Monday, April 28, 2008

Chicks in the Spare Room

Missy, a little brown leghorn we took in years ago, would hide a nest each year, then disappear and three weeks later, return with a new clutch of just-hatched chicks. She was a good mother hen, but is now getting too old to lay anymore (at least, I think so - she's been back in the coop every night so far this year). Anyway, we now have quite a few brown half-breed chickens, that still have the urge to set, and to fly. But a hen that's gone broody isn't laying any eggs, and I'm really getting tired of having ones that can fly over the garden fences digging up my plantings. I want some colorful, pure-bred chickens again.

I got one of our broody hens, Baldy, moved from a nest box to the dog run-turned-brooding pen a few nights ago - just scooped her up, along with her golf balls, on a dark night and she seemed content to stay. I think I could have slipped the new feed-store pure-bred chicks under her ok. But we like having the chickens as pets, ones that will come up and eat from our hands. Chicks raised by a mother hen aren't as friendly. So, on the way home from the feed store, we decided to raise the new babies inside like we used to do. When I got home, I took the golf balls away from Baldy (and BlackFluff too) and made them get out into the sunshine again - time to get back into egg production, ladies.

Chick Central, until they get enough feathers to withstand the cold nights outside, is in my guest room/home office/sewing room. The brood pen is a dog crate, set on my sewing/craft table that just spans across the end of the guest bed. I've flipped the crate upside-down, so that the windows are down at their level and slid a stick across through the bars for a low-level perch. For the time being, they're small enough to go back and forth underneath the perch, but eventually they'll want to use it. Since these chicks are already pretty good-sized and have strong legs, I've put newspapers down on the bottom for easily changed "diapers" (for just hatched babies, newspapers are too slick and could possibly lead to leg problems - add straw or sawdust on top of the paper).

I already had the chick-starter feed, a small feeder, and a small ceramic plant saucer for a water dish - small enough that they can't drown, heavy enough that they won't tip it over. Last item is their heat source - a nightlight fixture with a small vanity bulb (we've also used the big, outdoor, Christmas lightbulbs), plugged into an extension cord threaded through the window bars and taped to the ceiling so that it hangs down close enough for them to snuggle under and around. So, dear readers, meet the new girls - four Rhode Island Reds and two Plymouth Barred Rocks - heavier non-flying, good-laying breeds - chirping quietly and scratching about in there as I type.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

This isn't Simple at All

The weather is warming up, the garden and rest of the yard are calling my name, Ciara has tagged me for a meme that I want to answer, and Rhonda Jean has asked her readers to tell their stories about how they live. I really want to get to all of these, and will, eventually, but I've had some busy events outside the home lately.

By watching our expenses and eliminating all debts, we can now afford for me to not work full-time. I love it because it allows me to be a very active volunteer in my community. I've been a member of my local Soroptimist International club for years, and for the past 1½ years have also been Treasurer. I love the chance to meet and work with lots of great women, and the funds we raise really make a difference for a lot of underserved women and children in our area. Our entire Sierra Nevada Region, 59 clubs throughout California and Nevada, is meeting for an annual conference in Reno all weekend, and I'm participating in those meetings.

Besides Soroptimists, I've also been quite visible in various other community efforts around town for the last 20+ years - most of them working towards a cleaner and greener community. I chaired our local Shade Tree Council, an advisory board to the City Board of Supervisors, for years. I'm on the Board of Directors of Muscle Powered, a local non-profit advocating for a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly town and local trails system. I help a local political group with their Adopt-A-Highway cleanups, and am often out there whenever some other community effort needs help. I chaired my precinct's Presidential caucus earlier this year. When our city started a year-long Leadership Class, my employer at the time sponsored me to attend. I also have a B.S. degree, earned on the 25-year plan, in Human Ecology, with a focus on Community Services Administration; I did my internship with the City Parks & Recreation Department. So maybe it's not quite so surprising what's currently happening.

A local "progressive" political action group has recently formed because they figure the best way to get a cleaner and greener community is to get champions for that mindset into local political office. They've approached me because they think I might be a good candidate to run for one of the local positions open in this fall election. I live in the right Ward, they think I have the name recognition and the "street cred" to be a viable candidate, I've got the time to devote to running for office. So, now I'm talking things through in my head - I know I could do a good job; do I really want to do this? Can I handle the rejection if I don't win; can I handle the politics if I do? Do I really want to be in the spotlight like that? Am I totally crazy for even considering getting into the political arena in this downward-spiraling economic climate? I wouldn't be doing it for the power or glory - but our town is on the cusp of some really big changes and it would be nice to have an effect on those decisions. This is a really scary, big decision. I've got until mid-May, the filing deadline, to decide.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Under Pressure - Beans in a Pressure Cooker

I grew up in Denver, Colorado, the mile-high city. One of our standard junior high science class experiments was measuring the temperature of boiling water. The higher in altitude, the lower the temperature at which water boils. So, when I grew up, I knew that things would take longer to cook than stated in recipes written for sea-level cooks. Then, I moved to Leadville, Colorado.

