Monday, March 31, 2008

Sausage-Stuffed Squash

Winter squash is great - in the garden and in the kitchen. During the growing season, I just put the seeds in the ground, and then don't do anything until just before our first frost. Nothing will bother a squash plant here, except for squash bugs, and I've found that planting a big storage radish like the heirloom chinese Watermelon Radish in between the plants gives season-long protection plus a tasty treat in the fall (and into the winter) as well.

After cutting and curing the squash in the fall, I store them in a crate in the corner of my somewhat cool bedroom. My Pink Banana squash are still in fine shape, and will easily last until June. The remaining Butternuts will be used next, but right now I'm using up the last of the Carnival (or Festival) acorn-type winter squash. Following is one of our favorite winter squash recipes. It originally was supposed to be made in a pumpkin, served at the table by dishing out scoops of filling and squash flesh to all, and still could be made that way for a family by doubling the amount of the filling.

But I like to make individual servings by using smaller squash, like those in the acorn family. Those type of squash have a rounded stem end and a pointy blossom end containing most of the seed cavity. I've found there's more squash and they'll stand better if I knock the stem off and then cut off the blossom end to hollow them out for the filling. Use whatever you have though - you can even make squash canoes out of the Delicata types.

Sausage-Stuffed Squash (stuffing enough for 2-3 acorn-sized squash)

winter squash, any type, one end cut off and seeds removed
½ pound bulk sausage (I used a couple of hot Italian sausage links)
1 cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped onion
½ cup sliced mushrooms
1 egg
1 6-oz carton of plain non-fat yogurt (original recipe called for sour cream)
¼ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese (I grate the entire piece at one time, then store it in the freezer to use as needed)

Place squash cavity-side down in a baking pan with 1 inch of water, bake 375º one hour or until tender. Meanwhile break up and fry sausage, then remove from pan and drain off grease. Saute veggies in same pan. When veggies are done, remove from heat, add cooked sausage. Mix egg and cheese into yogurt, then add to sausage/veggie mixture. When squash is tender, turn them cavity-side up in pan, fill with sausage mixture (can mound it up above the edge a bit) and pour in any extra yogurt liquid (if you have extra stuffing, place it in an oven-proof bowl and bake it too). Put stuffed squash back into oven for additional 25 minutes. When served, split open the squash and eat it with a spoon to scrape out every bit of the wonderful squash.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Earth Hour and Hot Water

We observed Earth Hour last night in our time zone. I'm a bit conflicted about it, however, because we spent it sitting outside in the hot tub, which is probably the biggest energy-sucker in our household. We heat with wood, have an on-demand water heater, hand wash dishes, often hang laundry on the clothesline, and have switched just about all the lights over to compact fluorescent bulbs. I even have the computer and auxiliaries plugged into a master switch surge protector (not the television, though - should look into that).

The hot tub is on an economy cycle and the heat is turned down until we want to use it, but the filtering system runs three hours morning and night. Shutting it off for the night wouldn't be an option - our nighttime temps have been too close to freezing to tempt the possibility of major repairs. I even thought about changing the cycle time to run from 5 until 8 pm instead of the 7 to 10 normal setting. That would have put our household down to practically no energy consumption for Earth Hour itself, but then the hot tub would have to run even more in the morning to get it back on a schedule compatible with when we like to use it. I have to admit, it was an easier sell to Aries to get him to turn off the TV. Asking him to join me in the hot tub was a lot more enticing compared to merely explaining that I wanted him to spend an hour sitting around in the dark to make a lifestyle statement.

So we sat in the hot water outside our dark house, and watched the bright neon lights blink on the multi-plex theater two blocks away and the bright reader board flash for the casino below. A few of the houses across the valley might have gone dark, but we really didn't notice any difference. Judging from the glow in the sky to the north, Reno wasn't dimming any lights either. Oh well, it usually takes Nevada a few years (or decades) to catch up to the rest of the world, anyway.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Right Brain/Left Brain

Some interesting items regarding right brain/left brain seem to be going 'round the Internet lately. I seem to be able to integrate both sides fairly well. In business matters, I'm good with numbers and budgets (left) but also do better than most at coming up with out-of-the-box creative marketing ideas (right). I'm right-handed, but left-eye dominant. I easily compile the list of supplies for a seven-day camping trip, and then just as easily can visualize how to get it all to fit in the trunk of a compact car. This site debunks the two most common illusions that seem to be ending up in my inbox on a regular basis, but I did find them fun to try. The spinning girl I can make weave back and forth like a snake charmer, and the head in the beans was a snap to find.

But the most fascinating and thought-provoking link I've been sent lately, from my sister, is this one. A brain scientist talks about her thoughts and feelings while she was actually experiencing a stroke on the left side - the analytical, language-assessing, self-awareness, "me" side - of her brain. Eventually, she is left with with only the right side - the emotional, primal, interconnected-consciousness, "zen" side - functioning. This 20-minute video certainly brings up some very interesting things for me to think about. Can I learn isolate the right side of my brain at will?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Watching the Night Sky

We stood out on the deck and watched the International Space Station pass over Carson City (start here to see when it's over your town). It looked like a fast-moving star, going straight over our zenith from southwest to northeast in less than four minutes. It's hard to imagine how fast it must be moving. I'd love to be up there, looking back down as the Earth slid past beneath me. I remember, as a child, standing out in my backyard and my folks pointing out the satellite Echo in the night sky back in the 1960's. I'm still just as awed and fascinated that mankind can do something like that as I was then.

I'm sad that we've lost a lot of our view of the stars due to the increased development and all their accompanying lights around our house. We used to be able to see the Milky Way, but now are lucky to see only the major stars in the constellations from our backyard. A good thing about the increase in population is that our local community college was able to raise the resources and build a world-class observatory in town. I've been able to see the moons of Jupiter and Mars, and the rings of Saturn, during their free telescope viewings Saturday nights. I hope having it in town will encourage more "dark-sky" building practices as more developers come to town.

