Sunday, February 28, 2010

Baby Blanket Part 2: Patterns & Piecing

Okay, so you should already have your fabric chosen, your design figured out, and have a rough idea of what you want your baby blanket to look like. Now comes the hard part… making patterns for the appliqué, and cutting the pieces.

Well, patterns can be easy or hard, depending on how difficult you want to make them. If you are making an appliqué character that will be symmetrical, simply draw half of the pattern on sturdy card stock, construction paper, or plain copy paper, fold it in half and cut. This will leave you with a perfectly symmetrical patter from which to trace onto your fabric. Continue drawing and cutting out the pattern pieces until you have all of them ready to go.

Now it is time to cut your fabric. If you have it, use rotary scissors and a cutting mat with a straight edge or ruler to cut your fabric pieces to be quilted together. For this particular baby blanket, I cut out four 4½” squares for the corners, eight 4½” squares for the corner adjacent pieces, and four 18½” pieces for the center of the borders. Next, I cut a 26½” square for the center and a 36” square for the backing. This will make up the base of the quilt.

Before cutting the pattern pieces, I lay the paper patterns down where they will go onto the blanket, and check whether any pieces will need to be adjusted. If everything fits well, move on to the tracing stage. If it doesn’t, cut down the pieces that aren’t working, or make a new pattern if it is really bad… and yes, this sometimes happens!

For light fabrics, I usually trace with a regular pencil, going around the paper pattern onto the fabric and being as frugal as possible because I am a cheapskate. When tracing onto dark fabrics, I use a white colored pencil. Both pencil types will wash out when you are done quilting and give the blanket a quick wash and dry before gifting it.

Next, cut out your traced fabric pieces. For this you can use rotary scissors or regular fabric scissors, whatever you find easiest to work with. I usually switch back and forth, using regular scissors for the smaller pieces, and rotary for the larger. For some of you more adventurous folks, and I have done this too on a couple quilts I’ve done for my friend Sarah’s twin daughters baby shower, just freehand the appliqué pieces without a pattern. This sometimes makes a rather whimsical freestyle look that can work, depending on the design.

So all your pieces are cut, now what? It is time to do a dry run with all the fabric in place where it will go before you start sewing. Doing this will help you decide if it needs further tweaking or if it is time to start pinning and sewing. Gotta fix something that doesn’t look right? That’s why you do a dry run. If it looks perfect, it is time to start pinning and sewing…

Come back tomorrow for Baby Blanket Part 3: Pinning & Sewing

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Baby Blanket Part 1: Planning

The first thing I do when I’m planning a baby blanket is take a look at the fabric I already have. This usually results in me going to the store to buy more. After that task is done, it is time to design the blanket.


Most baby blankets I have done are thirty-four inch squares. Why this arbitrary number, you ask? Well, a crib sized blanket is 34x48 inches, and from what I have seen, this is too large for little hands to carry once they are toddlers, but the shorter square seems to be just right. That, and I have also seen a lot of these blankets used as wall hangings when they get older, in which case, a square is easier to hang than a rectangle, especially when taking furniture into account. Of course, the real reason is because I got a really good deal on 36” muslin and crib-sized cotton batting years ago when my first nephew was born, and utilized that on the first eight baby blankets I made.

Usually I have my fabric choices picked out before I start the design process, but sometimes, I start the design process and build around that. Either way works. I usually find it easier to design something around the fabric, than try to find fabric to go with the design. Drawing out the design, and don’t worry about scale, I can get a rough sense of what the quilt may look like. Nearly all of my baby blankets share the same traits: They are 34” square; they have 4” square corners, surrounded by a 4” border between, and sometimes more squares beside the corners; they have a 26” square center; they have a large appliquéd insect or animal in the center; they are backed with plain, natural muslin; they have a hand embroidered original character insect on the back; they have the child’s name embroidered under the bug; they have my signature name embroidered in the lower right-hand corner.

Once the design is finalized, I start placing different fabrics in various places on a table to get an idea of what fabrics will go where. Most of the time I have an idea, but until I start putting them side-by-side, I don’t know if it’ll work. With the one I’m working on now, I ended up not using two of the fabrics I bought for this project because I couldn’t figure out a place to put them, and that is okay because I did use two fabrics I already had, both of which were leftovers from other baby blankets. Once you have all your fabric choices and placements figured out, it is time to move on to the next step…

Come back tomorrow for Baby Blanket Part 2: Patterns & Piecing.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Family Movie Night

While we don’t have any children of our own, we do have plenty of nieces and nephews, and I certainly have my fair share of brothers and sisters I was responsible for helping to raise. When it would be time to watch a movie, I never really paid attention to ratings, as growing up, family movie night meant Nightmare on Elm Street, Alien (and Aliens), Terminator (and Terminator 2), and pretty much what most would consider not appropriate for children 8 and under to be watching. So of this, I am certain: You can’t decide a movie’s watchability based on its rating; I am not qualified to judge a movie’s watchability based on the viewer.

A while back, we were watching our nephews, who were six and four at the time, and thought they’d like to watch Jaws. So being the cool uncles, we put the movie in and let them watch it, and they were completely enthralled by the shark. More than halfway through the movie, and well after *** SPOILER ALERT!!!*** Alex gets eaten by the Great White, the older nephew keeps asking, “When are they going to save Alex?” and when they get on the boat to go attack the shark answered himself, “Oh! Now they’re going to save Alex!” His little brother, Jericho, only four at the time mind you, gives him an incredulous look and informs him, “Alex is dead, Elijah, the shark at him.” Now, Elijah had to think about this for a second, and in his logic, asked, “Then why are they going to find the shark if they aren’t going to save Alex?” to which Jericho responded, after rolling his eyes (and this is no lie), “To kill the shark,” before turning back to the TV to finish watching the movie. Watching Elijah get all teary eyed, I thought to myself that I’d have to reassure him that the possibility of him getting eaten by a shark were quite low, and at the most he’d lose a limb, but fortunately the animatronics shark showed back up on the screen, and his eyes were once again glued to the TV.

I mean, I should have known that I didn’t have the ability to judge a movie’s appropriateness for the audience when my mother and I decided that Candyman would be an excellent choice for my sisters combined birthday party sleepover, filled with over a dozen seven to ten year old girls. Or maybe when my little sister and I decided our ten year old brother was old enough to watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show, since that was how old she was when she first watched it. And it doesn’t seem to stop at movies, as when my other sister showed up and we were watching Queer as Folk and she blurted out, “I didn’t know two guys could do it like that!”

No, I don’t think we have had good judgment on the matter of what kids are able to not only comprehend, but also understand that a movie is only fiction, and not real. Although, I do have to say, my little brother and cousin watching The Blair Witch Project were totally convinced it was real, and I played up their inattentiveness by saying that we could go to those woods as they were only fifteen minutes away. Yes, I have a bit of an evil sadistic streak in me, but I think we have gotten to a place in our lives where we can be better judges of what is appropriate and not for kids to be viewing. Of course, there is still a part of me that wants to watch Pan’s Labyrinth or Grave of the Fireflies with the little ones.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Building a Garden Box

Okay, so you’ve decided to start a vegetable garden, however you are clueless as to where to start. The first thing you should do is find a sunny location, and the second is to decide whether to plant directly into the ground, or build a frame and fill it with soil. If you have opted for the framed version, keep reading. If not, keep reading anyway, you might learn something.

One thing I should note before we get any further is that where the sun hits during the winter is different than during the summer, and a good vegetable garden requires at least six hours of sunlight to grow you some delicious fruits and veggies. Looking at your yard now, you can get an idea of where the best location for a kitchen garden should go. Ideally it would be as close to the kitchen as possible, allowing for herb cutting and vegetable picking while you are preparing dinner, but a good sunny area will provide you with a greater harvest. In warmer parts of the country, afternoon shade is more beneficial than sun to a large variety of plants, so keep that in mind too.

Now that you have your location scouted out, you have options. If you have good soil to begin with, which means that you had it brought in because our soil in the northwest is mostly clay and won’t grow much of anything in the fruit and vegetable world, I’d suggest you build a mound, hoeing the soil well to aerate it as you go. If you don’t, or want to start with a good garden soil base, either purchase bags of soil, or buy it by the yard, either hauling it yourself in a pickup or trailer, or having it delivered. If you need 3 or more cubic yards, do yourself a favor and have it delivered.

