Sunday, December 20, 2009

Traditional Bridal Ornaments

I've read that, according to an old German tradition, the tree of a newlywed couple should include the following twelve ornaments, symbols to insure blessing and happiness for their life together. Usually, the list is part of a pitch to sell a very pretty glass set of ornaments. But since I'm of German descent, I thought maybe my tree should have those ornaments - and besides, a household can always use more blessings and happiness. However, my tastes are much more eclectic. I figured over time I could make or find my own versions.

Angel - God's guidance in the home
Rose - affection
Rabbit - hope
Teapot - hospitality
Pine Cone - fruitfulness
Santa - goodwill
House - protection
Fruit Basket - generosity
Bird - joy
Flower Basket - good wishes
Heart - true love
Fish - Christ's blessing

I'm certainly not a newlywed any more, but I do have all twelve now. My teapot is a survivor from my old childhood doll dishes. I glued the top down, and wrapped an ornament hanger around the handle. A couple of inches in diameter, it's quite heavy, being china, so it needs to be hung a bit to the inside of my tree, closer to the trunk.

For the rabbit, I had a little pottery figurine from my first trip to Mexico (back when all you needed to cross the border was a photo ID and a copy of your voter's registration. A girlfriend and I had lots of time, but little money, so traveled via buses and trains over to, and then down, the Pacific Coast as far as San Blas - quite an adventure). By knotting a bit of gold cord around its neck, it's now an ornament (shown hanging next to some Guatemalan worry dolls glued to a hair barrette - too fragile to wear, I turned that into an ornament too).

I think the strangest one, and one of the last ones I found, is my fruit basket. I found this in a little curio shop in Willamstad, capital of the Caribbean island of CuraƧao in the Netherlands Antilles. It was so bizarrely strange, I knew it would be perfect. A little more than an inch across, I especially love that the strawberry, bananas, and slice of watermelon are all the same size. I'm not sure if those are grapes, or maybe breadfruit. There's also a slice of papaya and something that looks like a Delicata squash on the other side - a wonderful little piece of folk art.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Christmas Pig, and a Batch of Home-Brew

When Aries and I were planning to elope, my co-workers wanted to give me a bridal shower anyway. They asked what we needed for our new home together. Since we were combining the households of two self-sufficient adults, we knew we would be busy getting rid of doubled-up items, and we said we really didn't need anything. When they persisted, we said fruit trees, or maybe a weaner pig.

That second request totally mystified my co-workers. They pictured a weiner-pig - some sort of dachshund/porcine pet. I explained that we meant a weaned piglet, to be raised for food. That was a bit too much for any of them to consider. But tied to the top of the box from Sandee, Maggie, and Betty was a little stuffed pig Christmas ornament, just darling with its beribboned curly tail. It's graced our tree for 20 years now.

During Aries' past "weekend", while I finished up my holiday decorating, he thought the cold and overcast day a perfect time to make a batch of beer. And it was. The humidity from five gallons of water, hops, and malt boiling on the stove warmed up the whole house; the pile of snow off the deck made a perfect spot to cool the wort enough to add the yeast. So now my holiday decor includes a 5-gallon bucket of Irish Brown Ale on the kitchen counter, bubbling merrily up through the fermentation lock.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Tiny Reed Boat

This is one of my newer ornaments. My last big travel adventure was spending 3 weeks touring Peru. I never like carrying very much in the way of souvenirs on my travels, but always look for a refrigerator magnet and something that will work as a Christmas ornament. This little reed boat is about 4" long, the people less than an inch tall.

As part of the trip, we spent a night in Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, and then a night out on Amanti, a rocky island in the lake, the group split up into different people's homes. On our way back to Puno, we made an afternoon stop at one of the floating reed islands of the Uros tribe.

Everything on the island is made of reeds, including the islands themselves. The islands are 2 to 4 feet thick, anchored to poles stuck in the lake bottom, and can be moved when necessary. As the bottom layers rot away, they add more to the top, creating a dry, spongy, bouncy surface (kinda like walking on a waterbed). Next to the dock where we pulled in were some of their traditional reed boats, these decorated with puma heads at either end.

First stop for our visit was a circle of reed benches, where we learned about life on a floating island. A little toddler girl came by, and was totally fascinated by me and my sunglasses. She climbed up next to me, holding my hand to keep her balance, for the entire presentation. Afterwards, each of us went to one of the islanders' homes - basically their chance to sell things to the tourists.

I speak quite a bit of Spanish, so the woman I went with (to the house in the photo, the pointy building next to it is her kitchen) and I ended up doing more visiting than vendoring. Seeing that she had a TV (solar panels provide power), I hummed the theme song from Bonanza (my universal way of getting folks to understand where I'm from - never fails), and we talked about my home, our families, and her home there. She showed me the various handcrafts she'd made to sell - lots of decorative bags and textiles, and some long hanging strings of little bits and pieces strung together like wind chimes and sun catchers. Those were too big and too fragile to try and carry the rest of my trip, but at the bottom end of one was a little reed boat, llama heads on either end, and carrying two teeny-tiny people she'd dressed in hand-woven traditional costumes. I loved it as soon as I saw it. She agreed to cut just the little boat off the end for me. Tucked into one of my shoes in my duffle bag, it made the trip home in fine shape, and now brings back wonderful memories every Christmas.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Holiday Drive-By Food Drive

I had to get up really early and drive up to Lake Tahoe to work the hotel departures for the group that came in on Monday. One of our stranger weather phenomena is that despite it being another couple thousand feet higher in altitude, it's warmer up there than it is here in Carson City. The lake is so deep it never freezes, and so helps moderate temperatures somewhat. And then, it's been quite still so we get a temperature inversion thing going on where the coldest air sinks down into the valleys.