I love the night sky. I actually don't mind if I have to get up in the middle of the night when I'm out camping to make a trek to the restroom, because I know I'll end up standing in the middle of the path staring up at the sky. One of my favorite memories of Peru was looking at the southern night sky. I could vividly see the long curving tail of the Scorpion that usually gets lost in the light haze near our horizon. On the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, the Milky Way is so bright I could see how the Incas saw patterns and named the dark spaces between the "milk" the same way we name constellations. While there, it was such a thrill when I recognized a familiar grouping so far from home - the Big Dipper (or Great Bear) that circles round the North Star - shining there, right above the horizon. Like a sailor just finding my bearings, suddenly all was right in my world.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Household Maintenance

We took time to do a bit of household maintenance around here this weekend. The door on our old wooden mailbox wouldn't stay closed anymore, and I've been worried about getting splinters when I picked up the mail. So Aries built a new one, in the same little red house style. When the paint was dry, I got out my old sign-painting brushes and lettered our address on both sides.

Even though today was nice, the possibility of snow is in our forecast for Wednesday. And the low temperatures have been around 25º nightly, so we're still using the woodstove biomass converter quite a bit. Today Aries took things apart and did a chimney check, to see if it needed cleaning. Everything looked really good. We have been burning more hardwood lately, and that burns a lot cleaner than soft pine.

I did some laundry and got it out on the line, and then got out in the garden to prep the rest of my Early bed. I have garlic, shallots, and spinach up already, and some onion plants ready to set out. In another area I have leeks, broccoli, and arugula that wintered over, so I might move them to this bed, and then sow some peas and more lettuces. I spread some compost (and had to fight the chickens off to get it into the wheelbarrow - they follow me around like little inquisitive puppies) and a sprinkle of my own recipe fertilizer blend (equal parts bonemeal, bloodmeal, and greensand), turned the dirt over and raked it out smooth, and laid out a soaker hose. But I didn't want to plant anything else until I'd fixed up some bird deterrent. A couple of the chickens, plus the guineas, have been flying over the garden fence regularly. Aries said just this morning that one of the beds looked like it had been used for bombing practice - the chickens had dug that many holes.

I got out all the whirligigs my father-in-law made, then spent the rest of the afternoon playing with bits and pieces of salvaged wire. I added to the fence where the chickens had been flying over, and used some other wire to make a cage-type barrier over the planting bed itself. Everything is temporary, so I can move things around as needed when I plant other sections. Most plants usually need to be protected only when they're just coming up. I'm thinking if I can stop their daily incursions into the garden for a while, the chickens will find something else to get into. We'll see.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Egg Dressing for Spinach Salad

Wondering what to do with all those Easter eggs? Here's one of my favorite recipes using hard-boiled eggs. Easter is so early this year that I don't have any spinach from my garden just yet. No matter, urban sprawl has brought a grocery store just down the street. With this dressing, I like a salad of just spinach leaves, some very thin slices of a mild red onion, and sliced fresh button mushrooms. The egg yolks dissolve when shaken to emulsify the dressing, and the whites will sink to the bottom if the dressing sits for a while. If you're making an individual salad, store the extra dressing in the refrigerator, use within 3 days, and spoon the dressing on to distribute the whites of the eggs equally.

Egg Dressing for Spinach Salad (makes enough for one family-size salad, or 3-4 individual salads)

½ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon seasoned salt (I use Lawry's)
2 hard-cooked eggs, peeled and chopped into ½" dice

Put everything into a jar with a tight-fitting lid and shake well. It's best to use one with a plastic or enameled lid, to avoid any interaction between the acidic vinegar and a metallic lid. Toss with salad just before serving.

Eggs for 18,000 please

My fingers are orange. I've been dying Easter eggs. I've been dying a LOT of Easter eggs. I spent the morning helping the local Kiwanis Club and other assorted helpers prepare for the big Easter Egg hunt tomorrow. Sixty-three cases, holding 24 dozen each, equals 18,144 eggs; plus the 2,000 plastic eggs we filled with candy, and a select few more with vouchers for bigger prizes.

Those whose egg dying exploits are limited to a household dozen or so might be curious about procedures for Easter egg production on such a scale. First, you send out a plea to the community for helpers. In years past, the Nevada National Guard has helped by bringing out their emergency response cooking vats to boil vast quantities of eggs, but their services and personnel are stretched too thin to help this year.

So, you ask the community to lend their deep-fat turkey fryers. I didn't count, but we probably had at least 15 lined up and cooking. Get the water simmering, and add lots of salt to keep any broken eggs from sticking to the rest of the batch. Make egg baskets out of chicken wire, two per cooker. Set up an unpacking station - taking the raw eggs out of the cartons and filling the baskets. Each basket holds five dozen eggs.

Start boiling. Cook each basket of eggs about 30 minutes. Normal cooking time at our altitude would be around 20 minutes, but adding that many eggs to the water cooled it down some, and no one wanted to take a chance with an undercooked egg breaking in a child's basket. The cooks would test-crack an egg to check doneness, so there were plenty of eggs for snacking. In the meantime, get your hot dog crew to start setting up - these volunteers are gonna want some lunch soon. Having a beautiful spring day for an undertaking of this size is a definite plus.

Set up your dye vats with cool water and plenty of vinegar. We used food coloring dye by the pint and vinegar by the gallon. Do your single-color dye batches - red, green, yellow, and blue - first. When we had enough of those colors we started some mixed and diluted batches to get orange, purple, apricot, pink, and a really pretty yellow-green.

Dip and dunk and swirl and tip the baskets of hot eggs in the dye until the dye chiefs are satisfied with the color. Take the eggs over to the packing station and dump them (carefully!) into that color's tub. If you're working this station, an old shirt and latex gloves are a necessity - those folks are very colorful, to say the least. Repack the eggs into single-color cartons and pass them over to the people packing the cartons back into the cases, also labeled by color.