Leadville, at 10,250 feet, is the highest city in the U.S. - essentially two miles high. I had to learn to cook all over again. Quartered potatoes needed to boil for an hour! But there was a time-saving solution - with a pressure cooker, altitude ceases to be an issue. I could have tender potatoes, soups, or stews in less than 15 minutes time. That alone was worth learning to use this scary-sounding device.

My cooker is the type with a rocker-type weighted control with three different size holes for the differing pressures. It will hold 4 narrow-mouth pint canning jars, so can also be used for small-batch pressure canning. When it reaches pressure, regulated by which side of the pressure control is down, it rocks the weight and rattles and hisses as the steam escapes. I lower the heat until the hissing spurts are 1-2 times per minute. I can then set the timer and go about my business around the house, knowing to come check if the sound stops.

Where pressure cookers really shine is cooking beans. Dry beans are so economical, but the time involved in preparation leads a lot of busy women to buy canned beans instead. I'll sometimes soak my beans overnight if I'm making a crockpot recipe the next day, or I've also used the speed-soak method of bringing them to a boil for 10 minutes and letting them sit for an hour if I've got the time to then cook them for 3-4 hours. But with a pressure cooker I can make a soup or chili, from dry beans and scratch ingredients, in less than a hour (pre-soaking, if you have the extra hour, helps keep pressure-cooked beans intact as they cook).

Pick over and rinse your dry beans, then put them in the pressure cooker, without the inside rack, with 3-4 times as much water. In my pressure cooker, 2 cups beans and 6 cups water works out right. I just add water until it's at least an inch above the beans - as long as you fill the cooker only half-full. Seal the cooker, and bring to 15 pounds pressure. Most beans - pinto, red, white, black, and soy - take 30 minutes once the cooker is up to pressure (garbanzos take 45 minutes; do NOT cook split peas or pea soup in a pressure cooker - they can foam up and block the steam valve). When the time is up, cool the cooker under cold running water until the pressure drops, open it, and you've got cooked beans ready to eat, as is, or to add to the soup/chili ingredients you've prepared in the meantime. Tonight, I started some white beans in the cooker; cut up, then simmered butternut squash, carrots, and onions; and pureed them just in time to add the beans. Home-cooked bean soup for dinner in less than an hour.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Oh, Brrrrr!

Well, that cold front definitely came through. Night before last, it snowed a bit and temps went down to 27º. The fruit trees were looking pretty ragged. Then, last night's low was 22º so that's probably enough to do in most everything currently in bloom. I'm afraid to go look. The cold was too much for Spots, our old Barred Rock hen, too - we found her dead in one of the nest boxes this morning. We don't butcher our hens, they're our pets as well as egg factories. We keep them around as "boarders" as long as they live. I'm not sure, but think Spots was about 12 years old. She was slowing down quite a bit, but would still come up to eat out of my hand, and even laid an egg a couple of weeks ago.

So that leaves us with 9 hens and a rooster (plus 3 guineas - 2 hens and a cock) in the chicken house. Of the ten chickens, six are Missy's offspring - including Ivan, our rooster. Baldy is still wanting to set, so I'm still thinking of trying to get her to foster some feed-store chicks. I want to get her moved from a nest box to the brooding pen I've made out of the dog run. I'm thinking about moving her in the dark of night, after this full moon wanes, so she won't try to go back to the coop. Plus, the weather is supposed to warm up again in a few more days, so if she does reject the chicks they'll have a better chance of surviving until I can get them inside and under a light for warmth. I'm new to fostering out chicks - we've raised chicks inside until feathered out, and just kept the ones that Missy brought in. Missy's been acting squawky and sneaky, but is back in the coop every night - I think she's getting too old to lay any more. She might foster a brood, but I'm also afraid she'd know they weren't hers and kill them.

There is good news around here too. I saw four bees out on the grape hyacinths, so at least I know there's still a surviving hive around here somewhere nearby. And the asparagus is starting to come up. The first sprouts are all flopped over from the freezing weather, but at least I know the roots are still ok. I repaired the fence around that plot, added some compost, and fixed up a new section of soaker hose. Now that the weather is supposed to warm up again, I hope to be eating fresh asparagus soon. I also added compost to the strawberry patch. The first blooms there are black in the center, so they froze too. But that means I'll get a better harvest later of lots of medium-sized berries instead of the one big one with lots of little ones (barring many more 20º nights, that is).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hanging Out Day

I mean laundry, not loitering. Project Laundry List designates April 19th as our National Hanging Out Day, to draw attention to both energy consumption (electric clothes dryers use 5 - 10 per cent of the residential electricity in the U.S.) and local ordinances prohibiting clotheslines (The Right to Dry campaign).

Other than this post, I couldn't participate. One of the first things to consider if hanging clothes out to dry is the weather. Now while that might mean rain in most parts of the country, here wind is the big decider - sandblasting clean clothes is not a good idea. Today the barometer really dropped - a cold front was coming through, so I knew it wouldn't be a good day to hang clothes out. The photos are from a couple of days ago. We're on both a well and a septic system so, not wanting to overtax either, I'll only do one load of laundry a day. One retractable clothesline for the big stuff, combined with a collapsible wooden rack (that will also fit inside the bathtub, or can be placed in front of the woodstove in the winter) for the little things, fit my solar drying needs perfectly (in the photo, that's also our down comforter draped over a table and chairs to solarize before being stored away for the summer).