When I got home, I bundled up in about four layers of clothing and my Santa hat, and spent the afternoon outside the Governors Mansion, volunteering for the Share Your Christmas Drive-By Food Drive. It ran from 6 a.m. until 6 p.m. and there are always lots of volunteers and simply tons of food donated.

The Mansion has a circular drive in front, so cars pull in, volunteers take the offered bags of food, and the car drives out. Off to the side, others are sorting the donations and loading trucks. Our town's collection goes to the local domestic violence shelter, so there's another crew at work there, unloading the trucks and filling the storage shelves. There are also drop-off spots in Reno and farther south in the Carson Valley that go to other area food banks. One of the local TV stations does news reports throughout the day; the schools send their choirs to sing (elementary students are so cute; the high school singers are simply amazing). Temperatures never did get above freezing, and it snowed lightly off and on all day, but there was an almost steady stream of cars coming through the entire time I was there.

And tonight, the bathtub drain thawed out so we could take showers again. Hooray!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Art of Dish Arranging

It's my turn to post on the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog, so I've written a post entitled the Art of Dish Arranging. It might bring back some memories if you've ever lived without a dishwasher, or spark a note of recognition if you've ever unloaded a dish drainer someone else put together.

But maybe, just maybe, during this holiday season, it's not really about dishes at all. Check it out here, and let me know what you decide.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Absolutely Freezing Here

The deep freeze continues. Temps are below normal, but not all that unusual - we get a cold snap like this once or twice each winter most years. Last nights lows: outside -13F, inside 50F; today's high: 17F. The cellar is holding steady at 47F so the fruits and veggies down there are in fine shape. I got three eggs today - some of the hens are really hanging in there. I've asked Aries to stop taking eggs to work for the guys - I want to make sure I've got enough for us and my Christmas baking.

The bathtub drain froze up last night. It usually does when temps drop below zero. I'm just glad it doesn't happen very often. There's no way to thaw it out either. We just have to wait until daytime temperatures get above freezing, and that's gonna be a couple more days yet. So it means sponge baths, or short showers standing in a plastic tub that can then be emptied into sink or toilet, and baling or wet-vaccing out what's left in the bathtub (or else having a tub gradually filled with scummy, cold water). I'm thinking I'd rather wash my hair at the community swimming pool showers tomorrow (it's too long to wash easily in the kitchen sink).

I haven't put up my Christmas tree yet. Every year, I debate whether I want to bother with it, and every year I end up doing it. And I'm always glad I did, too. Sure, it's quite a bit of work (and means rearranging the furniture too), but I like having the extra lights in the living room during the darkest days of the year (and the carpet gets vacuumed underneath the couch). Even better, I love going through my ornaments once again. I made quite a few of them, and others are souvenirs from my travels. I'm thinking I'll post pictures of some of my favorites during the rest of the month.

This little hot-air balloon I crocheted in bedspread-weight crochet cotton to fit over a 3" satin ball ornament; the basket was starched and shaped over a shot glass. The pattern is in a 1984 American School of Needlework Christmas booklet by Mary Thomas. I love that I found perfectly-sized wooden Santa and Mrs. Claus figurines to ride inside.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Boys and Their Toys

The sun came out today, and the fresh snow sparkles and glitters like a million bits of glass. Here are a few more photos for those longing for snow.

I wish I could post some picturesque vistas of pristine mounds of snow, but Aries has a new toy to play with - a free snowblower he repaired and got running again. Consequently, right now our lot looks more like a giant Fox and Geese game.

Boys and their toys - what can I say?

A few statistics:
Last night's Lows: Outside -1F (that's minus 1)
Inside 54F (not too bad)

Today's High: 22F (that's with the sun shining)

Me, today: 56 :-)

Monday, December 7, 2009


Woke up this morning to about a foot of new snow, and it kept coming down all day. Which, normally, is just fine with me. We really need the moisture - just about all of our annual average 7" precipitation comes in the form of snow. Usually, I shovel out the chickens, come in and warm up, shovel a path to the woodpile, come in and warm up, and know it will all melt away in another week or so. But this morning, I was working a group arrival on five different flights into the Reno-Tahoe Airport.

I'm so glad it was Aries' day off. He got started on the driveway while I got ready to leave. And it meant I could use his 4X4 truck. I don't think I would have made it if I'd had to take my car (BTW, it's a little sedan with a regular trunk - that's all wind-blown snow piled up on the back end).

A drive that normally takes about 45 minutes took me twice that, but I left early so made it right on time. And then spent more than five hours in the airport. First flight canceled, next two delayed, another one canceled, the last one finally came in an hour late and then sat on the runway for another hour waiting for an open gate. Had to do some shuffling around to get everyone onto their transportation up to the Lake, and then I could head home. Still snowing, my drive back took just as long.