The cases are then wheeled over and packed back into the truck, for delivery to our Governors Field tomorrow morning. I'll probably get Aries to go help scatter the eggs tomorrow morning, since he'll be off work. More on that later.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Starting Seeds; Chamomile for Damping Off

"It smells like wet dirt in here," Aries says when he gets home from work. No wonder - I'm in the kitchen wetting down four trays of little pots filled with potting soil. It's time to start seeds for my tomato, pepper, eggplant, and other garden veggies.

The process starts on my living room floor - picking out what I want to grow this year. Some are staples every year - six-packs of paste tomatoes for canning in the fall, sweet bell peppers to chop and freeze, chiles to roast and peel, a couple of jalapeño and okra plants. Then there are things I only plant every 3-4 years. Each year, I plant a different hot pepper to string up in a ristra and dry, to use as needed. I'm about out of cayenne pepper, so I'll plant a couple of those this year, and I want to try growing a Habanero pepper or two. I need labels for each little pot or six pack. Some, I have from years past. For the new ones, I cut up the side of a white-plastic bleach bottle, writing the name with a Sharpie marker.

Next, I head outside to get the pots and trays from the garden shed, and get the potting soil out of the cellar. It's not unheard of for us to have below-freezing weather or even a couple feet of snow in March, so the previous fall I put my big rubbermaid tote of potting soil down there so I'm not chipping away at a frozen block of dirt when I'm ready to plant. It's cold and windy outside, so I fill the pots as quickly as possible and line everything up on the kitchen counter.

Each pot gets watered, and while the water soaks in I insert the labels. I've found it's easiest to do things assembly-line style, so next I use a chopstick to tamp down a little depression in the center of each pot. I drop 3-4 seeds in each according to the labels, and then go back and smush the dirt down over the seeds.

Earlier, I'd stopped by a nearby Hispanic market to buy dried chamomile flowers. I get a lot of my teas and spices there, in bulk cellophane packets that I then transfer to my own jars. It's a much better price (½ ounce for 89¢) than buying a box of teabags in the regular supermarket. In Spanish, chamomile is called manzanilla (man-za-NEE-ya), which translates to little apple. If you're familiar with the distinctive aroma of chamomile tea, you'll understand the reason behind the name. I dump the chamomile into two quarts water, bring to a boil, cover and let steep until cool. I want a really strong brew, and two quarts will be enough to thoroughly soak the top of the soil on all the pots.

Damping off is when just sprouted seedlings suddenly shrivel right at the soil line, fall over, and die. It's caused by a fungus in the warm damp soil the seeds need to germinate. I try to keep my potting soil clean (and that's a major reason you don't want to use regular garden dirt to start seeds), but since I reuse the pots, six-packs, and labels each year, I don't want to take any chances with losing my seedlings. A dousing with strong chamomile tea can prevent damping off. I strain the cooled tea and gently water the seeds in with it, taking care not to wash too much soil over the seeds. I'll do it again after the plants come up if any start to flop over.

Then, I want to get everything off my kitchen counter. With a bit of rearranging in the living room, I can squeeze in a place for the plants to grow inside and under lights until I can plant them out in the garden in late May. I put my set-up together with a couple of ladderback chairs, a strong board across the seats, and a couple of salvaged florescent shop lights hung on old drapery rods. I won't need the lights until the seeds germinate, but as soon as they do I can use the chairs' ladders to get the lights down as close as possible to the seedlings and then move them up as the plants get bigger. I'll also plug the lights in through a timer, so I don't have to worry about turning them on and off. I want to keep the soil moist until the seeds germinate, so for now I've clothes-pinned a sheet of plastic down tight over the top of the trays. Everything should be up in a week or two.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Island Pork

Dinner was another quick skillet meal, served over brown rice. Aries walked to the grocery store down the street, and came back with a family pack of boneless pork ribs, on sale. I keep plastic lined paper freezer paper and freezer tape for just such occasions. I trimmed the fat from the pork and divided it into thirds. Two of the portions I wrapped, labeled, and put into the freezer for a stir-fry or chile verde some other day. With carrots from the cellar, bell peppers from the freezer, plus an onion and some of the staples always on hand from my pantry, the other third would be tonight's dinner.

I started a batch of brown rice for the 45-minute cooking time, and shredded the carrots. This recipe originally used two pork chops and still could be made that way, but I like using smaller cubes of meat and lots of veggies to make it a healthy version of sweet and sour pork. Half an hour after starting the rice, I started browning the pork. Dinner was ready in another 15 minutes.

Island Pork (serves 3, 2 tonight and 1 lunch later)
8 oz. boneless pork, cut into 1" cubes
¾ cup coarsely shredded carrots (the largest holes on a box grater)
¾ cup 1" bell pepper pieces
1 small onion, quartered top to bottom, layers separated
1 8-oz can pineapple chunks in juice
1 6-oz can tomato juice
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar
1 teaspoon cornstarch

Brown pork in a large skillet over medium heat. Add veggies, pineapple with juice, and tomato juice. Cover and simmer until veggies are tender, 5 - 10 minutes. Add sugar and soy sauce, simmer until pork is done. Dissolve cornstarch in vinegar, add to skillet. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Serve over rice.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Prison Hill

After days of cold and gloom, spring weather has returned, with a beautiful blue-sky day. Aries even had the day off. Since he works in a Lake Tahoe casino, the 24/7 nature of that business means his work weeks aren't the standard Monday through Friday. And working inside a casino all day, he was ready for a chance to get out in the sun. Boris, the dog, was ready to go too, so we headed out for a little hike.

We didn't go far. Carson City is in the Eagle Valley. We live on the west side, and less than a mile to the east Prison Hill rises 800 feet above the valley floor. Prison Hill, named because the Nevada State Penitentiary lies just northwest of the hill, is Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land dedicated as recreational open space. Access to the hill is restricted to foot, equestrian, and mountain bicycles. We drive over to a parking area, and start walking.