Let us now focus on the garden box itself. You will want to choose an untreated wood for your boxes, as any chemicals in the wood will leach into the surrounding soil, in turn entering the food, which will then enter your body upon consumption. And that is just gross. Cedar is an excellent option, but pricier, and will weather nicely. Or, you could do what we did, and buy just regular 2x12s, 8 feet in length, and figure you will end up replacing them in about five years. You can always paint them too, which looks good in a vibrant garden, but I like the look of naturally wearing wood, and it fits our space and surroundings. If you have a Tuscan garden, bright yellows and greens would be a welcome paint color, and if you have an English garden, simple white boxes would work nicely.

When we planned our garden space, we went half and half with a friend who wanted a space to garden with her nieces. This is not only a great way to cut down on costs, but also means you can grow a greater variety of items if you agree to share or trade fruits with each other. The three of us each had our own boxes, her nieces shared one box, and we all grew our herbs in pots surrounding the space. Wanting to start off small, we figured that 4x4 foot raised beds would be a good starting point. I suggest starting small to begin with if you don’t have experience growing your own fruits and vegetables, and gradually build up each year, or as you find the time. You’d be surprise just how much you can grow in a small box.

Knowing that we wanted four boxes, and knowing that we didn’t want any stray grass from coming up through the boxes, we put down a lot of landscape fabric in a 20x20 foot space first, letting the heat and lack of sunlight kill the grass beneath it. Then we built our boxes. With 4x4 foot boxes, we simply had eight 8 foot long 2x12s cut in half at the store and took home the pieces in the trunk of our Hyundai Elantra, and bought some two inch screws to assemble them when we got home. Our friend PJaye and I took the wood out of the trunk, stacked it in the yard, and started screwing the pieces together into squares. For extra stability, we alternated each piece so the side was screwed into the front at all four corners. I made a picture to show you, because it is a little difficult to explain.
Other ways you could do this to provide more stability, especially for any box larger than a four foot square, is to use 4x4s cut to fit, screwed into the inside corners and every four feet along the length. And if you decide to make your boxes taller, like say 24” high, use this technique for any size box. Four feet wide makes it so you are able to reach into the box without having to get into it, however with this type of box, you can make it as long as you want. Personally I find the four foot squares easy to manage and keeps the garden nice and organized, however, this year I plan on building a 4x8 foot box behind the vegetable garden where we have previously planted the three sisters (corn, beans and squash) for strawberries.

Once the boxes are assembled and placed where you want them to go, it is time to start filling them with soil. If you built a mound, simply put the box around it and spread the soil, leveling it off. Otherwise, haul the soil and fill the boxes at least half way, but no more than three-quarters full. You don’t want all that beautiful garden soil to wash over the edges while watering!

Boxes are done and filled with soil, and now it is time to plant. Yeah! I already suggested starting small, but also only plant what you will actually eat. Just because a certain variety of exotic chili pepper looks neat, will you actually use it? If the answer is no, don’t plant it. Your vegetable garden is valuable space that you have spent time and money preparing, so think about what you buy regularly during the spring and summer, and if your climate allows, plant some of those. Seed packets usually contain a lot of seeds, and if kept in a cool dry place, will last a couple seasons, however, sometimes it is actually cheaper to buy individual plant starts if you only need one or two. And remember, if you find you are quickly outgrowing your box, simply build another, as our mild climate has a large variety of fruits and vegetables that can be planted and harvested all year round.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

My Sewing Machine is Back!

For the last couple weeks, my 1963 Singer Touch & Sew Deluxe Zig-Zag Sewing Machine Model 600 has been in the repair shop. Of course during that time, I wanted to sew, and had all these ideas floating around in my head. And of course, now that it is back, they seemed to have flittered out.


I’ve got a quilt that I’ve wanted to work on for a couple years, and have the fabric already cut and ready to piece together. And I have a puppet I’ve needed to put together for our church’s YouTube announcements. Then there are the plethoras of other projects I’ve wanted to tackle, like market bags and pillow covers and slip covers for the La-Z-Boy reclining sofa and chair-and-a-half. So maybe the last one is a little ambitious, but seriously, anything has got to be better than the old tattered quilts and bed spreads we’ve been using to keep the rips and tears in the seat cushions from getting any worse.

Why is it that when I have so many creative ideas flowing in my head, I am at my least motivated state to create? It must be the artist and the rationalist in me duking it out, which of course, the artist loses nearly every time.

“I want to paint a pretty picture!” said the artist, in a carefree yet determined tenor.

“You can’t paint! The toilet needs to be scrubbed, dishes washed, floors vacuumed, windows cleaned, bathtub sprayed with bleach to get rid of that damned mildew problem, dog bathed and her nails clipped, laundry washed and folded, furniture dusted, garden weeded and watered, chicken coop cleaned out, and maybe if you have time, eat something!” screamed the rationalist, rather demandingly, as if he was an authoritative figure, and one to be reckoned with at that.

So many projects I want to make and so many chores that need to be done. Maybe someday I will find a good balance between the two, instead of ignoring them both. Until then, I’m going to go get another cup of coffee and check my Facebook.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

When to Plant Your Seeds

Yesterday the weather was nice, again, so I decided to take advantage of it and do some more garden prep, and plant some cold crops. But the first thing I had to do was go through my seed packets to see what I needed, and what I already had.

I needed to go to the feed store anyway, our local Thrifty Feed and Garden, as our dog was low on food and the chickens were out of grit, so I perused the seed section for a few things I knew would be able to be planted now. Peas are the obvious, and so are lettuces, but carrots and radishes are also good cold crops which can stand a few frosts. I also got spinach seeds, an heirloom variety that is not only cold hardy but heat tolerant too. As I was checking out, I noticed they had onions, both yellow and red, and I knew I had half a box to play with, so I picked up some of those as well to fit into that spot.

With my arsenal in hand, I headed home to start gardening. Okay, so I went to Fred Meyer’s to get a Garden Weasel and then went to the repair shop to pick up my sewing machine, but then changed into some old pants and foam clogs and started attacking a new section of the yard we plan on planting sunflowers, beans and various squash in late spring. After tilling and aerating the soil, I threw down quite a bit of compost and let the chickens work it into the ground while I started on the garden boxes. I had already put compost in the boxes a few weeks earlier, both to let the nutrients spread throughout the soil, and to break down anything that hadn’t broken down completely in the composter. This turned out perfect, because as I was loosening up the soil I noticed that it was a nice, dark, almost black and clump free. By the way, we had the soil for the garden boxes brought in a couple years ago, and it is an equal part mixture of sand, peat moss, chicken manure compost and steer manure compost, and contains no dirt. This keeps the soil light and airy and is perfect for container gardening, and allows tighter plantings than you would be able to do in the ground.

Soil prepped, arms tired, and a cough that won’t seem to quit, I hoed out some shallow trenches and started planting some peas in one box. I did plant them a little closer than the package said, but I figured if they get too cramped, I’ll just pluck a few out. I put one seed every three inches down the row, and planted the rows six inches apart going north to south. This isn’t necessary when clump planting, but if the rows were a foot or two apart, the space you’d want if you were planting in a field so you could get between the rows for harvesting, this method ensures that each plant gets the maximum amount of sun.

As I was planting the spinach, I got tired of the chickens getting in the way, so I put them back into their coop. Dawn was not happy. She cackled and cawed loudly as if cursing me for putting them into the run so early. Anyway, so when I planted the spinach, I spaced the rows four inches apart, and planted seeds three inches apart in every other row. After these sprout and start forming leaves, I will plant between the rows for a later harvest. Usually I just pull the baby leaves off and let them keep growing back, but I think this year I am going to do that with the first set, and then harvest everything at once, blanch, freeze, and use it as needed for Shrimp Pesto Pizza.

For the third box, the box I plan on putting our tomatoes in, I decided to put radishes and lettuces, both a spring mesclun mix and romaine, each utilizing about a third of the box. I put the radish seeds in the same as the spinach, and plan on planting between the rows for a second harvest of radishes since they grow so quickly. The Pink Beauty’s I planted mature in 27 days, while the lettuces are double that, so a second planting would be beneficial for salads. Of course, I so rarely pull up our lettuces, and prefer to pick the young tender leaves instead, especially on the arugula as it gets a little too peppery and bitter as it matures. However, once it is time to plant tomatoes in the box, I’m pulling up everything except maybe a few head of romaine until the tomatoes get a little bigger and need the space.

