Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Half Bath Renovation: Paint

There are times when painting can be fun. Then there is painting the extremely small, barely able to fit one person, half bathroom.

I take issue with paint that declares to be “One Coat” as it never only takes one coat to cover. Ever. Maybe if you were covering white on white it’d do alright, but that is a rather rare exception. But that is just a pet peeve of mine I suppose, as I’m certain to be the only person who has ever been flusterbated over it. But what angers me more is using quality paint and a supposedly professional quality paintbrush to cut it, and it yields crappier results than substandard paint and a cheap disposable paintbrush. Then again, sometimes you just have to have faith that both are actually doing their intended jobs, even if it doesn’t look like it at first.


While cutting in with a new angled brush, as my favorite angled brush somehow got lost in our church’s youth room spruce up, I could not for the life of me get the brush strokes to go away, no matter how heavy or light handed I was while painting. So I left a section alone, and continued to cut in the rest in crosshatches to get the most coverage possible, when I noticed the brush strokes had disappeared as the paint slowly spread to fill in the tiny gaps. Figures, as by the time I’d found that out I was nearly done cutting in a majority of the bathroom. I’d already planned on doing two coats, but really wanted to make sure the first one was on really well for the best possible coverage. Oh well, live and learn I guess.


After all the cutting in was completed it was time to move on to the rolling. Easy, right? Hehehe… okay, so the rolling was rather easy, except for the fact that the roller soaked up so much paint that a few areas had to be stippled with a flat brush, but I was ready to fix this and had the brush within reach. I also needed the brush to get into the small areas the roller couldn’t, and painted in those areas after stippling. What is stippling, you ask? Simply put, it is taking the tip of, say, a 4” flat brush that is at least half an inch thick and gently dotting the surface to blend the paint drips away. This usually creates the same effect as rolling. Just be careful that you are only lightly dotting the surface and not pushing all the way through, but then again, if you do, it can just be painted over. No biggie.


So last night I got the first coat done, as it took a lot longer for the primer to dry over all of the Loony Tunes characters than originally anticipated, probably because of the gross wetness that has been our spring so far. This made me incredibly sad to have to say goodbye, mostly to Marvin the Martian. We were hoping to have the paint and at least the backer board in place by yesterday, but alas, perhaps today will be the day. And maybe tile too.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Half Bath Renovation: The Decision

Sometimes, talking to a professional helps. It is especially helpful if the ruling is in your favor.


After breakfast, my partner and I went down to Coco’s Fine Tile & Marble to talk to Vanessa and possibly an installer who would be able to point us in the right direction as far as installing underlayment securely before tiling. The installers were all out, but one would be back that afternoon, so instead we talked about our tile choice, natural multicolored slate, and were looking around the store talking about future remodel stuffs… like granite countertops.

About twenty minutes after we got there, an installer was back, and my partner immediately began asking him questions. We informed him of our plans to put down slate tile, told him about our decking subfloor, and about the one area that sags a little when you walk on it. His solution? Mark the ½” concrete backer board where the joists are, trowel thinset onto the decking and attach the backer board over that, screwing it into the joists to secure it all. Apparently applying the thinset between the decking and the backer board will not only help level the floor to eliminate the small saggy area, but also act as a barrier between the wood, which expands and contracts, and the backer board, which does not. This means my idea will, in theory and according to the professional, work.

So we bought the thinset he recommended along with a trowel and some fiberglass tape to connect the adjoining pieces of concrete backer board. We also decided to pick out a paint color, as the current Loony Tunes characters that adorn the walls will not be staying. It seemed like we looked at color after color and didn’t like anything we say, mostly because they all seemed too dark or way too contrasting. Finally my partner asks the people at the paint counter their opinion. And the color I picked out that I thought went well, but was rather dark, is the one the lady said went really well. My partner didn’t see it until the lady showed him to look at it from a forty-five degree angle, and sure enough, all the green tones in the tile shone through. But, I really like the gold color he chose, so maybe we can use that in the laundry room, kitchen, or both when those get redone. Damn it… now I wish we had chosen that color instead, or gotten both. Oh well, we made the decision, and if we like it, will probably use it for the full bath too since the plan is for all the fixtures, sinks and toilets to be the same. If we don’t, well, then, uh-oh.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Half Bath Renovation: The Ongoing Battle

Last night as we are crawling into bed, my partner suggests we finish the half bath that has been torn up and unusable since last summer, and I agree. Arguing ensues as to the best possible way to do it, as is usually the case when we have opposing ideas, and we go to bed deciding it will just never get done.

My partner wants to install so much underlayment that it will raise the tiled floor of the half bath, and eventually the laundry room, kitchen and full bath an inch above the wood floor. I want to find a solution that will allow the floors to be as close to level to prevent people from tripping and possibly causing loss of life or limb simply on the quest to pee. Let the most logical choice win.

I understand that the floor needs to be level, that much is a given when installing tile in order to prevent cracking. But I don’t see how installing subfloor over the decking will help with this matter when the subfloor also isn’t level and has a few areas where it gives a little when walked upon. Simply throwing concrete backer board on top of that will not make it any sturdier than just screwing it directly into the decking. Of course, this means we will have to pull out all of the subfloor everywhere we plan to tile.

The other issue that arises during this dilemma is if we do put the concrete backer board on top of the subfloor and then the tile on top of that, it will create a one inch height difference above the rest of the floors in the house. For some, this seems like a minor issue, but most trips and falls occur from about a half an inch discrepancy. Another thing to consider is that from a resale standpoint, having that raised surface will limit the buying pool, as people with mobility issues and the elderly will be excluded.

So, I’m certain we will end up going to a tile store and ask for professional advice, as we still need thinset and grout, and go from there. I’m sure if we do need to install a subfloor first, we would be able to get away with a thinner one and also a thinner concrete backer board, but honestly, I’d think the thicker backer board that we have would be more stable, and just find a way to easily shore up the couple spots where the floor bows slightly. We’ll see whose idea wins… and probably end up putting linoleum back on.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Black Bean Salad

There are some recipes you make and think, “I’m not eating that, it sounds disgusting!” And then you try it and absolutely love it. This is one of those recipes for me.

One summer afternoon while we were in Idaho visiting my partner’s mother, we were getting ready to prepare dinner when his mom started putting together what she called Black Bean Salad. At first glance, the ingredient list made me wonder how something with brown sugar, jalapeños and Dijon mustard could work, but after trying it, I realized they were indeed a match made in heaven.

Of course, this is one of those salads that can be tweaked slightly depending on heat and sweetness preferences, but the best part is that it also works extremely well for scooping with tortilla chips as an alternative to dip. For the best results, allow it to sit for at least an hour before eating, and stir well to make sure everything is combined.

Black Bean Salad

1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
⅓ cup lime juice
¼ cup canola oil
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt & pepper to taste
2 cans black beans, drained
16oz bag frozen corn
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 ½ cups celery, chopped
2 seeded jalapeños
1 bunch cilantro, chopped

In a large bowl, whisk together the minced garlic, lime juice, oil, brown sugar, Dijon mustard, salt and pepper. Stir remaining ingredients into bowl and cover until ready to eat. If making the night before, refrigerate until about 30 minutes before you plan on eating, allowing it to come to room temperature. Add more salt and pepper if needed.

If you like heat, don’t seed the jalapeños, and if you prefer extra virgin olive oil, that works well too, giving the dish a slightly fruity taste. You can also adjust the corn amount to anywhere from 8oz to 16oz, and canned will work too if either fresh or frozen are not available.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Butter

My love affair with butter began at an early age, but then the artificially flavored butter-like food products quickly became the norm. I’m bringing butter back.

Okay, so maybe if I was Justin Timberlake, I could make that sound cool, but I’m not and won’t even try to convince any of you who may have an aversion to the deliciousness that is butter. While my preference for cooking and baking is unsalted, my partner’s mother prefers the salted kind and has always got some in a butter dish next to the stove. But then again, she uses it for everything from toast to cookies and does not even have any type of margarine in the house. I haven’t gone that far, but mostly because I’ve found a substitute for margarine that actually tastes good, Bummel & Brown Made With Natural Yogurt. I’d never use it for baking, but for buttering toast and a nice whole wheat English muffin, it’s delicious. However, I sometimes wonder if my partner’s mother is on to something. After all, she is a nurse, and an RN at that, so she probably knows a thing or two about healthy eating.