Aries got to play with a new toy all day. He'd been given a big old broken-down snowblower earlier this year. He cleaned it up and got it running again. This was the first time he got to use it, so by the time I got home there were all kinds of paths and all of the driveway cleared, all the way back to the garage. And twenty-four hours later, it's still snowing. Wheeee!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

December Cold

Oh, brrr! It feels like December now. My car had been slow starting the past couple of weeks, and then a couple of days ago wouldn't start at all. Time to go battery shopping. I was only heading out to run some errands, so it didn't bother me to stay home until Aries got home from work. I was just glad it finally died on a day when I didn't really have to be anywhere. I should be fine now. At least, I hope so.

Our night temps have been falling into the teens(F) but it's been warming up daytimes into the low 50's. With the draft dodger at the kitchen door, the styrofoam panel on the glass sliding door, inside the house has been dropping to around 60F by morning. But the sun coming in the east window warms it up enough that I usually don't bother to start a fire until afternoon.

Not today! Last night's low was 6F, and the house was down in the mid-50's by morning. Good thing I switched our bedding over to the down comforter last week. The barometer is falling and there's a miserable cold wind kicking up horrible sandstorms. Clouds moving in mean no solar warming today, and the first snowflakes are zipping by sideways. I've had a fire going for hours, and it's now warmed up to the mid-60's inside - that's a comfortable temperature for me. The house pets have stretched out from their tight little curls, bellies towards the stove. I had to take fresh water out to the birds at noon - what Aries took out in the morning before leaving for work had already iced over. Forecasts say its gonna get a lot colder in the next few days. Hello, Winter!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Good-bye to Fall Decor

I love vintage linens. When I'm in a thrift store, I head for the tablecloths and pillowcases, looking for colors that grab my soul. Then, refashioning some things, maybe doing a little custom embroidery, layering and combining things, I make the cozy home I need to feel at peace. Since early September, looking around my house makes me smile. The colors I love most of all are the earthy, fall-toned ones - the oranges, tans, and golds.

In a small house, a unified color scheme keeps things looking serene and coordinated. The flow is just better from room to room. My base decor is lots of golden-toned wood, beige backgrounds in the wallpapers, with dark green and maroon the unifying tones, present in every room. Then, by changing pillow and table covers, towels and napkins, I economically bring in a fresh look seasonally.

But now it's time to say good-bye to my fall decor; time to get out the Christmas things for their brief, five-week reign. And, you know, once I get everything switched over, I know I'll love that too.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Mites in the Chicken Coop

I received an email from Jen, asking about a mite infestation in her chicken coop, and if I knew any non-chemical remedies. We've never had a mite problem (knock on wood). I do have some old poultry reference books, so I did some research for her. I thought I'd post my reply:

When I showed your email to my husband, he said your deep straw bedding might be part of the problem. It might give the mites a place to hide out and breed. I don't know about that. We have a coop with a slatted floor, droppings pit underneath, straw only in the nest boxes. Figuring out a way to keep wild birds out of your chicken coop might prevent them from bringing in mites too. But since the mites are already there, here are a few folk remedies you can try:

*give the chickens a dustbath box or pit filled with wood ashes - it's supposed to suffocate mites. We have an open burning period in the fall, when we can burn weeds and small brush piles. Our chickens love to get out in the burn pit to dustbathe.

*try dusting your chickens with diatomaceous earth - hold them upside-down and get it down underneath their feathers to their skin (but not in their eyes); you can also put it in their feed.

*Red mites hide out by day in the cracks and crevices in wooden roosts and nest boxes, coming out at night to feed on the chickens as they sleep. To check for them, pluck one of your chickens from her roost at night and look for the mites beneath her leg feathers. A folk remedy is to chase all the chickens out of the coop in the morning, locking them out for the day. Wet down the roosts, especially underneath, and bottoms of nest boxes with a 50/50 mixture of used motor oil and kerosene, using a paintbrush or dabbing with a rag. Keep the chickens out until as late in the day as possible. You might have to repeat the treatment after 2 weeks.

*If you can see the mite, it wouldn't be scaly leg mites - they're microscopic, causing scales that stick out, and sometimes fall off, on the naked part of their legs. Washing the legs then rubbing in Vaseline, or dipping chickens' legs in salad or baby oil weekly is said to work for that.

*Depluming mites cause the chickens to pull out their feathers to try and stop the itching, leaving your chickens are almost naked. Dunk the bird, wetting it all the way down to the skin, in a mixture of 2 oz sulfur plus 1 oz soap per gallon of water.

*Last Resort - chemicals: Sevin (carbaryl) as a dust or spray, or Co-Ral (coumaphous) dust. This is the only treatment I could find for northern fowl mites, reddish or dark brown ones that spend their whole life-cycle on the bird. Look for them around the tail and vent during the daytime. If the infestation is severe, they could be on the eggs too. Insecticide powders in the feathers of a mother can kill the chicks underneath her, so any treatments have to be done well in advance of hatching.

