Eco-Saturday: Coffee conscious

NOTE: This is the second of two Eco-Saturday entries I’m posting today to make up for the lack of a post last week.

Saving the planet with help from the Good Doctor.

I am a shameless coffee junkie. One way I’ve reduced my environmental footprint is by making my own coffee and bringing it to work in a reusable container.

Here are a few tips and instructions for making three popular drinks: plain, single-serving coffee; cappuccino; and mocha frappes.

Plain coffee

First, don’t buy a Keurig. They are obscenely expensive and generate a lot of unnecessary waste. You can get a good single-serving coffee maker that will brew directly into an insulated travel mug for $25 or less. I use this model.¬†Make setting up the coffee maker part of your before-bed routine. That way, all you have to do in the morning is flip the switch on your way into the shower.

For a coffeehouse-worthy experience, buy unflavored, whole-bean coffee (preferably fair-trade and/or organic) in small quantities and grind it as you use it. You can get a decent burr grinder for $40, and it’s well worth the money. Avoid flavored coffees, as artificial flavoring is often used to mask inferior-quality beans. If you want your coffee to taste like hazelnut or vanilla or whatever, buy a bottle of Torani syrup and DIY.

Ignore the big bubbles in the froth. I tried using almond milk for this one. I don’t recommend it. Some things were never meant to be vegan.


Real cappuccino is one part espresso, one part steamed milk and one-third foam, and you can’t make it without an espresso machine. Anyone who claims otherwise is either a fool or a liar.

You can buy a perfectly good espresso machine for less than $50 at any big-box store. Just be aware that when you are using a small machine to make cappuccino, you may have trouble getting it to build up enough steam to froth and heat the milk. To prevent this problem:

1. Make sure the coffee is ground finely enough. Some of the pre-ground “espresso” is too coarse to work well in small machines, as the water flows through it too quickly to build up a good head of steam.
2. Set up the machine to make four shots instead of two. This helps ensure you have adequate steam.
3. Tamp down the espresso as firmly as possible. (The bottom of a shot glass works well for this purpose.)

This is a great demonstration of the frothing process, which is the hard part:

Frothing takes practice, so don’t get frustrated if your initial efforts are less than satisfactory.

Purple haze courtesy of the growlights I’m using on my tomato seedlings, which are in the dining room at the moment.


Frappes always make me think of Travolta’s “five-dollar milkshake” riff from Pulp Fiction. They are not worth $5. Make one yourself for less than $1.

Start by making a couple of shots of espresso. Add an equal amount of any kind of milk (skim, whole, soy, almond, whatever) and a handful of ice cubes.

Ice cubes, ice Daleks — potato, potahto.

Add chocolate syrup to taste and blend until thick and frosty, adding more ice if necessary. (Protip: Most blender blades will fit on a narrow-mouthed Mason jar, so you can make the drink and serve it in the same container to save time and dishes. This also works well for smoothies.)

Top with whipped cream and chocolate sauce if desired, add a straw and enjoy.

Eco-Saturday: Easy rice bags

This is the first of two Eco-Saturday offerings you’re getting this week to make up for the fact that I didn’t post one last week. This one is apartment-friendly and very cheap and easy.¬†

Years ago, one of my mom’s Brownies or Sunday-school students or somebody gave her a Christmas present. It was a cloth bag, stuffed loosely with rice and sewn shut, with a little instruction tag that said to microwave it and “put it where you hurt.”

Rice bags have been pretty much standard-issue at her house ever since.

You can make them out of just about any fabric, provided it doesn’t have big holes in it that would let the rice fall out and isn’t made of synthetic fibers that are likely to melt when heated, but in my infinite laziness, I like to make them out of knee-high socks.

Here’s what you need:

Knee-high sock (cotton or cotton blend)
About two cups of rice
Empty Ro-Tel or enchilada sauce can (optional but very helpful)


Remove the ends from an empty Ro-Tel or enchilada sauce can. (I’m specifying these two types because you can use a can opener to take off the top and bottom. A lot of cans these days are designed for easy stacking, with rounded edges on the bottom that you can’t remove with a can opener. So far, Ro-Tel and Old El Paso haven’t sold out yet.)


Slip the sock over one end of the can.

Using the can as a sort of funnel to keep the sock open, pour rice into the sock.


Tie a knot in the end.

Microwave for 30 to 90 seconds, depending on how much heat your skin will tolerate, and drape around your neck, shoulder or wherever else your muscles feel sore or tight. You can also freeze rice bags to use in place of ice packs.

The nice thing about rice bags is that they serve the same purpose as a heating pad, but the only electricity they use is the amount necessary to heat them in the microwave — as opposed to being plugged into the wall the whole time you use them, like a conventional heating pad — and they don’t involve any packaging, disposable parts or weird chemicals like the self-heating pads and patches you get at the drugstore. Good way to recycle mismatched socks, too.