Sunday, January 31, 2010

Coop Cleaning

Every other week I clean out the chicken coop. I used to do it every week, but eventually decided a bi-monthly approach was best… if for no other reason than it was easier for me, and we all know how lazy I can be.

But tomorrow is the day I need to clean it out. And while I complain about this task, it should be noted that it only takes about five minutes to complete. All I do is scoop up all the poop-soiled straw and shavings, put it in the compost bin, and add more straw and shavings back inside the hen house. Fairly straightforward, right? And normally I wouldn’t mind doing this, but during the winter, our yard becomes a complete mud bath, and that is the part I dread. Walking through the sloshing loam where the grass has completely worn away from various pathways which have now all congregated into one giant mass of sticky mud.

However, I will grudgingly do it. I will pull on an old pair of jeans and outdoor shoes and fulfill my duty I swore to uphold. And if nothing else, I’m sure the chickens will thank me… until the next day when they have once again started their mountainous poo-pile under their roosts.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crock Pots

Do you ever get so busy doing everyday errands and forget all about dinner? Okay, so since I’ve been unemployed I haven’t, but while working I ran into this dilemma all the time. Those nights usually relied on fast food.

Having a little foresight will help, especially on days you know that you have more things scheduled than are physically possible to accomplish in one day (like me, today for instance, and yet here I am blogging) will help you throw something together quickly in the beginning of the day and forget about it until that night when it is time for supper. A few minutes of prep work while downing your morning coffee is usually all it will take to whip up a fantastic meal that will be ready on your terms. And for those of you who don’t like leaving appliances plugged in while you are out of the house, let me ask if you also unplug your refrigerator before going grocery shopping and picking up the kids from soccer practice? No? Same concept.

There are many dishes that take to slow cooking. For instance, chili is a classic example. Dump everything into the pot, turn it low, and give it a quick stir before serving. Others will take a few minutes prep after they are done cooking, like pulled pork will need to be pulled, but if it is anything like my pulled pork, it has to cook for 32 hours, pulled, then cooked for 2 hours more. I’m difficult like that.

The best part about slow cooking is that flavors usually get better the longer it cooks, so if you know the next day is going to be hectic, even the morning, throw it all in the crock pot the night before. Of course, this probably means you will be having dreams of the wonderful Moroccan dish, Chicken Tagine with Chickpeas and Apricots. But isn’t that a small price to pay for convenience?

Friday, January 29, 2010

Gardening

Winter is the perfect time to plan out your spring garden. You can do this by either getting out a piece of paper and some colored pencils or markers and drawing out your space and what to plant where, or just make a list of what you want to plant. Another way is to try to anticipate what type of season you are going to have, which isn’t always accurate, and plant accordingly.

For instance, during warmer than usual springs and summers, tomatoes do extremely well and will give you a bountiful harvest close to fall. However, during colder than normal spring and summer temperatures, tomatoes don’t do so well. What to plant instead? Peas! Peas like colder, but not freezing temperatures, and are usually a first and last crop, where tomatoes are a middle crop. That basically means that you plant peas in the late winter and late summer, and tomatoes in the middle of spring. These two crops are also perfect for rotation, which means planting tomatoes in one plot and peas in another then rotating them the following year. Peas help replenish the soil from what the tomatoes take out, leaving you with healthier, more disease resistant plants, and better soil to keep planting in.

Companion crops are another important aspect to think about. The most obvious would be what the Native Americans practice, with corn, beans and squash. The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb up, the beans provide nutrients to both the corn and the squash, and the squash leaves provide shade for the soil and lower sections of the plants, keeping moisture from evaporating and overheating the plants.

Container gardening is perfect for small patio spaces and apartment dwellers, and also for herbs which tend to spread out of control if left in a regular garden plot. We have all of our herbs in containers for a couple reasons, but mostly so that when the temperatures get below freezing, they can be moved to a safe location. Most herbs are perennials, meaning they come back every year, while others are evergreen, meaning they do not go dormant during the winter, and still others are annuals which have to be replanted every year. The only exception in our yard is that we have our lavender and rosemary in the rock garden and not in pots, because both of those double as shrubs. I’m hoping to add a bay laurel bush sometime this year too, as I use a lot of bay leaves in cooking.

Other things to consider while planning out your garden is timing, such as when each plant will be ready to harvest. Some crops are ready to harvest in only a few short weeks, while others may take up to two years. Then there are crops like greens that you can simply cut off the top or pick off the outer leaves for a salad and continue harvesting as long as they keep growing back. Find out which varieties do best when planted directly into the soil and which should be started indoors first, because some indoor starts can take up to eight weeks before they are ready to be planted outside, in which case, you will probably want to start some of those now so they will be ready to put into the ground in April.

Also, one last thing is prepping your garden space. Whether you use fertilizer, compost or a combination, you’ll want to make sure the plot you plan to plant your crop in is full of nutrients for those fruits and vegetables to soak up. I prefer compost because we already have it from keeping chickens and throwing our all of our vegetable scraps, egg shells and coffee grinds into a compost bin. However, some plants do well with the addition of a little Epsom salt, which if you have roses, you probably already use. This can either be done right before you plant, or a couple weeks ahead to allow all of those nutrients to fully integrate into the soil.

I hope you have fun planting this year’s garden! Remember to keep it simple, and to keep the cost down, only plant what you will actually eat. It doesn’t make sense to plant cucumbers if nobody will eat them. But if you really like tomatoes, plant an extra or two for late summer canning when your garden will be overflowing with them! And don’t let any of your bounty go to waste. If you can’t eat it all, and you aren’t going to can it, give some to neighbors, friends, family or a local shelter. I guarantee they will appreciate the fresh produce… unless, of course, it is all that late summer zucchini that you have to leave on peoples doorsteps and run like hell to make sure they don’t know it was you who left it!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chocolate

“Hello, my name is Cory, and I’m a chocoholic.”

My love of chocolate springs all the way back to infancy, I think. In fact, I’m pretty sure my first words were, “dada”, “mama”, and “chocolate.” Chocolate and I have a very special relationship. I eat it when I’m happy. I eat it when I’m sad. I eat it when I’m busy. I eat it when I’m bored. I even eat all of the leftover chocolate ganache out of the bowl when I’m done frosting a cake… with my fingers.

When I was younger and growing out of my puberty fat, which for me was a lot (I grew a foot and lost 50 lbs in a year,) I did most of my eating in secret, mostly because I still had (have) body image issues from those years. This way, during family meals, I would appear to not eat as much and hopefully outgrow my nickname, Corky Porky. I know, healthy, huh? Rushing into the kitchen after school to hoard a couple handfuls of cookies before anyone else saw me, and run into the bathroom to consume my bounty I had plundered in a private place nobody would catch me. And somehow, during my high school years and most of my twenties, I remained relatively thin. Of course, my late twenties saw the return of the belly, and I have just learned to live with it, although, I’m once again thinking of another 3 week plan on the L.A. Weightloss diet to lose the 15-20 lbs I’ve gained over the course of my unemployment. And yes, for some reason, this diet actually worked for me, even though I was on it because my partner was on it, but had to quit after 3 weeks because I didn’t feel someone my size should be losing 6 lbs a week. That, and I’d already met my goal weight, frighteningly. But one thing I had to give up was chocolate, and I don’t know if I’m willing to go without my best friend again for that long.

So when I started making cakes, I needed a recipe for chocolate frosting, and one that was easy and tasted good. My critique of most store-bought chocolate frostings is that they taste more like shortening, and less like the food of the gods. So I hopped onto my trusty little friend, the internet, and searched for chocolate frosting recipes when I landed on the one; the holy grail of all chocolate frosting recipes; the life-altering epiphany from heaven: Chocolate Ganache.