We take a trail that crosses below a faded "S" of whitewashed rocks. It stands for the Stewart Indian School nearby. This school, started in 1890 and in operation until 1980, was an off-reservation boarding school for American Indian children. Children from many tribes in Nevada and throughout the west, Washoe, Paiute, Hopi, Ute, and Apache among them, were taken from their families and forced to attend the school. I've read where the Australian government recently made a formal apology for doing the same thing to their native children.

The trail starts to steepen, and even though the day is quite cool, I soon have to remove my jacket. A pair of ravens swoop down and circle on either side of us as we climb. We reach the ridge where the hill dips to a saddle, and a fork in the trail. A stone marker shows the mileage for the annual Escape from Prison Hill half-marathon and 2-person relay run. We take the fork towards the north, following the ridge uphill. Since it's a week day, not many people are out on this beautiful day, but we meet one hiker and one trail runner on their way down.

From atop the north peak, we look down on the construction work being done on the new interstate highway bypass that will someday connect Carson City to I-80 in Reno. Carson City is one of the few state capitals without an interstate highway connection. The highest peak on the skyline is Slide Mountain, and just slightly visible to the left behind it is Mt. Rose. At over 10,000 feet, Mt. Rose is the highest peak in the Tahoe Basin, rising above the northern end of the Lake.

Looking west across the valley, we can see the dirt road above our house heading up the canyon, and the pavement of US Highway 50, farther to the left, as it heads up Spooner Summit before dropping down into the Tahoe Basin. The southern line of the devastating 2004 Waterfall Fire is still starkly visible on the hillside.

We turn around and head back to the south. We take a smaller trail that skirts along the western edge of the hill back to the stone marker. There's one very steep, but short, downhill section, and I like it better than the main trail on the ridgetop. The agricultural Carson Valley, next valley to the south, is edged by the snow-covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada mountains. This is such a beautiful place to live!

Monday, March 17, 2008

A Real Easter Egg Hunt

Walking out front from the garage to the house, I spied a couple of eggs under the edge of the shed. I called Aries over to see. He got down and pulled about six out from under there, and then asked me to get him a stick. Using the stick, he scraped out 25 green eggs! All were the same shape and color, so it looks like they were all from the same chicken - one of Missy's offspring. I don't know how she got under there - there's less than two inches clearance between the wall and the ground, although it does open up a bit once underneath.

Missy is a brown leghorn, and excels at hiding her nest until she shows up each spring with another batch of chicks. She lays little tan eggs. Our rooster is an Araucana, so many of Missy's offspring lay green eggs. And a few of them hide their nests, too. We brought the eggs inside and put them in a bowl of water. Old eggs float, fresh eggs sink. We threw out the 15 that floated, and put the other ten in the refrigerator. Sorry I didn't get a photo - the camera battery was in the charger. The top photo is an old one of Missy's hidden nest, the bottom one is Missy with one of her families.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

One-Hour French Bread

Aries was off today, and this afternoon said he'd cook spaghetti and meatballs for dinner tonight. We had just about everything ready to go. I had a big batch of meatballs and bell peppers in the freezer, jars of tomatoes, tomato sauce, and tomato paste from last summer's harvest, onions and garlic in the pantry, and lots of other veggies in the refrigerator. He also wanted garlic bread, so I said I'd make my One-Hour French Bread.

One hour is total time from getting the bowl out of the cupboard until a fresh hot loaf comes out of the oven. Lots of time, our dinner is this bread and some home-made soup. Sorry I couldn't get a photo of the loaf right out of the oven - Aries just loves hot fresh bread!

One-Hour French Bread
1½ cups warm water
1 tablespoon honey
1½ teaspoons salt
1½ tablespoons Active Dry Yeast
3 - 4 cups flour (any combination of white and whole wheat)

Preheat oven 450º. Combine water, salt, honey, and yeast in a medium bowl. Let sit 5 - 10 minutes, until bubbling. Add flour, stirring with a wooden spoon, until dough is no longer sticky (I'll sometimes dump the dough out onto the cutting board with what flour is in the bowl and roll it around,adding a bit more flour, until it's not sticky). Roll dough into a 12 - 14" roll (or you can divide it in half and roll it into two long skinny baguettes). Place dough roll(s) on a cookie sheet sprayed with non-stick spray, cover, and let sit 20 minutes. Make diagonal slits, 1/2" deep, on top with a razor blade. (Optional: spray with salt water). Bake 20 minutes.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Day in My Life

I've been lurking on this site, by Rhonda Jean, for quite a while, and really enjoy reading about her approach to a simple lifestyle. Her site led me to another site yesterday, this one by Little Jenny Wren, where she plans to document her activity on the 14th of each month. Others have joined in, and I thought I'd try it too. Since I saw the post too late to document the 14th, I've been taking notes today.

I didn't sleep very well last night, and was very surprised when I opened my eyes this morning and saw that it was already 9 am. The sun shining on my face has been waking me about 7:30, but we had a dusting of snow come through last night and the skies were still dark and grey. I got up and put a sweater on over my pajamas. The dog wanted out, but the cat wasn't moving from the foot of the bed. As usual, Aries had let the chickens out and brought the newspaper in before he left for work at 7.

I made myself my usual winter breakfast - 1 cup of water, a chopped Fuji apple (stored in the cellar since last fall, a few brought in to the refrigerator weekly), a spoonful of peanut butter, 1/2 cup rolled oats, and a spoonful of ground flaxseed mixed with cinnamon; brought to a boil, put a lid on and turn the heat off, let set for 5-10 minutes, add milk to taste; and went round the house opening the shades and blinds to let in the natural light. Let the dog back in, dish up my cereal, leave the pan to soak, and sit down to eat and read the paper.