And in the last box, where I currently have leeks growing like crazy and in desperate need of harvesting since they’ve been in the ground nearly a year, and fennel bulbs I’m waiting to see if they’ll return, I planted the red and yellow onions. The boxes are four feet by four feet, and I planted one row of red onions and two rows of yellows each with eight bulbs. I still had a small space left in which to plant carrots, so I went ahead and put some in, leaving space between the rows for a second planting next month.

The crops I planted are all cold crops, which should be planted in later winter to early spring, and because of our unseasonably warm weather here in the northwest due to it being an El Niño year, I was able to plant a couple weeks earlier than usual. Of course, if your soil feels too cold and you’re afraid winter isn’t over, you may want to hold off. The thing about vegetables is that they don’t necessarily need warm weather, just warm soil, to do well. They can be covered if a freeze or heavy frost is in the forecast, either with plastic sheeting, a blanket or milk jugs with the bottoms cut out over individual plants. Your soil should be between 55ºF to 80ºF, with the ideal at 70ºF. One easy way to test your soil’s temperature is with an electric thermometer or meat thermometer. Plunge the tip about halfway into the soil and take its temperature, and if the results come back positive, go ahead and plant. If however it comes back below 50ºF, you will want to hold off. You may want to put black plastic sheeting over where you plan on planting, which will significantly raise the soil temperature, if you are too impatient for Mother Nature. Or, if you are feeling adventurous, go ahead and plant a third to half what you would normally want to, and then when the time comes, plant the rest. Who knows, you may be rewarded with an early crop after all!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Molting

Just when I thought the chickens were done molting, I see feathers, everywhere. They were barred black and white, and at first I thought it was our little Dominique hen, Kendra, who went through a rather tough molt a couple months ago, until I got a good look at our Barred Plymouth Rock, Tara, and saw that she looked quite haggard.

If you’ve never seen a bird go through a molt, it can be quite terrifying. Feathers drop wherever they walk and suddenly the coop looks like the floor of a chicken processing plant. Our Tara already had a light molt in the fall, but I noticed Dawn, the Delaware, had gone through two molts, first on the front half of her body, and a second on the back half, so a double molting season was a possibility. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so severe, as she has nearly lost all of her feathers on the underside of her body. Yes, Tara currently looks like a stripper at the end of the routine, all tattered with exposed breasts and bottom.


So how is one to help their chickens out during this rather stressful period? Well, first you have to realize that hair and feathers are protein based, so it takes protein to grow. Anyone who has been on a high-protein diet can attest to their hair growing faster than usual, and the same concept works for animals. I could find a good meat source to feed her, or at least a higher protein diet to get her through this molt. Hmmm… maybe I could trap squirrels and let her munch on them? We do have a serious squirrel infestation and this would solve both dilemmas at once.

Maybe I should not worry about it, as the other girls were just fine without a different diet. Of course, I was planning on taking advantage of our nice daytime weather to work the rest of the usable compost into the ground where we plan on putting the three sisters, corn, beans and squash, and let her eat up all the worms and bugs who’ve been busy working that compost. Yes, I think that last idea of mine will work out. Of course, I do have some leftover barbecued chicken in the fridge that may go bad and could always feed that to her…

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Food Allergies

It seems our church is a Mecca for people with food allergies. We have the gluten intolerant crowd, the lactose intolerant, and a new one for me, cane sugar intolerant. With all of these allergies, and me being the “Cake Guy” at church, what is one to do when it comes time to bringing sweets? Have a recipe that tackles all three at the same time.

I developed this recipe based off of a couple of others I had found, replacing sugar with honey and butter with shortening and milk with water and generally played around until I found something that I would actually eat. The following is my Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, Cane Sugar-Free Honey Cakes with Fluffy Honey Frosting.

Honey Cakes

2 cups gluten-free Hodgson Mill Multi Purpose baking mix
1 ½ cups honey
1 teaspoon salt
3 ½ teaspoon baking powder
½ cup shortening
1 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 eggs

Heat oven to 350. Spray a generous dose of Pam Nonstick Cooking Spray in a 13 X 9 X 2 pan or 2 round layer pans or for cupcakes (muffin tins) - use paper liners. Measure all ingredients into a large bowl. Blend 1/2 minute on low speed, scraping bowl constantly. Beat 3 minutes on high speed, scraping bowl occasionally. Pour into pans. Bake 40-45 minutes for oblong, 30-35 for round, and 15-20 for cupcakes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool.

Fluffy Honey Frosting

1 cup honey
2 egg whites
¼ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a small saucepan or double boiler heat honey to boiling. In a bowl combine unbeaten egg whites, salt and vanilla. Beat with an electric mixer at high speed until whites are stiff but not dry. Slowly pour in hot honey; beat for 5-7 minutes until frosting holds shape. Frosts two 8 or 9 inch layer cakes or one 4 layer cake.

This recipe is easily halved, just use 2 eggs instead of trying to weigh out the difference for the cake, and a pinch of salt if you don’t have a 1/8 teaspoon. It is also easily adapted to replacing the water with milk and the shortening with butter if you don’t have to worry about lactose. What I usually do is make a half recipe of the cake and make a dozen cupcakes, and use powdered egg whites or meringue powder instead of fresh egg whites, and pipe big swirls on top of the cupcakes. This frosting pipes beautifully and does not require refrigeration unless it won’t be consumed for more than two days.

So next time you have an event where you know there will be people with food allergies, bring this cake along. Just make sure you clean and rinse your pans really well, and wipe them down with vinegar to get any possible allergens off… this is why I usually make cupcakes, as they are all individually wrapped!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Lucy

Our dog Lucy is probably the most neurotic person I know. And yes, I know I used person instead of animal, but honestly that is because she is such a big part of our family… and she thinks she is a human… or that we’re dogs.


Lucy is a Great Dane from a champion line on her father’s side, but her mother on the other hand, is probably where she gets a majority of her traits. I mean, her good looks obviously come from her dad, as he was a Harlequin like she is, but I’m pretty sure the anxiousness, nervousness, twitchiness and inability to calm down when company is over comes from her mom. Her mother was also a chicken killer, which made us a little trepidant to let her near the chicks when we got them, especially since she would sit and lick her lips like we were about to give her a treat whenever we’d hold them.

However, Lucy’s best trait is her protectiveness… which, I suppose, is also her worst. I forgot just how protective Great Danes can be, mostly because they are just so darned friendly and goofy. She startles awake and barks up a storm if someone pulls into our driveway, unless she knows it’s either of us. When one of the neighbor dogs got into our yard again and started chasing our chickens, Lucy was at the door ready to defend her territory. I was worried about letting her out, as we hadn’t tried watching her unleashed around the chickens, but also knew that the other dog would probably kill the girls, so I took the chance, opened the door, and watched her bolt towards the other dog. She chased him back over the fence to his yard, barked a few words of warning, then walked back to the backdoor with me, completely ignoring the chickens. Since then, we haven’t had to worry about her being around the chickens. I guess she has integrated them into the family and as such, has offered her protection.

Now, this poor dog has had so many various medical issues, I’m glad we decided not to breed her. She has near-perfect markings and comes from a championship line, which would have been excellent to maintain the breed standards, but we got a dog just for a companion, not a baby maker, so we got her spayed. Lucy has developed not only food allergies (she can’t eat any grains), but also environmental allergies (she’s allergic to grass, mold, pollen, weeds and dust mites… basically, the Northwest), and suffers from chronic yeast infections.

Fortunately for us, there are a lot of foods we can feed her, but her favorite by far is the one we get at our local feed store, from a company that only makes grain free dog and cat food, Taste of the Wild. Being a Great Dane, she should be on the low end of the protein percentage foods, about 22%-25%, and she loves smoked salmon, so we started buying the Pacific Stream variety, which she would devour. However, one time the feed store was out, and me being the bad owner waited until she was out of food completely before buying another bag, decided to try the High Prairie formula, which has a much higher protein percentage. She went crazy over this food, and when I bought the Pacific Stream formula the next time, she turned her nose at it and would look up at me as if asking, “Where’s that other food, you know, the delicious one that makes me drool uncontrollably?” So I gave in, bought another bag of High Prairie, and fed her half-and-half until the Pacific Stream was gone.

Lucy has been eating the higher protein formula consistently for about ten months, and when we took her to the vet, we told her that she was on a high protein diet, and so for good measure had a urine and blood sample taken to test them and make sure it isn’t causing any problems. Surprisingly, even to the vet, her samples came back neutral, rather than acidic like she was expecting, so Lucy gets to stay on her food she loves so much. And the plus side is the higher protein food makes her hair grow back faster, which for a dog who’s constantly scratching and licking due to allergies until some areas are bald, is a good thing. She is also on a medication now that is helping keep the yeast infections from forming in the first place, so her skin has improved dramatically.