For cooking and baking, I mostly have three fats I use; canola oil, extra virgin olive oil and butter. Shortenings have their place in the kitchen, but are rarely used in mine unless either requested for a cake order for dietary reasons or trial and error has informed me that shortening works better for that particular recipe (“Curse you, Gingersnap!”) But my preferred fat for baking and desserts in general is butter. Canola is great when you need the fat, but don’t want it to impart any flavor to the party. Extra Virgin olive oil is perfect for adding a fruitiness and light flavor background to just about everything it goes into, whether it be a quick stir fry or cakes and cookies, and is the most used oil in our household by far. But butter is used for the gentle flavor it conveys, which enhances both the savory and the sweet. You’ll notice my three fat choices each are single ingredient options; canola oil is made from rapeseed, olive oil from olives, and butter from cream. Go read the ingredients on your margarine and shortening and tell me if you even know what half of the ingredients are.

I use butter a lot for baking, as adding dairy for all the fat and liquid to a cake will yield a homemade taste even from a box mix, although completely from scratch will eliminate ingredients that require a Doctorate in Biochemistry to decipher. I couldn’t imagine trying to use margarine to make my chocolate chip cookies, but I’m sure it would knock a day or two off the time it takes to create them. And yes, my chocolate chip cookie recipe requires three days, but they are delicious and well worth the wait. And no, you will never, ever have it as I plan on taking it to the grave with me… or bequeathing it to my godson Elijah.

Butter is also able to be enjoyed by lactose intolerant people because it has such an extremely low amount of lactose in it, but those with milk allergies should avoid it, as it is made from milk and contains enough proteins that cause those allergies to flare up. And recent research has led some nutritionists to reevaluate the stigma attached to butter because of the saturated fat content it has, especially in this age of trans-fat awareness, of which butter contains none. Those trans-fats, found mostly in margarines and shortenings, long used as butter substitutes, are responsible for a lot of the heart disease we see today, whereas the fatty acids present in butter actually can prevent disease in the first place. I’m not telling you to go out and devour entire sticks of butter as part of your daily health regimen, but to consider that it is a better alternative to artificially flavored butter-like food products… unless, of course, you have an allergic reaction to milk.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Kendra, the Broody

Out of all of our hens, we only have one who has gone broody. A few days ago, I thought she was at it again.

Kendra is a Dominique hen, a fairly rare breed of chicken. Dominiques are also considered the oldest North American chicken and were present during many a wagon trek west for their ability to scavenge all the food and water they needed to survive and lay eggs. Dominiques are also known for being quite docile and easy to handle, even the roosters, which is probably another reason they were a popular choice. However, slowly over the years, production hens like the Rhode Island Red and Barred Plymouth Rock became more popular and the Dominique went by the wayside, with numbers dwindling fast as fewer and fewer households kept them. They all but became extinct during the switch in the fifties from keeping chickens to simply going to the grocery store to buy eggs thanks to yet another breed, the Leghorn, which is the breed that produces a majority of those generic, uniform white eggs we see lining your grocers refrigerated section.


Anyway, two years ago this July, a friend of ours from church had a hen hatch three chicks, and we took him up on his offer to take them. Of course, two of the three would be roosters, because that’s how we roll, but the third was a Dominique hen we named Kendra. There was also a Dominique rooster whose name changed from Anya to Xander at that realization, but when we decided to get rid of the other rooster, Spike, a mean little mixed Polish bantam, we also got rid of Xander… a decision we later regretted. Even though we didn’t want roosters, Xander was true to form, a beautiful Dominique cockerel, who was certain to become a handsome cock. And when Kendra went broody last year, we realized she could have been hatching out more little Dominique chickies had we not given Xander back to our friend at church, who later found a home for him. Funnily, Spike found a home right away to a guy who wanted a really mean little rooster to protect his flock.

So a few days ago, I notice that Kendra has not been out of the henhouse for a while, even when the chickens are out free ranging, which is quite odd, as she can be pretty vocal when we don’t let them out to forage around for bugs and weeds. I opened the nest box door to collect eggs and see her sitting on one of the three nests. I pet her and she purred and I find that quite odd, but figure maybe she was just anxious last year when she went broody and would peck you away from her. I try to move her off the nest, but she wouldn’t budge, and I couldn’t see any eggs under her, so I collect the ones in the other two boxes and leave her be, figuring I’ll just put her back into the ferret cage we put her in last year to break her of her broodiness. Then another thought hit me… the feed store will be getting two breeds of chicks that I wanted to get, and if I build a simple brooder coop, I could leave her in that and slip in the two chicks when they arrive!

I talk it over with my partner, who suggests looking on craigslist.com for anyone with fertile eggs our broody hen could hatch, and I remind him we’ll end up with all roosters because that is our luck and inform him of my idea to just slip in the chicks next week. He’d much rather have her hatch eggs. And so the next day, the rain has finally let up and I decide to open up the nest box door to check on Kendra and notice a rather foul odor coming from her behind, and see that she has poop smeared all over. Great, she has pasty butt. So I close up the box, go inside and grab a large wad of paper towels, wet most of them with hot water, and walk back out to the coop to clean her up. As I’m cleaning her bottom, I see that she doesn’t have pasty butt, as her vent is quite clear and is contracting like she is about to lay an egg. This alone makes me wonder two things: Did an egg break on the way down, and am I going to have to reach in and pull out all the broken shell inside her vent? I decide to not think about it and dig in a little to feel around, but I don’t feel any broken shell pieces, so I continue cleaning her up. When I’ve finished, I set her down on the ground, figuring I’ll let out the other girls to free range for a bit, supervised of course so they don’t destroy the vegetable garden or newly planted flowers in pots on the deck, and she squats like she’s going to crap and out pops an egg!

After laying an egg, she walked over to the grassy area, pulled up a worm and started munching on grass. This is not broody behavior, and figured she must have just been a little eggbound and my gentle massaging while cleaning her bum released it. I let the other girls out and keep an eye on Kendra, who seems to be fine. Figuring that was probably all her problem was, I walk back to the house and wash my hands diligently, scrubbing with a massive amount of soap and hot water until they are raw and I need to reapply lotion to keep them from getting chapped and bleedy. By the time I got back outside to arm myself with the hose to spray them out of areas I don’t want them to be, Kendra had disappeared again. I check in the nest box she had been, and sure enough, there she was again! So maybe, even though she just laid an egg, she is broody after all!

I decide to leave her be and sit on the deck in one of the patio chairs, hose in hand ready to spray them if they jump onto the deck, or make their way to the vegetable garden in a frenzy to dig up the strawberries we just planted. After an hour of that, I locked the girls all back up into the coop and went inside. Kendra is still on the nest box. A couple hours later, I notice that she has rejoined the others in the run and is scratching around looking for nummy treats as she usually does. Curious? So, armed with the egg basket, I walk back out to the coop, open up the nest box and to my surprise there where she had been laying was what looked like a completely shell-less egg, not even a membrane to hold it all together! I grab the straw nesting material holding it and throw it into the composter before putting fresh straw back into the box and collecting the other eggs.

Since then she’s seemed fine, and has laid another egg, so instead of a broody hen as I was almost hoping just to have an excuse to get Speckled Sussex and Silver Laced Wyandotte chicks and experience what it would be like to have a hen actually raise the chicks herself, as Dominiques are notoriously excellent parents, both hens and roosters, but alas, she probably was stopped up with the one egg that popped out after cleaning her and the other one that was on its way down never formed a shell because the first wouldn’t come out. Oh well, chances are she will go broody later, and when that happens, we’ll reevaluate what we want to do about it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

New Neighbors

The house directly behind us is like a revolving door. Just when you get used to someone living there, they move.

When we first moved into our house, the neighbors behind us were a young family and always seemed to be in their backyard playing baseball or volleyball. They’d even play into the night, as there was a large pole with two floodlights on the top that lit up the yard nicely. But a few years later they moved on and the house sat empty. It would be five years before anyone else moved into the place, which meant that our busy street at least had a quiet area… our backyard. Of course, with nobody living there or taking care of the yard except for the occasional lawn service to mow the grass, the plants, bushes and trees quickly got out of hand. And so did the blackberries.

Ever since that first late summer day when we moved into our house, we noticed there were blackberries all over the back fence, as well as where our current rock garden is. One of the first things we did, with a lot of help from my partner’s mom and dad on a rare joint venture as they’d been divorced for nearly a decade at that point, was clear out the blackberry vines that had taken over that whole area of the backyard, which is only a small part at thirty feet long by 6 feet wide. The back fence on the other hand was not a priority as it was on the upper level of the backyard accessible by stone steps built into the retaining wall that splits the backyard in half, and we rarely went up there. Well, rarely except to pick blackberries for delicious blackberry cobbler.