10 am: I rinse the dish and stack it in the sink to wash later, scrub out the pan, and wipe down the stove and counter tops. The sun has come out finally and the rooster is making a racket, so I step out onto our east-facing deck to see what's going on and what the day looks like. It's going to be cold, windy, and probably more snow flurries, so I decide against my plan to walk up the canyon. I go back inside and get dressed, in blue jeans and a turtleneck, chase the cat off the bed, and flip the covers back to air.

I used to straighten and make the bed every morning, until I started living in a wood-heated house with an unheated waterbed. Instead of having electric currents under our bed, we padded the mattress with a couple of blankets and a mattress cover, topped that with a featherbed mattress, and snuggled in under a down comforter. In the morning, I'd fluff up all the bedding and flip the featherbed up to air during the day and then straighten the bed in the evening. When the waterbed finally cracked on a corner and started to leak a few months ago (after 25 years), we bought a pillowtop mattress. We stopped using the featherbed, but our winter down comforter traps so much warmth during the night that I still prefer airing the bed during the day in the wintertime.

I go outside, scoop the ice out of the bird bath, and make sure the chickens have enough water. The guineas come running up to beg for bird seed as I fill the feeders for the wild birds. I come back inside, turn on the computer to check my email, read some comics we don't get in our local paper, edit and add a photo to yesterday's blog post, and scan a couple of blogs. The phone rings, and it's the local blood bank, asking if I will make an appointment to donate blood. They have openings today, so I make an appointment for 1:30 this afternoon.

11 am: At my computer, I see two women in dresses come up to the front door. They're canvassing for their religion. I listen to their brief spiel, accept their flyer for upcoming Easter services, and tell them they should have coats and gloves to be out in this weather. I feel a bit sorry for their shoes as I watch them walk out my driveway, their high heels sinking into the sand. Just as they're walking down the street to a parked car and others waiting, the snow starts falling again. The sun has moved away from the eastern picture window and the inside temperature has dropped to 59º, so I start a fire in the wood stove.

A lot of our firewood comes from pallets Aries brings home from work. I crumple some newspaper, split up a couple of the cross pieces for kindling with an old Henckels cleaver, and add a couple of bigger pieces. One match, and shut the door. I fill the cast iron pan on top with water, and go back to my computer.

Noon: The snow has stopped again. I make a pot of coffee (decaf, since I'll be giving blood) in my little 2.5-cup coffee maker, heat a cup of milk in the microwave, and add it to the coffee. I drink half now, and pour the rest into a thermos for later. I go outside to take a couple of photos for today's post. Lunch is a peanut butter with strawberry jam (made by a friend) sandwich and a few tortilla chips.

1 pm: I load up the wood stove and change into a shirt with sleeves that can easily be rolled up. The dog and the cat are in their usual position, bellies to the fire, when I leave to drive across town to the blood bank.

I've given blood ever since my Dad had his first heart bypass operation and my whole family went in together to pay back what they used for him. I've had to defer donations for 12 months whenever my travels have taken me to malaria regions, but the blood bank keeps track of when I'm eligible again and always gives me a call. The last few times, I've given two units of red blood cells at a time. They give some of the liquid part back to you, and while it takes longer at the time, they can only do it every 16 weeks. It counts as 2 pints, and today's donation makes 6 gallons total from me, so they give me a little commemorative pin.

3:30 pm: On the way home, I stop at Lowe's to see if they have any of the garden seeds I want. I get three kinds of peas, pole beans, and radishes. When I get home, I go out to see if there are any eggs. Baldy is setting in one of the nest boxes, and I find two eggs underneath her. I apologize for disturbing her, take the eggs, leave the golf balls (decoy eggs), and leave her setting there. If she stays broody, I might try slipping some day-old chicks from the feed store under her in 3 weeks, and see if she'll foster them. She's one of Missy's crossbreeds, and I don't want any more of those - they're a fence-flying, nest-hiding bunch. I go back in, get the fire in the stove going again, and go out to bring in the mail.

4 pm: I don't watch too much TV, but one of my favorite shows is on now on Saturdays - Doctor Who. It's one I haven't seen, so I sit down with the other cup of coffee to watch. Oooh, this one has scarecrows coming to life and menacing people - maybe I don't want one in my garden after all. Aries comes home from work about 4:40 so I hear about his day during the commercials.

5:15 pm: The magazine I was flipping through while waiting to leave the blood bank had shrimp recipes. I have some shrimp in the freezer, so decide to make my healthy version of Shrimp Creole for dinner.

6 pm: Aries opens up a bottle of the Nut Brown Ale he made a few months ago to go with his dinner. I stick to water - I'm a couple pints low now and don't think I could handle any alcohol. We watch the new Torchwood on TV as we eat.

7 pm: After dinner, I rinse the dishes and wipe down the kitchen. I go out and close up the chicken coop for the night. Aries is watching an old Harold Lloyd movie on TV and I start on this monster post.

10:30 pm: I'm still fighting with Blogger's tendency to put spaces where I don't want them and leave out the ones I do want, and getting my photos to fit where I want them. Aries is getting sleepy, so I'm going to go make the bed for him and be back to finish this up.

11:20 pm: I figured out what I needed to do, and have cleaned up the bugs in this post (I hope!). I reset the min/max thermometer (low of 25, high of 42 today), and entered the info in the Garden Journal. We've gotten another dusting of snow since dinnertime. I've laid down the draft dodger against the back door, and locked all the doors. The house is quiet. I'll do a few stretches, brush my teeth, wash my face, and throw a couple more pieces of wood in the stove. I'll be in bed about midnight.