Our Lucy is the best cuddler, and even though she is rather large, she thinks she is a lap dog. Greg and I will be on either end of the couch watching TV, and she will be spread across the entire middle, with her tail in one of our laps, and her head resting in the other. Then she switches sides, reversing her position. But for all the cuddling and loving she gives, she can be a quite the destroyer. She ruined our sofa, tore holes in numerous blankets, chewed up most of our hats, but is still an absolute sweetheart… to us. Everyone else, especially women, she’s in their crotch, sniffing.

But honestly, I think it is time to get Lucy a companion. She needs another dog to be a dog with, and while we would love to get another Great Dane, I don’t know if our house can handle two of them. With so many mutts in the shelter, and the fact that mutts statistically don’t have the same health issues purebreds do, we may end up adopting from there. Then again, I do love the look of the Fawns, and there is a Great Dane Rescue only a couple hours away…

Friday, February 19, 2010

Pruning Your Rose Bush, Part 2

Some people have a tendency to like flowers, but can’t really grow them. Or, they don’t like to spend a lot of time or precision, and they’re looking for something that will grow big, not require a lot of work, and will look spectacular. For this, there is no rose better than the carpet rose.

Carpet roses, while not officially recognized as a separate class, grow slightly different than a Modern, like the hybrid teas, or an Old Garden, or even a Wild, but share traits of all three. They were developed by Werner Noack, who was passionate about roses, but felt that with all the diseases that plagued them they wouldn’t appeal to most gardeners. So, after years of breeding to create this disease resistant rose, he finally introduced the world to the Flower Carpet Rose, the first color being Flower Carpet Pink, which we have in our rock garden.

Here’s the thing, I don’t mind creating a nice looking garden, but sometimes maintaining it during the heat of summer can be a little much. A majority of the plants in the rock garden fit the bill as being extremely low maintenance, and two carpet roses in this 6x25 foot space on a gently sloping hill are part of that collage. Of course, I did what most gardeners should avoid, which is buy a brand new variety. Not that this is a bad thing when it comes to annuals, but for a perennial shrub like roses, this is untested ground and will last much longer. And, of course, my naiveté that it would perform like the carpet roses at my partner’s mother’s house, where the summers are hot and dry and they get watered twice a day. However, I decided to get both the pink and yellow, the latter being the newest, and planted them in the rock garden, where it quickly became apparent the yellow was going to cause some problems.

Carpet roses spread, like a carpet, hence the name. The pink did this beautifully, rising a couple feet off the ground in the middle while the outer canes bent nearly straight out along the bottom, unfolding not unlike a rose bud itself. The yellow, on the other hand, did not. It went straight up, just like a tea or old garden would. I contemplated moving it to the hybrid tea section of the yard between the vegetable garden and the rock wall, but decided maybe it just needed some selective pruning. And so, after a few years of cutting the central stalk that was causing me so much misery, I decided it just wasn’t worth it. I’ll just have an upright rose in the rock garden and leave it at that. And then last year I did something completely uncharacteristic of me… I didn’t prune the roses, none of them. The pink grew so huge, it was trampling on neighbor plants space and at one point was over nine feet across, which, if you’ve never seen a carpet rose, they are completely covered in flowers the entire growing season, which for our climate is from May through December. And guess what the yellow decided to do? Yep, it carpeted… albeit with a center that went straight up. Now, I could have just cut those center canes out, but there was nothing directly behind it that was going to be impacted by leaving it, so I left them on. Of course, our lavender I planted next to it also doubled in size last year, so I may have to train the stems in the opposite direction for this season. We’ll see.

Okay, so now that you’ve been inundated with a massive amount of useless information about our roses, it’s time to focus on pruning them. A carpet rose is probably the easiest rose to prune, since it doesn’t seem to care whether you trim a little off the top or take it all the way down to the ground. Garden shears, like you would use for upright garden roses, would work, but so will clippers that you’d use on any other bush. This last option is probably the best and fastest for early spring pruning, as well as the electric variety. Of course, if you want to keep your carpet rose growing ever larger, just cut off any dead growths and rose hips that haven’t been eaten by the birds or you. What? People eat rose hips, those funny looking fruits that form on roses at the end of the growing season? Yes, people do… just not me… yet. I think this year I will try some, either as a tea or to make rose oil and/or water for cooking.

Crap. I’ve gone off topic again. At least this time it somewhat coincides with the subject. Okay, so to summarize, carpet roses are easy maintenance. They are also the most disease resistant roses on the market. This isn’t to say that you won’t get any blackspot, which is ever so common here in the Northwest, just that carpet roses can handle the harsh cutting required to contain this disease, and will bounce back faster than you can show someone where the affected area was.

Old Garden Roses, which are woodier shrubs that only bloom on second-year canes or older, only bloom once during the growing season, and as such, require a good eye when it comes to pruning, as a harsh prune you would do on your Modern or Carpet rose would leave you with a nice green bush with no flowers. Why, then, would anyone want to grow Old Garden Roses? Because, quite simply, they have been around for a very long time, and because of that, have become quite disease-resistant, and their fragrance cannot be beat. The China rose is the only Old Garden variety that is everblooming, the trait found in most hybrids we see today as they’ve been bred with this rose, but that seems to make it less fragrant, also a trait seen in most hybrids, although our Double Delight could probably give those Old Gardens a run for their money. Pruning an Old Garden requires somewhat minimal effort. Treat an Old Garden Rose like you would a lilac: Don’t prune the first year canes; do prune any old spindly ones; and of course, prune any diseased ones as well.

Climbing roses require a little different approach, as you don’t want to over prune and have to retrain it over the trellis or up a wall again. What you will first want to do is take a look at it from a distance and take note as to where it may be going out of bounds, and where any of the canes look funny, whether they are crossed or growing in the wrong direction. The pruning of a climber is kind of like that of a Modern, in which you prune off much of the thin stems, and leave the thick canes. The main difference is that you want those thick canes to be tied down or trained through whatever they are climbing, without overwhelming it. A good rule is to look at your hand with the fingers spread out… your climbing rose should somewhat resemble this if it is on a wall or wide trellis. Pole climbers should form a spiral, while narrow trellis climbers can go against the rules and be zig-zagged to form a tighter, more compact form, both with a minimum of canes.

All of this information from both today’s and yesterday’s posts are for late-winter and early-spring pruning done at the beginning of the growing season. I will be blogging about how to deadhead and prune all of these roses during and after the growing season when it is time to do so, so please don’t fret!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pruning Your Rose Bush, Part 1

When I got back from church after setting up the prayer stations for our Ash Wednesday service, I realized it was too nice of a day to stay inside. So naturally I went grocery shopping first and then did the dishes when I got home. But right after that, I went outside to start pruning our rose bushes.

We have two types of roses, modern hybrid teas and carpet roses, and today’s blog will focus on the hybrid tea. In tomorrow’s blog, I will discuss the carpet rose, as well as tips for Old Garden Roses and climbing roses, both of which I do not have much experience with, but know a little about.

For as many ways as there are to prune roses, there is an equal and opposite reason not to do it that way. So what is a person to do with all this confusion? Personally, I take all sides, and do what works best for that particular growing season, or bush, or variety. This all takes a lot of experience, and unfortunately I’ve only got a little over twenty years of experience with roses. I will try to list the basics and their reasons, and I will also teach you what I’ve come to learn and hopefully, with all the knowledge you also may have with your roses, you will have a successful blooming season.

The following are the basics most new rose owners are taught, or at least learn after planting or inheriting roses. Mind you, these are still perfectly fine, but it is kind of like cooking… first time you follow the recipe, and thereafter you decide to play around with it. I’ve also included my tips or recommendations after.


First, for those of us in seasonal climates, take note when new growth starts to form after a dormant winter. If you are still getting below freezing temperatures at night, you will want to hold off, but if you are in the mid-thirties or higher, any time between the middle of February until the first week or two of March is a good time to prune those bushes back. Any later than that and you could negatively impact when your roses will bloom, but that is highly unlikely to happen with most hybrid tea varieties, but you run the risk with any heirlooms. Colder climates may need to wait until April. How far? You will want to take it down to about twelve inches or so. It doesn’t have to be exact, so don’t worry about tagging along a tape measure, just eyeball it.