Over the years, we eventually hired someone to clear out all the ivy, blackberries and holly along the fence, and with that, the only blackberries we’d get would come from the neighbors on the other side, on vines that crept over the fence and bent back down into our yard, in a property that still sat empty. When we decided to actually use the upper level for a vegetable garden and chicken coop, and planned their locations, naturally somebody moved into the house. We found out they were renters, and that they had a pair of dogs (that quickly turned into four) and a teenage daughter. Needless to say, our bitches didn’t get along. And by bitches, I mean our female dogs. The male on the other hand, was fascinated with the chickens, and tore down part of the back fence and knocked over another section in his pursuit of them. At first, we were amicable about the situation, and they fixed the fence up and apologized profusely. But after the fifth or sixth time of dealing with it, pictures were taken and Animal Control was called. Does that make us bad neighbors, or simply concerned livestock owners?

Well, it wasn’t long before these new neighbors decided that between their slumlord who wouldn’t fix things in the house to make it legally livable, and our rickety fence that couldn’t contain their dogs, that it was time for them to move on. And so once again, the house sat empty, but this time for only six months until an elderly man and a woman I could only guess was his daughter moved in. Four months later, they were gone, and the only impact we noticed from them was their lively choice of paint colors quite visible through their windows. It’d be yet another six months before our current neighbors would arrive. We still haven’t met them, though my partner keeps saying we should go introduce ourselves and offer them some eggs, as backyard chicken owners tend to do. From the looks of things, it’s either one really big family, or two families living together, and lots of kids ranging from toddlers to teenagers, who all seem to enjoy playing soccer at all hours.

One day, while doing the dishes, I noticed the guy I assumed to be the dad was hacking away at the brush along the fence line with a machete. Within a few days, the entire fence line and our source of blackberries was cleared out. While I am glad that they did this, as nobody since that first family kept most of the blackberries under control, it really shows how badly that fence needs to be replaced. And now that they’ve cleared out that whole area, they found the large steel pole with the two floodlights on it that was previously covered in blackberry vines, which means their late night soccer ball kicking might be extended.

So I guess the thing is, do neighbors still welcome newbies to the neighborhood, or do we live in an age where everybody pretty much keeps to themselves? I’d hope that we would be the first, but it has been about three weeks since they moved in and we have yet to even talk to them. Something tells me the time has come to say hello and give them a carton of eggs, as they are taking up too much room in our fridge as of late!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dusting

There are some chores that boggle my mind as to how and why they need to be done. Dusting is one of them.

I know the properties of dust, and quite honestly it scares me the amount that is deposited in our house every day. Part of the problem is having a dog with chronic skin issues. I can’t account for the rest, however. We also have a rather large cat whose fine white hairs wisp through the air, dancing and mingling with the floating dust before they fall, landing together on whichever surface they choose. Okay, so my partner and I contribute a little too.

So, with this massive amount of dust just lying around, quickly becoming another persona, one would think I’d dust daily to avoid it. But I’m lazy. I freely admit it. That, and I simply find dusting stupid. You dust and dust and minutes later, even with a freshly vacuumed or swept floor, dust magically appears back on the surfaces out of nowhere. It is evil and it must be stopped. Any ideas?

Personally, I have tried every dusting product out there, but the only thing that seems to work well on most surfaces is a cloth and dusting spray, such as Pledge. I also use microfiber cloths for the TV and electronics, which are easily washed and dried when they become soiled. However, for the big jobs, which in our house mostly consist of wood furniture, old wash cloths and rags with dusting spray work best, as a microfiber cloth would quickly be overwhelmed. The other option would be to dust more often, therefore avoiding the frustration I exhibit while performing this chore, but again… lazy.

And so grudgingly, I dust once a month, when it should be at least once a week, but preferably every time I vacuum, which is every two to three days, and honestly should be every day. Wow, this little exercise in sentence building has been quite enlightening as to the extent of my laziness! Will it change my behavior? Magic 8-Ball says, “Doubtful. Outlook is grim.”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Homemade Tortillas

Sometime last year, around the same time I was experimenting with making different types of bread, I decided to try my hand at making corn tortillas. I haven’t bought any from the store since.

People like to spout that we have Americanized the tortilla, taking what was traditionally made with corn and instead replaced it with flour and lard. This, quite honestly, is not true. Just like here in the states, there are different growing regions in Mexico. The south is mainly corn-producing, and so a majority of their tortillas were made from corn, however the northern areas are able to grow wheat, and so flour tortillas tended to be the norm, or at least preferred. Of course, any type of tortilla can be found in the supermarkets of Mexico today, just like here, and fewer and fewer people take the time to make their own tortillas.

The main reason I wanted to attempt making corn tortillas was because after perusing my rather authentic Mexican cookbook, and watching people eat them on the Food Network, I wanted to make Carnitas. Carnitas are little more than cubes of pork sprinkled with garlic powder, salt and pepper, with about half an inch of water added to the baking dish and baked for a couple hours. Who doesn’t have time to make that? Add some freshly made guacamole and corn tortillas and you’ve got a delicious dinner. I just made these a couple days ago and am beginning to drool for more!

To make corn tortillas is rather simple, as there are only two ingredients; masa harina and water. Masa harina is finely ground dehydrated corn, and is found in most supermarkets today, usually on the Mexican food aisle. It is packaged like flour, and a small package will make a lot of tortillas. The ratio is about 2 cups masa harina to about 1 cup water, but I find that between 1¼ to 1½ cups water is sometimes required. Depending on your filling, you may want to add a pinch of salt. With your hands, mix the masa harina and water until it forms a ball, then mix for about a minute more to make sure it is thoroughly moistened. I also find that allowing the ball to rest for about fifteen minutes covered with a slightly wet paper towel ensures even distribution of water. After it has rested, divide the ball into 12 to 16 balls and keep them covered until you press them. Heat a nonstick skillet or griddle to medium-high to high.

Now comes the tricky part, unless, of course, you are lucky enough to own a tortilla press… which I don’t. Using a glass baking dish, I find the Pyrex Pie Plate works exceptionally well, slightly flatten a ball of dough between two pieces of wax paper and press down with the baking dish, rocking back and forth and side to side as needed to form about a 5” to 6” round. You can also use a rolling pin as well, but it should still be between wax paper, plastic wrap or parchment paper. If you find that the edges are serrating or the dough will not hold it’s shape very well, simply add a few drops of water and roll it around in your palm to wet the entire surface before pressing. If, however, it is to wet and won’t release from the paper, you will need to add more masa harina, reknead the batch, allow to rest again for a few minutes before dividing into balls.

After pressing, immediately place the tortilla on the ungreased skillet or griddle and cook each side for 30 to 50 seconds, or until the edges appear dry on the first side. When it starts to take on color and/or starts to appear puffy, it is probably done. I find I can usually get four tortillas going at a time on my griddle, so that is my preferred method, as opposed to only one in a skillet. I keep my tortillas in a tortilla warmer, but a cloth napkin or towel lined basket will work too.

These tortillas are delicious as is, and will keep at room temperature, tightly covered in plastic wrap or a plastic sealed bag, for a couple days. They keep in the fridge for about a week, but will lose some flexibility. So what is a person to do with any leftover tortillas? Cut them into quarters or sixths and fry them for fresh chips, or fry them whole, either flat for tostadas or with tongs hold them open in half for tacos. I’ve also found that when using these for enchiladas, it is best to fry them over medium heat in about two tablespoons oil in a small 6” to 8” skillet for ten seconds, flipping halfway and placing them on paper towels to drain away most of the grease. This not only keeps the tortilla from absorbing liquid and becoming goo again, but also makes them much more pliable for filling. ¡Muy delicioso!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Chickens vs. Chicken Poop

Don’t get me wrong, I love having chickens. But they are voracious, indiscriminate eaters who will stop at nothing to destroy your vegetable garden any chance they get, and poop everywhere they can.

Lately the thought of making an uncovered outdoor run around the coop has been in the foreground of my mind. Yes, it will probably be a little unsightly, as most animal fencing is, but it will keep the chickens contained in a larger outdoor space than their current covered run has, and keep them out of our vegetable garden. While there are other creatures to contend with, squirrels and various species of birds who make our yard home, the damage a chicken can impose on a newly planted garden is like the difference between a ten mile per hour wind gust and a hurricane… with the chicken being the hurricane… which is what your garden looks like may have passed through when they are finished destroying everything.

Another option is to just keep them in their coop all day. This isn’t so bad, as the covered outdoor run area is plenty big enough for all the girls, but I just don’t like the idea of keeping them locked up like that when we have a rather large yard. And keeping them in the coop will increase their food bill, so the rise in feed will have to be taken into consideration as well.