Quick and Healthy Shrimp Creole

The magazine I was flipping through while waiting to leave the blood bank had shrimp recipes. I have some shrimp in the freezer, so decide to make my healthy version of Shrimp Creole for dinner. I start the rice: 2 1/2 cups water, 1 cup brown rice, some dried parsley (if I had any fresh, I'd add it just before serving), simmer 45 minutes; and put 1 Cup shrimp in cold water to thaw. Half hour later, I start the

Quick and Healthy Shrimp Creole (serves 3, 2 tonight and 1 lunch later)
8 ounces shrimp (can substitute cooked chicken or cubes of firm tofu)
1 cup chopped onion (from the pantry)
1 cup chopped bell pepper (from last summer's garden, chopped and frozen on a cookie sheet, then dumped into a gallon freezer bag - easy to grab just what is needed)
1 cup chopped celery (ok, this one I buy from the store down the street)
1 pint tomatoes (canned last summer, cut up inside the jar just before adding)
1 teaspoon chicken bouillon granules
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon thyme (cut from the herb garden last fall, hung and dried, and stored in a jar)
several dashes hot pepper sauce (green jalapeno sauce, from the garden, made last summer)
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Cook raw shrimp in boiling water 1 - 3 minutes (my 8 oz. frozen shrimp are already cooked, so all I do is remove the tails and cut each in half)

Place onions, celery, and bell peppers in skillet with 1/4 cup water. Cover and simmer 3 -4 minutes, until veggies are crisp-tender.

Add tomatoes, bouillon granules, sugar, and thyme. Simmer together, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Dissolve cornstarch in ¼ cup cold water, and add to skillet. Cook and stir a couple of minutes, until thickened and bubbly. Add shrimp and cook a couple minutes more. Serve over parsley rice.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thoughts of Spring

I woke up to a dusting of snow from an overnight storm, and it's been cold and windy all day. It's way too cold to be outside today, but I know it's time to start thinking about this year's vegetable garden. I rotate plantings through five different beds. Each slightly raised bed of untrampled soil is three feet wide and 50 feet long to accommodate one 50-ft soaker hose running down the middle. Each bed is a smashed "S" shape, with the three 15-ft long sections running across the slight slope of the property, a rake's width between them, and wider paths around and between the beds. Four of these beds make up the main garden, arranged in a four-square pattern, with a small ornamental circle in the intersection of the bigger paths. The fifth bed lies below.

In this year's Early Bed, prepared last fall, the garlic and shallots planted last November are now up. I scattered some spinach and lettuce seeds at the same time to winter over, and those are now starting to sprout as well. The garden is fenced with chicken wire fencing, buried in an "L" shape, 3" down and 6" out in a trench, then rising up a couple feet, and the top 12" left flopping to the outside. This may look sloppy, but works well to keep the digging and climbing ground squirrels out. Unfortunately, some of the chickens plus the guineas have learned to fly over it. The chickens mainly scratch holes, but the guineas have developed a taste for fresh little green plants, so I constantly have to figure out new ways to protect my crops. A mish-mash of salvaged wire over the early plantings has worked thus far.

I get out my seed storage box, a sturdy covered box that once held a case of Texas Lone Star beer longneck bottles, and my plans from years past. I go through what seeds still I have, making a list of those I need to get. Squash plants will cross-pollinate others of the same class, resulting in some bizarre fruits the following year from saved seed. I'm still picking out my favorite variety for each class with the hope of eventually being able to save my own seeds, but for now Carnival and Bush Banana are on the list. Joi Choi, a hybrid, is hard to find around here, but it's the only Bok Choi I've found that doesn't bolt when the weather turns hot. I might have to order it online. I need more snow peas and snap peas. They're something I need to protect better - the guineas just love pea plants, and have demolished my plantings before they even begin to flower for the past couple of years now, so I have no saved seeds for them.

Our last frost is usually late May, so it's time to start the Fruiting Bed plants. Those are the tomatoes, peppers, chiles, eggplants, and okra that will grow inside for the next 8 - 9 weeks. With seeds from the beginnings of my own heirloom varieties, a sweet bell pepper is the only one I need this year.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Oh, Darn! Darning Socks

I went to put on my socks, and noticed a small hole in the toe of one. The saying, "a stitch in time saves nine" is so very true when it comes to mending socks. A small hole is easy to fix, but once it gets bigger than a thumbnail, almost impossible. To mend a sock, you wouldn't want to just sew it, because that would leave a ridge that could later cause a blister or sore spot. Mending a sock uses a method called darning, weaving a patch over the hole. So I went to get my darning kit.

I inherited my mother-in-law's darning kit. She kept it in a marbled bakelite box. The box has a broken hinge, but it's the perfect size and I really love it. Looking at some of the things in there, I might be the third or even fourth generation to use it. There are big cardboard spools of cotton darning thread in normal sock colors, and smaller ones with some very bright and odd colors. Some of the threads are on wooden spools, and others are wrapped around rolled paper, labeled 10 yards for 5¢. There's writing inside the rolls, but I haven't wanted to take the thread off to see what it says. An assortment of wool yarns and nylon thread are wrapped around cards, 30 yards for 10¢. The darning "egg" is a wooden oval mounted on a spindle, the varnish worn away on the end and the tip scarred with gouges and scrapes. I've added a plastic cigar case, perfect for mending holes in the fingers of gloves, and a better pair of scissors.

To darn, put your "egg" inside at the location of the hole. For a darning egg, you want something rounded you can stretch the material over, with a smooth surface the tip of the needle will glide over. A light bulb or plastic Easter egg are good options. Thread your needle with yarn, darning thread, or embroidery floss that matches the type (and color, if you want) of material you're working with - wool yarn for wool socks, cotton floss for cotton socks. Double the thread for heavier material - you want to match the weight of the material too.

Stretch the material slightly over your egg. Start below the hole where the material is in good shape. You don't want to knot the thread - that would create a lump - so anchor your thread by making a running stitch (dipping the needle in and out of the material) to 1/2 inch away from the hole, and then making another running stitch back towards the hole. Don't pull the thread tight enough to pucker the material. You want it to just lie smoothly in the slightly stretched material.