This is Baldy. No mites here - the photo is from earlier this fall when she was molting. When the days get shorter, most of our flock lose their feathers, stop laying eggs in order to grow new ones, and then are all nice and newly fluffy when the cold weather gets here. Then, when the days start getting longer after New Year's, they start laying eggs once again.

When Baldy was a young chick, on her first day in with the rest of the flock, she found a small hole under the chicken pen fence just large enough to squeeze under, but not all the way through. The rest of the flock, vicious little beasts that they are, pecked her on the head as she lay trapped. I thought they'd killed her, but when I pulled her out she was still alive. I took her inside, sprayed her head with liquid bandage, and after a couple more days in the house she rejoined the rest of the flock. Her head comb never did grow back, though.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Orange Stuff

Our weekend company is gone, and the guest room bed changed and made up again. Having an extra set of flannel sheets for that bed means I can put the room back into crafts/office mode right away, without having to rush wet sheets out onto the clothesline in gale-force freezing winds. The turkey carcass was cooked into soup last night (with barley, carrots, and mushrooms), and the leftovers are slowly disappearing. The last of the Thanksgiving Orange Stuff made a great lunch today.

Orange Stuff is one of those really retro recipes. I first tasted it more than 20 years ago, as a regular dish at my mother-in-law's Thanksgiving table, and I'm sure she'd been making it since the 1950's at least. It never really even had a name - it was just that orange stuff she always made. It's a regular on my Thanksgiving table now too.

Thanksgiving Orange Stuff
16 oz cottage cheese
8 oz Cool-Whip (thawed)
3 oz box orange Jello (dry powder)
15 oz can mandarin oranges (drained)

Mix everything together and chill until serving time.

My Texas cousins gave me their church fundraising cookbook, and this type of "salad" appears in quite a few variations - drained pineapple with lemon Jello, or miniature marshmallows with pistachio instant pudding powder. It's good enough that I always think I should make it more often.

I tried something different this year, that really ended up being a hit. Wednesday before Thanksgiving, my sister's family is on the road from California, and I'm trying to decide what to do for dinner when they get here. I need something quick, easy, that everybody will like. The refrigerator is full of food for the next day, including the brined turkey air-chilling, so there's no room for leftovers either. So, how do I feed a vegetarian, two hard-core meat-loving men, two picky but hungry teenage boys, and an omnivore (me). How about make-your-own pizza? My pizza dough recipe makes enough for two 12" pizzas. Figuring half-a-pie per person, I increased amounts by half again to feed six people. That evening, the dough divided into six equal balls, we set up a dough-rolling station, opened up a jar of tomato sauce, shredded a mountain of cheese, and sliced up a variety of topping choices. We could cook two pizzas at one time, so everyone was in the kitchen. It turned mealtime into a fun event, everybody happy and well-fed, and no leftovers. Everyone agreed that ideas's definitely a keeper.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Bit More Canning

It seemed like this year's Bosc pears all ripened overnight, down in the cellar. One day a few were just starting to change color, by the next some were only fit for the chickens. So I had to do something to process the rest of them quick. I also had some non-storage apples starting to soften, a dehydrator tray full of the last of the grapes that hadn't dried enough to store, and the last of the Asian pears still in the refrigerator crisper. Why not just mix everything together?

So I started looking for Pear/Apple Mincemeatless recipes. Most used way more sugar than I wanted. I ended up adapting this one. As it was cooking, with the orange peel and the spices, it made the whole house smell wonderful. I ended up with six quarts, plus three more cups in the refrigerator. I'm thinking I'll add some chopped nuts when I go to make a jarful into a pie.

As long as I had the grinder out, I figured I might as well get a start on my Thanksgiving dinner preparations. I made up a batch of my favorite uncooked cranberry relish - grinding together a bag of cranberries, an orange, peel and all, and a handful of walnuts, then stirring in 3/4 cup of sugar.

The grinder I found in a rental house years ago, forgotten in a high cupboard. It leaks, so I have to put a bowl on a stool underneath when I use it. When Aries built the kitchen (before I knew him), he made a pull-out wooden shelf under part of the counter. It was supposed to be a pastry board, but I have a huge piece of recycled bowling alley for a cutting board that works even better for pastry. I use the shelf for attaching the grinder (and the apple peeler) so I don't dent my countertops or kitchen table. However, if I were around when he was building the kitchen, I would have had him put the shelf on the other side of the sink. Where it is, it's too close to the stove to attach those old right-handed appliances on the other side, where they'd be easier to use. The shelf does pull out enough, though, that I can still turn the handle. It's a bit awkward, but it works.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Wonderful Work Table

We live in a reasonably small house - kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, one bath. It's easy to heat with only a wood stove, but means I often have to get creative in our use of space. The second bedroom (small, no closet, windows filling two walls, door on the third) serves triple duty: as a guest room, an office, and a sewing/crafts room. If I were decorating this room from scratch, I'd probably prefer a daybed/couch with a trundle underneath, or even a Murphy bed, for the guest room part.

But my husband found an Art Deco four-poster bed, matching waterfall vanity with stool, cheap, he just couldn't pass up, years ago. Those pieces take up half the room, but they're so beautiful I love them too (and it's nice having a mirror in a sewing room). Then, add a rolltop desk and a couple of filing cabinets, sewing machine and a small fabric storage dresser. The room is quite full, and still reasonably functional.