Anybody who has every made homemade frosting knows that sometimes the consistency is the hardest part to conquer. Sometimes it’s too thin and runny, too thick and unspreadable to the point it tears your cake apart and you scream out, “FTS!” and make a trifle instead, and sometimes it is too airy and your cake looks like it has pock marks from a bad case of acne as a teenager. This isn’t to say that chocolate ganache doesn’t have problems, it’s just easier to fix them than other frostings if they occur. But the same recipe yields different results depending on which stage of the cooling process you use it, which makes it my most versatile recipe. While still warm, it can be used as a glaze. When it has cooled, it can be used as any other frosting, though it will be much richer than your average frosting, and much thicker too. Or, you can whip it until it resembles chocolate whipping cream, and frost your cake or fill a piping bag and pipe swirlies on the tops of cupcakes. Sometimes, I just use a large round tip and pipe the swirls which makes them look like cute edible pooh-piles. Whipped ganache keeps its shape, as it sets quickly, but melts in your mouth upon biting into it, filling you with peace, love and hope for a better tomorrow.

Again, I love chocolate. Chocolate chip cookies, brownies, cake, truffles, candy bars, cocoa, etc. No matter what, I refuse to give up chocolate again. Now, this isn’t to say that I’ll go all suicidal and split my wrists in the bath tub while singing loudly through my tears the words to Mariah Carey’s “I Can’t Live (If Living is Without You)” if the doctor tells me I can’t have it anymore, it just means I will probably go back to being a secret eater.


Chocolate Ganache

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
2 cups heavy cream

In a saucepan over medium heat, heat the cream to almost boiling (steam but no bubbles.) Add the chocolate chips, cover and remove from heat. Let stand for 10 minutes then stir until smooth. Allow to cool to desired consistency.

Or, when the cream is hot but not boiling, add chocolate chips and stir until smooth, making sure the cream never gets to boiling or the chocolate will separate and/or burn.

Or, using the double boiler method, place a glass bowl over a pan of simmering water and add the cream and chocolate, stirring constantly until smooth.

Or, and this is the method I use, put the chocolate chips in the bowl of a stand mixer, and heat the cream in the microwave until almost boiling. To make sure it is hot enough, I usually take it to boiling and then allow it to cool slightly before adding the chocolate. This is easily accomplished by testing the temperature with a metal spoon. If when you insert the spoon, nothing happens, keep heating it in 30 second intervals. If, however, you insert the spoon and it begins to bubble rapidly, it is boiling hot. Once it is at this point, I retest with the spoon every 15 seconds until it no longer bubbles, then add it to the chocolate in the stand mixer’s bowl and, using the whisk attachment, set the speed to STIR or LOW until it is smooth. At this point, if I plan on using any as a glaze, I take a small amount out and put it into a separate microwavable bowl. Then, every 30 minutes, I stir it for a few seconds until it has cooled to the point I can whip it. On MEDIUM speed, whip the ganache until it resembles whipping cream at the soft peak stage, which can take anywhere from a minute to five. I know some of you might be worried how this will frost, being so runny, but trust me, any further than this and you will have to reheat and start the process all over again and your 2 – 3 hours you just spent waiting to frost your cake will be for naught. Frost cake as usual, and/or fill piping bag to pipe decorations. This is also the perfect cake filling, even if using another frosting, because it holds its shape beautifully and does not settle like other fillings tend to.

Here are a few tips and pointers:

  • If you don’t want to come back to the ganache every 30 minutes to stir or whisk it, don’t. It usually takes about two to three hours to cool in a moderately heated home, but on warm humid days, it may take longer, alternately less time on cooler, dry days. Once it has cooled to the correct consistency, aka frosting consistency, whip it or use it.
  • If it has separated due to overheated cream, remove from heat and taste. If it tastes burnt, it probably is useless, but if it tastes fine, continue whisking it off the heat, maybe adding a tablespoon or two of cold heavy cream or butter to help cool it down, until it is smooth again.
  • If your cream was not hot enough and there are still bits of unmelted chocolate, you can either reheat and stir again until smooth, or just filter them out through a mesh sieve while it is still warm and glazey.
  • You can also make this recipe using regular whipping cream, which has a much lower fat content, however, the ratio drops from equal parts, to 2 parts chocolate to 1 part whipping cream, and thusly, reduces the amount of ganache.
  • If making milk or white chocolate ganache, the ratio is different because these chocolates do not contain the same properties as semisweet or bittersweet chocolates. Milk and white chocolate ganache is 2 parts chocolate to one part heavy cream, or a ½ part whipping cream. Any more cream than that, and you will end up with a lovely dessert sauce, but it will not work for frosting.
  • Leftovers can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks, or frozen for 3 months. Just remember to bring to room temperature and stir thoroughly before frosting.
  • If you want to make truffles, omit ¼ cup heavy cream, add two tablespoons butter, stir until smooth, then pour into a shallow baking pan (7x11 or 9x13), allow to cool, then spoon out and form 1” balls, coating them with either unsweetened cocoa or powdered sugar or melted chocolate for a hard shell. These will keep for a week at room temperature, 3 weeks in the fridge and a year in the freezer.
There, now you have my super-secret chocolate frosting recipe. I hope you put it to good use, and please, don’t feel guilty if there isn’t enough to save after you’ve frosted your cake. Just take a spoon and enjoy the deliciousness straight from the bowl.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Coffee

I like coffee. I like coffee a lot. But please don’t call me an addict, I know my limits.

Growing up, my parents were both coffee drinkers, who, after their divorce, married other coffee drinkers, so my childhood was filled with coffee-drinking adults. And not just any coffee drinkers were they, but strong coffee drinkers. My stepfather’s coffee was known to be so strong you could chew it, although this, in reality, was not the case. All of my parents knew the best way to enjoy coffee was at full flavor, which is to say, they roughly used 2 tablespoons of grounds per 6 oz of water, a strategy I continue to employ.

Now, some of you may say that is too strong for your tastes, but I guarantee that you’ve probably had a full-bodied coffee before and said it was the best. I remember a Christmas Eve not too long ago when my Grandma Carol said she couldn’t wait for my dad to get off work so he could make coffee. I offered, stating I knew how and spouted the ratio, to which I got the response, “Oh Cory! That’s too much!” Sure enough, when my dad walked into the door and was asked to go straight to the kitchen to put on a pot, I walked with him and noted he used the same ratio, and yes, it took two batches in the coffee grinder for enough grounds for the 12-cup pot he started. I don’t remember the exact comment I made to him, or his response, but I do believe it was something along the lines of ignorance being bliss. Which got me thinking, do people really know where their coffee comes from?

The coffee bean is one of world’s most traded agricultural commodities, yet a majority of it comes from farms that practice clear cutting of endangered lands, leading to the extinction of many plant and animal species. This is because the traditional “shade grown” method, while creating a much tastier brew, does not yield as many beans as “sun grown” coffee plants do, and thus, the more-bang-for-your-buck rule has been adopted. Also, many large coffee companies, in an effort to keep their prices low and their profits high, pay so little for their coffee beans, many would consider it slave labor. There is a reason a majority of developing countries rely on their coffee crops, and why they are still Third World countries. It takes a lot of land and a lot of people to cultivate, but many companies simply are not willing to pay fair prices for it, and sadly, neither are a majority of consumers.