Of course, on the flip side, the lower part of the yard, where we have the deck and “people lawn,” a.k.a. the “dog-poop-free lawn,” will also not have chicken crap everywhere. Cleaning chicken poop off of a wood deck is not as exciting as some would make it sound. In the heat of late summer, it simply bakes and flakes, making it easier to sweep it off, but the rest of the year it can be a challenge to keep clean. Chickens are pooping machines. If you were to measure the amount of poop a chicken can create in a single day, and translate that into people poop, you’d be pooping about 1/6th of your body weight every single day. And free-range chickens will poop on anything they happen to be on or around. This stuff is great after it has composted, but fresh pooh-nuggets are a force to be reckoned with.

But, I love the girls too much to keep them locked up in their covered run coop, and will probably just have them outside while I am outside and can shoo them off the deck, and hose them out of the vegetable garden. I’ve heard some people have used lawn tools, rakes and such, to keep their chickens out of certain areas as they seem to think they are chicken torture devices, but that never seems to work with ours. It’s like they know we are trying to fool them, and they just won’t be fooled. Then again, maybe I’ll tire of it, break down and buy a fifty foot roll of chicken wire fencing and some metal stakes and a makeshift gate around their coop for a majority of the time, and let them out occasionally. This should work… until they start their perimeter pacing like they do in the coop when they want out!

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Vegetable Starts

Figuring I had failed at producing any seedlings to transplant into the vegetable garden, I went to the local farmer’s market on a mission; to find tomato starts. However, they had none, and upon returning home I was grabbing a shovel to plant the strawberries we had just got from Thrifty Feed and Garden just down the street when lo-and-behold, there was a little sprout standing up in the micro-greenhouse!


This wasn’t necessarily going to be a shock if none of these particular seeds sprouted, as we got them three springs ago. I knew that stored in a cool dark place, you can usually get two seasons out of a seed packet, but shouldn’t expect anything more. I just figured, I have the seeds, I have the little Jiffy Greenhouse Kit, I may as well start my mid to late spring vegetables now so they’ll be ready to go into the ground at the right time.

Of course, that isn’t to say I left the farmer’s market empty handed. I decided that I was too impatient for my parsley and cilantro to sprout, so I bought starts. Needless to say, the chickens were absolutely enthralled with the new plants, and quickly pecked all around them, practically unearthing the poor little things. Methinks we either need to fence in the garden, fence in around the coop, or keep them locked up more. Personally, I’m all for putting up a cheap fence around the coop, as it will give them plenty of space to free-range, without digging up the vegetable garden’s fragile sprouts and starts, and also keep chicken poop from getting all over the deck. We’ll see. Maybe the hose trick will have to be implemented again this year.

After farmer’s market, we decided to pick up some strawberries to plant in an old whiskey barrel we had. Originally I was going to build a box and put them in there, but we figured the whiskey barrel could be used just fine. Figuring that we wanted eating strawberries, not tart pie berries, we got two varieties, both everbearing, and interplanted them in the barrel. Everbearing means they will flower and fruit from spring until fall, rather than a determinate variety, which would flower once, and fruit all at once. Those are perfect for big harvests for freezing, but not so practical for the home gardener who may want to enjoy fresh strawberries all summer long.

Personally, I’m just super excited my tomato seeds started sprouting. I just hope that I can get one good plant out of the three each of the five varieties I planted. Wow, that’s a confusing sentence to say outloud! And hopefully the eggplant and basil will follow suit before the lid comes off. But if they don’t, the farmer’s market just started yesterday in our city, so I’m certain I’ll find starts for those later if I need them.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Cleaning Grease Stains from Pans

I have to admit, I absolutely love having a glass/ceramic stovetop for many reasons, even though gas would be my preferred cooking method. But the one thing I don’t care for is the grease stains it tends to leave on my pans.

With a glass/ceramic stovetop, the entire surface is flat, which is great for those of us lacking countertop space, as this acts as an extra counter. However, having that flat space while cooking creates the perfect recipe for… GREASE STAINS!!! The direct contact over the entire bottom of the pan and the heating element somehow transfers any trace of oils that may be on the stove to the bottom of the pan, which is nearly impossible to clean without a stainless steel pad, of which I am not a fan of using on our All-Clad Stainless Steel Cookware.

So I am going to share with you a few homemade remedies you can use to clean your stainless steel pots and pans, as well as why I use store-bought cleaners. The first, and probably most obvious to anyone who has ever known the joy of pairing baking soda and vinegar together, is making a paste out of the two. Simply add just enough vinegar to the baking soda until it is about the consistency of toothpaste. Then use a non-abrasive cleaning pad, sponge, heavy duty paper towel or cloth to rub the paste onto the bottom of the pan in a circular motion. If it is a super nasty stain, allow it to sit for a few minutes, then continue rubbing until the stain is gone. Wash as usual, either in the dishwasher or by hand.

The other option to use is a store bought cleaner, of which I have two I can recommend. Cameo Aluminum & Stainless Steel Cleaner is a powder which you sprinkle on after wetting your pots, pans, utensils, even the kitchen sink! You can also make a paste and use that like you would the vinegar & baking soda method. Again, wash immediately afterwards. Then there is Wright’s Silver Cream, which I find the most effective. It is a paste already and is used like the other two previously mentioned cleaners, but this one is safe for mirrored finishes, and also works on glass and glass/ceramic stovetops.

Any of these will work for baking sheets as well, which tend to get the same grease stains from the constant high temperatures in the oven from either Pam Cooking Spray or another grease source. I usually spend an afternoon twice a year cleaning my pots and pans this way, even though I’m certain making a once a month chore will make it a whole lot easier!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Soap

While liquid soap is great, it can be expensive. Then there is foaming hand soap, which in and of itself is ingenious, but refills for that cost a lot too. Here’s what I do.

When it comes to dishes, I use Dawn. Currently I am using Dawn Advanced Power (ultra concentrated with added enzymes to attack stuck-on food) that I get at Costco. While I am a cheapskate, dishwashing liquid is one area I refuse to skimp on, mostly because I have never been pleased with the results from any other dishwashing soap I’ve tried.

For the shower, we use Ivory bar soap. It cleans and rinses off easily, and the best part is it is relatively inexpensive, depending on where you shop. Prices vary from store to store, so while shopping for other things at various merchants, I check their price on Ivory and compare, making sure to remember to pick it up at the lowest priced location on my next trip to that particular store. The only other soap I’ve used and would use again is Dove, which, I guess technically, isn’t soap, but considered a beauty bar. It has some cleansers in it, but acts more like a moisturizing lotion, which for someone like me who has chronic dry skin, is great. But the price is a deterrent, and Ivory works rather well at cleaning.

And finally, we come to hand soap, which while I prefer regular soaps, it is getting near impossible to find any that isn’t anti-bacterial, which is probably in and of itself worthy of a whole other post on the destruction it causes on your body’s natural defenses against harmful bacteria, and may be someday. But anyway, I buy store brand liquid hand soap, even though all of our dispensers are foaming. Let me explain.

Foaming hand soap is basically regular hand soap in which more water has been added to make it foam. Why, then, does it cost the same or more than regular liquid hand soap? Obviously, it is to make more money out of you, the consumer, and which conglomerate doesn’t want that? But don’t worry, I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing for years. To make your own foaming hand soap, simply fill your container with 1 part soap to 5 parts warm water leaving about a quarter of the container unfilled, put the pump back on, and slowly tip up and down a few times to combine then leave it alone. This can take anywhere from an hour to overnight, depending on the type of hand soap, and I find that giving a gentle rock every half hour or so helps. Alternately, you can do what I’ve recently done, which is take my recently emptied refill container of liquid hand soap, fill it about 1/10 with soap and filled the container a little over half with water to get about the same ratio, and tipping up and down to combine. This way, when the bottles need to be refilled, I can simply pour directly from this container.

Making your own foaming hand soap will save you a lot of money, especially if you’re someone who washes your hands a lot like I am. Between chickens and baking, I roughly wash my hands about fifty times a day, especially if the baking is for other people. The last refill bottle I bought lasted over three years using this method, and I anticipate that same amount of time before having to purchase another bottle. I did mention how I am cheap, right? And while there are things I won’t compromise on, I simply can’t justify spending two dollars on a new bottle of foaming hand soap, when it costs just over six cents to make your own, and with very little effort at that. This is also an excellent way to make your more expensive hand soaps last longer too, but be aware that it only works with clear soaps, not creamy ones that look more like lotion. If you can pick up the bottle and see through to the other side, it’s okay. If you pick it up and see only soap and nothing on the other side, it’s not.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Cleaning Out the Cleaning Supplies

Okay, so here’s the thing… we have a lot of various cleaning supplies, and they all cohabit nicely in a cupboard above the utility sink in the laundry room. The problem is that we have multiple open bottles of the same product and some products I’m pretty certain haven’t been manufactured in either of the last two decades.