Many books will tell you to prune just above a new growth node, a tiny bump that may or may not have started to leaf out, but I have found that my roses will make new shoots from just about wherever I cut them, so maybe for novices this is a good idea, especially for a newly planted specimen. It is a good idea to prune the shoots at an angle, say forty-five degrees, but any angle will work. This is to prevent moisture buildup on the newly cut stem, which in turn will cause that stem to rot, and also promotes the rose to callus over the cut more quickly. Now that you’ve pruned your bush down, be on the lookout for dead shoots and cut them off as close to the base as possible. Also, if you see any stems crossing each others paths too closely or if they are touching, cut one of them, usually the one growing somewhat sideways. Now comes the hard part… pruning out all of those little shoots and stems. Long thin stems are not strong enough to support a rose bud and will droop and look awful, so it is best to cut out any skinnies, leaving the thickies.

And lastly, prune the center. Your rose bush should have plenty of room for new growth, and since they require sun and plenty of airflow to remain healthy, it is best to prune out as much of the center as possible. If the bush is large enough, you can leave one to three center shoots, but for newer roses, just have the outside branches and cut out any center shoots. Yes, now it looks naked and frail, but this will guarantee good, healthy growth. I also find that now is a good time to fertilize, so I put out a small handful of Epsom salt and a shovelful of compost, slightly working it into the ground. Slow release fertilizers can be used too in addition to the Epsom salt.


Please note these tips are for your hybrid tea roses, and pretty much any modern rose that has been developed from the China rose, which possesses the everblooming trait we have become accustomed to seeing in our roses. The only non-China rose that is everblooming is the Portland rose, which was thought to be a cross with the China rose, but DNA testing has shown that it has no Asian ancestry and is the first European rose to have the everblooming trait. Sorry about getting all technical, I do that from time to time. Hybrids require hard pruning in early spring because of their growth patterns. If left unpruned, you will find that they will not only fall short in blooms, but could make them rather unsightly as older shoots die off, and some new ones don’t make it through the winter. And one more thing, roses don’t have thorns, they have prickles, and are just outgrowths of the stems, whereas true thorns are modified stems. But don’t worry, I still call them thorns as I pluck them out of my forearm while pruning.

Again, tomorrow I will be leaving tips for carpet roses, and a little info on Old Garden Roses and climbing roses, so please come back if you have these varieties, or plan on getting any this year.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Virtues of Vinegar

Vinegar is one of those household staples nearly everyone has, but how often do you use it? From cooking to cleaning to deodorizing, there is nothing else quite like it.

Now there are plenty of vinegars on the market, ranging in colors and flavors, but they fall into only three categories. You’ve got your finishers, like balsamic, which have such a rich and complex flavor, and are usually quite thick compared to others. You’ve got your cooking, like red wine as well as cider vinegars. And then there is the multipurpose workhorse of the vinegar world, white.

We have two bottles of white wine vinegar in our house. One we keep in the kitchen for cooking, and the other we keep in the laundry room for cleaning. For cooking, I use a tablespoon or two in the water when making hard boiled eggs to make them easier to peel, and a tablespoon of vinegar stirred into a cup of milk is a great substitute for buttermilk in recipes when allowed to sit for at least five minutes. I also use a little white vinegar in my mixing bowl and wipe thoroughly with a paper towel to make sure there is no fat residue when whipping egg whites, as any trace of fat will inhibit foaming, and the vinegar removes it. I would also suggest using your cooking vinegar, as opposed to the cleaning one, to remove mineral deposits from your coffee maker. Personally I find that using filtered water prevents those deposits from forming, but not everybody uses filtered water for their coffee, even though it dramatically increases its flavor.

On the cleaning side, most people know about using vinegar to clean windows, but did you know that white vinegar has the perfect pH to get rid of those unfortunate pet urine accidents that occasionally happen? Got a nasty odor coming from your sink? Well, we all remember the science experiment with baking soda and vinegar, right? Just pour about a quarter cup of baking soda in the drain followed by a cup of white vinegar and allow it to fizz. You’ll not only get rid of the odor, but clean part of your drain as well. This also works for garbage disposals too, and for clearing minor clogs.

You can also use vinegar in the garden. Want an eco-friendly way to kill weeds without pulling them? The acetic acid in vinegar will kill annual weeds as it cannot be absorbed into the root system. This, however, will not kill perennials, just their top growth. But for families with kids and pets, white vinegar is the safest herbicide on the market.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I'm a Thigh Man

This isn’t going to surprise too many people, but I don’t like breasts. Some say it was nurture, but I’m pretty certain nature played a much bigger role. I’m talking, of course, about chicken.

I know I am going to anger those white meat folks out there, but breast meat, whether it be from a chicken or turkey, is a little too dry for my tastes, or at the very least, is cooked to be too dry. Now, this isn’t to say I haven’t had well prepared breast meat, as it can be succulent and juicy with that hint of meaty sweetness that so defines most poultry, it more has to do with the timing. White meat is much more finicky when it comes to cooking, as the time between “You have died from salmonella poisoning” to “Turkey Jerky” is a matter of only a few minutes. The rare exception to my aversion to chicken boobs is a rotisseried bird. The constant turning and basting actually keeps the breast meat moist while the dark meat continues to cook.

But alas, I prefer thighs. My next statement will anger some more of you, of that I’m certain, but I will explain my reasoning. When I buy them, I get the big family pack of young chicken thighs. By young, that means that they are butchered at six weeks, processed and sent to the stores. I buy young for two reasons, one being they taste better, and second, they have been injected with less antibiotics. Most of these chickens that aren’t butchered young, will be butchered by about eight weeks, ten at the latest. Why? Genetics. These birds were bred for a single purpose, which is to put on as much meat in as short a time as possible. Besides, even if they were allowed to live out there lives, most would die before they reached one year simply because of their size. If this seems cruel, let me explain it in a different matter. These birds are not engineered freaks of some crazy science experiment, they are simply the product of cross breeding and interbreeding specific genetic traits to build up a sustaining, consistent breed standard. It is the exact same process breeders use to produce dogs and cats. And the reason for their short life span? Look at the dog world, for instance. Small dogs live much longer than large dogs. The larger the breed, the shorter their lifespan is. A Jack Russell Terrier will live on average fourteen years, while a Great Dane has an eight year average.

The Cornish-X, or Cornish Cross, is the most common meat bird in the world. They are white, which makes plucking easier, and they are docile, which makes them easier to handle and less prone to stress. However, becoming more common in high-end markets are the free range, organic chickens, most of which will be butchered at an older age, but nearly all before they reach six months. What? Even six months is too young? The older the chicken, the tougher their meat will be. After six months, their meat begins to toughen and become stringy, at which point they become known as stew birds because stewing them is the only way to make their meat palatable.

Of course if you’ve ever lived on a farm with free range chickens and had roosters who mated with the hens making more chickens with the process repeating over and over, you know that the girls are good for laying eggs, but too many boys spells trouble. A good ratio is one rooster per ten hens. More than that and the girls will simply get, er, overwhelmed with male attention. So what to do, since there is a 50/50 chance of boys and girls in a hatch? Well most farmers who raise chickens keep a few of the young roosters, especially if the head rooster is getting up there in age, and process the rest for meal time.

Well now look at this, you’ve got me going off topic. Thanks. To get back to my love of thighs, I guess the main reason is because dark meat in general stays moist longer, giving you a little more leeway when it comes to cooking, and also ensuring good eats. While dark meat does require nearly double the cooking time of white meat, it also does not require the same attention. Bake chicken breasts in the oven for more than forty-five minutes and you’ve got meat even the dog may turn her nose up at, but bake chicken thighs for an hour and a half, and you’ve got only a minimally different moisture level than you would have at half that time.

I also like to bake enough chicken thighs to last not only that night’s meal, but also one or two more. Typically we have baked chicken one night, chicken enchiladas a couple nights later, and any leftovers can be shredded or diced for chicken salad or sandwiches. I also store the cooked chicken in the fridge with all the juices that baked out, which seems to keep them tastier, and gives me a flavorful stock base in case I make soup out of the leftovers, or cream it for a pot pie. I’ve included my recipe for baked chicken thighs below, but feel free to play around with flavors. The spices used compliment chicken, and nearly every chicken dish I make with the leftovers.