Our church has been vital in my education of coffee farm practices, and only serves and sells fair-trade coffee. What is fair-trade? It is basically a market-based approach to help developing nations toward sustainability. The farmers get a better price for their crops, which, in turn not only improves the lives of those farmers, but also the community at large through infrastructure and development. Many times, the middle man is cut out of the equation, which allows the prices of most fair-trade products to remain only marginally higher.

Getting back to farm practices, it should be noted that many fair-trade coffee growers are also getting into the business of environmental sustainability as well. Many companies work with farmers to teach them farming practices that will help with biodiversity and sustainability, such as companion cropping to reduce or eliminate the need for fertilizers and pesticides. This makes their coffees more marketable to the very people it is intended for… the environmentally and socially conscious consumer.

I apologize for getting a little preachy here, but sometimes I gotta get on my soap box and say what’s on my mind. That, and this is my blog. My hope is that I at least got you thinking about where your coffee, and for that matter, your food in general comes from. Buying fair-trade, organic or shade-grown coffee is not only better for the environment, it is also helping the very farmers who produce it and their communities. And if you find a variety that is all three, well that is even better.

Here is a list of some of the coffee companies who promote one or more of these practices:

Thanksgiving Coffee Company - http://www.thanksgivingcoffee.com
Rogers Family Company - http://www.rogersfamilyco.com
Starbucks Coffee Company - http://www.starbucks.com
Equal Exchange - http://www.equalexchange.coop

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vacuuming

I wish they will invent the self-vacuuming floor already. They’ve already got wrinkle-free clothing and self-cleaning ovens, so wouldn’t floors be the next logical step?

We have hardwood floors throughout the house, with the kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room being the exceptions, as they have vinyl tiles or linoleum or, in the case of the still under reconstruction half-bath, subfloor decking. To say the least, we only have hard surfaces, so everything shows, meaning vacuuming should be a daily chore. I say should because it really does need to be done daily, but that doesn’t mean that I actually get around to doing it daily. And why vacuum? Why not just sweep? Have you ever tried to sweep pet hair and dander with a broom? It just floats up into the air, all whispy and light, only to land back down at a later time and/or date.

Now, we have a very nice vacuum cleaner, a Filter Queen Princess III model vacuum cleaner. If you are unfamiliar with Filter Queen, they are time-tested to be the best vacuum cleaners on the market, both for home and medical use. These vacuum cleaners are so good at their job, if you just leave it running it will actually clean the air too. And, the best part, it never loses suction, even when the canister is full, even VERY full. I know this from personal experience. So, the fact that even with one of the best vacuum cleaners on the market (Filter Queen has a newer model out now called Majestic 360) we still have to vacuum the floors daily means our animals shed way too much.

Our cat has medium length fur, but she doesn’t shed as much as she used to. Since she’s lost almost 7 lbs, she can now reach everywhere on her 14 lb body just fine, meaning she actually grooms herself again. For years, she apparently couldn’t be bothered with taking care of herself because our oldest cat would groom her instead. But after he passed away, she still didn’t take to having to groom herself once more, that is, until she lost enough weight to reach the backside of her body. She is at my feet right now, so if I say anything bad about her, I’m certain to get a good clawing!

Our dog, on the other had, has short hair, as she is a Great Dane. And from everything I’ve read about Great Danes, and the experience of having one growing up, they don’t shed that much… unless they have skin problems and allergies, which of course we would end up with a dog who has both. To counteract the fact that our dog has gotten to the point that she scratches and/or licks herself bald in some areas, I switched her dog food to a higher protein (yet still grain-free) content hoping it would help her fur grow back faster. It did, but because of that, it also means there is a lot more of her hair on the floor. I’m sure daily brushing would be nice, but it seems like when I brush her, it is just a neverending fur fest building up beneath her. I wonder if dog hair would make a good pillow filler? I could probably make a pillow-a-week with the amount she drops!

Okay, so back to vacuuming. Lots of dog hair, some cat hair, and random dirt and dander. All perfectly normal things to vacuum up off the floor. And I do so love to take out the vacuum and watch our huge dog tremble in fear, tail tucked, and hide in a corner as if it is a doggy torture device. I find it humorous that she is afraid of something a quarter of her size. Then again, I think all dogs have an innate fear of vacuum cleaners, like it is their own version of hell. Doggy hell. I can see the devil pushing and pulling a vacuum cleaner in front of the dogs and laughing joyously (thanks Family Guy!) Okay, so I’m guilty of doing the same thing, so I’m sure I didn’t quell any terrors she already had about them. I usually just put her outside or in the back office while I vacuum the rest of the house, which brings me to my point. Wouldn’t it be less stressful to our pets to have self-cleaning floors? I mean, sure, it would be one less task to have to do, making us into lazier individuals, but aren’t our four-legged friends worth giving up such things for?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Craft Room, Part 1

We have a rather small house, but for the two of us, it works out just fine. It is a three bedroom house, so we have the largest as our bedroom, one as the home office, and the other as my craft room which doubles as the guest room.

Currently the craft/guest room is a disaster. I have cake pans stacked in various places on the futon, card tables and side table, as well as on top of a cabinet I keep all of my rubber stamps and accessories in. Almost all of our Christmas wrapping paper, bags, bows, ribbon and tissue paper is on one of the card tables. And I have multiple bags of fleece, foam, Poly-fil, feather boas, faux fur, wire, ping pong balls, felt and foam sheets strewn throughout the room from assembling puppets. How does it get this way? What? You want a visual aid? Okay.


 
So, I thought to myself, “Why did you go through that whole process of organizing the entire room, making sure EVERYTHING had a spot, and then let this happen overnight?” And yes, literally overnight it went from being clean and organized to chaos and destruction. And then it occurred to me. I’m lazy. I don’t like to put things away when I’m done because I don’t want to have to pull everything I need to work on a similar project out again at a future date and/or time. Because of this, the door stays closed at all times. That, and it is my animal-free zone in the house.

While I have a busy week ahead, I am hoping that sometime today I build up the courage to tackle getting my craft room back in order, at least for the most part. I may decide that since my puppet stuff doesn’t have a permanent home yet, it will just end up under the card tables for now. Or if I get real rambitious (yes, I know this is not a real word, but I like inside-jokes that nobody else gets because I’m evil, so it is staying), I just might actually find a permanent location for it all to go. We’ll see.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Family Game Night

Growing up, we rarely had a family game night. The few times we did, it was something I wished we did more often. There were the big family games we would play at holiday get-togethers, which usually entailed gambling or at the very least, money to play, which were also a lot of fun, but as an immediate family, we rarely took the time to play a board game or card game. I remember thinking that when I get older and have kids of my own, we would have a weekly game night, if for nothing else, because it was a chance to do something together other than eat dinner or watch a movie. Little did I know what fate would have in store for me.

When I met my partner, I realized the “having kids” part of my adult life plan would actually take planning. Fourteen years later, we still do not have kids, just a butt-load of animals, however, I still hold out hope that we will adopt in the very near future. I keep telling myself that we are only in our early thirties, a perfectly normal age to start having kids, but the other voices in my head remind me that I was sixteen, going on seventeen, when my mother was my age now, and already had five kids.

I guess the trade off is that I replaced family game night with friend game night. We used to hold weekly Scrabble Death Match sessions, and rarely Life and sometimes Boggle. And before that, Scattergories, Monopoly, Apples to Apples and Cranium. Our linen closet is half filled with board games, card games and everything in between. Now, it is whenever we can get together and play, which has become about once a month.