A few things to think about when hanging clothes outside to dry: 1.don't put your clotheslines under trees - birds hang out in trees. 2.turn dark clothes inside out if you're worried about them fading. 3.hang your clothes from the part closest to your waist when worn - shirts from the hem, pants from the waist (unless you want a crease down the pant leg, then hang them already creased - Mom had metal framework stretchers that she'd slide inside the legs of my Dad's dress pants) 4.cotton stretches when wet - leave a bit of a gap when hanging knit cotton T-shirts so they won't dry stretched out. 5.if your clothes are too stiff, go ahead and throw them in the dryer for just a little bit when you bring them in, just to soften them. 6.line-dried clothes last longer - that lint in your dryer used to be part of the material, you know. And the best for last: 7.line-dried cotton sheets just smell so good!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Pizza! Pizza!

Friday night - I wanted pizza. Making your own pizza crust takes a couple of hours of advance planning, to give the dough time to rise, but it's really not very difficult (this recipe will also work in a bread machine on the dough setting). And it's a great way to put a whole new face on just about any kind of leftovers.

Whole Wheat Pizza Dough (makes 2 12" pizzas)

2¼ teaspoons (or 1 pkt) dry yeast
1 cup very warm water
3 cups flour (I use half whole wheat and half unbleached flour)
1 teaspoon salt

Sprinkle yeast over warm water, let set a couple of minutes to dissolve. Mix salt into 2 cups flour and stir into yeast mixture. Add third cup of flour, stir in as much as possible, then dump dough and excess flour onto cutting board and knead for 10 minutes (to knead dough: flatten and push the dough away from you with the heels of both hands, pull the farthest part to double it back over on itself, and spin the dough a quarter-turn; continue in a push/pull rocking motion), adding up to ¼ cup more flour until dough is smooth and doesn't stick to your hands or the board. Pour a few drops of oil into a clean bowl, use the ball of dough to spread it around the entire inside, and then turn the dough so the oiled side is up and cover with a clean cloth. Let rise 45-60 minutes, punch down (punch your fist into the ball of dough, and when it collapses push the edges into the center, dump it out and shape it back into a ball). Add a few more drops of oil to the bowl, smear it around and flip the dough ball oiled side up again and let rise another 45-60 minutes.

Preheat oven to 475º. Prepare your toppings - chop or slice veggies, pre-cook meat, shred cheese. Lightly oil your pizza pan(s), and dust lightly with cornmeal. Divide dough in half. If you'd like to freeze half, roll it into a cylinder, place it in an oiled 1-pint freezer bag and press all air out before freezing (later, thaw in refrigerator without opening bag until ready to use). Let the dough rest 10 minutes before shaping, by rolling and pulling, to fit 12" pan. Add toppings (we like lots of home-canned tomato sauce, a sprinkle of oregano, shredded mozzarella cheese, and then whatever leftovers, bits and pieces I find in the refrigerator or pantry). Bake on lowest rack 15 - 20 minutes.

Tips: My oven isn't big enough to fit two pizzas on the bottom rack, so I cook them one at a time when making two. For some insight into tossing your pizza crust, practice the throwing and spinning motions with your dish cloth - it's an art.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Green "Room" for the Picnic Table

Nice, quiet day today. I got out for a walk with Boris, our pound hound, this morning. We checked out the new strip mall under construction below us, and where they've torn up our street for the gas lines being replaced. A few days ago, when they were working closer to our house, and it was so cold, they came to the door to tell me that they were going to turn off our gas but attach a little pony bottle to the meter that would be just enough to keep our pilot lights lit, but not enough for the furnace. I told him even that wouldn't be necessary, because the only pilot light is the one for the on-demand water heater and I can turn that on and off manually. The gas guy couldn't believe that we didn't have a furnace in the house, and had never seen a water heater that didn't have a tank. He couldn't believe our bill is only $25 a month either :-)

The rest of the afternoon, I just puttered around in the yard. I pruned a Virginia Creeper vine that drapes over our fence. I moved a lilac and trimmed out a couple of dead branches on another. I'm making a lilac hedge around three sides of an old picnic table. That table has an interesting story. We got it when a neighbor moved to Oregon. He'd lived and had a business here in Carson City since the 1930's, and also had some property up on the east shore of Lake Tahoe. A long time ago, a couple of days after a big rain storm with lots of wind, he found the table washed up on his beach. The thing is huge - the legs are 6" X 6" posts, the tabletop and attached benches are 4" X 12" planks. It looks like something from a Forest Service campground, but there aren't any on that side of the lake. He figured some campers across the lake moved the table down near the water, and then it washed away during the storm and took a couple of days to float the 12 miles across the lake.