Yesterday, as I opened the cleaning supply cupboard to put away some Tilex I had purchased at Costco, complete with a refill container of course, I couldn’t. So, yes, it was finally time after all these years to get rid of crap. So I pulled everything out, and the first things I threw away were the bottles with broken spray nozzles. These bottles had been used over and over again, and not for their original product, but for a sanitizer bleach-water solution (1 tablespoon bleach to 1 quart water) and a cleaning bleach-water solution (1 part bleach to 4 parts water.) I had recently picked up a cheap spray bottle at the grocery store for the specific purpose of replacing the sanitizer version, figuring I’ll just pour out some of the water and add in more bleach for cleaning purposes. I’m cheap, did I mention that, so the fact that I bought a spray bottle WITH NOTHING IN IT is like a really huge step for me!

After that, I looked for like-products, such as the three open bottles of Lysol Kitchen Cleaner, and combined them into one. I then decided to toss the various brands of carpet cleaners that were near empty, as we got rid of all but one area rug in the house, which resides in the dining room, and is easily hosed off and dried outside for cleaning. Once everything was sorted into toss and keep, the toss got, er, tossed, and the keep I organized into purposes. I put the Tilex and mold inhibitor/killer stuff together, the kitchen cleaner and bleach solution together, the wood floor cleaners together, the wood furniture cleaners and dusting spray together, and finally the ammonia and vinegar. The Febreeze I put front and center, as whoever invented this stuff is a godsend for people with pets! This way, when I reach for a product, it is easily found without having to move everything out of the way first.

I do have other cleaning supplies, but they tend to be in areas that make sense for their purposes. I keep my soap under the kitchen sink, both dishwashing and liquid hand soap. I also keep the ceramic/glass stovetop cleaner in there too, as well as the stainless steel & aluminum cleaner and silver cream for pots, pans and baking sheets during their once yearly deep cleaning to get all the residue that has a tendency to stick during cooking and baking, even after cleaning. But these are other posts for this week, as it being spring, it is time for spring cleaning!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Home Movies

If you are like me, you probably have a ton of home movies around from the camcorder you won at a company Christmas party that not only did you organize, but also picked out the very prize you ended up winning. And if not, chances are if you have kids, you probably have a video recorder of some form or another.

My particular camcorder is a JVC Digital Video Camera that takes MiniDV tapes to record the video onto. These are fairly high quality tapes, but are magnetic tapes none-the-less, and will degrade much quicker than a digital disc, such as a CD or DVD, which are considered archival quality.


Okay, so, I’ll have to admit, we got the most use out of it the first year we had it. I think that eighty percent of the video tapes we have are from 2006. Of course, a lot of stuff happened that year: We got married; our friend’s Rob & Sarah got married; got a dog; camped out to watch the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant’s cooling tower implode; had a family reunion; went to California & Disneyland. There were quite a few other things scattered here and there, like holidays and camping, but the listed ones were the biggies, and are all captured on digital video tape.

The term “digital video tape” seems odd, but I can explain it rather simply. It records the video as a digital signal onto a high quality magnetic tape, giving you DVD quality playback, and when connected to your computer, transfers the information back to its original digital format. This makes it rather easy to burn onto a DVD for archiving, however, the only videos we’ve archived are our wedding, our friends’s wedding and the Trojan implosion. I know, you’d think that the family reunion would be more important, but hey, it was pretty frakking cool to watch!

Now, this isn’t to say that these are the only video tapes of home movies we have, as it isn’t. The old-school VHS tapes were huge in the 80s and 90s, and most of our home movies from our childhoods are in those formats. And then there are a couple Hi8 tapes from borrowing a friend’s video camera that we have never transferred over and are sitting in our movie closet. And yes, we have an entire closet full of movies. My partner spent a lot of this last Christmas break transferring some of his old home movies from VHS to DVD. We used to have a VCR connected to the computer, but when we had to replace the motherboard, which had a built-in video editing port, we didn’t get one with that capability. Fortunately, we purchased a DVR a few years ago, and were able to connect the VCR to it and transfer the video to a digital format and burn a DVD directly from the DVR, both for archiving, and editing at a later date.

Not everybody has this capability, but if you want to preserve those memories for the longest amount of time possible, you should look into archiving them in some way or another. A digital file stored on a digital disc has an archival life of about one-hundred years, compared to the ten or so from a tape. Services are available for digital archiving, or you can ask a friend who has the equipment if you can use it. I know that I have a few tapes of my own that I really need to archive, if for no other reason, then to edit together short films I did in high school where I was only the producer and camera man, not director, so my footage is all raw. Who knows… maybe after I get it transferred and edited together, it’ll end up somewhere on the internets, go viral, and I’ll become a famous writer, producer, actor and director all in one!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Television: Over the Air Broadcasting

Over the Air television is not without its faults. Sometimes just the act of getting up off the sofa will cause it to glitch… especially if it is CBS, which thank goodness there is only one thing we rarely watch on that station, The Price is Right.

Upon installing the antenna, I was amazed that our high definition channels actually looked better than they did with cable, and the pixelization effect that often occurred through our cable provider had disappeared. Funny, they told us it was our television that caused that to happen.

“Oh look dear! Every time Clark Kent turns his head, it gets all boxy and looks like he’s turning into Bizarro!”

So everything looked great, the setup seemed to work out fantastic, it was just that our fifty inch DLP* widescreen television now had a very large set of bunny ears on it. Out of the twenty five channel lineup we now had, we regularly only use six channels, and three of those are from our local PBS** stations, OPB***. Oh my, all these acronyms, and here I am a member of the AAAA****!


Well, as luck would have it, everything was going too well, because a couple weeks after we threw away the packaging and the receipt, we started seeing green semi-transparent boxes all over the screen, which only showed up on the antenna, and not the Blu-Ray or Wii. This made me assume we got a crappy antenna and it needed to be returned for an exchange, until my internet research led me to believe there was something going on with the TV. When we bought our television, we had read that you want to buy the extended warranty for DLPs because of the light bulb replacement, which can be costly. So we got a four year warranty, figuring that if it never gets used, at least we had it. Of course, within a year, the mirror-box, aka, the thing that makes this type of television a television, was dying. Cost of new mirror-box? $1600. Cost with warranty? $0. Success! Warranty already paid for itself, and everything was fine, until right after the antenna installation, which happened to be one month before the warranty was to expire. My partner quickly called the company which had taken over the warranty since the store we purchase the TV at had gone out of business thanks to our wonderful economic situation we’ve been in for some time now, and set up a date to have a repairman come out to look at it and diagnose the problem. In the mean time, suddenly the Blu-Ray started acting up too, but not in the same way, and so did the Wii in yet another way. All three of these devices, the antenna, Blu-Ray and Wii are connected to the TV via different cables, and when the repairman looked at it, he knew right away, it was the box that all these devices connect to that was the culprit… and the bulb was on its way out, so he’d order one of those too while it was still under warranty! By the time the repairman returned to install the replacement parts three weeks later, the TVs green boxes had expanded to all colors of the rainbow and it was quite psychedelic. Anyway, long story short, it wasn’t the antenna, just our TV.

Okay, let me get back to where I was going with this. We have never been a member of OPB, but talk about it often, since we watch and listen to more programming on its stations, either on TV or radio, than any other, especially now that we don’t have cable. As many people know, pubic broadcasting relies on donations from viewers for a majority of its funding, and a few times each year, they have membership drives to support this effort. During the last drive, I thought to myself about donating something, as I do get a majority of my entertainment from OPB, but the thing about me is I have terrible follow-through. Last night, and I kid you not, as I was prepared to write something completely different this morning for the second part of yesterday’s blog, we were watching History Detectives, they finished one story and went to the familiar membership drive with a host or two and a bunch of people in the background waiting to take phone calls, and my partner says, “We should become members.” I agreed, and he pulled out his phone, called the number on the screen, and donated right then and there.

So, I guess the point I am trying to get across is, are you getting your money’s worth out of the cable programming you are watching, or is a majority of it wasted? If you are, that’s great, as it is working for you, but if you aren’t, why continue to pay for it? There is so much programming from our local channels for free, and maybe that money could go to a better use. For us, we’ve been putting the money we’re saving back to our church, and recently, to the stations of OPB.