So I guess what I am trying to say is that, if you have a family, play games together. If you don’t, play with your friends. If you don’t have friends, that is sad, but you always have the internet.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dawn

When we put all of our pullets together for the first time in the chicken coop, it was apparent that the pecking order started with Buffy. Quite appropriate, considering our entire cast of chickens are named after characters from the popular successful television series based off the failed big-screen movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The order went as follows from top to bottom: Buffy, Faith, Joyce (who by this point is Spike because she turned out to be a he), Tara, Kendra, Cordelia, Willow, Dawn and Anya (who we later changed to Xander because she turned out to be a he too.)



Yes, Dawn was just a sweetie pie of a chick, who was constantly picked on by the other chicks, so she was definitely toward the bottom of the totem pole. But, every time I walked up to them, she would be the first to greet me, and would even come to me when I called her name. She loved to be held and cuddled, and was so quiet and gentle. So when she got coccidiosis and was pooping blood, we immediately got medication for their water, figuring it can’t hurt to medicate the flock and hopefully prevent an outbreak. The upside was that she was going to live, but the down side is that most chicks who get coccidiosis end up not laying because the infection wreaks havoc on their system. Within a week, Dawn was better, and when it came time for her to lay, she did.
 


So, anyway, by this time, Willow was dead from unknown causes, Cordelia broke her leg and was put out of her misery by the rest of the chickens, Faith was dealing with egg peritonitis, from which she would soon lose her battle with, and Spike and Xander were rehomed, leaving Kendra without her male bodyguards, which let Dawn move up the ladder so to speak. Suddenly, our sweet Dawn was our little flock’s #2. However, it wouldn’t be until later that we realized how this would affect our brood.

A couple months later, when the first delivery of chicks arrived at our local feed store, the breeds they were supposed to have were delayed, but they did have Easter Eggers, Red Sex Links, and Black Sex Links. A sex link is basically any chicken that can be sexed by their physical differences as a newly hatched chick, usually by color. Red Sex Links have red girls and white boys. So I bought one Easter Egger, one Black Sex Link, and two Red Sex Links, which the guy thoughtfully gave me the two most different looking ones he could find, as he knew these were pets and we named them. Now we had some more of the gang back into the fold, but with slightly different names. The Easter Egger we named Alternate Universe Cordelia from the episode where Cordelia wishes Buffy had never come to Sunnydale and it comes true. The lighter Red Sex Link we named Vamp Willow, from that same alternate universe episode, and the darker we named Darth Rosenberg from the sixth season where Willow went all evil. And the Black Sex Link we named Anya. I know, it was already used, but the first one turned out to be a boy, so I had no problem reusing a perfectly good name.

When it came time to introduce the new girls to the big girls, Kendra immediately saw an opportunity to not be at the bottom of the pecking order, and terrorized the little ones. So much fun to watch, as we were evil and kept them all locked in the coop for the first week to let them get settled in. Of course, these new ones were not nearly as bright as the older girls, who immediately figured out how to walk up the ladder into the hen house at night to sleep. I had to go out there every night for two weeks to put them up on the roost because they refused to go in. It wasn’t until I watched them a little closer toward nightfall that I saw why… Dawn was chasing them out of the coop! Dawn! Our sweet little Dawnie!

WARNING!!!
NOT SUITABLE FOR KIDDIES!!!
THE NEXT PARAGRAPH CONTAINS WHAT MAY BE CONSTRUED AS BARNYARD EROTICA!!!

But it wasn’t until after the younger girls started laying that Dawn’s role as #2 got even more disturbing. Apparently, with the lack of an actual rooster around, she decided to take on the cock’s role of mating with the hens! Now, I’ve seen female animals take on the dominant role before, as our Great Dane has been known to hop on the back of a boy dog and start humping. Then again, our Lucy also does this with adult female humans too. But to watch our sweet, cuddly Dawn hold down the other chickens and bounce up and down on top of them is quite the sight! I only wish I had my camera out whenever she does it, but it’s done and over with so quickly I haven’t had the chance to snap a picture of the deed to show you.



However, Dawn’s most annoying thing is that she has also become the loudest of our little cluckers. I think she’s taking this whole dominatrix thing a little too serious, because her loud clucking is beginning to sound like crowing. Oh well. If the neighbors complain, I guess I’ll just have to hand them some fresh eggs, which usually is all it should take to calm the situation. I guess for now, I’ll let her have her way with the ladies. I just wonder, if we do end up deciding to get a rooster sometime down the road, how will she adjust?



Friday, January 22, 2010

Buttermilk

Oh buttermilk, how I love thee, let me count the ways! Every baker has a secret ingredient in their arsenal they use to make their baked goods stand out. I have many, but one of those is buttermilk.

Buttermilk has the right amount of tang to really bring out the flavors of citrus, but it also works wonders on a chocolate cake too. However, I use buttermilk in my cake recipes in place of milk because I find that it creates a moist, tender crumb that doesn’t fall apart when cut. I like to work with dense cakes because it makes them easier to decorate, and while buttermilk is only part of that process (sorry folks, I ain’t giving away all my secrets!) it is one part that I can share.

I bake a lot of cakes, but even with that, I don’t like to have that much buttermilk in the fridge. So, what I do is buy the powdered buttermilk in the baking aisle and add it to the dry ingredients, giving it a good whisk before adding the wet. This still has to be kept in the fridge, but one 12oz container will make 15 cups of buttermilk, which is almost a gallon. To make fully reconstituted buttermilk, it takes 4 tablespoons per cup of water. However, depending on the recipe, I use anywhere from1 – 4 tablespoons buttermilk powder per batch.

What else can you use buttermilk for? Pancakes, waffles and cornbread benefit from buttermilk. Biscuits are a natural choice as well. You can also put skin-on-bone-in chicken pieces in buttermilk overnight before breading and frying for an incredibly tender fried chicken. I encourage you to try this rarely used product if you don’t already. You can usually find non-fat and low-fat varieties in the dairy section by the cream, and some markets even carry the full-fat version too. I’ve used them all, and have found no noticeable difference between the three, except in the caloric increase in the fat-positive varieties. But hey, are you really counting calories if you’re consuming cake, biscuits and fried chicken?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Valentine's Cards

With Valentine’s Day just a few weeks away, it is time to start making them, or at least to start thinking about them. If you’ve got kids in school, you know how much fun and dread go into filling out cards for the class, but what about us adults? How many of us take the time to fill out cards for loved ones?

A few years ago at church during our choir’s Christmas music service, one of the choir members told a story of why she didn’t mail out Christmas cards. With all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, that was the easiest thing to scratch off the to-do list. So instead, during the much slower month of February, she would start sending out her thank-you cards in the form of Valentines. This accomplished two things: Actually sending out thank-you cards, and not fretting over what to write inside the Valentine Card.

I’ve adopted her strategy, because I am horrible at sending out thank-you cards or notes. And, it gives me another excuse to go see our friend Sarah so we can make the cards together, even if we do spend most of the time goofing off!

So I hope I’ve inspired you to send out your own Valentine’s Day Thank-You Cards. And before any of you start off with Miss Etiquette’s rule of 2 weeks from the time the gift is received, another rule is better late than never. And yes, e-cards are perfectly appropriate too!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Clutter

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a collector… more accurately, a hoarder. I grew up rather poor, so keeping what little we had was just a way of life for me. So, once I realized why I hoarded, I was able to confront the issue head on and begin the decluttering process. It’s almost a sort of healing process that occurred when I took the time to figure out what led me to a fear of letting go of things, and with that, was able to look objectively at what I wanted to keep, and what I could live without.