Baked Chicken Thighs

3–4 lbs young boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 tablespoons olive oil
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon dried thyme leaves
1 teaspoon rubbed sage

Preheat oven to 400º. In a 13x9 glass baking dish, drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle half of all spices over the entire bottom of the dish. Arrange the chicken thighs right side up, folding the meat slightly in on itself where it was cut away from the bone. Drizzle remaining olive oil and spices over the chicken and bake for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the tops start to take on color and/or the juices run clear when the largest thigh is cut. Remove from oven and spoon the juices over the thighs and allow them to rest in the pan for about five minutes before serving.

This recipe can also be made with fresh herbs, spices, garlic and onion too. Just triple the spice amounts, use 3 cloves of garlic and half of a medium onion sliced or diced to your preference.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Wedding Cake

Getting married is kind of a big deal. It takes a lot of planning, a lot of hard work, and a hell of a lot of luck to pull off exactly as you plan… all of which gets condensed into a quick ten minute ceremony and if you’re lucky, people will stick around after eating their cake.

Yesterday, my partner and I went to a wedding of a couple at church, and one which I made the wedding cake and groom’s cake. Why people want me to make their wedding cakes, I don’t know. I’m not a professional, a majority of my works leans toward the quirky, I only make cakes that can be stored at room temperature at least until they are cut, and I prefer taste over aesthetics, all of which screams, “Hire a real cake decorator!” But then they throw money in my face and I give in.

I do enjoy making cakes, but sometimes the cakes don’t enjoy being made. Sometimes my buttercream doesn’t want to stay where I spread it or form rose petals which magically become “mystery flowers” instead or in the case of joining two colors from the top to the sides decide they really weren’t meant for each other after all and the side color decides to slide away. “What? You like how the sides gently curve towards the cake board? Oh, I know, me too, it just gives the cake so much character, don’t you think?!” Sometimes as a decorator, you have to make executive decisions, and this one called for some decorative scrollwork to somewhat disguise any imperfections. Nothing fancy, just what I call “Viney Vs, Ss and lower case rs.” This was mostly done to hide the fact that chocolate cake likes to leave crumbs on the sides, even after two crumb coats to contain them. Fortunately it was just enough to make the cake look finished for me, and the kitchen crew church ladies agreed.


Now, making a groom’s cake is something different altogether. Groom’s cakes, by nature, have a quirkiness to them that draws me to wanting to make them, like a bear to honey. I just wished more people ordered them, and fortunately this bride did. Inside jokes that you plan to share with everyone at the reception work beautifully, as do what you really want your wedding cake to convey but your mother won’t let you. The best part of this whole experience was making the groom’s cake, which was simply decorated with a huge banana that had her phone number on it. At the reception, she told the story of how she didn’t have a piece of paper so she wrote her phone number on a banana, and he looked frantically in his man-bag for a banana to write his phone number on to give her, to which she said that he didn’t need to write it on a banana, a scrap piece of paper would work just fine. Yes, a goofy story, but a personal one and he loved the cake and found it hilarious.


Of course, the downside to making wedding cakes is when you give your expertise, they like it, then change their mind about a dozen times before the wedding. For one thing, I don’t like to use artificial flavors, especially when it is paired with the real thing. For the groom’s cake, decorated with a giant banana, was a banana cake and frosted in artificial banana flavored buttercream. The competition between the stand-out artificial and the delicate natural didn’t mesh well for me, but this wasn’t my cake. I did say that I didn’t think the combination would work well, but she thought it would and, well, customer gets what customer wants… even if that means that I can’t put the sliced fresh bananas on top of the vanilla cream filling between the cake and cover it with deliciously melt-in-your-mouth white chocolate ganache.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Take Time to Say Thank You

Too often we get so wrapped up in our busy lives, we forget to thank those who’ve helped us along the way. It’s not that we don’t appreciate the help, it just seems that saying so has almost gone by the wayside. On this day of love, why not take a little time out of your day to say, “Thank you.”

Thank you, Sarah and Rob, for being the best friends I could ever want.

Thank you, PJaye, for all of the challenging Scrabble games and sometimes letting me win.

Thank you, Stacey and Michele, for always thinking of us when you make plans, whether they be at your home or when you’re going somewhere.

Thank you to all my brothers and sisters, Ryan, Brandon, Ashley, Ryan, Kassidie and K.C., for giving me the best memories of childhood a person could have, and for there being so darn many of you to make mine last so long!

Thank you to my parents, Patti, Jess, Ruth and Dan, for providing me with a wonderful childhood.

Thank you to 84% of my extended family, which I won’t even try to name all of them, and you know who you are, for always being there.

And last of all, thank you, Greggy, for being everything I could ever need in a partner in life.

I love you all so very much, even though I don’t always say it, and am so very blessed to have you in my life.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Cory

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Valentine’s Day is Tomorrow? Uh oh!

Okay, so maybe it isn’t that much of a surprise that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, but let’s pretend like you didn’t make reservations at your favorite restaurant and the card shop is out of all things Valentine. I do realize this is a bit of a stretch in these hard economic times, especially the card thing, but seriously, I have a point. Maybe this should be the year you plan a romantic night in.

If you are not the cook in the family, perhaps you should take over the duties to show your appreciation to the one who does feed you. This isn’t to say that if you are accident prone and the night will end in firetrucks and emergency rooms you should attempt something your aren’t comfortable with, but a majority of people who can’t cook indoors are excellent grillers outdoors. What? Grill in February?! Yes, I said it. I grill all year long, just that a majority of it happens to be summer when I don’t want to heat up the house by turning on the oven and/or stove. A salad, good loaf of bread and a bottle of wine that compliments your grilled items, whether it be meat, fish or veggies or even all three, will round out the meal.

Setting the mood for your night in can be challenging. Not to make your single friends feel even crappier, but if you’ve got kids, maybe have them watch the kiddos for a few hours or overnight. Simple things like romantic music softly playing in the background as you sit down to your meal together at a table lit with candlelight and a small bouquet of lightly scented flowers to act as a centerpiece is all you need. Don’t try to go overboard, because if you aren’t used to event planning, you will quickly get overwhelmed and fail miserably and your perfect night in will turn into a perfect nightmare.

The card can be the most difficult part of the whole day, as some people spend hours searching for just the right card at the store that conveys their feelings appropriately, however, this too doesn’t need to be fancy or complicated. Remember making Valentine’s cards in elementary school? Something similar with a little saying inside will mean more to your significant other then a generic card from the store because you spent time making it.

And lastly, relax. The day is to celebrate love, not fret over it. If cooking really won’t work for you, cut up an apple or pear or both and share it with a wedge of cheese, sliced baguette and a good bottle of wine or champagne and relax by the TV while watching the Winter Olympics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Recycling

I remember growing up we didn’t do much in the way of recycling. Back then pretty much everything went into the trash. Times have changed, haven’t they?

Nowadays recycling is everywhere, and not just that but waste reduction and repurposing is huge too. Well, except for the toy and small electronics industries, which have taken to using nearly impossible to open plastic packaging that cannot be recycled and/or massive amounts of wires and screws to make sure the product arrives in this country shelf ready. Quite ironic how wasteful some companies have become in regards to how they package their products, especially in an age when we know better, and all in the name of vanity. After all, it has to look pretty on those ugly oyster colored shelves so you, the consumer, will buy it. (Sidenote: Did you know the reason that most retail shelving is that oyster color is to make the product look better?)

So, to get back to recycling, I remember separating cans and newspaper into their respective bags when I got older. My mother was big on recycling even before it was cool to be, and she would take the full bags to wherever they would be accepted, and sometimes would do some guerilla dumping at a church parking lot’s big blue recycling dumpster. Before long, curbside recycling would be implemented, eliminating the need to be all stealthy to help save the environment. And with curbside, came a lot of things that were designated recyclable, but were not accepted in the bins, such as margarine tubs, yogurt cups and colored containers, a majority of it plastic, which is by far the worst offender in the packaging world.

Paper will break down rather quickly, glass and metal will eventually wear away, but plastic is almost a forever deal. Life on this planet could cease and in a million years some alien species may stumble upon it and all they will see that a some form of “intelligent” life existed would be our plastic garbage. Of course, some could argue the ingenuity of having such a lasting impact is a marvelous thing, why would we, in this age of a little enlightenment where we realize our once unlimited resources are now limited, continue to create “better” plastics that will outlast their predecessors? I’m not saying get rid of plastics entirely, as there are plenty of examples where plastics have made us safer, just limit the amount of wasteful packaging made from it. Maybe Best Foods can even revert my mayonnaise back to a glass jar? Maybe stop bottling water and soda in plastic containers? Okay, that may be getting too aggressive. Baby steps, I know, baby steps.