The fence for the vegetable garden is on the fourth side of the table. I seeded some sunflowers and morning glories along that stretch, protected that area from the birds with some wire, and then laid a soaker hose down all the way around. Of course, the chickens were right there underfoot the whole time, clucking and murmuring about, just in case I turned up something interesting. Under the lilacs is one of their favorite places to hang out.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Big Batch of Meatballs

I eat meat, but can just as easily do without it. I think of meat as a condiment to a meal - it adds flavor but it's not the main attraction. But Aries is an avowed carnivore. He'd make a meal of meat and bread if left to his own devices. He won't eat salads either, so I sneak veggies into his meals by making lots of soups and stews in the winter (out of the veggies stored in the cellar), and stir-fries in the summer (right out of the garden). I'll rarely buy meat when I make my twice-monthly trip to the market, unless it's some turkey ham to flavor a pot of beans.

But we also have a grocery store a block down the hill. Aries will walk down there a couple of times a week - because his bank is inside, or for me if we're out of milk, or to rent a DVD when there's nothing on TV (we never see movies in the theater - even newly released DVD's are only $1.50 for a 1-day rental). Usually, he'll check out the meat section for the must-sell-today specials. Yesterday, he came home with two pounds of country sausage, reduced to 99¢. When someone hands you that much ground meat, it's time to make meatballs. I had a pound of ground round in the freezer (also bought on sale, $2) - taken out to thaw yesterday, I made a big batch of meatballs today.

Big Batch of Meatballs (makes 75 1" meatballs)

3 pounds ground meat (I usually use a combination of beef and pork)
1½ cups fine bread crumbs
1½ cups finely chopped onion
3 eggs
2 tablespoons worchestershire sauce
¼ cup ketchup
salt & pepper

Mix everything together. Spray a broiler pan with non-stick spray. Roll mixture into 1" meatballs (the easiest way I've found to make equal portions is to dump the mixture out on my cutting board, shape it into a 1" high rectangle, and cut it into 1" cubes). Bake 400º 20-25 minutes (I'll usually take them out of the oven after 15 minutes, and using a fork, flip the meatballs over so they'll brown on the other side too, putting them back into the oven for another 5-10 minutes).

This recipe makes just enough to fill my broiler pan. After the meatballs have cooled, I move them to a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer. After they're frozen hard, I transfer them to a gallon freezer bag to use as needed. Classically, I'll add them to a tomato and veggie sauce to serve over pasta, but they're also good in a brown sauce with mushrooms and yogurt as a meatball stroganoff, tucked in a pita pocket with lots of cucumber slices and a bit of ranch dressing, or Aries will sometimes make himself a meatball sandwich with cheese and barbecue sauce.

For a normal meal, Aries will have 4-5 meatballs as a serving, and I'll have maybe 3, so this $3 of meat will make 9-10 meals for the two of us. Today, I only had 1 tablespoon of worchestershire sauce, so I used 1 tablespoon soy sauce too, and didn't add any salt or pepper (also, because the sausage had seasoning already added). They turned out just fine.

Other notes: Sunday, we had 80º weather, yesterday 60 mph winds(!), and then it snowed for a while this morning. Also, Reno (25 miles away) had about 20 little 3.something earthquakes this morning. I didn't feel any of them.

On his motorcycle ride Sunday, Aries went with a buddy over Monitor Pass nearby. The road was dry, but snowbanks still lined both sides on top. Just as he was at the top of the pass, a long straight level stretch, he saw some roadkill in the road ahead. As he came up to it, he looked up and there was a golden eagle, flying head-on right at him, headed for the carrion. Aries laid on the brakes and the horn simultaneously, and it flew up right over him. He said the wingspan was wider than the travel lane, and he was close enough to see the wide-stretched talons glinting. Living in Nevada is so much fun!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Blogging - New Window or Back Button?

It looks like I'm starting to garner some readers here at Firesign Farm, and I like looking back at the blogs from people that comment or refer others here. There are a lot of really great efforts out there in what I think of as the conscientious consumer lifestyle. But I hate it when I find an interesting site with a link to something else interesting, and when I follow it I lose the original site. So I thought I'd tell everyone how to make a link (or a picture) on your site open up in a new window. Eventually, your reader can close everything else and be back to your site, which is what they really wanted to see in the first place.

I use Blogger, but I'm assuming most other blogging software sites have a similar set-up. When making your post, you can use either a "compose" wysiwyg (whizz-ee-wig: it means What You See Is What You Get) area, or see (and do) the same thing in an "edit Html" area, depending on which tab you choose. To make your link or photo open in a new window, we're just going to add a little bit of typing on the "Html" side.

After you've gotten your link or photo inserted, choose the Html tab. Find what you just added, including the website .com or photo .jpg with lots more stuff inside pointy little brackets. Put your cursor right after the .com or .jpg then type a space and then the following: target="_blank" just like that, all together, no spaces, using the quotes, equals and underscore keys. Then you can go back to finishing your post, and when you publish it, people won't be led away from your site if they want a closer look at a photo or want to see what you're referencing.

Added later: Maybe I'm in the minority here. After posting, I've been doing a bit of researching about this, and seeing where lots of people don't like having a post open in a new window automatically - preferring instead to right-click do-it-themselves. Should I stop having links open in new windows (high-jacking someone else's browser is the way a few people put it), and just let people use the "back" button? What do you think?