My partner made a pretty good argument about what to keep and what to donate or toss. Ask yourself, “Have I used it in the last six months?” If the answer is no, then ask yourself, “Will I use it in the next six months?” If that answer is also no, get rid of it. If you are not sure if it will be used in the next six months, keep it, but toss it if after another six months go by without needing it.

There are exceptions of course. Sentimental things, like pictures and baby blankets that obviously wouldn’t fall into this category. But home décor items that you haven’t used for five years, should definitely be in the toss or donate pile. If it is a family heirloom and you want to keep it in the family, either find a place for it, give it to another family member who might appreciate it and display it proudly in their home, or if you have kids who have a certain fondness for these items, designate a plastic tote for them and place item in it to be given to them when they move out. While this last suggestion does mean long-term storage, keep it to one plastic tote per kid, and it won’t be too much of a hassle unless you’ve got a dozen or more kids, in which case you’re screwed.

It never fails to amaze me how quickly stuff gets acquired. I recently did an overhaul of our bathroom, taking everything down and out to give it a good scrub down. So, with that, I will try to give you the breakdown of the decorative contents:  
  • 12 candles of various sizes, shapes and colors, with various holders
  • 6 framed pictures not on the walls
  • 4 framed pictures on the walls
  • 4 decorative containers of homemade bath salts
  • 3 bathroom rugs
  • 3 various sized monogrammed decorative towels
  • 2 plants in decorative containers
  • 1 scented oil burning lamp
  • 1 hanging fish air-fern planter, with no fern
  • 1 frosted votive candle holder filled with Q-tips
  • 1 old baptism/holy water bowl (I only recently figured out that is what this is)
Now, if this doesn’t seem like a lot to you, let me also say that this bathroom is 5 feet by 7 feet and has a pedestal sink, toilet, 2 x 2.5 ft counter-height cabinet, and a full sized bathtub. Needless to say, you couldn’t look anywhere in this bathroom without seeing or running into something. So when, after cleaning it, I decided not everything was going back in. I took a long look at what we had, and quickly decided what I could live without being in that room. Now this is the current decorative contents of the bathroom: 
  • 6 candles, all in shades of blue
  • 3 bathroom rugs
  • 3 various sized monogrammed decorative towels
  • 1 framed picture on the wall 
  • 1 plant
  • 1 frosted votive candle holder filled with Q-tips
  • 1 old baptism/holy water bowl with the hanging fish planter inside
Okay, so the baptism/holy water bowl and fish planter I could have lived without, but I love them, so they stayed. The six framed pictures above the toilet I could live without, even the one with the two little girls, one whispering into the other’s ear, who stared right at you while you urinated with surprised looks upon their faces. Okay, so I still think that one is funny, but it was time to say goodbye to them in an effort to declutter at least one room in the house.


Tuesday, January 19, 2010

School Plays

It wasn’t long ago that my partner and I went to see a local high school production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night with some friends. Sets were great. Costumes were beautiful. They even had excellent lighting and effects. And the theater rivaled that of professionals, complete with comfortable seating and perfect viewing from anywhere. However, what I noticed was missing from this was sound. Now, I know that I have a hearing problem. My ears can pick up about 50% what normal ears can hear, but I’ve made due with that, and honestly it can be quite humorous when I misinterpret what someone says.

I could count four of the actors who spoke clearly and from their diaphragm so the audience could hear them. And, even if I discount my obvious handicap, the people we were sitting with had trouble understanding most of the cast as well, not to mention those who fell asleep during the show, probably thinking that this was the longest intermission in history. But the part that really irked me was that there were microphones above the stage and speakers in the auditorium, and they weren’t being used. It seems a simple fix for the director to decide that since his cast can’t orate loud enough, to just turn on the microphones. The speakers were being used for background music before the show, during intermission, and in a few places within the play, so the excuse of not having a “sound guy” is out.

So what gives? Let’s ponder that while I bring in my next observation.

My partner has been volunteering his time to help out with another school’s upcoming production. They will not have elaborate sets, costumes or effects, and probably will not have sound amplification either. It won’t even be in a theater or auditorium because this school doesn’t have one. It will be in the commons area of the school with foldout or plastic chairs for the audience.

The difference between these two schools is simple: Money. The first school is new and the students mostly come from well-off families, whereas the second school is much older and in need of being replaced, but is in an under-funded district. So I suppose the real question I have is why is the education of the rich more important than the education of the poor? I’m not even going to pretend to try and answer this, I just wanted to pose the question.

So anyway, back to the production my partner is helping with. They are doing two short plays, and in one of them, a character is a puppet because, ironically written in the play, they couldn’t afford another actor, so the Queen plays herself and the King as a puppet. Being that this is a low value production, they were just using a sock puppet, and my partner, being the person he is, asked if they needed a puppet, and offered for me to make one. And so, with a broken sewing machine, I hand sewed over the weekend the King puppet for the play. And I know that my offer will be much more appreciated at the school that has little, than it would have been at the school that has plenty. And because of that, I’m looking forward to these bare-bones plays and already know that I will enjoy them more than the all-out play for the simple reason that these kids will have to actually work to put on a show, not fall back on everything they have been given.



P.S. - Yes, I realize this post is scattered. Deal with it.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Composting

We decided to start composting for a couple reasons. First, we wanted to reduce our outgoing garbage waste, and second, we got chickens. So then the quest for what type of composter to use began. Should we get a bin? One that spins? Indoor? Outdoor? Or, do we just dig a hole in the yard and cover it with a tarp? While at our local Fred Meyer store, I saw a 110-gallon black bin type for only $30 and decided to get it. The phrase, “You get what you pay for” is so true when it came to this. Yes, it works. But because the walls don’t stay connected very well, I’ve had to strap on six bungee cords in various locations around it. It’s ghetto, I know, but it keeps it all together.

Now, a 110-gallon unit may be a little large for the average family, but keep in mind all of the stuff we put into it. Whenever I clean out the chicken’s hen house, I put all of the straw, shavings and sh… poop in the compost bin. I also put all of our vegetable scraps not suitable for chicken-consumption, coffee grinds and filters, egg shells, any food containers and wrappers from Burgerville, and leftovers that have gone bad and don’t contain meat or cheese. I don’t remember why I no meat or cheese, but I do remember seeing something about it on TV or the internet, so it must be true. During the summer, about once a week, I’d lightly wet down the inside of the bin while watering the vegetable garden to keep it moist, but not soaked, as you want to encourage not only worms to help break down the waste materials, but also natural decay.

Now, the best part about this particular compost bin is that it has large openings on the bottoms of all four sides with slide-off covers. This allows you to scoop out the compost that has cured without having to dig out the stuff that has not. What do I do with this compost? Fertilize the gardens with it! Late winter or early spring is the best time to get your vegetable garden prepped, as well as your roses and flower gardens. I plan on scooping out the bottom half of our bin (it gets quite full during the year) and doing just this. A majority of it will go into the vegetable boxes, where I will simply put the compost on top and allow the chickens to scratch it into the rest of the soil. If you don’t have chickens, it is quite easily done with a hoe or rake. The roses will get the same treatment, while at the same time getting pruned and a good healthy dose of Epsom salt, which I also use when I plant my tomatoes, along with oyster shell, to discourage blossom end rot.

There are so many different types of compost bins out there, and many more tutorials online to help you make your own, even indoor ones that simply sit on the counter. I encourage each of you to find one that works for your family, and not only do something good for the environment, but also save money in the process. The results will be worth it!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Eggs

I’m not sure what has gotten into our chickens lately, but we’ve been getting summer production egg laying for the last few weeks. When the older girls all started molting (that is, losing their old feathers and growing new ones) they pretty much stopped laying, and only the younger girls were, except for our Easter Egger, Alternate Universe Cordelia, who is only supposed to be a spring and summer layer.