Except I needed a work table. When I'm working on a project, whether it's sewing, paperwork, scrapbooks, whatever, it's nice to be able to spread things out. I could use the living room table, but that's the first thing you see when you walk in our front door. The wind from opening the door could quickly wreak havoc, and small houses can go from cozy to cluttered way too easily. Sometimes, I end up using the living room floor, but that's certainly not ideal. Then, last year, I got a folding, 6-foot banquet table. And discovered it fit perfectly across the guest room double bed. That was nice - it gave me a place to spread out green tomatoes in the fall; cut out small sewing projects; lay out bookkeeping paperwork. It made a nice workspace, but not yet great.

And then, I noticed Target had the same folding banquet table on sale this week. Hmmmm. I took another look at my work space, tape measure in hand. There was just enough room for a second table alongside the first (without mashing the bed pillows). Perfection! Plenty of room to lay out a sewing pattern or organize clippings, but still easily convertible. I have guests coming Thanksgiving, so I'll need the bed uncovered. No problem. Both tables lift off, fold up, and store behind the door; sewing machine into case, under sewing table turned luggage stand - instant guest room. I just love it!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Keeping Busy

When I get a nice day, I try to get outside to work a while in the yard. Aries dug the last of our finished compost into half of one garden bed for me a couple of days ago. So I planted my garlic and shallots for next year, along with a few spinach and arugula seeds. I got the grass and weeds pulled out of the strawberry bed, thinning out some of the runners in the process, and then mulched them with straw for the winter.

The chickens are let out of their pen each day now, on pest patrol, but a couple of them have been flying over the garden fence. So when I finish up with something in the garden, I have to cover it with wire or they'll dig it up again. Every once in a while, I'll hear them all start squawking and really raising a ruckus outside. That usually means the hawk is back. This morning, he posed on the deck railing long enough for me to snap a photo through the kitchen window. I don't think he's big enough to take one of the chickens, but he sure makes everybody nervous when he's hanging around. They huddle under the lilacs, the picnic table, and the deck steps. I hope he's just looking for the mice and sparrows that come after the chicken feed.

When the weather is too windy, cold, or wet, I keep busy indoors. All of the peppers and chiles have been processed for the year - the chipotles done and packed away, the bells chopped into pieces and frozen, the habaneros made into a batch of hot sauce. Reliance red seedless grapes are supposed to hold for a few months in storage, and mine have. I just got the of them I'd stashed in the cellar cleaned and into the dehydrator.

It was my turn to post on the SGF Co-op blog today. I've been trying to make a few pillowcase aprons for National Tie One On Day, November 25th. I took photos while making this one, and posted a tutorial. Made from a thrifted pillowcase in an hour or two, it's a great project even for beginning sewers. Need an apron before Thanksgiving gets here? Check it out!

Monday, November 9, 2009

Finding Mother

Mother of vinegar, that is. I wanted to try making vinegar out of some of our hard apple cider. I've been reading up on it. Susy, over at Chiot's Run, sent me a link to a great tutorial from the Sunset magazine website. Since cider vinegar is made from apple juice that has first been fermented into alcohol, half my work was already done.

Supposedly, vinegar flies carry the right type of bacteria needed to convert alcohol into vinegar - so you want to get the flies to your cider (or wine) while at the same time keeping all the other airborne wild bacterias out. Mother of vinegar is then produced by the right kind of bacteria. Once you have some mother, you can keep it going just like a sourdough starter. Maybe we don't have vinegar flies in high desert; maybe they die off in the cold; maybe local bad bacterias kill off the good stuff - I don't know. I've tried making vinegar a couple of times before, but I never ended up with anything even remotely edible. I needed some other way of finding my vinegar mother.

When my (actual) mom was visiting, her flight home was out of the San Francisco airport. So after spending time with me in Nevada, the plan was: we'd meet up with my California sister in one of the Sierra foothill towns, halfway between our houses, and then Mom would go home with Sis. We decided to spend the day at Apple Hill, near Placerville, for our meeting place.

So we met for lunch, and then spent the afternoon checking out my favorite Apple Hill vendors. One of them, Denver Dan's, sells lots of flavored cider vinegars. Light bulb moment! I asked to talk to the owner, asking if he would sell me a little bit of vinegar mother. He ended up up just giving me a little jar with about a tablespoon scraped out of the bottom of one of his barrels. That was enough.

Following the directions from the tutorial, I poured three bottles of my hard cider into a glass gallon jar, added half again as much water (since my cider was made with added sugar, I'm sure it has a pretty high alcohol content), stirred in the mother (a rubbery, white goo), topped it off with some cheesecloth (mother needs air), and set it inside a top cupboard, where it would be warm and dark. And it's working! I haven't tasted it yet, but it smells really good. The mother multiplied in the bottom of the jar, and a fresh layer is now starting to form on the top, just like it should, converting the alcohol into vinegar. I'm so excited! I still have lots of apples, so I'm thinking I'll press out some more juice and let it ferment without adding sugar, just so I can keep my vinegar jar going. Maybe I'll start a second jar with leftover red wine too.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Crafty Camouflage

I took down the curtains in my bedroom and kitchen and washed them today. We use mini-blinds for privacy, so the curtains are just decorative, lightweight cotton in the kitchen, lace in the bedroom. Before putting them back up, I iron them with spray starch. I think it gives my homemade curtains a professional look, and might even resist dust. I'm curious. Surely, I'm not the only crafty frugal homemaker out there. Anyone else out have an item of clothing that matches a part of your decor?