*DLP: Digital Light Processing
**PBS: Public Broadcasting Service
***OPB: Oregon Public Broadcasting
****AAAA: Anti-Acronym Association of America

Monday, March 15, 2010

Television: Ditching Cable for an Antenna

For a long time, we had cable TV, and it was good. Then, the price got too much and the content got too thin. Bye-bye, cable TV.

For some people, spending over seventy dollars a month for television is nothing. Mind you, the only perk was that we were able to not only pick up all the local channels in High Definition, but also about twenty other channels, such as Food Network and HGTV, as well as the hundreds of other channels we never watched. And so, the decision was made to get rid of cable TV, and so I went down to the office just down the street, returned the equipment, and had it shut off. We still get our internet through this cable company, but that is all… actually, they lowered our rate because we said we were looking into cheaper alternatives, which knocked almost twenty bucks a month off of that bill rather quickly. It never ceases to amaze me how existing customers can get the introductory rates simply by threatening to leave! Try it.

So, without any picture coming from our rather large television now sitting in the living room just waiting for us to pop a DVD or Blu-Ray in, or maybe even play the Wii, I decided to see if the TV had a built-in antenna. Turned it on, hit Channel Search, and waited. Nothing. So, I got online and checked out what I needed to make this work, found that it had a built-in digital tuner and came across some video of a woman making her own antenna out of a tin can, a nail, a coax cable with one end stripped and some duct tape. I had all these materials and decided, what the heck, I’d give it a try. And wouldn’t you know it, it worked. Yes it was ghetto, but if I pointed it in one direction, I got four channels, and if I pointed it just a couple inches in a different direction, I got three other channels. I went into the garage, grabbed about a foot of copper electrical wire we just happen to have a box of from installing grounded outlets in the office, formed it into a circle, and attached it. Success! Other channels!

This set up was good for about a week, until we decided to break down and buy a real antenna. So, back onto the internets went I to research indoor antennas, ranges, reliability, and most importantly, price. Once I found one that I liked, with customer feedback that was mostly positive for people in our situation anyway (about ten miles from the signals), and at a price I could justify, I went to the store to make the purchase. As luck would have it, there was only one of the model I was looking at, so I picked it up and held onto it as I looked at the others and compared, since it was the only model that was both on their website and in-store. One was cheap and ugly and had no power, and the other was expensive and ugly and did practically the same thing. Pleased with my selection, I purchased it and went home to install.

After plugging a coax cable into the antenna from the TV and plugging the power cord into the surge protector with the rest of the television components, I hit Channel Search, first without extending the rabbit ears, and picked up about ten channels. So far, it worked just as well as my ghetto antenna. Now, extending the rabbit ears all the way, I hit channel search again, but this time, twenty-five channels popped up, which is all of our local digital channels, plus two analogs that are still broadcasting. Yeah, we have TV again!

Now, for some reason or another, I got it in my head that our smaller twenty-inch TV we had in the bedroom also had a digital tuner built-in, and so I hooked up the old ghetto antenna to test it out, but the only channels it got, and with a lot of noise at that, were the two analog channels, which means that it doesn’t have a digital tuner, and those can be spendy for those of us who didn’t take advantage of the government coupons because we didn’t have the foresight that we were going to ditch our pay-service for free-service. Oh well, it is big and bulky anyway, and really, we don’t need a TV in the bedroom anyway. Besides, I’ve noticed we sleep better without it.

Tomorrow I will talk about the pros and cons of Over The Air Television.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Italian Sausage Soup

A couple weeks ago, while shopping at the grocery store, I was looking for Turkey Sausage of the Mild Italian variety. What I found, was four packs available for four dollars each, and couldn’t resist buying a couple.

Now, since I went in for one and brought home eight, I immediately put them all in the freezer. They were obviously marked down so cheap because the following day was the little expiration date printed on the package. These little arbitrary dates are good guides to go by, but not necessarily true of the freshness or safeness of a food. But, this post is about sausage, and more importantly, what one can do with it.

These were all packaged in chubs, as opposed to Styrofoam and plastic wrap, and thus, take up much less room in the freezer. They are also way more easy to thaw out when you feel the need to cook with them. Simply pull out your chub… that sounds dirty… and put it in the sink and fill the sink with cold water. Your chub may float for a bit, but when it has sunk to the bottom, that means it is thawed, or at least mostly thawed and ready to use.

Having this massive hoard of Mild Italian Style Lean Turkey Sausage at my disposal, what should I make with it? Well, the first thing I decided, as it got a little chilly after a very warm winter, was make soup. This is a take on traditional, but making it easier for the everyday cook to whip up in no time.

Italian Sausage Soup

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1lb Lean Turkey Mild Italian Sausage
1 onion, diced
3 carrots, diced (about 1 cup)
1 14-16oz can stewed tomatoes
1 14-16oz can white beans with juice (navy or pinto will work too)
2 cans beef stock, or about 4 cups
2 cups packed spinach, or about 4oz frozen
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large stock pot or soup pot, heat over medium and add the olive oil, red pepper flakes and garlic. When the garlic and pepper start to sizzle, stir once and add the Italian sausage in crumbles, breaking up with the back of a wooden spoon and stirring often. When the sausage has brown, add the onion and carrots and cook for 3-5 minutes more, just until the onions start to take on color. Add the stewed tomatoes, breaking up any large pieces, the whole undrained can of beans, and both cans of beef stock. Allow to come to a boil then cook for 5-10 minutes, until the carrots are cooked through. Add spinach and cook just until the spinach is wilted for fresh, or thawed and incorporated for frozen. Season with lots of freshly cracked black pepper and if needed, salt. I’m a salt freak, and don’t usually need to add any, as between the sausage, tomatoes, beans and stock, there is plenty of salt already. If you want a less salty version, replace some or all of the beef stock with water. I’d start with half and half, mostly because the beef stock adds a lot of flavor since this is a quick soup. Serve with cheesy garlic bread or corn muffins.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Paint

So the possibility of going to the hardware store and buying paint to finally paint the bedroom happened again last night. Of course, then the morning comes and that idea goes out the window.

When we moved into our house a little over 12 years ago, we painted all the walls white because they had obviously been exposed to a chainsmoker, as tar literally oozed and crept down the walls. Gross? Yes. Did we wash off the tar stains before painting? That’d be a big no. I’m not sure what we were thinking other than maybe the fact that I was 20 and my partner was 21, so the prospect of a thought process more than likely didn’t occur.

Now, after multiple rooms have been painted, and some need another color because while Burnt Mandarin looks good on the paint chip, an entire room of orange can be a little much for some people. I love it, but my partner hates it. So this room needs another color, the bathroom is in desperate need of a new paint job, preferably after we scrape off all the paint chipping away from the ceiling, which is really the only place it needs paint, the half bath should probably get painted before we install the slate tile floors (yes, this still has not progressed any further than my original post on the matter), and our bedroom, which is in need of a coat or two of Kilz. The kitchen and laundry room can wait until we redo the floors in there.

As I am writing this, I notice some paint chips from Lowe’s sitting next to me, and it got me thinking. We haven’t decided on a color. We can’t agree on practically anything except a color scheme of green, burgundy and gold, which I made a bedspread with those colors years ago, and am really wishing I would have made it a little less, uh, interesting. I really like the two different fabrics, one of which is solid stripes of gold, green and burgundy that is on either side of the spread, and the other is a baroque floral print with the same colors that makes up the part that lays on top of the bed, but part of me wishes I would have done one or the other. And the solid jacquard burgundy taking the position of the floral print on the reverse side didn’t look so good actually on the bed as it did in my head. I’m sure the lighting plays a factor into that, as well as those stark white walls, against which, everything looks a little off. Perhaps a duvet should be next on my “to sew” list. I’m not a stickler for exact matching paint to fabrics in a room, but a color that is close or in the same family is high on my priority. My partner just wants the room to feel warm… and wants to install mirrored closet doors. At this point, having lived without closet doors for three years now, I’m beginning to agree.

When I painted the craft room, I had picked out a fabric to make a huge bed spread for the futon that would look more like a sofa while in that position, and from that, decided I wanted a golden tan color for the walls to pick up and complement the print, as well as the new black-brown cabinet and side table and stainless steel desk I had just picked up from IKEA. This room probably would still be a drab mess if my partner’s sister wasn’t going to be staying with us for a week that year. And really, that was just an excuse to spend a bunch of money to give the craft room a makeover. In reality, it only cost about $300 for the wall cabinet, side table, desk, file cabinet, fabric and batting to make the comforter, as well as a desk and floor lamp and new light fixture to replace the old ceiling fan, and of course, paint for the walls and trim. And all of that really makes me want to paint the bedroom.