Only getting 3 to 4 eggs a day, after getting used to 7, was fine. We adjusted quite well, actually. And it’s not like we ever ran out of eggs and had to (GASP!) go buy some at the store to fulfill our consumptual needs.

However, now that we are back to 6 to 7 eggs a day, our fridge is starting to fill up with egg cartons again. So, I suppose the only thing I can do, short of giving them away to the many grateful people who want our girls’s delicious ovas, is make some egg-heavy dishes this week. Darn.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Sewing By Hand


With my sewing machine still down, I thought maybe I should reconsider the lost art of sewing by hand. Okay, so maybe it really isn’t a lost art, but it seems that with the ease and availability of sewing machines these days with their ever-increasing capabilities, the need to stitch something with your hands has tapered off.


A long time ago, in the days before we inherited my partner’s grandmother’s old 1963 Singer Touch & Sew DELUXE Zig-Zag Sewing Machine, I did my sewing by hand. I made baby quilts using the appliqué technique, Christmas stockings with exposed whip stitching, even a family tree quilt with lots of freehand embroidery work for my grandma (yeah, I’ve got mad embroidering skills.) I put my blood, sweat and tears into these projects… literally. I can’t think of a single hand sewed project I’ve done where I didn’t find a way to poke myself with the needle and draw a small drop of blood onto it. (Okay everyone who has received a quilt from me, let’s see if you can find the blood!)


There is something connective about sewing by hand that seems to be missing from most projects done with a machine. I can’t really put my finger on it, because there have been a few rare machine projects that I’ve done that I’ve had that same close connection to, but for the most part, I think it is the personal touch a hand sewed item has. The feel of a hand quilted blanket after laundering makes me appreciate each of those stitches even more, knowing how much time and care went into it. The beauty in the imperfections. The rustic charm it invokes.


Now don’t get me wrong, I love sewing machines, and they are great for when you need something to be sturdy and the stitching to be perfect. I’m just saying, maybe every once in a while, make a small project by hand. It can be quite therapeutic.

Friday, January 15, 2010

SPECIAL POST ON HAITI

A friend of ours has offered to donate 100% of the proceeds from her Etsy Shop to help with the relief efforts in Haiti. So this is your chance to get some amazing photographic artwork and donate to a good cause at the same time. You can access her shop directly from the link below.

http://www.etsy.com/shop/frecklesfairytales

I will update this post when I find out which organization is receiving these donations.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough

As promised from the Shrimp Pesto Pizza post, I have here my recipe for Whole Wheat Pizza Dough. If you have never used whole wheat flour before, you should. Besides the many health benefits, whole wheat has a nutty, buttery flavor that pairs well with most foods. Now, I don’t recommend using only whole wheat flour when baking, but a ½ & ½ mixture of whole wheat and all-purpose flours is a good ratio to go by, as straight whole wheat may yield some off results, like, say, denseness and overly-chewiness come to mind. I like to look at all cooking and baking as an experiment to try something new. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, so feel free to play around with the ratios. I’m just saying that equal parts works best for me.

 
Whole Wheat Pizza Dough
Makes 2 12-inch crusts

Combine in a large mixing bowl, or as I like to do, the bowl of a heavy-duty mixer, like, say, a KitchenAid Stand Mixer, and let stand until the yeast is dissolved, about 5 minutes:
 
2¼ teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
1⅓ cups warm water (about 105º to 115ºF)

Add:

1¾ cups whole wheat flour
1¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Mix by hand or low low speed for about 1 minute to blend all the ingredients. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand or with the dough hook on low to medium speed until the dough is smooth and elastic. I usually do the dough hook method in my stand mixer, lock it, and come back to it in 7 minutes. Transfer the dough to a bowl lightly coated with extra virgin olive oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place (75º to 80ºF) until doubled in volume, 1 to 1½ hours.
 
CORY’S TIP! – If you don’t have a warm place because you are keeping the thermostat down, don’t fret! You can either place the bowl on the top of the refrigerator or preheat your oven for 1 minute and place the bowl in there to rise.
 
Preheat the oven to 475ºF. Punch the dough down and divide it in half, and roll each into a ball. (If you only plan on making one pizza, go ahead and tightly wrap the other dough half in plastic wrap and keep it in the fridge for up to 3 days, allowing it to rise again at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking.) Allow the balls to rest, loosely covered in plastic wrap, for 10 to 15 minutes. Grease and dust with cornmeal baking sheet(s) or stone(s). Now comes the fun part. If you are up to the challenge of tossing your dough into a round, go for it. But for the rest of us, I give you these two options: 1) Flatten the ball of dough on a lightly floured work surface into a 12-inch round, rolling and stretching the dough, or, as I prefer, 2) Squish the dough to flatten in your hand and holding the disc vertically, allow gravity to do the stretching for you, turning the disc like you would a steering wheel until it is about 12-inches round. Place the circles on the prepared baking surface and, using your fingers, pretend like you are playing the piano over the entire top of the dough until it resembles a flattened eggshell foam mattress. This process isn’t just for fun, although it is a lot of fun, but the denting of the dough helps prevent bubbles from forming. Don’t worry if it isn’t perfectly round, I personally like the rustic shape homemade dough takes on. Brush with extra virgin olive oil, or, as I like to do, use my handy-dandy oil mister (Pam Olive Oil Spray will work too) and lightly spray the surface. Allow to rest for another 10 minutes. Put it in the oven for about 10 minutes to par-bake before topping and final baking.
 
I hope you enjoy this baking project. It is an easy one to do with the kiddos too, and will teach them about the science of baking.










Thursday, January 14, 2010

Building a Chicken Coop

I don’t consider myself to be completely inadequate when it comes to doing manly things, like working on cars or using power tools, but there are a few things I probably should have taken into consideration before we tackled the project of building a 6’x12’ structure that would house live animals. First, neither of us have a whole lot of building experience. Sure, I helped my step-dad frame the addition he built onto our house growing up, and helped him frame a house in Felida, albeit, only one wall. But I was 13 at the time, and I’m really sorry to whoever is living in that house if the wall fell down due to my inexperience! Second, we should have thought about materials we were using. We were doing this on the cheap, so we used the cheapest 2x4s and plywood we could find, to which so far the only downside is the plywood is a little warped, but still attached, so that’s a good thing. And third, we probably would have benefited from actual instructions, not unlike those for Lego models, instead of just a picture of somebody else’s coop we liked and copied.
 


It wasn’t difficult finding a location for the coop. Our backyard is practically split in half by a rock wall with stairs leading up to the upper half, where we have our dog do her business, so we can have a human yard that is free of poop. The only thing to think of now was which part of that upper half to place the coop. So, I would watch where the sun hits, noting how much each part of the yard receives, and decided the sunniest part got too much sun for chickens, but just right for a vegetable garden, and the opposite side got the least, perfect for keeping a chicken house cool in the summer.

With location figured out, and a picture to get us started, I mentally deconstructed the coop to figure out how much lumber we would need (thanks Lego building skills!) My partner felt we needed a second opinion, so we talked to his dad, who said that since we weren’t burying posts, we should build a trench, fill it partially with crushed gravel, and build the coop on 4x6 pressure treated skids. The lazy in me said FTS (sorry kiddos, what I said is not child friendly.) But, the real in me said that he was right. We needed the outside structure to be able to support the weight, and we didn’t want it flying off ala Wizard of Oz style during a wind storm. So the extra was added to our shopping list, along with a trip to the nearby feed store his dad had called to see if they had any chicks, and they did, so we picked a couple up to add to our other two we had in the garage before heading home.