Not even your old blue jeans?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Roasted Tomato Salsa

I can finally get to lots of household tasks that have been waiting for me around here. Sitting on a couple of trays in my spare bedroom, the rest of the tomatoes I picked green in early October had ripened. Plus, I needed to do something with the last of the fresh peppers in the refrigerator. I'd already put up 16 pints of tomato sauce earlier, so decided a batch of salsa sounded good.

My salsa canning recipe is ok, but could be better. Throwback at Trapper Creek had written about roasting her tomatoes for salsa on a post at the Simple Green Frugal Co-op blog a while back, and that sounded good. So I used her recipe, adapting it to what I had on hand.

I grow paste tomatoes for canning, so I just cored them and piled them into a roasting pan to roast more or less whole. After slipping the skins, I had 16 cups of tomatoes, so I increased all the ingredients by half again. I like a chunky salsa, so I just snipped the tomatoes into pieces with kitchen shears right there in the measuring bowl. I thought roasting the peppers would be good too, so I took the last of my fresh green bell peppers and a bunch of the fresh green jalapenos out to the barbecue grill. After they were roasted, sweated, peeled, and chopped, I added a few frozen chile "packets" until I had enough. I used my cayenne pepper hot sauce instead of Tabasco, and added a teaspoon of lime juice to each pint before filling the jars (to make it a bit more acidic, just in case roasting the peppers made more of them fit into the measuring cup). I put up 12 pints, with just a little bit left over for the refrigerator. So now, I'll have to see what Aries thinks.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bottling Sparkling Hard Cider

It took about three weeks for our five-gallon batch of apple cider to ferment completely. After our overflow emergency had settled back down, we put the regular airlock back on the fermenter and let it bubble away for a couple more weeks. It eventually slowed, and then finally stopped bubbling. If bottled before the fermentation has stopped, the gases produced are powerful enough to blow the tops off the bottles, or even break the glass. So we always wait another day or two past the last bubbles through the airlock, just to be sure. When the level in the airlock starts to lift backwards, it's time to get the bottles out.

As with the fermenting process, cleanliness is still very important to prevent any off-flavors in the cider (or exploding bottles), so an empty bucket, the tubing, bottle filler, bottles, and caps are all washed, then rinsed with a weak bleach solution to sterilize. The spent yeast has sunk to the bottom of the fermenting bucket, also helping to settle out everything else in the juice. Hooking the tubing to the spout of the fermenting bucket, the clear, fermented cider is transferred to the clean bucket, leaving the bottom dregs behind.

We want a sparkling hard cider, with a bit of carbonation in the bottles. So Aries dissolved 3/4 cup of corn sugar (not cane, beet, nor from any syrup - I don't know why, but he says we need to use only corn sugar) in one cup of boiling water, and then left it to cool earlier. That's enough for the whole 5-gallon batch. He gently stirs that into the bucket of cider (with a sterilized spoon), puts the lid on top loosely, and sets the bucket up on a stool on our counter so the cider will flow out the bottom valve. We're ready to bottle. That little bit of sugar will ferment in the bottles; the little bit of CO2 gas produced is enough to carbonate the cider without (hopefully) blowing the bottles.

My mom was visiting, so she helped Aries bottle the cider. From the valve on the bucket, the cider flows through the tubing to the filler. It's a rigid tube with a spring-loaded valve on the end. When the bottom of the filler is pressed against the bottom of a bottle, the cider flows. When the cider reaches the top of the bottle, lifting up on the filler stops the flow. The filler displaces just enough space in the full bottle so that when it is removed, it lowers the level of the liquid inside just the right amount.

Aries hands clean bottles over to Mom, taking back the filled ones to seal. When making beer, we like to reuse 16-oz Grolsch-type beer bottles, the ones that seal with a gasket, porcelain top, and a metal bale. Since we added extra sugar before fermenting the cider, it has a higher alcohol content than our beer - quite a bit higher, so we want to use smaller bottles. A 12-oz bottle is enough for three, even four, servings (and then I often mix my portion with ice and club soda). We reuse regular beer bottles, sealing by crimping on new metal bottle caps. Domestic bottles with twist-off caps can't be resealed, but we (and our friends) save empty foreign beer bottles that still need a bottle opener for our home brewing endeavors.

Hey lady! No sampling!