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Spring Inspection Time

It's downright hot today. I had Aries put the shade up outside the big east-facing window this morning, so the living room is now a comfortably cool refuge. Then, he took off on a motorcycle ride with a buddy, so I did a little Spring inspection walk around the yard. The daffodils in the herb garden are fading (and will need to be deadheaded), but the first of the tulips and narcissus just opened up. The oregon grape is in bloom - a bright, cheery yellow.

The cellar is up to 50º, so later after it cools down outside, I'll have to get down there and start assessing what can still stay, what needs to be brought up to the refrigerator, what needs to be processed (frozen, dried, maybe canned), what needs to be on the menu this week, and what goes to the chickens. The two fig trees down there are starting to break dormancy. They'll need to be repotted and brought out to the sunshine, and then kept on the wagon to be moved in and out of the garage as the weather warrants. I know I need to get the Roots garden bed prepped, so I can get the seed potatoes stored from last year planted soon.

I've got a dead branch on the Italian prune tree, and it looks like another one on the seedling peach (a mature tree of unknown variety, so named because it just sprouted one year from under a woodpile - the seed probably buried there by a squirrel). The stresses from a drought winter last year and peach tree borer damages are showing up now, so I'll need to do some pruning. I've got one dead branch on a lilac, and I want to move a piece of another one over to fill in a hedge I'm making around a little picnic table. I think of my yard as the slowest form of artwork.

A little hawthorn tree doesn't look like it made it, but there's another sprout down by the vegetable garden that can be moved to take its place. The first strawberry blooms just opened, as did the pears. No asparagus yet - the chickens or rabbits have knocked down the fencing, so that needs to be redone - I hope they haven't destroyed the plants. The two artichoke plants survived the winter, but there's no sign of the rhubarb yet. It's Spring, today anyway, and there's work to be done.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Fruit - To Be or Not to Bee

"April is the cruellest month," said T.S. Eliot. That sure holds true for trying to grow fruit around here. The weather right now determines if I will get much of a crop this year. Last year, just as another wave of blossoms came along, so did the nasty weather. But nothing can compare to the taste of a tree-ripened apricot or peach, fresh-picked and eaten still warm from the sun, bending over right next to the tree to keep the juice from dripping down your shirt. So, even though I might only get a crop one year in every three or four, it's definitely worth the effort.

When we got married we eloped, combining two housefuls of things, so most of my extended family just sent money as a wedding present. We used all of it to buy little bare-root fruit trees, the hardiest ones with the highest chill requirements I could find. We now have quite the little mature orchard. We're situated nicely, comparatively for this area, to be able to grow fruit. We're a bit above the valley floor, so often the cold air will flow right past, sinking to the lowest point. The ground slopes down from the west so we get the first rays of the morning sun. We've had our problems - rabbits walking on top of a deep snowfall girdled quite a few trees one winter (but most sprouted back lower down where the snow had provided a protective cover, and now a wire cage protects each trunk), wind has broken a few branches, and often I have to festoon the trees with scare tape and salvaged CD's to keep the birds from getting everything.

Dare I say it? This year, things are looking pretty good. Both unopened buds and fruit already set can stand temperatures a bit colder than open blossoms. Plus, the apricot blossoms incrementally, the first blooms are withered and brown from the 25º nighttime lows the past week, but a few more opening every day just might make it. It's always the first to bloom, therefore the most likely to freeze, so apricots are the rarest fruit from my orchard. The plums are now in full bloom, and the first peach and nectarine flowers are starting to add a touch of pink. Asian, then regular pears, will follow, then the cherries, and finally the apples.

Wind too, can wreak havoc with a fruit crop. If it's too windy, the bees and other pollinators can't fly. I've been watching for bees, and haven't seen too many - I hope we still have some around. I lost my two hives a few years ago - they just died off. That seems to be happening more and more all over the world, so I'm thinking I should try again to establish a colony or two. Carpenter bees, the big shiny black solitary bees, also make good pollinators. We usually have some that emerge from our woodpile each spring. I've started looking into raising them as well. That can be a topic for another post.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Patching Knees

This is another Grammaw-inspired lesson. She never really sat down and showed me how to patch the knees of my blue jeans, but I was quite the little tomboy growing up so I had ample opportunity to see how it was done from the patches she, and Mom, put on my own blue jeans. This method works great - repairing the hole and reinforcing the entire knee area. It feels good to wear, blends right in, and gets softer right along with the pants over time.

If a hole is in the seat or upper thigh of a pair of blue jeans, it can be reached, with a bit of maneuvering, to be patched on a sewing machine. I'll put the patch on the inside, and then just zig-zag stitch back and forth, up and down, until I've "quilted" the patch over the hole. But holes in the knee can't be fixed this way, unless you're willing to rip the leg seam and then sew it back up afterwards. Too much trouble - this way is easier and makes a long-lasting patch.

It's very handy to keep the legs from an old worn-out pair of blue jeans around as a patch supply (or pick up the biggest pair you can find at a thrift store). You can even match the amount of fading to the pants to be patched - taking the patch from down near the hem for darker pants, and using the faded upper thigh for lighter ones. First, cut a patch quite a bit bigger than the hole, rounding the corners.

