Looking north from Mount Bachelor in Central Oregon, my view of Broken Top and the Three Sisters is a breathtaking reminder of just how lucky we are to live where we do.
In the Pacific Northwest, this sort of beauty is so accessible; demanding in return only that we not take it for granted. That we NOT abuse its essence. That we work as hard to protect it as we do to enjoy it.
But as we all know, such purity is in jeopardy. And even though our forests, rivers, lakes and wildlife are dependent on conditions far beyond any one person's control, if you aren't thinking about all the ways you can preserve our tiny corner of the earth, then you can hardly be considered a part of the solution.
As I say each year in the wake of Earth Day: It's a great time to think a little — like how you behave in your own kitchen. Thanks to our reliance on such heavy-duty household appliances as refrigerators, stoves and dishwashers, a huge chunk of our total household energy is used in the kitchen.
When it comes to the stovetop, people ask me, which is the greener choice? Gas or electric? Natural gas is a fossil fuel. But according to the U.S. Department of Energy, more than half of the electricity generated in this country comes from coal-burning power plants. So which form should you cook with? From a straight-up cooking perspective, gas burners give you more control over the temperature, plus it's instant-on and instant-off heat, which doesn't waste energy.
However, there are some energy-efficient electric cooktops on the market these days — designs using induction elements that transfer electromagnetic energy directly to the pan. They use almost half the energy of standard coil elements. Of course, for small meals or for reheating, a toaster oven or a microwave oven is the greener choice.
Your refrigerator is another energy gobbler, so consider some of the basics you can do to make it more efficient:
- At least twice a year, pull the fridge away from the walls, unplug it and vacuum the coils so the compressor is working at its best.
- Check the seal on the door by slamming a piece of paper in the door and pulling. If the paper slips out without ripping, then you need to replace your seal.
- Check your owners manual for the appropriate temperatures to set the refrigerator.
- Stow all refrigerated foods in moisture-proof containers to give the compressor a break (it works extra hard to remove moisture). So always cover your food.
Other ways to reduce energy use when cooking are:
- For most baked goods, you can turn off the oven a few minutes ahead of when the (pizza, bread, stew, cookies, potatoes, casserole, etc.) is done.
- Cook in bulk. It takes just as much energy to bake one stew in your oven as it does to bake several batches, so always keep future meals in mind when cooking. Pulling premade meals from the freezer sure makes feeding your family more "energy-efficient," too, since it will free up precious leisure time.
- Match the pan to the burner. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a 6-inch pan on an 8-inch burner wastes 40 percent of the energy produced by the burner.
- Use sturdy, flat-bottomed pans. A warped pan can use up to 50 percent more energy than a flat-bottomed one.
Then there are the broader behaviors to consider. For example:
BUY LOCAL. Enough said.
GROW SOME OF YOUR OWN FOOD.
SHOP THE BULK FOOD DEPARTMENT TO AVOID EXCESSIVE PACKAGING. Some of today's food products are ridiculously overpackaged. By not purchasing such products, you are sending a message to the manufacturer that this is unacceptable.
DITCH THE PLASTIC WATER BOTTLE. It's estimated that it takes 1.5 million barrels of oil to produce a year's worth of plastic bottles. Get a reusable stainless-steel or aluminum bottle from a reliable company such as Sigg or Klean Kanteen and fill it from your water tap.
CURB YOUR PAPER TOWEL USAGE. Instead of automatically reaching for paper towels, use dish towels whenever possible. I keep a stack of really cheap wash cloths that I use only on raw meat and poultry, so there's no risk of cross-contaminating fresh vegetables and uncooked foods.
USE YOUR OWN SHOPPING BAGS. It's time to start bringing those canvas shopping bags out of the car and into the supermarket. I keep a variety on hand from small and decorative to large and utilitarian. My favorite style is the bright-orange Home Depot bag. It's huge, VERY sturdy and you can load the equivalent of two paper grocery bags full of supermarket booty into it. Plus, at 99 cents each, they're also a bargain. I keep several of them in the car at all times.
REUSE COOKING WATER. Instead of pouring the pasta water down the drain after the spaghetti has cooked, let it cool, then use it to water plants.
SAME THING FOR ALUMINUM FOIL. The Aluminum Association claims that Americans throw out enough aluminum every three months to rebuild our entire commercial air fleet. Even if that's a slight exaggeration, the point is, if it's realistic to do so, give that used-and-crinkly sheet a good scrub with hot, soapy water, let it air dry, then store away for another day.
It's a very green thing to do because the U.S. Department of State's Aluminum Task Force says that recycling aluminum takes as little as 5 percent of the energy required to manufacture virgin aluminum. Plus, aluminum is 100-percent recyclable and can be reworked indefinitely without degrading in quality. It's shredded, cleaned, melted and mixed with a pure aluminum base, then recast into new aluminum products. This melt-and-cast process eliminates the mining, shipping and refining processes necessary to create new aluminum from bauxite ore.
For more tips, head to my blog at www.janrd.com. Meanwhile, in celebration of spring, here are a few recipes to consider. Bon appetit!
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at email@example.com.