The filled bottles are labeled with item and date (little dot stickers on the caps) and packed away into a couple of boxes (I kept a few out for experiments in vinegar-making). Aries put the cases on the floor of our bedroom for another week or so. The secondary fermentation, the carbonation inside the bottles, gets off to a good start in the warmer environment, and we can keep an eye on the bottles to make sure none break. He just moved the cases down to the cellar yesterday, putting one bottle in the refrigerator for tasting last night. The cider still has quite a sharp taste, but it's not bad, even this early. There was a bit of a hiss when he opened it, but no bubbles yet. By Christmas, it should be mellowed nicely; by next summer, make for some wonderful cocktail hours, out on the deck watching the sunset.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

October, the Crazy Month

Things got a little crazy around here the past five or six weeks. I got just about everything harvested from the garden and orchard. I'm lucky to have a cellar, that we cool down by opening the door and vent whenever the night weather is cool but not freezing. The apples, pears, and last of the grapes hold down there until I can get around to canning, dehydrating, or otherwise processing them. I'm used to dealing with that - that's a normal part of the annual rhythms around this house.

But then I also ended up with lots of family goings-on too - subject for another post (or three). Suffice it to say that I ended up driving out-of-state for two long weekends, my mom stayed here for a week (she's an easy keeper - it's nice when she comes to visit), and sweet husband was on vacation two separate weeks - all further disrupting my usual household routine.

Add to that, too many, too close together Soroptimist fundraisers - the Rummage Sale, our big golf tournament, and then Nevada Day selling sleeve garters. Nevada is one of the few states that still celebrates its admission as a state. Called the Battle Born state, President Lincoln signed it into Union statehood on October 31, 1864, towards the end of the Civil War between the states.

When I first moved here, Halloween trick-or-treating here in the capital always took place on October 30th, so the kids wouldn't be out in the evening after adults had been out partying all day on the 31st, no matter what day of the week it fell on. In 1997, to make the celebration and big parade easier on rural towns sending high school marching bands to the parade, and state employees in general, Nevada Day observance was officially changed into a weekend event, "the last Friday in October", with the big parade and all attendant festivities on Saturday. The kids could trick-or-treat on Halloween once again. This year, however, it just happened Halloween was on that Saturday so kids here, by official proclamation, were out on the 30th once again.

I love an excuse to play dress-up sometimes too. Starting with a blouse, skirt, and tights I already had, a few safety and bobby pins, a couple of feathers and a few silk flowers, I made a saloon girl costume to wear selling this year's sleeve garters. I had a great time - walking both sides of the street before and during the parade and through the downtown street parties afterwards, and got to see lots of old friends. Now, finally, November is here and I'm looking forward to some "me" time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

We Be Smokin'

Earlier this year when posting here about my pepper pantry, I mentioned that I would be growing extra jalapenos this summer to replenish my chipotle (che-POAT-lee) supply. I promised I would post instructions for putting together a make-shift smoker, and turning jalapeno peppers into chipotles.

Start with ripe jalapeno peppers, ideally those that have turned completely red. This year, we had a late spring, reasonably cool summer, and snow the first week of October. Only a couple of my jalapeno peppers had just started to turn red when I had to pick everything (the golden ones on the left are habaneros - they too were picked green, but are faster to change color).

No problem. Peppers, like tomatoes, will continue to ripen after they're picked if left unrefrigerated. I let the peppers set out on the counter for a couple of weeks. They can set for quite a while, but try to process jalapenos before the stem starts to separate from the body of the chile. Some peppers with thinner walls will continue to ripen and then dry, but jalapenos are too fleshy - they tend to rot before they'll dry. Smoking them is one way to preserve your jalapenos - canning them as nacho slices, or freezing them whole, sliced, or stuffed with a cream cheese mixture to turn into poppers, or whipping up a batch of jalapeno hot sauce are other options (that link also has a recipe for my habanero-orange hot sauce - my absolute favorite, and why there are also habanero peppers ripening on my counter).

But I digress. We're supposed to be making a smoker to turn jalapenos into chipotles. Commercial smokers, that have been previously used for meat, can give a greasy, and later rancid, taste to the chiles, so it's best to use something just for the chipotles. Unless you're planning on going into the chipotle business, a temporary smoker made from easily acquired items is the way to go. The main thing to remember is that you don't want to cook the jalapenos, but rather let the smoke waft away the moisture in the chiles as it also infuses them with flavor. The best way to do that is to make a separate firebox, and then connect it to your smoking box with a piece of pipe. Of course, the firebox portion has to be able to withstand fire, so I've used some cinder blocks and a piece of steel pipe. I used some crumpled foil to fill in the areas between round pipe and square blocks, but it doesn't have to be perfectly airtight. The smoker section, on the other hand, only has to hold the chiles suspended in the smoke while it acts as an offset chimney, so a cardboard box works fine. In the past, I've found taller boxes (that held a windshield, or a washer) but this year I just picked up a couple of smaller ones. They were two different diameters though, and instead of trying to fit them together, I found a piece of roof vent flashing, set that on the bigger box, then the smaller box, and taped the flaps of the bottom box to the upper box, just in case the wind came up (and notice that there are bricks holding down the flaps of the bottom box for the same reason). For a more primitive option, depending on your soil type, you could dig a firepit and smoke trench, covering both with metal or even rocks, and then add your cardboard smoke box.