Turn the pant leg inside out and pin the patch down so that both "wrong sides" are up. Hide your knot between patch and pant material and then, about a quarter-inch away from the edge, start stitching the patch down with a running stitch around the edge - four to five stitches to the inch. Continue around, and when you get back to your starting place, continue with another round, a quarter-inch to the inside. Two rounds is enough, but you can keep circling around until you run out of thread, and then fasten off.

Turn the pants leg right side out, and trim any long threads and end tufts from the hole. Keeping the pants leg as flat as possible to the patch (pin it if necessary), fold the ragged edges under and stitch with an overcast stitch, catching a bit of the patch material and then up through the edge of the fold. Tuck any loose threads under with the tip of your needle as you work your way around the rip. Fasten off, and you're done!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Broken Things

It's turning out to be quite the year for us. First the 25-year old waterbed, then the 20-year old microwave, and now the 15-year old television die - irreparably dead - all of them. And Aries is really good at fixing things (obviously, when you look at the age of most of our stuff). Looking on the bright side, the more big-ticket items that die and get replaced now, before we're retired, the less expense (I hope!) once our income level drops. So, we went TV shopping - checking prices at Best Buy and Wal-Mart, and then getting a friend with a CostCo card to take Aries over there. He came home with a Samsung flat screen that fits in our entertainment armoire. He's happy - the picture is so sharp and the colors so fine. I'm happy - I can still close the doors on that evil eye when I'm home.

We've had some pretty high winds lately. They're called Washoe zephyrs. The Washoe tribe are the native Americans indigenous to this area, and the winds are always out of the west. Being in the high desert, this time of year especially, we can get temperature swings of 50º between our below-freezing nights and sunny Spring days. Add to that the cold mountain air on the snow-covered slopes above us, rushing to the valley floors after sundown as the temperature drops, and we can get some pretty good winds in the afternoons and evenings. Then, there's the fact that our home is at the foot of a canyon, funneling those winds down, but above the calmer valley floor. It all adds up to some pretty good winds coming through here on occasion. A couple of days ago, one of our gateposts broke - the combination of high winds and dry rot in the wood just snapped it. So replacing that fence post was on the list of things to do too. Level and plumb, the gate now swings and closes perfectly again.

And then, when we were out doing errands in our "town car" yesterday, we had some problems too. Granted, it's over 35 years old, so things will break on occasion (and it can be awfully difficult to find parts anymore!). It's a 1972 Honda 600, inherited from Aries' dad. The engine is a 600cc motorcycle engine in a teeny little 2-door sedan, and it gets over 40 miles per gallon, in town. Besides, it's cute, and I love the looks and comments we get when we're out in it. It looks like it should have a wind-up key on the back, or maybe eight clowns jumping out when we stop. Just seeing it makes people smile. And then when Aries gets out - he's 6'5" - people do a double-take.

Anyway, coming back from town, it kept dying. We'd pull over to the side, wait a bit, and then get it started enough to get a few more blocks. We did manage to nurse it home, with occasional bouts of pushing too - at least it's not very heavy. Aries got a new fuel filter for it, but it looks like the fuel pump might be going out too, or maybe rust in the gas lines or tank. Hope we can fix it or find the parts needed. Gasoline is only going to get more and more expensive, I'm afraid.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Live Music (It Ain't Canned)

I went to a concert last night. Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks played at the Piper's Opera House in Virginia City. Aries wouldn't go with me - he can't stand that band. Admittedly, Dan Hicks' music is somewhat eccentric, and definitely an acquired taste. He has a dead-pan stage persona and dry sense of humor, and his music is a strange mix of swing, folk, jazz and country. I've been a fan since the early 1970's. I had a wonderful time - for me, great music in a great venue.

Most people know Virginia City as the little dot in the middle of the burning map that opened the old Bonanza television show (in all of my travels, even when I don't speak the language I can always get across the general area of where I live by humming that theme song). Samuel Clemens began his writing career in Virginia City, but didn't use the pen name Mark Twain until later. Nevada became a state in 1864, without enough people to qualify for statehood, because President Lincoln needed the resources provided by the silver mines of the Comstock Lode to finance the costs of the Civil War (state nicknames: Battle Born state, the Silver State). Money made in Virginia City in the 1860's built San Francisco. Today, it's the largest federally designated Historical District in the U.S. and is maintained in its original condition. "C" Street, the main business street, is lined with 1860's and 1870's buildings housing specialty shops of all kinds.

Piper's Opera House, built in 1885, is actually the third Piper's built in Virginia City - the first two having burned to the ground. It has been undergoing restoration for years now and, while not finished, is finally in shape enough to begin hosting events once again. Maximum capacity 360 people, says the sign at the door. The wooden auditorium floor is built on ore cart springs, adding a bit of a bounce said to be exceptionally nice for dances. The stage is raked, rising 4 feet from the front edge to the back, so as to provide a better view of the action. For this performance, wooden chairs had been set up in rows with a center aisle.

Dan Hicks, songwriter and lead singer, also plays rhythm guitar. The Lickettes, two women, provide harmony voices and hand percussion instruments. The three Lickmen play lead guitar, a stand-up bass, and violin/mandolin. It was a bit of a homecoming for Dan. He got his start as the drummer for the house band at the Red Dog Saloon in V.C. in 1965. The light shows and hallucinogen-fueled dances held at the Red Dog were the direct inspiration for the legendary psychedelic San Francisco scene that blossomed shortly thereafter.