Perhaps after I make some homemade biscuits and gravy, we’ll head over to the hardware store… maybe even Restoration Hardware on 23rd in Portland… and check out paint. Then again, if we do get paint, it’ll probably just be Valspar from Lowe’s or evil Behr from Home Depot. I say evil because it seriously should not take two coats of tinted primer and five top coats to paint a room that still looks like it could use a couple more coats. Then again, this is that Burnt Mandarin color in the office my partner so wants to paint over before the color of insanity drives him to that point.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fabric

That’s it. I’ve had it. I really need to find a way to organize my fabric, because seriously, one shouldn’t have to pull everything out of an overstuffed closet to locate a specific print.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had fabric in my closet. I remember as a five year old taking scraps from whatever project my mother had been working on and finding some way to use them. Growing up poor will do this to a person, I think. It is very difficult to throw anything away, even scraps that for all intents and purposes, will have no second, third or fourth life, depending on where they are in the cycle. So these scraps ended up in a bag in my closet, and every now and then, I would try to incorporate them into a project. Just for reference, the oldest scrap fabrics I have in my closet now are about twenty years old, as I remember getting them in the seventh grade at the old Ben Franklin Crafts store, and a couple from Fabricland.

However, lately, especially since my sewing machine is mostly fixed (the bobbin winder is a little testy, but that is apparently normal for this particular model, and the cheapest winder that will work for these bobbins cost more than most new sewing machines, so I’ve decided I can live with it) I’ve been trying to work on a lot of those projects that have been getting put off. But I am stuck with the dilemma of having a chaotic looking craft room after pulling out half of the fabric in the closet to get to the ones I want to use, or keep stuffing everything back into the closet and hope that I remembered to put the fabrics I intend to use on the top. Option three is to sew like crazy and make the fabric piles disappear, but the likelihood of that happening are so slim, I can’t really count that as a valid alternative.

I decided to kind of organize it all into groups. The fleece is all together, and the upholstery fabrics are mostly together, except for the two bolts I have off to the side. It really is the quilting fabric that I can’t keep in order, probably because it is the smallest as far as size goes since it is all so thin, but has the most variety, and the only order is that it is all separated by projects that have almost all already been done. I’ve got it all in various bags, totes and luggage, but they are all in various areas of the closet and some I haven’t seen in years.

Part of me wants to go to IKEA and get an EXPEDIT Bookcase to put all the fabric on so that it is easier to see what I have and find, maybe even get a few storage boxes for the small stuff, like trim and yes, one for scraps. But the other part of me doesn’t necessarily want to look at it all the time. And while it won’t be that difficult to just get storage boxes like I have for all my scrapbooking stuff to store all the fabric in, I’m afraid that if I don’t see it, I won’t want to use it. Or maybe I should find a better solution to keeping all of my puppet building materials together so that there is room in the closet to organize the quilting fabric into one section and the upholstery fabric into another. So many decisions to make and so many choices to select and so little time I think I am willing to invest. Shall I put it off for another day, or will I get ambitious and just do something about it? The world may never know… unless I blog about it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Cell Phones

Where would we be without cell phones? They are so integrated into the fabric of our lives, and help us keep in touch with friends and family, and the best part is you don’t even have to talk to them!

I remember the day my partner said he signed us up for cell service and got a couple of phones. They were simple, very small, and had monochromatic screens when flipped open. Their purpose? Phone calls. The whole texting thing I didn’t get at the time, and really, the reason for getting the phones was more for emergency use than anything else, like, say, if the car broke down or we weren’t home and people needed to get in touch with us.

My sister, on the other hand, is an avid texter, and could T9 like nobodies business. I preferred to just talk, as it seemed faster to me… until four years later when we both got phones with full QWERTY keyboards. I instantly became a textaholic. My logic behind texting rather than calling was more out of convenience for the receiver. If I call and they are busy, either they won’t answer or I will interrupt them at an inopportune time. But if I just text them and let them respond at their earliest convenience, I don’t have to worry about that. And yes, my brain goes through a hundred different scenarios in a fraction of a second as I decide whether to call or text someone. I don’t know exactly where this comes from, but I have a tendency to overanalyze things that have a near zero chance of actually happening.

These full sized QWERTY keyboard toting cell phones, with built-in 2 megapixel camera and MicroSD card slot to also act as an MP3 and media player, with more features than I’ve ever used were the LG enVs. Mine is orange, and while it is nearing three years old, which, for a cell phone makes it ancient, I don’t want to get a new one. My partner had to get a new phone because it cost less to get the enV3 than replacing the battery since his would not keep a charge for more than a couple hours. Of course, when we got these phones, we signed up for an unlimited text and web plan, since we had web capable phones that could actually surf the internet, and we anticipated texting more with phones more conducive to such. However, a few months later, we switched back to a family plan with unlimited texting because, seriously, the internet browsing was a little sketchy. That, and really, we couldn’t justify spending an extra fifty dollars a month for internet access on our phone, when we didn’t even pay that much for high-speed internet at home.


So, my phone became a texting machine, which, when I realized there was a notepad and calendar on it, also became my grocery list and event reminder machine, which in turn also became my cake order machine. I would be absolutely lost without my phone. How did this happen? We even got rid of our landline because we never used it as we were so attached to our cell phones. Okay, so we got rid of our landline because after two years of Qwest not being able to figure out why our line sounded like a very scratchy record of someone clawing a chalkboard with their fingernails in the middle of a windstorm while a convoy of semi trucks whirred by, even on a dial tone, we got tired of not being able to hear the person on the other end.

How did we, as a society, turn what once was a unitasker, into a multipurpose can’t-live-without-it machine? You can’t blame the manufacturers, because they were simply making what people were asking for. And what is the next step, brain implants with screens, speakers and microphones surgically attached to our eyes, ears and mouth so we don’t even have to physically carry a device? Okay, maybe that won’t be the next step, but it certainly isn’t too far off.

But, while people keep upgrading their phones, and mine has a tendency to randomly turn itself off, one of the arrow buttons on the front barely works, and the music player sometimes decides to start playing, and usually at inappropriate times, I am still using my first generation enV, because they have yet to make another one with the features I use most, in one of my favorite colors… orange. And yes, that is why I am holding out on getting a new one.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Books

If you’ve ever been to our house, you know there are books everywhere. This is because I like books, not because I’ve read them all.

I’m not sure when my fascination with books began, but I have to say it must have been fairly early, possibly even before kindergarten. I remember reading when I was four, thanks to parents who read to me a lot, so books probably played a pretty important part of those early formative years. That, and my dad’s parents had a library, a room filled with bookshelves covered in books, and for some reason that always intrigued me. Of course, their living room was filled with old newspapers and magazines and crap in general, so it could have just been that they were hoarders, of which I apparently inherited that trait as well.

I can’t say that I enjoy a particular genre better than another, as I have children’s books ranging from the cardboard toddler variety all the way up to adult biographies and fiction, but will say I enjoy reading. Watching a movie or TV show is a fine form of entertainment, but reading a book sparks my imagination and completely takes me into the world the author has created.

With these new handheld reading devices once again trying to take over the market, as they failed to do ten years ago when they all claimed physical books would be a thing of the past, it seems to have sparked my interest once again as what makes me love books. Is it the feel of the paper? The soft ink lettering on that slightly off-white to newsprint colored paper? The book cover and/or jacket, of which I am 100% guilty of judging a book on it’s cover, as long as the first sentence of the book draws me in too? These are all things that a digital reader will not have, but are all things that draw me to touch, peruse and ultimately read a book. I’m certain they have their place in the book market, but I can’t say that it is necessarily going to change the way people buy books. For a guilty pleasure read, like the Twilight series, I can see having a digital copy rather than a physical one, as it probably will be a one time read through, but a series like The Chronicles of Narnia I can’t imagine not physically holding the book and turning the pages, even though I’ve read them all four times.

Then there are the books I haven’t read, which, mind you, there are a lot. One year the library had their book sale, which you bought books by the bag for a dollar a bag. I ended up with forty some odd hardcover books that I picked up for two bucks not because they were titles I would read, but because they had that classic book cover and binding that just looks good on a shelf. Twelve years later, I’m about ready to dive into some of them, as they have intrigued me sitting there on the shelf, waiting to once again be held and read. Eight of them, however, will end up at Goodwill, as for some reason, I bought the 1992 edition of Books in Print, four of which list by Author and the other four by Title. Again, this was probably a purchase done strictly by looks, as reference books have that scholarly appearance unmatched by any non-fiction work. I don’t feel bad about getting rid of these books mostly because they don’t have that sense of history that older books have, even if they are out of date and inaccurate, like the World’s Popular Encyclopedia set from 1937 we picked up at an estate sale. I’m thinking out of those old books, the one that intrigues me the most and will probably be my first read, is The Road Back by Erich Maria Remarque… albeit, the translated version, as it was originally written in German, and published in Germany in April 1931. My copy is from May 1931 as the English translated copy, in its second printing from that same month.