We as a society should start making better choices, and start demanding better alternatives. Manufacturers want us to buy their products, and if we want those products in a package that is better for the environment, they will change it. After all, if we the consumer, don’t buy their product because of how it is packaged, they don’t make money, and they’re in the business of making money.

Of course, today our three bin recycling system where we live (paper, plastic, glass/metal) has gone to a giant can where everything but glass goes in. And with this, an increased variety of plastics can now be recycled in it. Glass is still put in the same little bin it was in before and put out beside the big blue monster, which mostly gets filled with paper, paperboard and cardboard. But I think the fact that the only thing we have to remember to separate in our recycling bins is glass has made it a lot easier. I know this has halved the amount of garbage we have weekly, along with composting food scraps. Overall I think it is a step in the right direction.

I’m not saying that I don’t buy items in plastic containers, I’m just saying that I look for alternatives. I mean afterall, if we didn’t use so many plastic water bottles, we wouldn’t have such cheap carpeting or those nifty reusable grocery bags, would we?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Cutting Boards

Almost every kitchen has a cutting board, whether it is the built-in one in the cabinetry where we instinctively put our most used utensils in the drawer below making it nearly impossible to get to them while the board is out, or countertop varieties. Either of these can be made of wood or a composite plastic material of unknown origin, and they are both perfectly acceptable for cutting on. But for all the work they do for us, how often do we care for them?

Our kitchen is equipped with four cutting boards of various materials. We have an old white plastic cutting board that has been stained over the years, but is still quite useful for slicing raw beef and pork, a black anti-microbial plastic cutting board for raw chicken, a built-in wooden plywood cutting board that was on it’s last limb a quarter-century ago, and a newer wooden butcher-block board that sits directly above the built-in on the countertop at all times. While it certainly isn’t necessary to have this many, you should at least have two, and use one for raw meat, and the other for everything else. Why? Contamination. The only exception to this rule is if you have stainless steel countertops which can easily be wiped with a bleach-water solution between cutting on them, but using this countertop is hell on your knives, and you’ll be needing to have them sharpened quite often.

Now, most of us who do have the plastic ones think they are pretty easy to care for. You wash them either by hand or toss them in the dishwasher and they are clean, right? Well, sorry to say, but the dishwasher can get so hot that before long your cutting board can warp and become brittle and then it is useless and unsafe to cut on. Hand washing in hot soapy water and storing upright will prolong the life of the board. However, most of the time you will need to replace the board before this happens anyway, so if you don’t mind getting a new cutting board every couple years, go ahead and use the dishwasher as that same hot water will sanitize the board between uses. It is also a good idea if you do wash by hand to use a diluted bleach water solution to clean the surface, maybe every few months or so, especially if you see knife marks in your board.

Wooden boards require just a little more than their plastic counterparts. For starters, they should be oiled. While it is tempting to just use vegetable oil since you probably already have it on hand, mineral oil is best to use because it will not go rancid. What I do is pour a small amount on top of the board and use my fingers to spread it all over the board, allowing it to soak in thoroughly. I check on it every half-hour or so, and if any spots have soaked in all the way, I redistribute the oil back to those areas, or pour a little more on the board. This process does take a few hours, but usually only needs to be done every few months. The oil causes the board to visibly darken, and when I see it lighten and look dry, it is time to reapply. You can find mineral oil at any kitchen supply store, sometimes big chain stores next to the cutting boards, or at your local pharmacy in the laxative aisle. And no, I am not kidding. To clean them, simply use hot soapy water, wiping off any excess water with a dry towel to prevent staining and warping. Do not submerge a wood cutting board in water, as this will cause it to soak up too much moisture and will begin cracking as it dries out. And while some people claim a good bleach solution is a good measure to keep any contamination in check, bleach + wood = bad. If you are worried about a contaminated board, a vinegar solution of 3 tablespoons per cup of water will do the trick… especially if your board gives off an odor of onions and garlic.

Both wood and plastic cutting boards will need to be replaced over time, so what signs should you be on the lookout for? For one, deep cuts. If the board has very visible cuts from the knife, which you will also notice while cutting when your knife gives you a little resistance, it is time to replace. Those knife marks are breeding grounds for bacteria, and the deeper they are the harder it is to keep clean. The nice thing about most cutting boards is that you can simply turn them over and use the opposite side. However ones with “feet” probably won’t be salvageable. If your wood cutting board has those same deep cuts and is thick enough, it can simply be sanded down.

I have absolutely no idea what to do with the built-in plywood cutting board, as it is so chipped and peeling, so I usually use it as extra counter space rather than a cutting surface. If you have one of these cutting boards and have figured out a way to salvage it, please leave a comment for others to utilize.

While rigid plastic and wood are the most common, they are not the only options. We also have glass cutting boards available, which are about as non-porous as you can get and by far the easiest to clean and care for. And there are also flexible plastic cutting boards on the market which are perfect for transferring cut foods, as you can simply fold the edges, lift and pour. The flexible plastic boards will not last as long, but they are the cheapest, so depending on your cutting uses you could get between a few months to a year out of them before they need to be replaced.

Remember, your cutting boards take a lot of beatings from you. Care for them. Keep them safe. And in return they will keep you safe.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Craft Room, Part 2

Yesterday I walked into my craft room to put something “away” and I couldn’t. The fact that I could not even get to the pile I was going to put this said something on meant only one thing, and it was one of my greatest fears… I had to clean this room.

I grabbed a Trader Joe’s paper bag for recycling and garbage bag for, er, garbage and took it one section at a time. I decided the first order of business was to make a path on the floor so I could walk without stepping on something, which was an excellent place to start. I quickly emptied out a basket filled with some Christmas hors d’oeuvre plates which should have been put in the garage with our Christmas stuff two Christmases ago when we got them, found my eight-inch square cake pan I’d been looking for, and threw the candy from that same year into the trash. I never knew how squishy old candy canes got! Success! An empty basket! Now I could put my Atomic Holocaust supply of chocolate chips somewhere other than a reusable grocery bag, so I did. I stock up on a lot of excess baking supplies in this room, keeping them just under the futon for easy access, especially when they go on sale. It’s kinda like my pantry, since we don’t have a pantry.

After finishing the floor, I decided my cake stuff all needed to be put away next, so I gathered all the pans, nested what could be and stacked the rest on top, and put them above my scrapbooking boxes. I also packed up all my cutters and formers into their designated bag and put my tool kit next to it. And it was at this point that I looked at the now nearly full recycling and garbage and wondered why the room still looked like a tornado disaster zone? It didn’t even look like a made a dent, which frustrated me… a lot. And after I calmed down, I realized, after a quick look at what was left, that I really was almost finished.

The entire futon was covered in puppet making materials, most of which could easily be boxed or bagged back up. So I bagged all the fleece, foam, felt and craft foam, boxed up the wires, hot glue gun, Sharpie and homemade patterns and just like that, the futon was magically cleared off! Well, not just like that. Everything that needed to go into the closet was still on there, as well as all of the Christmas wrapping paper, bows and boxes. So I moved the closet stuff in, deciding that when my sewing machine gets back from the shop I wanted to work on a couple of quilting projects I started a few years ago, and put the bags with those projects on top of the rest of my fabric for easier access.


Now, looking at my cleaned up craft room, I wondered why I let it get so out of hand. I mean, I already know that I am lazy, but seriously? So lazy that I make an entire room utterly useless by just tossing stuff in? I’ve got to come up with a better plan of action to keeping this room in order, because it is really only one project away from disaster again. I know how I am. Perhaps it is time to do a “behind the scenes” cleaning again. Take a look at what is on the back side of the futon and if I still need it. Open up the closet and check on the stuff I can’t even get to currently. To see if there is a reason for keeping an entire box of beads for jewelry I haven’t used since I was nineteen. Okay, so maybe I’m not that ambitious yet. But with a new nephew on the way, I really need to go through my fabric and pick some out to use for his baby blanket, and not go to the store and buy a bunch, use a little, and stuff the rest into the closet like I have with every other baby blanket I’ve made. Hey! I just made a plan!

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Eggs

When nature gives you one of the most perfect foods, you eat it. And when nature lives in your backyard, you eat a lot of it. Eggs are just this, and thank goodness they are delicious.