Next, you need some way to suspend the peppers in the rising smoke. A pan poked full of holes could work, but isn't ideal - the peppers would tend to steam in their juices more than dry. In the past, I've strung the peppers on lengths of string, and hung that draped across dowels poked through the box. That's not too bad, depending on how you want to use your chipotles. If you're just dropping them whole into a pot of soup, it's ok, but if you're planning on grinding some into powder or making some in adobo sauce the string can be difficult to deal with. A wire basket or a rack that won't allow the chiles to drop through is best. I bent a piece of hardware cloth into a tray, supporting it with the (cut-down) cardboard divider inside the box plus a couple pieces of coat hangers stuck through either end of the box.

The best woods to use for smoking the chiles are from fruits or nut trees. If that's not possible, hardwoods are the next best. You just don't want to use pine, mesquite, or other resinous woods. I lost a nectarine tree to borers this year, and always save the prunings from my fruit trees, so I had a nice supply of smoking wood. The night before, I soaked half the wood pieces so they'd burn slower and cooler. Be aware that once you start up with the smoke, you will be perfuming your entire neighborhood. But smoking chiles smell like food, not smoldering leaves, so the neighbors just might drop by with their mouths watering to see what's going on.

It's always best to be prepared when playing with fire, so I pulled the hose over, on at the faucet and closed off with a twist valve. Aries also brought the fire extinguisher out of the garage, just in case. I started a small fire in my firebox, and while I waited for it to get going, I pulled the stems off the jalapenos and loaded up the basket. I used all my red ones, those partially changed, and then some of the green ones with white corking (very desirable in chipotles - don't ask me why).

Once I had a nice little bed of hot coals in the firebox, I added a couple handfuls of soaked wood and then put a piece of metal over the top, held down with a couple smaller bricks. I sat out to watch for a while, just to make sure everything was holding together ok. Every hour or two, I'd add more wood, and turned the chiles a couple of times.

Low and slow is the way to go with chipotles - both for the best flavor and to ensure ones that will last in storage. It's better to stretch it out over a couple of days than to try and hurry up the process with more heat. Let the fire burn out overnight, and start it up again the next day. I smoked my chiles all day, but rain was forecast for tomorrow. I just pulled the cardboard boxes away from the pipe and set them in the garage for the next day and a half. The photo above is after another afternoon of smoking, and I have them going again this afternoon. If you're in a hurry, the jalapenos will dry faster if cut in half and seeds removed. You can also dry them in a dehydrator or your oven until wrinkled but not stiff, and then smoke them (doing it in reverse will also work, but your house will smell like smoke for days). Finished chipotles are hard, lightweight, and dark brown in color. Ones that are still leathery won't store as long. Once the chipotles are dried, store them in jars with a rubbery seal or in an airtight plastic bag.

To use, drop one into a pot of beans or soup, and remove after cooking (or dice the rehydrated chile and stir bits into the pot to taste). They add a rich, smokey, bit of heat. If you want to grind them into powder, they might need to be dried further, until they can be broken in half. I use lots of mine to make a big batch of enchilada sauce (pressure-canned) every couple of years. Or make up a batch of chipotles in adobo sauce, rehydrated chipotles pickled in a tomato-based sauce.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Reno Italian Festival

This is a tourist area, so there are lots of events year-round designed to draw in the Californians. But this past weekend was an event that always seems more oriented towards the locals. Always held the weekend of the Columbus Day holiday, the Reno Italian Festival has long been a favorite of ours.

Virginia Street is closed to cars from the Reno Arch to Circus Circus - a big, free street fair. The crowd is an easy-going, family-centered one - lots of dogs and kids, no one smoking outside (all the smokers are inside the casinos, I guess), everyone enjoying our beautiful fall weather.

There are a couple of live-music stages, with acts ranging from accordion bands to Italian crooners; booths selling gelato, wine and Bellini's, artichoke hearts and cheesy garlic bread; street entertainers that range from stilt walkers to living statues, jugglers and balloon-twisters.

New this year was a Farmers Market and Crafts area in the park where the train tracks used to be, before the covered train trench made the downtown much more pedestrian- and traffic-friendly.

We just missed the semi-finals of the boccie ball tournament, and didn't feel like waiting around to see the final round. So we wandered back through the crowd to the other end of the fair, arriving just in time for another round of the grape-stomping contest.

The grape-stompers compete as eight teams of two - a bare-footed stomper plus a mucker that scrapes the juice towards the drain spigot and into a jug. After three-minute rounds, the team with the most juice by weight wins that round (it looks like Topsy the Clown has been stomping grapes too).

A woman came up and asked Aries if he'd like to be her mucker in the next round. He said no - a good thing, because I really like the shirt he was wearing, and grape juice can leave such a nasty stain.

But the best part of the Italian Fest is the Sauce Contest. After the judges are through tasting, anyone can buy a bowl of thick spaghetti noodles (with spoon-it-yourself cheese) for $1. You take your bowl around to each of the 25-30 sauce booths lining both sides of the street, and they'll ladle on a bit. Then you stand there in the middle of the street with your bowl and fork, slurping up one sauce after another. I'll usually eat just the sauce off the top of the noodles, and then go on to the next. Most places will also put their sauce on a small slice of Italian bread, so you can taste it apart from the strange soup that develops in the bottom of your bowl. Halfway through, I was overwhelmed by all the tomato sauces, so searched out only the booths that had white or pesto sauces. The Casale family pesto was my pick; Aries goes more for the tomato and hot Italian sausage ones.