Make a boundary around, outside the hole, with running stitches. That helps anchor the darning and reinforces the edges. Then, working back and forth over the hole from top to bottom, lay down parallel lines of thread. When the hole is covered over, start parallel lines side to side, perpendicular to the first set, dipping the needle up and down to create a woven pattern that fills in the hole. Finish with a running stitch away from the hole, and one more back, trim the ends, and you're done!

Edit added later, in response to Linda's question: "Where can I buy darning cotton?" I haven't tried to buy darning cotton for quite some time - I inherited a lot of it, and can usually find a color somewhat close to what I need. But I often use embroidery floss. DMC makes cotton embroidery floss, available in lots of colors. I don't knit, but I think sock-weight yarn is available in cotton, wool, and acrylic versions - try to match what the socks are made of. Try your local fabric store: Joanne's, Hancocks, whatever is nearby where you live, the yarn section at Michaels, or even the crafts section at Target. You should be able to find something suitable even if it's not specifically labeled darning cotton. Incandescent light bulbs, soup ladles, and plastic Easter eggs make good darning eggs.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


My kitchen doesn't have a lot of things most people do. We don't have a dishwasher, that's ok. With only two of us we don't even need to wash dishes every day. I rinse everything after a meal, and stack them in the sink. As long as there's no standing water, we have no problem with smells or insects, so I can wait until I have a sinkful. I like the pattern on my dishes, so I actually enjoy washing them by hand, admiring them as I arrange them in the dish drainer all lined up neatly to dry. The chickens would be insulted if we ever got a garbage disposal. The stainless steel bucket with lid works for all of us. I'm even ok with not having a furnace or heater. The wood stove keeps us warm all winter long.

But a microwave is so very convenient. We've had a dinosaur of a microwave since 1984.The old thing was huge - big enough to cook a 20-pound turkey, should we desire. No fancy buttons or push pads - just one dial for the time, another for the power setting, and a button to push. No turntable - I had to manually stop it and turn the foods if required. Then, today when I went to heat some milk for my morning coffee, it wouldn't stay on. I could stand there and hold the start button in and it would still work, but that would get bothersome fast.

I'm old enough to remember how things were before microwaves. You'd have to plan tomorrow's dinner the night before so whatever you were having could defrost in the refrigerator overnight. Reheating any leftovers meant getting a pan dirty, and sweet rolls were warmed up in a skillet with a lid. Making nachos meant an oven-proof plate and a hotpad to set it upon. We already use a Whirley-Pop on the stovetop for popcorn. I knew I could get along without a microwave if I had to.

I remember the first time I saw a microwave work. It was about 1970. A friend from school had a party down in his basement, and said his folks had just bought a microwave oven. "You have to see it work!" he said, so we all trooped upstairs to the kitchen. He filled a glass with ice cubes, put it inside, and pushed the button. We crowded around and watched, amazed, as the ice melted down before our eyes, and then the water started to boil, all without harming the glass.

When Aries got home from work, he took the old thing apart enough to realize that fixing it would be beyond his capabilities, even if we could find the parts. He's so very talented in fixing stuff around the house - we never have to call anyone else when something breaks. This was something burned out in the computer board. He got on the internet for a while to check schematics, parts availability, and prices and then said, "Let's go shopping." I was ready.

I like the looks of the one we picked. It's black, and has a retro look to it, back when the old stuff was trying to look futuristic. It's so much smaller than the old one, I have extra space in the cabinet, and might have to make different curtains for the upper cupboard that will hang down longer. The power cord is a lot shorter, so Aries had to cut another hole to reach the outlet to plug it in. I doubt I'll use even a quarter of the different buttons and settings this one has. As long as I can conveniently have my cafe au lait and nachos, I'm happy.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Something's out there - and Albert knows it

We like cats here at Firesign Farm. We've always had at least one around the house. We don't try to restrict them to the house, but if they're outside, especially after dark, they run the risk of becoming Coyote Chow. Some we've had were 'fraidy cats. They didn't like being outside - like Milo, a tiny cat who died of old age inside at 16. Others are lucky, and learn. Junior was like that. She'd come and go whenever she pleased, and lived 19 years. Others aren't so lucky. We lost Lily, a tiger-striped tabby, not too long ago. She liked to hunt, and the mice come out after sunset. She wanted out one night, and then never came home. So right now, Albert, a tuxedo cat, is an only cat.

Albert liked being outside, if only to roll in the dirt. And he was always really good about coming when we'd call him back in at night. But a few nights ago, he didn't come when I called. Half an hour later, I tried again - still no Albert. I tried throughout the evening, even going out to walk around prime mouse-areas like the chicken coop and the wood pile. Still no Albert. I was starting to worry - if a cat doesn't come in at night, there's a good chance we've lost them. Just before bedtime, I tried one more time. There he was! Just inside the gate by the shed. His tail was three times normal size and when he came in, he slunk past me, belly to the ground. Hmmm, that's not normal.

And now, he doesn't want to go out at all, for days now. He's using the litter box in the house, and he never did that before. When we let the dog out, Albert was usually right there underneath Boris, ready to go too. Not any more. It was nice yesterday, and I had the sliding glass door in the bedroom open. He sat two feet back from the open door, watching it but not about to come closer. Something out there scared him, and he hasn't forgotten it!

So now I'm wondering - what could it be? Most probably coyotes. I'm hoping it was a coyote - that's a good lesson for a cat to learn. Our lot is fenced with hog wire. Anything inside the fence is safe from coyotes and stray dogs, but Albert could have been out front, pinned down under or on top of my car, inside the truck's wheel well, or under the shed, waiting it out for hours until he could get back inside the fence. Fear of coyotes might be this long lasting. They sound downright demented when they're yipping and yapping out there.

But then, Aries heard something yowly-growling outside the glass door a few nights ago, but didn't want to get up to see what it was. Inside the fence is Albert's territory, and he'd defend it. There's a big grey tailless tomcat that comes around every now and then. Then, Albert will come in with grey fur caught in his claws, so I know he's not afraid of other cats. Aries said this sounded bigger than a cat. Some of the neighbors have seen a bobcat around here a couple of times - that might scare a housecat.