I’m serious when I say I have an eclectic mix of books, and they really are in no particular order. I mean, who in their right mind would have Andy Griffiths The Day My Butt Went Psycho! between Handbook for the Soul and Shad Helmstetter’s What to Say When You Talk to Your Self? Or a book about an animal whose scrotum is so big, he used it as a parachute to land on the earth (which, by the way, Villa Incognito by Tom Robbins is an absolutely fantastic read) on the same shelf as R.L. Stine’s Fear Street series and Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach? Then there are books that I adore, yet do not own, like Where the Wild Things Are. Okay, so I do own it, but I only have the German version, Wo die wilden Kerle wohnen.

Yes, my love affair with books even got me into writing and illustrating my own, most of which nobody has ever looked at. Then again, ninety percent of these I did while in high school when I had dreams of becoming a published author before graduation, but my usual lack of motivation and ambition was quite the deterrence. Instead, they sit in a file cabinet or a box, and some in files I can no longer access on the computer because we don’t have a floppy disk drive, and I’m certain the magnetism has worn out on those disks anyway. I even toyed with the notion of submitting some of my work, and did a massive edit of my first young adult novel to get it ready for publishing six years ago, and once I was done, saved all the files onto a CD and haven’t looked at it since.

One would think that being unemployed over this last year and a half, I would have taken some of this time to retry, but a part of me has a hard time letting go of characters I created and putting them in someone else’s hands. If I had the money, I’d self publish instead, which yes, is a lot of effort, but at the same time, I will still own my creative work, not a publishing company who will possibly sell off the movie rights to some second-rate film school director who will mutilate my characters and completely destroy any resemblance to the original work (Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice, anyone?) Even though the chances of that happening are slim, fear of it is never far from my mind. I’ve even put a lot of research into self-publishing and how to purchase my own ISBNs and starting a publishing company, but follow-through is not a strong point of mine. Still, those lofty dreams are there, and maybe, someday, a fire will get lit under my ass to do something about them.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Packing Lunches

I’ll admit it; I’ve gotten a bit out of the habit of packing my partner’s lunches. However, I did this morning, so that makes up for the last several months, right?

Packing a lunch for your partner or the kiddos before they are off to work and school is one of those iconic homemaker duties that my brain always conjures up when I think “homemaker.” Sometimes January Jones’s character Betsy, from the TV show Mad Men, decked out in a chiffon nightgown with a cigarette and cup of coffee in one hand while she makes sandwiches with her free one pops up, but that could just be because we recently Netflixed the first couple seasons. Most of the time it is the traditional perky 50s era housewife who magically had the time to not only pack all the lunches for her husband and three kids, but managed to make a five course breakfast as well, and all without making a mess in the kitchen or getting anything on her apron. I don’t look like either of these, dressed in flannel pajama bottoms with whatever T-shirt I wore the day before and my hair sticking up in every direction, mumbling incoherently to the various four-legged creatures that yes, yes, I will feed them before my throat realizes I am awake and I go into a coughing fit for the next hour as if trying to exorcise a demon or I am Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

“No, no! Too sexy! Tooooo sexxxxxyyy!!!”

Anyway, so it got me thinking, what is it about packing a lunch that makes it such an iconic image for me? And then it hit me; food. Breakfast and dinner are made at home, and to complete the day’s meals, the homemaker packs a lunch. But how does one make that lunch seem special, like a home-cooked meal does? Or, does one even try? I racked my brain and decided that, well, sometimes a sack lunch is just a sack lunch. But, sometimes, it is fun to pack a little something extra, like a little note that says, “I love you!” or a cookie, or maybe a clue as to what to anticipate when they get home. It doesn’t have to be all the time, but a few times a year will satisfy both your need to be nurturing, and their needs to be nurtured.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Mopping

While there are a lot of things I dislike in this world, mopping floors ranks in the top five. It seems like one of those chores that gives you the least satisfaction for the shortest amount of time.

I mean, I guess I have to be realistic. When there are two indoor animals, two guys and a yard full of mud to track in, it can be pretty easy to turn a clean floor into a mess. I just wish they could stay cleaner longer, especially since it is no easy task to mop. Between the specialized equipment, okay, the mop and a bucket, or kitchen sink for those of us who seem to break every bucket we’ve ever bought within a matter of days, and the time it takes to move everything out of the way, the payoff is kinda sucky.

Mopping linoleum or vinyl, the first thing you have to do is sweep or vacuum or both, and even then, while you are mopping, stray hairs manage to find themselves smack in the middle of the floor, as if cursing your efforts. And the bathroom, around the toilet, is the worst offender. I won’t tell you why, but I’m certain most of you can figure that part out.

Wood floors require special cleaners, of which I have yet to find an acceptable homemade alternative, especially since our floors are fifty-four years old and have never been refinished. They look so pretty right after they are done… and then the dog has to go potty, which means she has to walk through our muddy yard, which means her filthy paws will make filthy paw prints all of the floors. Heck, even on a dry day, she still manages to create prints on the floor. It’s a gift.

But, mopping is one of those things you have to do. In this day and age, The Age of Gimmicks, we have an astounding number of disposable products to perform these mundane tasks, and I have yet to fall trap to them. Swiffer, anyone? Instead, utilizing a Libman Wonder Mop we’ve had years longer than the manufacturer ever intended, I use a half a cup of ammonia to a gallon of hot water for the linoleum in the kitchen and the vinyl in the main bathroom. A simple and inexpensive cleaner, and it works beautifully. For the wood floors, I use Orange Glo Hardwood Cleaner and Polish with a washable flat floor mop cloth that attaches to the mop handle’s head. Sometimes, I can’t wait until we install slate tiles everywhere we have linoleum and vinyl, or in the case of the half bath, nothing but the decking, but I know that with a new flooring, will come new problems with keeping it clean.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chicken Corn Chowder

Do you ever have a meal that came about simply by combining leftovers to form something different? Okay, so a lot of us have those. Here’s another.
I make a damn good creamed corn. Seriously, it is fantastic. It is one of those things that if I didn’t make this side dish with pork chops and homemade chunky applesauce, the meal just would not be complete. Of course, it goes great with just about any meat, but has a certain affinity to pork and chicken. This creamed corn is the base for my Chicken Corn Chowder, however, it is not necessary in order to produce a delicious soup.

Baked chicken thighs form the other main ingredient, and I almost always have leftovers of those. But, much like the creamed corn, if you only have fresh or frozen chicken, that will work too. The thing about soups is that they are easily adaptable to whatever ingredients you have on hand, whether they be leftovers or frozen.

If you happen to have leftover creamed corn and baked chicken thighs, simply fry up a couple slices of bacon, chopped into smaller pieces, drain out most of the fat, toss in some diced onion into the bacon grease and cook for a few minutes until the onions translucent and glossy. Next, chop a potato or two into bite size or smaller pieces, same with the chicken, dump it all into the soup pot with enough milk, half and half or cream to cover everything and cook until the potatoes are tender. But, if you don’t have leftovers, don’t fret! This soup tastes great just about any way you make it, and the following recipe will show you how to make it with fresh or frozen ingredients.


Chicken Corn Chowder


4 slices bacon, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 celery stalks, diced
1 pound bag frozen corn, or 4-6 fresh ears
1½ pounds chicken thighs, chopped into bite size pieces
2 potatoes, diced
4-6 cups milk, half and half, cream or combination
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon thyme
Salt and pepper to taste

Cook the chopped bacon in a 6 to 8 quart stock pot over medium until it is crispy. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain all but 1 tablespoon fat, and cook the onions until translucent and glossy, about five minutes. Add bell pepper, celery, and corn and cook for a few minutes more. Next, add the chicken and potatoes, then add the milk until it covers everything, you may not use it all, or you may need more, so don’t bother measuring this part. Add salt, pepper and thyme and stir to incorporate everything. Put four tablespoons butter, in four pats, on top of the soup and bring to a low boil, then turn the heat down to low to medium low and cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the chicken is cooked through and the potatoes are tender. Check the seasoning, and add more salt and pepper if needed before serving.

See, even without leftovers, this is a pretty simple and satisfying lunch or supper. But the best part is that it contains all the major food groups, and is quite filling by itself. But I find fresh, homemade buttermilk biscuits and a simple salad make this meal complete.