Month: July 2020

News from the Research Desk Blog

Cook County Property Tax Bills

cartoon house surrounded by moneyCook County Treasurer Maria Pappas recently announced that the second installment payment of property taxes is due August 3 but because of the pandemic, Cook County residents can pay without charge through October 1. Partial payments are accepted.  Property owners can pay online at the Treasurer’s website.  They can also search for refunds and verify tax exemptions there.  To check for information about your property simply enter your address; a Property Identification Number is not required.  Any balance due after October 1 will be charged 1.5% per month as required by law.

Starting with Sourdough

Sourdough is having a moment. Recent difficulties in finding commercial yeast at the grocery store coupled with a spike in interest in bread baking have made sourdough look like a reasonable option for home bakers. Sourcing and maintaining a sourdough starter require some effort and planning, but with a strategy in place and the right tools at hand, it can be a great option for leavening all kinds of baked goods. Bread is just the beginning!Two sourdough loaves

What is sourdough?

Instead of using commercially processed yeast, which features one strand of yeast, the sourdough process makes use of the many wild yeasts that are naturally found on flour and in the environment. Baking with sourdough is a bit like domesticating wild yeasts by feeding them, then coaxing them to work on your behalf.

Here’s the basic chemistry: when you feed your starter (with flour and water) the yeast eats the sugars, the byproduct of which are the gases carbon dioxide and ethanol, thus creating the signature bubbles and leavening the dough. But it is not all science. Sourdough breads feature flavors and textures that cannot be replicated with store-bought yeast. Baking with sourdough starter is an art form, and the results are often surprising and delightful.

What is a “starter”?

Sourdough starter looks something like bubbly paste, which it is: a mixture of flour and water where wild yeast can happily eat and produce gas. With proper care and feeding, sourdough starters can thrive for many years and produce endless loaves of bread.bowl of bubbly sourdough starter

Sourdough bread recipes call for starter as the leavening agent, though some recipes may also call for commercial yeast to speed up the process. Using a sourdough starter alone to leaven bread does require a bit more time for rising and proofing, but it can be managed with a bit of planning.

How do I get started with starter?

The fastest way to obtain a sourdough starter is to know a sourdough baker. Sharing a well-maintained starter is easy to do, and most sourdough enthusiasts are happy to share. Don’t know anyone with starter to share? There are two options:

Making your own starter is relatively simple but does require some patience. Much has been written on this topic in recent months. A tutorial is available from A to Z Food America, a library database of recipes and food history (library card number required.) Other tutorials are available here and here.

Another option is to purchase an established starter. This option can be a little bit more of a sure thing than starting from scratch. Usually the starter will arrive by mail in a dormant state. The starter can be encouraged back to life with regular feedings, and soon enough, it will be ready for baking.

Once a living, bubbling starter has been established, it can be used in many recipes, including sourdough bread with its signature tangy flavor.

To find more resources for getting started with sourdough, contact the Research Desk at


Squash Pollination

This time of year, home gardeners are seeing lots of flowers on their maturing squash plants. Squash and cucumbers are monoecious, meaning that both male and female flowers are present on the same plant. The male and female flowers are similar in appearance but the female has immature fruit at its base.

honeynut squash bud

Pollinated female flower on winter squash plant

Pollinators (mostly bees in this case) are needed to fertilize the female flowers with the pollen of the male flowers in order to develop fruit. Male flowers are the first to appear on squash plants and the female flowers follow within a few weeks. As the female flowers develop, fruit should start to be formed and be visible on the plant. But in recent years, due to the reduction in the number of natural pollinators in our environment, squash gardeners have complained of poor fruit production but many flowers. Squash plants can be hand pollinated if bees are not present in the garden.

Remedies for increasing the bee population include eliminating the use of pesticides and insecticides in the vegetable garden and other chemical lawn treatments. Suburban home owners feel compelled to have green lush lawns of grass, but the use of chemicals is decimating bee populations.

Here’s an informative article about how important bees are in gardens and remedies to protect pollinators: Illinois Extension: Good Growing–Bee Lazy for Pollinators

2020 Mid-year Legislative Update for Seniors

calling all seniors!Would you like to learn more about how local, Cook County, state and federal officials are assisting senior members of our community during this challenging time? You may like to attend a Zoom discussion and legislative update meeting session hosted by AgeOptions and local senior service agencies. Please see the official invitation.

The North Suburban Session is scheduled for Wednesday, July 29th, 2020 from 8:30 am to 9:30 am.  Registration is not required.   Here is the login information:
Zoom access link:
Or, dial in via the phone: 1-312-626-6799 (Chicago)
Meeting ID: 977 1224 6886
Password: 938391
Find your local call-in number:



Asclepias Tuberosa aka Butterfly Weed

One beneficial perennial plant that every home gardener should consider growing is Butterfly Weed (Asclepias Tuberosa). Besides being a native Illinois plant, Butterfly Weed  provides larval food for Monarchs and its nectar is enjoyed by honeybees other species of butterflies as well.

asclepias tuberosa plant (aka butterfly weed)

Asclepias Tuberosa buds before flowering

On top of all that, Butterfly Weed (also called milkweed, a term applied to all Asclepias species) is attractive in the garden and is easy to grow if it is planted in the right spot. It likes lots of sun and drier soil conditions, and like many natives, it is drought resistant. Butterfly Weed emerges later in the spring, so gardeners should be careful when doing early clean-ups in the garden so as to not disturb its seasonal development.

Check out this 2017 informative article from the Illinois Extension: Butterfly Weed – Perennial Plant of the Year.