I didn’t grow up a farm boy, but I loved the fact that my grandparents on my mother’s side had a farm. Cows, sheep, horses and of course chickens… not to mention the hoard of stray, feral cats that made the barn their home. It wasn’t until I was older that I understood why he would feed them instead of get rid of them, as they were live death traps for rodents who would otherwise steal feed and eggs. Whenever we would visit, I wanted to hang out in the barn to count how many cats were there that day… and to sneak a quick taste of a fresh saltlick, which if Grampa (yes, I know it is spelled wrong, but this was the title I gave him) was putting one out, would let me take a few licks first. Call me weird, but something about a big red brick of salt still makes my mouth water.

Anyway, the multiple mutt chickens they had were all free-range. They had an A-frame henhouse which could comfortably hold about fifty chickens, though by today’s backyard poultry standards would only be large enough for about a dozen. It was just the right size for their flock, and for my tall grandfather to walk inside to collect eggs and clean out droppings. Sometimes if we were lucky, my brother and I would go collect the eggs, however I neglected to mention they had the meanest rooster in the world, and when he saw HIS eggs being stolen from the nest boxes, would chase after us and peck at them. My coat pockets would be filled with broken eggs by the time I’d get back to the house, which I’m sure was a lot of fun to clean out, which, of course, I left for my mother to take care of since I would be rocking myself in a corner, muttering nonsensical phrases to nobody in particular. I remember the day we went over to visit and found out that some of the neighboring dogs had killed off all but one of the chickens, and since they were in the process of selling off most of their land for a housing development, they wouldn’t be getting any more to replace them. There is a house now where the barn once stood, but fortunately the henhouse was moved into their backyard where my aunt, uncle and three cousins currently use it as a storage shed. I keep trying to convince them to get a few hens, as it wouldn’t take much effort to fence in a small section of their three-acre property if they didn’t want to free-range them, but alas, they still haven’t done so.

So after growing up, meeting the love of my life, who happened to grow up with chickens, and buying a house with a yard that seemed to be made for the keeping of poultry, we made the decision a few years ago to look into getting some laying hens. We checked local ordinances (which was an ordeal) and were finally told that whatever Portland, Oregon’s laws were, Vancouver, Washington probably had the same rule. Sure enough, we found that they were the same. Any single-family residence could have up to three hens within city limits. Outside city limits there were no restrictions. We live in a small pocket of county, and are completely surrounded by the city. If you go a half-mile in any direction, you will be in the city, and I’m sure the only reason we haven’t been incorporated is because there are still a couple large farms close by. All this is good news for us, as it means more chickens, which also means more of their delicious eggs for eating. We currently have eight hens, and all are laying quite regularly, so we haven’t had to buy eggs from the store in well over a year, even with all the baking I do.

But I have to say the best part about eggs is their nutritional value, and how efficient our bodies so readily metabolize them. A raw egg is only about sixty percent metabolized, which is relatively good compared to a majority of our foods, because omnivores in general are the least efficient nutrient extractors on the planet. However, a cooked egg is over ninety percent metabolized, making it the most perfect protein on the planet, and one that doesn’t involve slaughtering. Heck yeah! But that is not all. Studies have proven that eggs do not contribute to higher cholesterol and actually contain the very nutrients to keep your heart healthy. Studies have also proven that eating eggs for breakfast will keep you full longer, because the cooked protein takes longer to metabolize, which also will help you lose weight as the process of reverting a solid egg back to a liquid state is metabolically costly, resulting in a higher caloric burn. Double heck yeah!! And all this protein-rich goodness in a shelf-stable, bacteria-resistant shell? Triple heck yeah!!!

Eggs really are one of the world’s most perfect foods, even store bought eggs. So feel free to eat a bunch, and who knows… you may just take a few pounds off at the same time.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Being Sick

Some people handle being sick fairly well, while others revert to overgrown babies. I usually handle it well around most people, but for some reason turn into the whiner around my partner, and I’m going to try to explore why that is.

I joke around by saying that I’ve had a chronic cold since I hit puberty, but in reality I developed allergies in the seventh grade after getting bronchial pneumonia. The cold answer makes more sense to me since I cough and blow my nose all day long, and the fact that I’ve tried multiple allergy medications with no effect. Well, that’s not true… Claritin dried out my throat and Zyrtec made me have suicidal thoughts and horrificly vivid nightmares, and neither stopped me from hocking up my lungs or blowing snot from the ever-flowing mucus reserve in my nasal passages. I’m sure my partner gets tired of my constant throat clearing, or maybe after nearly fourteen years he’s gotten used to it.

However, the issue is actual sickness here, and when I start getting sick, I start whining to my partner that I’m dying. I become the big, complaining baby. I sleep a lot, neglect my household chores, and hold a pityfest in my honor. I do all the things my partner does when he gets sick, only much, much worse. But, if I’m around other people during my illness, I say I’ve just got a touch of a cold, nothing to worry about. After a thorough review of my actions, I think I’ve figured out why: My partner is the only person I feel I can be completely myself, big, whiny baby and all. This means when I’m sick, I don’t put on a façade around him, which can be quite a relief and help me get better sooner. Why? The stress of holding it all together has to put a strain on your body, and when an illness is involved, that stress must stretch out over a week what otherwise you should have gotten over in a couple days. I’m no doctor, just making an observation, so please don’t quote me in any medical journals (without monetary compensation.)

So, as I sit here writing out this latest blog and feeling that tickle in the back of my throat my partner had a few days ago before he got ill, I’m thinking to myself, “How much can I get done today, because I can already tell that I’m not going to accomplish anything tomorrow?” Then again, that tickle could just had been aggravated from drinking beer while watching the Super Bowl and not rinsing and gargling with Listerine before going to bed, and the yeast from said beer(s) is feeding off my throat’s mucus plug.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Super Bowl Party

When the trend of consuming a week’s worth of calories during a football game became tradition, I am uncertain. But what I do know is that it doesn’t have to be the gluttenfest we’ve become accustomed to.

Being that today is the big game, most of us have already got everything for our respective parties, and by party, either a viewing party with friends and family or a sulking, somber, sit-at-home-alone-and-watch-the-game party. But for those who will pick something up on the way to a party, or who haven’t gone shopping for the one they are hosting, here are a few tips.

Chips and dips. These are classic game-day consumption standbys. For a heart-healthy version without sacrificing any flavor except maybe the oil slick on the roof of your mouth, make guacamole with tortilla chips. It may seem odd to recommend a fried chip in place of a fried chip, but corn tortilla chips are a whole grain snack, and have about 1/3 less fat than potato chips. And the avocado is one of the world’s most perfect fruits, containing so many vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids, which makes guacamole a perfect swap for mayonnaise-based-ranch-style dips. And when you make your fresh guac with tomatoes (the diced, canned variety this time of year is best), onions and jalepeño peppers and a hint of lime juice, you probably won’t notice that you’ll get a serving of fruits and vegetables in at the same time. Or, you can always go with hummus, which will work great not only for tortilla chips, but a veggie platter too, and is high in protein and low in fat. And don’t underestimate slices of apples and oranges, neither of which require a dip, and are almost always a welcome addition to a buffet or snack table.

For a main dish this year, I am making pulled pork sandwiches, which consists of a topping of coleslaw. In order to cut the calories without sacrificing the wonderful flavor full-fat mayonnaise offers, I make my coleslaw about an hour or two ahead of time. This way the lemon juice has time to start to break down the cabbage, releasing a little extra liquid to make the mayonnaise stretch a little more. I usually use about half as much mayo as in traditional coleslaw recipes simply by making it ahead of time. Of course, if there is not enough, you can always add a little more mayo. I also use pork sirloin roasts, which are quite low in fat, but do require a little water added when the pork gets pulled to keep it from drying out. And this year we are making them with sandwich thins instead of hamburger buns. Another main dish option is chili, which is one of those one-pot dishes you can whip up quickly with a few pantry items and a few fresh items, throw them in a pot and let simmer away until you are ready to eat. Just add some homemade cornbread or muffins.

When you reach for something to drink, don’t skip the beer or wine, but maybe think twice about having more than one soda. A fruit punch made with 100% juices (you’d be surprised at how many fruit juices are only made with 10% juice and a ton of high-fructose corn syrup to replace the missing flavor) and 7-Up or Sprite make a great kid-friendly as well as adult-friendly option. And for those adult-friendly options, you could always throw in a shot or two of vodka if you like fruity, fizzy drinks. But the option so overlooked is water. Keep a filtering pitcher of water on the beverage table and refill as necessary.

But the most important part is to enjoy the day. So have fun watching the game, or the commercials, or for the rare viewer, both.