It could have been a skunk. We lost the last of the ducks to a skunk, but you can usually smell if they've been around. Maybe a raccoon. We've had some big raccoons here occasionally. One killed 2/3 of the chicken flock a few years ago, and last year we had one standing there trying to open the sliding glass door. Raccoons are big enough to scare a cat.

It's a bit early for bears to be out. Even though there are bears higher up the canyon above the house, we've never had one down here before. Besides, if there was a bear about, he'd probably have taken my bird feeders before he went after the cat.

But then, there are the deer. The other morning, the neighbor above us counted 15 above his house at the foot of the canyon. We might see one outside the fence every ten years or so, but we've never had so many down so low. We have had some devastating fires higher up the canyon the past few years, and around here is the only area west of town that still has brush on it. Coupled with quite a bit of snow up higher this year - that would bring the deer down. I don't think Albert would be scared of deer. But if there are deer, then there is also the possibility of mountain lions. A mountain lion would certainly scare a cat. A mountain lion scares me! So I wonder - what scared Albert? He's not talking.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Buckland Station - Pioneers and Pony Express

My legs are tired today. Aries and I went on a Sierra Club hike yesterday. It was mostly over flat ground, but our leader set a fast pace for 8-9 miles. There's still too much snow in the Sierras for hiking, so our itinerary was out in the Great Basin. This high-desert area, 500 miles across, stretches from the plateau country east of the Great Salt Lake to the Sierra Nevada mountains on the California/Nevada border. Our starting point was Buckland Station, 45 miles east of Carson City.

Samuel Buckland began ranching on the banks of the Carson River in 1859, building a toll bridge across the river, next to his house. His home became an important way station for pioneers traveling the Overland Route. His livestock, garden, and orchard supplied emigrants, travelers, and the soldiers at nearby Fort Churchill. The Overland Stage Company kept horses at the Station, and Pony Express riders stopped here to change mounts. Fort Churchill is now a Nevada State Park, encompassing the Station and two other historic ranches on the Carson River. This 9-mile stretch connects to Lake Lahontan State Recreation Area, creating one of the largest publicly accessible river corridors in Nevada.

We cross the river on a modern highway bridge, and follow a trail east along the south bank. Snowmelt hasn't really begun up in the Sierras so the river runs calmly, filling only half its banks. No water in the Great Basin ever reaches an ocean. Some of our rivers end in lakes with no outlets, the water lost to evaporation or seepage, and some end in sinks. The Carson Sink is the eventual fate of the Carson River. After impoundment behind the dam of Lahontan Reservoir for recreational and agricultural use, the river continues eastward another 70 miles until it just disappears into the sand.

We hike beneath Fremont Cottonwood trees and among the willows, still bare of leaves this time of year. In the shade, the ground is still frozen, and even a couple of remnants of snowbanks remain, but where the sun has struck, there's soft, silty sand underfoot. We see a few Canada geese out on the water, but it's still too early for much other wildlife. We pass through one section of beaver activity - bark stripped from the larger trees three feet up the trunk, and felled smaller trees, gnawed to pointy pencil-stub stumps - but no sign of the beavers. Three miles from our start, we turn south away from the river towards a small ridge. Once on top, there's a small picnic area for our lunch stop.

One hiker finds an obsidian flake. We imagine a Paiute Indian, hundreds of years ago, sitting atop this lookout point to craft his new arrowheads. The line of cottonwoods marks the course of the river on one side, and the ridge drops off into a sagebrush-dotted plain on the other. On the hills beyond the plain, horizontal lines mark the remnants of an ancient shoreline. The Great Basin was once an immense inland sea, the prehistoric Lake Lahontan, with some of the higher hills rising up as islands. Looking across the plain, we can also see small dry lakes here and there. We've had some pretty good snowfalls this winter. One of the lakebeds close by still has water in it.

We drop down off the ridge, heading across the plain towards the distant hills. The walking is easy - mostly sandy ground dotted with widely spaced sage and other desert shrubs. We cross a couple of the dry lakes. Their surface has dried to a shiny brown clay broken by a grid of cracks. It easily supports our weight and seems completely dry. But lifting up a section of the grid shows the crust is only half-inch thick, with sticky, damp clay soil underneath. This type of terrain is treacherous to vehicles. A truck venturing out onto this dry lake would break through the crust and be mired, all four wheels, up to the axles.

Eventually, we come to a dirt road running along the base of the hills, and take it back towards the Station. This road follows the original Pony Express route. A rider waiting at Buckland Station would be ready to take over, riding 75 miles up and over the distant peaks to Friday's Station at Lake Tahoe. This section was regularly assigned to "Pony Bob" Haslam, one of the most well-known Pony Express riders. His famed ride was 120 miles in a little over 8 hours, while wounded from an Indian attack. He carried the text of President Lincoln's inaugural address from Buckland's to Sacramento in California. The Pony Express riders covered 650,000 miles in 18 months, with only one rider killed, and one packet of letters lost. Eventually, the Overland Telegraph Line would follow this same route, putting the Pony Express out of business.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Hello, World!

I've always liked the idea of keeping a journal, but never liked sitting down and writing things out in longhand. My hand would cramp up and the pictures I'd include wouldn't get developed for another six months, so I found the whole exercise too frustrating. Six years ago, my sister gave me a 10-year Gardener's Journal (from here). Amazingly enough, I was able to keep that up to date, and really loved seeing the changes in the garden listed out over the years. I'm somewhat computer literate, and typing comes easy for me. Emails sent home from abroad made wonderful mementos of my adventures. A typed record, easy to update, photos included, would be just the thing. The light bulb finally lit up - why not try blogging the changes in my life, the garden, and our town? So bear with me, world. I'm gonna learn how to blog!