In such a small venue, there wasn't a bad seat in the house. But, being by myself, lucky me, I found a single seat in the front row. What a great time!

"Canned music, canned music, playing on the radio
Canned music, canned music, without a dime it doesn't go
Favorites on the jukebox are only half the show
When it's canned music, canned music" --Dan Hicks

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pie Crust Tips

I've just made an apple pie. Tomorrow is Aries' birthday, and he'd much rather have pie than a cake. The only apples left in the cellar are Arkansas Blacks - really good keepers, but they'd turn to mush in a pie. Last summer was a bad one for the fruit trees - a drought winter followed by late intermittent freezes pretty much knocked out all the blossoms - so I've used up all my quarts of apple pie filling from the year before. I could use dried apples - I've still got some of them, but I'd rather snack on them. So I got some Pippin apples at the store. I've never tasted them, but the sign said they were good for pies so I'm trying them. I got six - peeled and sliced, they were enough to fill a two-quart bowl. I mixed them with ¾ cup of sugar, a couple tablespoons flour, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a dash of nutmeg.

Making pie crust seems to scare a lot of people. It can be a bit tricky, so I've got a few tips to make things easier. First, put on your apron - things can get a bit messy. A really nice kitchen apron will have a flour side and a tomato sauce side, but even a dish towel tied around your waist with a necktie will work. Tip #1: using pastry flour, made from soft wheat, makes a better crust than ordinary flour. Pastry flour is really low in gluten - the stuff that lets bread dough rise makes pie crust tough. My local grocery has whole wheat pastry flour in the bulk bins, so I get that for my muffins and pies.

For a two-crust pie I use 2 cups flour with a teaspoon of salt. Cut in 2/3 cup of cold shortening. I don't like the saturated fat in butter, nor the trans fats in most margarines and shortenings, so I use the Smart Balance buttery spread for all my baking (and no, I'm not paid to say that - just watching our cholesterol). To cut in shortening, I use two table knives, one in each hand, in a pulling, sliding flat across each other, X-type motion (hope that makes sense - although I've also been known to just dive in with my hands, rubbing and mooshing things together 'til the bits of shortening are all coated with flour) until the mixture is crumbly-looking. Sprinkle with a couple tablespoons cold water, stir with a fork, a couple more water, mix some more. Use a total of 5 - 7 tablespoons water - you want it to start kinda clumping together but not really sticky.

Dump the crumbly clumps out onto your counter, and clump it together into a ball. Divide in half and you're ready to start rolling out the bottom crust. A pastry cloth can be really handy, but you have to soak it in cold water and then wash it regularly or the oils on it can start to smell rancid (if this does happen to you, soaking it in a water/baking soda solution can fix that). But I have a really nice big cutting board on my counter that works well. It looks like a maple butcher block, but it really used to be part of a bowling alley lane (hard to come by, I know, but really nice if you can find one).

Patty-cake the clump of pie dough into a flat disc and start to roll it out on a well-floured board (or cloth). It can help to pick it up, sprinkle more flour and turn it over before it gets too spread out. Tip #2: roll your crust from the center out, not back and forth. Tip #3: a pastry scraper can be a really useful kitchen tool - use it (or an upside-down metal pancake turner) to lift and loosen the crust if necessary, and get it into the pie pan. Trim the crust even with the edge of the pan. Tip #4: if you have any holes, or spaces on the edge, use a bit of water to glue a patch over it. Dump in your apples, and dot with bits of 2 tablespoons butter or shortening.

Roll out the top crust, and if you're gonna get fancy with a cookie or biscuit cutter, do it before moving the crust to the pie. Tip #5: dab water all around the edge of the bottom crust, add the top, trim it about counter level, and then tuck the top under the bottom, and crimp them together. I want to have a lip standing up on the edge to catch any drips, so I pinch the top against one finger underneath all the way around. Tip #6: clean up by scraping up the greasy flour left on the board and dumping it in the trash or chicken bucket - it can make a gluey mess if washed down a drain.

Tip #7: This is the most important tip of all. This can even make a frozen store-bought pie say "home-made". Sprinkle a sugar/cinnamon mix (I keep a jar ready-mixed for cinnamon toast) over the top crust, especially around the edge. Then bake at 400º 50 minutes - covering the edges with foil if they start to get too brown. I've got a drip-catcher tray I set my pies on, just in case they bubble over, so it doesn't make a mess in my oven. Very useful item, but then so is a husband that cleans the oven. I definitely recommend marrying one of them if you can!

One last tip - if you find one of those wicker picnic plate holders in a thrift store, they are the perfect size as a pie pan holder. They'll even keep a pie from sliding on a car floorboard or trunk during transport (good thing to remember if you volunteer to bring a pumpkin pie to Thanksgiving dinner). Don't worry if it's not perfect. Homemade pie is about the effort, not perfection. I promise you, no one will mind (and it makes a kitchen smell so good)!

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Visitor, A Comment!