So with our list, we went to the hardware store and picked up most everything we needed, adding a few more 2x4s and an extra sheet of plywood for safe measure. And when we got home, promptly unloaded everything into the backyard to cure for a few weeks… okay, so we really weren’t all that motivated to actually start the building process, gosh, get off my back! Dug the trench, filled with gravel, placed the 4x6 skids down and nailed them together with steel reinforcements, and now it’s time to build. Let me just say that the old rule of measure twice, cut once doesn’t help when your measurements are off. So we quickly followed a new rule, where all three of us (my partner, our friend, and myself) would each measure, and if we all came up with the same number, we cut! And just like that, the coop was complete… over the course of a month… during a particularly hot summer.









 


It hadn’t rained at all that summer, so we felt safe leaving it unpainted before moving 6 of the 9 birds into their new home. A week later, as I am priming the hen house, lo and behold, it starts to rain. So I decided to just leave it primed on the three sides that aren’t covered, and paint the rest at a later date. And of course, this means that after I had started to paint, it began raining again. But fortunately it was only a sprinkle, and a passing one at that, so with three sides primed and painted, I’d finish the one wall inside the coop come spring.


 
Now, the only thing we had left to do was stain the exposed 2x4s that were not outdoor grade, and we figured we would do that when we stained the deck we had just built… okay, my partner’s dad had just built with his help. So, after getting a great deal on a 5 gallon drum of stain the following July, we stained the deck, and decided to do the coop later. And so, yeah, you can probably guess that we still haven’t stained it. But soon… hopefully.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Kitty Litter

Anyone who has or has ever had a cat can tell you the hardest part about taking care of them is their litter box. Well, maybe not the hardest part, but certainly the most dreaded. Finding a litter that will trap any odors that may pervade the air, and leaves you with two options:

1) Get a litter that actually works at controlling odor.

2) Install a kitty door and put the litter box outside.

We’ve chosen option number one… for now. As your typical cat owners, we had been using the clay variety that claimed to work for multiple cats, because, at the time, we had three. One was an outdoor cat who slept in the garage, and he had his own litter box that he would poop in, but only peed outside. My guess is that he saved up all his urine to spray anything and everything, which is why he was an outdoor cat. The other two were mostly indoor cats who would occasionally step outside for a few minutes, and so we had two litter boxes in the laundry room for them that eventually got moved to the half bath.

Needless to say, multi-cat litter didn’t help, even when we only had the one cat left, and she had two litter boxes to herself. We had tried the clumping variety, which turned out to be the messiest variety, because the sandy particles clumped to the bottoms of the cats feet, and were deposited wherever the cats would go. And, the smell was still ever present. So back to the multi-cat litter, and I would cover the bottom of the litter box with baking soda before filling, and this worked, for a few days. Scooping the poop out didn’t work either, as the smell was coming from the ammonia in the pee, which left us changing out the litter boxes every few days, which also cost us a lot of money.

We had tried every brand and generic, clay, clumping, newspaper, and our last option seemed to be this stuff called Feline Pine. It cost more, but after reading the package, it also said the bag would last 4 months, which left me calculating out the cost of four 20lb bags of multi-cat litter and realizing it would save half. So I figured, what the heck, we can try it. And so I bought it, took it home, cleaned out the litter boxes and filled them both with the recommended amount of litter, and waited to see what our cat thought of it. We had two litter boxes, one covered and one uncovered, because our cat didn’t mind people watching her tinkle, but liked her privacy while she went #2. However, we noticed she wasn’t using her covered box anymore, so we removed it. This new litter seemed to be working! There was no smell except for the scent of pine, and you knew when it was time to change because the pellets broke down to sawdust when wet, which took over 2 weeks.

Since then, I’ve switched to a cheaper brand which works just as well (hey, tight budget when you’re unemployed and your partner is underemployed.) But there are other benefits as well. The poop can be scooped out regularly and flushed down the toilet, which you can’t do with clay and some clumping litters. The byproduct is pine sawdust, which is not only environmentally friendly, but also compostable! Just make sure you scoop out the poo-poo first, as pet and human waste should not be composted, unlike waste from most farm animals, which can.

Eventually we want to keep all of the animal stuff in the garage, putting the cat’s litter box, food and water bowl in there, along with the dog’s food and water bowls. Then we’ll install a cat door to the garage so she can freely go in and out. We also plan on putting the dog kennel back up in the garage so when we have company, doggy can go in there instead of getting in everyone’s way or knocking them over and eating their food as they lie on the hardwood floor bleeding and concussed.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Borax

My personal favorite brand is “20 Mule Team® Borax” because it is made in the USA, and because there are twenty donkeys on the logo. What can I say, I’m quirky like that. If you’ve never used borax, then I will try to explain to you why it should be added to your cleaning supplies. If you have used borax, then you already know what a great cleaner it is, right?

First of all, borax is a natural cleaner, and is usually found in evaporative deposits of seasonal lakes, but do you really care that California and Turkey have the largest commercial deposits? If you do, Google it. The compounds of borax are sodium, boron, oxygen and water, but these soft crystals can really work their magic.

The most common thing I use borax for is laundering. Our dog is allergic to practically everything, so washing her bedding and blankets in something that won’t cause her skin to break out is a necessity. I usually use ½ cup in place of detergent and fabric softener for anything she will be in direct contact with, or if I have a particularly soiled load, I’ll add ½ cup along with detergent and fabric softener. It is also safe to use with bleach. And because it is so gentle on the skin, perfect for baby diapers and clothes.

I also use it to clean porcelain, whether it be the toilet, sink or even the bathtub. It works great on fiberglass too. Even washing your fine china in borax will help it sparkle like new. Sucio no mas. ¡Esta limpio!

But to be honest, the real reason I originally got borax was when our dog had some bladder control issues because of the medication she was on at the time. I was tired of buying these expensive carpet cleaners, so I searched the cleaning aisles for something else that might work, came across “20 Mule Team® Borax”, and bought it. All I had to do was sprinkle the borax over the urine, rub it in a little, and let it dry until it could be vacuumed up. Anybody with youngins has had to deal with a pee-soaked mattress, and the same cleaning process works for that too.

Now I can’t imagine not having a box of it around. It is inexpensive, very environmentally friendly, has so many uses, and best of all, it works! If you want to learn more about it, I’ve placed a couple links for you to check out.

http://www.20muleteamlaundry.com
http://www.scvhistory.com/scvhistory/borax-20muleteam.htm

Monday, January 11, 2010

Puppets

Sorry about the mush-fest that was yesterday’s post, I was feeling pensive.

 I’ve loved puppets since as early as I can remember. Watching “The Muppet Show” with my parents is the earliest memory I have, and the fact that we did it together, as a family, just reinforced my love of puppets. Now, you would think that it would be of “Sesame Street” or “Mr. Rogers”, whose puppet-based learning programs were built for children, but alas, it was the prime-time show that I remember the most. And I guarantee it was the universal appeal of adult humor with child-friendly puppets that drew my family to watch it.

 So, during my childhood (you did read yesterday’s post where I talked about my stage-fright, right?) I would make puppets and put on puppet shows for my very large extended family. I could accomplish my desire to perform for one reason, and no, it wasn’t because it was in front of my family… I was behind the stage, hidden from view. Yes, my many voices would be made known as I talked with my hands to bring life to these puppets, but my face was always hidden from view, and my eyes never made contact with the audience. Even today, I’ve found the only way I can perform is to blur my vision and look over people’s heads in the audience. As a wise director once told me, “While you are up on stage, I don’t want you to look at people, just look in their direction, which, if you’ll notice, there are three doors behind them. I want you to look at the exit to the right, the center exit, and the left exit.”

