have specially designed engines and crazy battery technology in order to move the weight of a full sized vehicle, Arcimoto is solving the problem by making a much smaller car!

This is a really simple, elegant and in hindsight obvious solution to the problem of engineering an electric vehicle. They went with a three wheel chassis (the car registers as a motorcycle, technically), and made a body just big enough to fit two comfortably. The result is a much lighter car that can be moved by a much smaller motor, and powered with a much more simple battery.

Now for the next part, which is possibly even cooler: they plan to manufacture and sell the cars locally. You may wonder (as I often have) why there aren't already electric cars everywhere, if it's so easy to make them. The answer is really stupid: big car companies can't figure out how to make a profit off of them. Currently most of the money in the car business is in service, and electric cars don't need any much service at all (a DC motor may need the brushes replaced once every seven years, and other than that it is good to go). Conventional autos need tons of service, so the car companies are willing to deal with marginal profits on the vehicles with a guarantee of years of necessary repairs (this is a gross over simplification, but it captures the basic idea).

So the Arcimoto solution: side step the existing auto industry entirely. Figure out the local market, set the price point for a decent profit, and let the consumer drive maintenance free for 7 years. Ford and the others are so locked into their current (lack of) profit models that they can't imagine doing anything like this (which is why they love hybrids so much: call it green without actually changing much).

The Arcimoto Pulse is not exactly perfect, a brushless motor would be better and the lead acid battery has its own ecological issues, but it is leaps and bounds ahead of an internal combustion vehicle in the sustainability department. Especially when the whole local production thing is taken into account. So I give the Pulse a huge thumbs up. If every city a company like this, generating electric cars locally, we would see a lot of innovation, a much more interesting market, and better air quality. Now if we could just stop getting our electricity from burning coal...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I'm back! (where was I?)

Sorry to my many followers (that is, my family and a few old friends) for failing to post for so long. Lets face it, if there isn't money on the table it's hard to be reliable. So where was I for so long? Aside from the many illegitimate excuses for not blogging, there were a few good reasons (still trying to decide if being really sick was an excuse or a reason). Among them, I have been devouring the new LEED 2009 reference guide: "Green Building Design and Construction." I don't think I could explain it without boring the bejesus out of anyone who is not a LEED AP, but there are a lot of really good and important improvements in the new system.

That being said, I was very saddened today by a post on Boing Boing (the most read blog) about ClimateCounts, a dubiously motivated non-profit that rates fortune 500 companies on their 'greenness.' What saddened me was not the post, but the absolutely defeatist comments from the BB readers:
  • "The very idea of "green" capitalism is a logical fallacy, and most of these companies have historically atrocious records of polluting the globe and abusing human rights. Those scores are useless, completely and uncompromisingly so."
  • "The bottom line is that most of what we do to assuage our own environmental damage is pointless unless we are living off the grid in the woods growing our own food organically and wearing animal skins."
This pessimism about environmental issues is not serving anyone. It is probably true that these companies have a history of being environmental monsters, but does that mean change is impossible? Of course not. They may be reluctant, but many are making changes, and even incremental changes have a positive effect. And while I would agree that the fisrt marriage of capitalism and 'green' was nothing but pure marketing hogwash, I would not agree that green capitalism is a logical fallacy (and just to be a jerk, which logical fallacy would that be? post hoc? slipperty slope? hmmm...).

Capitalism is about economics, the green movement is about sustainability. Their goals might seem contradictory at times, but in reality they are two completely different fields which can be made to work together. The absurdity of the above argument is clear if you replace capitalism with other economic regimes: the statements 'green socialism is a fallacy,' and 'green mutualism is a fallacy' just don't make any sense. Economics and sustainability are not mutually exclusive in any way.

I am also a little tired of the concept that in order to be green you have to live in the wilderness, off the grid, and make clothes from the skin of dead animals (I wonder if that poster was imagining skins of domesticated food stock or hunting for those skins, either way not necessarily more sustainable than cotton fiber). Quite frankly, there isn't room in the wilderness for every person alive to have their own acre of farmable land, and there isn't enough natural groundwater to support that many farms indefinitely.

For better or worse, over half of the world's population are now city people, and that is why cities have become the focus of most green movements. We need a lot of infrastructure to support our current population, and spreading people out into the woods would mean more of that infrastructure, and all of it less efficient. That is why focusing on green development, renewable resources and sustainable energy is so important, and why this defeatist claptrap about it all being pointless is so damaging.

I admit that things look pretty bleak when you get down to it: CO2 has a long life in the atmosphere (exact numbers are difficult to come by) so even if we stopped burning anything right now, we would not reach stability for at least 50 years. Mercury has a much, much longer life in the oceans (it can cycle through the food chain many, many times before anything like safe deposition). But how could it possibly help to throw in the towel? So the solution isn't simple, isn't easy, and won't happen overnight. All the more reason to roll up our sleeves and get started.