I'm jumping up and down excited! I got a comment from Rhonda Jean - she stopped by and read my blog! Rhonda Jean is my blogging inspiration - what my blog can only aspire to. Where my new little blog has labels in the single digits, her's are in the hundreds. Her blog, Down to Earth, is the epitome of living simply and gently upon this earth. Every post has a nugget of truth, a morsel of knowledge, that I can take away and chew on the rest of the day. Plus, I'm learning to speak Australian - chooks (chickens) and silverbeet (Swiss chard) and an introduction to all kinds of strange plants.

Originally led there looking for information on using high-gluten flour, and later when looking for saurkraut-making instructions, I was fascinated by her gentle thoughts and wonderful ideas. I bookmarked the site and became a regular lurker. I loved the pictures she posted from her readers' apron swap - great colors and ideas! It's now one of my regular stops on the Internet. And now she's been my guest - if only in cyberspace!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Learning to Embroider

I received a couple of interesting emails concerning my post on darning socks. My sister, also a darner (is that a word?), wrote, "I like doing mine in colors different from the socks... that way I can "see" & better enjoy my handiwork." I've found when I do that my mind registers "not sock" and I think I've got another hole, so I'm happiest with the patch as close a match as possible.

Another friend, Chris, wrote a lovely response: "Once a Scout, always a Scout. Where did you learn to darn? I learned as part of a sewing related badge in grammar school. Few people know the art; I did not inherit the wooden darning egg. Most people who know I knit my socks laugh at me ... and as one dear friend said, 'Why do you knit socks when you can buy a pair for $1.99?' How do you explain the love of the process? The feel of the wool in your hand? The gentle rhythm your life takes as you sit, knitting, listening to the birds who've come to the feeder you put out for them?"

What a wonderful thought! My knitting expertise is limited to cast on, knit, cast off, but she makes me want to pick up a pair of needles right now. Her question got me to thinking, though. Where did I learn to darn? I must have seen my maternal grandmother doing it, because somehow I knew you had to have an "egg" to do it (for years, I kept a silver L'eggs pantyhose egg for my darning egg). But I don't remember her ever really showing me what to do. I think darning is one of those things I more or less figured out on my own.

My grandmother did teach me the art of embroidery. She used to embroider pillowcases, and I still have a pair she made for me. When I was about five or six, she sat down with me and some embroidery floss. She taught me to cut off a length, how to separate out two strands from the six; how to wet the ends in my mouth and then pull them between pursed lips to stiffen and flatten them so they would go through the eye of the needle. Then to cross the end over a wrap around my finger and roll it off and slide it down so I had a small knot with no tail hanging out.

Then she gave me an embroidery hoop and a printed cross-stitch dresser scarf, helped me get the hoop in place with the material stretched taut, and set me to work. I'd played with sewing cards - pictures on rigid cardboard outlined with punched holes that a child could thread a shoestring up and down through, so I knew the general idea of sewing. Now I was going to learn how to do it with a sharp needle!

I worked diligently on that red flower, and ran to show Grammaw when I reached the end of the thread. She admired my little x's, all lined up so nicely, and then turned the material over. I had a big clump of knots and tangles there, but I had just pulled things tight and kept sewing. Not good. She said, "the back has to look as good as the front," and then I couldn't believe it - she took her scissors and clipped my threads and sent me back to pick out all those stitches!

I eventually finished it to her satisfaction, and then she had me hem it with a running stitch. To this day, I feel too guilty to run a length of thread across a gap instead of fastening off and restarting. I've found embroidery to be a wonderful pastime over the years - from my hippie days of decorating my denim, to playing with counted cross-stitch patterns, making up my own designs, and using the iron-on transfers I've found in garage sales and thrift stores. It's like painting with thread. I love using my collection of pillowcases and kitchen towels. Just seeing them makes me happy (and the backs look as good as the fronts). Thank you, Elizabeth Krukow Marks - Lizzie to most, Grammaw to me.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Lemon Balm for Cold Sores

A friend has had a lot of stress in her life, and to add to it, now has come down with a case of shingles in her throat. She's under a doctor's care, but it's still very painful. Anyone that has ever had chicken pox can later get shingles - a painful rash of blisters and sores. I know it can be brought on by stress, so I suggested finding ways to reduce the stress in her life. She's going to start going to a yoga class, which might help. The only thing I could think of that might help the pain in her throat was my herbal remedy for cold sores in the mouth.

Cold sores, herpes outbreaks, and shingles are all caused by the same virus family, and lemon balm is a great anti-viral herb. Lemon balm is an easy-to-grow perennial, a member of the mint family. Though I rarely get colds, my first warning that one is coming on is usually a cold sore. The faster I can stop the virus, the better. Whenever I feel the start of a cold sore inside my lip, I immediately boil up a really strong detoction of equal amounts of dried lemon balm and water. After it cools, I strain it, soak a cotton ball in the dark brown liquid, and hold it against the sore for a few minutes several times a day. It usually heals within 24 hours. My friend is going to try gargling with a strong lemon balm detoction, and start drinking lemon balm tea. Since lemon balm is a calming and relaxing herb, it might help lower her stress level too.