 Last year, having just lost my job right before Christmas, I decided to make presents for most of my nieces and nephews and a couple second cousins whom I consider nieces. And for them, I decided to make puppets. It actually all started while we were rewatching “The Muppet Show”, and in a couple episodes the guest star received a Muppet-likeness of themselves at the end. A friend of ours said she wanted a Muppet-likeness of herself, so I thought that I’d make her one, and had so much fun, I made puppets for the kids. I didn’t make any for our nephews in California, as I thought they would be too old for puppets, and, well, we’re bad uncles.








Now, I had given away all the puppets I had made, and felt sad… I didn’t have any for me! And so I did a little research on making more intricate puppets, ones with poseable fingers and hidden slots in their wrists for arm rods to be attached. And so I began work on my puppets, and I think I got a little carried away because it is, well, big. But, I made it for me, and it fits my arm length perfectly. I’m still thinking about attaching hips and legs to it, maybe with Velcro so they can be removed when I don’t want to use it as a full-body puppet. But then decided to make a smaller puppet for me like the ones I made for the kiddos.



 
And so here I sit, writing this blog entry about puppets, and wishing my sewing machine wasn’t broken because I really want to make some more. But alas, my craft room looks like a big pile of foam, fleece and feather boas, as if a nuclear holocaust attacked the set of “The Muppet Show.”



Sunday, January 10, 2010

Church Family


If someone were to tell me 10 years ago that I would be attending church again, I’d have laughed at the idea, the pure absurdity of it even being mentioned. But, as fate would have it, August of 2004 put a stop to that notion.

To start with, the churches I had attended growing up and through high school were all big to mega-church sized. The ones where you were just one of thousands of blank-faced people and nobody knew who you were. Perfect for a person who wanted to pretend to have a relationship with God, without having to have that Community of Christ feeling that had names and faces attached.

So, to get back to that August Sunday morning in 2004 when we were invited to church by a friend who held a lot of the same views about the church that my partner and I held (basically, just a lot of phonies,) we decided to check it out. And we’ve never regretted this. We were immediately greeted with a warmth and sincerity I had never experienced in my life. It was not what I was at all accustomed to in a church, as it was smaller, around 120 regular attendees, and the people seemed to genuinely care about one another. Fellowship is a word that gets carelessly tossed about in the Christian faith, but at this church actually means something. And it was this fellowship that made us feel at home that summer morning, even though we were easily the youngest adults there.

Since then, we have made some incredible friendships I can’t imagine not having in my life. So many people we have come to know and love. A few have gone on. And a few have passed away. We’ve lost a pastor to retirement, had an incredible interim pastor to really shake things up, and have a new pastor who has helped our little church grow with more young families than I ever thought possible.

My partner sings in the church choir and is part of the Education Committee. I am not in the choir, which is certainly a blessing as I cannot sing or hold a tune to save my life, but am an usher, on the Parish Life Committee, and also the head of our church’s current Capital Campaign Committee to help raise money to fix our roof and signature skylight cathedral glass. I help teach Sunday School a few times a year, basically whenever there is an art project or baking involved. I also tend to be the person our pastor grabs to do last minute announcements or skits or one time, to help with the sermon right before church started. I have become much more comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, something that kept me from being in drama as a high school student, and something I always regretted not doing. But now have found that I enjoy the stage and acting and hope to continue doing this, even if only in our little church for fundraisers or skits. I wouldn’t have ever felt comfortable doing this without having a supportive church family.

Our church means so much more to me than the physical place services are held. It is the community of people who make up our church, the people who, when they ask how you are, actually want to know and are not just making small talk. It is this community of people that keeps us coming back. And it is this community of people that I am so incredibly blessed to have in my life.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Joy of Washing Dishes

Call me weird, but I’ve come to enjoy washing dishes by hand. There is something about it that is calming, soothing. Of course, this is only as long as I do them daily. If I take a couple days off and have a horrendous pile of unorganized, dried on food-gunked dishes, pans, silverware laced with egg yolk from 2 mornings ago and glasses that have the distinct white spotty bottoms of unrinsed milk, the calming aspect is replaced by dread.

I attribute the fact that some of the joy of doing the dishes comes from the window above the sink that looks out onto the backyard. During the spring and summer, and even most of the fall, there are a plethora of flowers in bloom, bringing out even more varieties of birds than the finches, swallows and robins that call our backyard home all year. And of course, the girls are usually free-ranging during the day. The girls would be our chickens, as I refer to them most of the time, even though our other two pets are also girls, they really aren’t the outdoorsy types.

I try to keep the dishes somewhat organized after using them too, but when you do them daily, it isn’t too difficult to begin the separation process right before washing. Of course, the first thing I do is put away the clean, dry dishes from the rack and two cooling racks I use for drying. So, while the water is running to get as hot as it will go, I stack the plates, stack the bowls, cluster the glasses and mugs, stack the pans on the stove (I don’t have a whole lotta room to work with, so that is usually where they end up), and either put the silverware in a mixing bowl or colander if I used one, or just pile them on the counter next to the plates. I plunge the stopper into the right side of our double sink, put the stack of plates in, and squeeze some dish soap onto them, allowing the water to begin turning the soap to foam until there is about 2 inches of water in the sink. The higher the soap to water ratio is, the easier it is to clean the dishes.

Now, we have a double sink, nice and deep and perfect for hand washing dishes as each are the same size and depth. So after washing the plates using my trusty bar mop dish rags, I restack them into the left sink basin. When the plates are done, I put the glasses and mugs in the soapy sink, rinse the plates and put them in the rack to dry. After the glasses are washed and rinsed, I put them on one of the cooling racks (you know, the things that normal people use to cool cookies on) to dry. Next are bowls, going into the rack, silverware going into the rack in the specialized draining cup, and pans, either in the rack for sauté and fry pans, or on the cooling rack for soup and stock pots if they won’t fit in the dish rack.

Of course, there are always some exceptions. Cast iron skillets are only rinsed in water when needed, as soap will wash away the seasoning that coats the pan. I rarely rinse mine any more, and have found that if there is any food stuck on them, I just use a few tablespoons of coarse kosher salt and a paper towel to pry the food particles off, making sure to rub a little more vegetable oil all over the pan before putting it away. Stoneware, such as that from Pampered Chef, is another rinse only. Getting soap onto stoneware will cause it to give off a foul odor when cooked that will leach into the food, as the soap works its way into the porous material and is impossible to completely rinse out. I’ve never had a problem with any of my stoneware not coming clean with just a little water, and my pizza stone is so seasoned, I just use a little plastic scraper to take off any stray cheese that may have fallen onto it while baking. Of course, I leave mine on the bottom rack of the oven at all times unless I’m broiling something, in which case I remove it to prevent it from cracking under the intense heat. Pampered Chef tells you not to do this, but I’ve had ours in the oven for years, and I honestly think it helps to regulate the heat, resulting in better baked goods. Just saying, this is my opinion. Also, I usually don’t air dry my stoneware, but turn the oven on to 350ºF before doing the dishes to allow it to preheat, and put them in, turn the heat off, and leave them in for 10-20 minutes before taking them out to cool and put away.

I have found that daily routines make things go by faster, and some days, I completely forget that I’ve even done the dishes at all. Now, if only I could routinely vacuum the floors…