By mama | August 8, 2010
I love my little condo, but the dog and child have been hard on an interior that had already seen better days when we first moved in. I have spent the past few weeks online pricing everything from paint to storm doors.
I’m looking at this as a great opportunity to add to my fix-it skill set because I’ve not tackled quite as many home projects as I’d like. Some of it, admittedly, is a bit of intimidation at being outside of my comfort zone not having done a lot of major home improvement projects up until now, but I feel like these are skills I should have so I’ve been checking out books from the library, reading up on how to do tile backsplashes, how to pick paint colors, that sort of thing.
Thankfully, I have a few slightly handier (and taller!) friends who are willing to walk me through the various home improvements. First priority is replacing the storm door at the front. Last year or so, the welds on the bottom panel of the original storm door let go and it nearly guillotined my foot off as I was taking out the recycling. I was not amused by this. I was also not amused at our heating bills last winter without the storm door. They were significantly higher. I think it will be better to cough up the money once for a good door rather than cough it up every cold month, which is more than half the year here.
After that will be my happy quick fix of painting my teeny tiny kitchen. Right now it is bland and boring on top of being miniscule. I want to paint it a pale yellow to warm it up, then install a tile backsplash behind the stove for a spot of color that doesn’t overwhelm the whole room, and finally, sew a set of cafe curtains for the small window in there. It has a blind installed, but having some cheerful white curtains with a yellow trim to match the rest of the room would add some personality to what is now a rather dull room that I spend an awful lot of time in.
My other immediate kitchen improvement is that I’d like to install an LED workspace light over my main prep space. I think that would be nice for when I’m doing fancy decorative work on cookies and cupcakes and the like.
A friend suggested that I strip the rather unattractive finish to the kitchen cabinets and repaint them white, perhaps with a bit of yellow trim on the inset areas of the large doors and then install matching handles and drawer pulls.
I like these improvements because I can do them as funds come in rather than having to drop a large amount of money all at once.
My daughter wants blue walls and carpet in her room but likely the paint will happen first. I’m thinking about doing a pink-based neutral in my room to warm up the room and make it cozier since my lair is important to me as personal space and creative space. No idea what to do with the paint situation in the rest of the house. We have sharply pitched ceilings and odd angles throughout the house. I’m wary of adding colors that are going to make the rooms any more eye-popping than they are just by virtue of their construction.
The fireplace needs to have glass doors put on it because the hearth base is so narrow that I don’t trust that a popping ember won’t land on the carpet instead, so we end up not using a perfectly good fireplace. Plus, I’m sure that I’d feel faint if I saw how much heat was escaping through the fireplace now.
Moving away from home improvements, we have done a lot to keep moving toward a self-sustained lifestyle in the suburbs. We are baking most of our own baked goods from scratch, though I can’t seem to get a sourdough starter going to save my life. I either get mold or white lightning, neither of which is the end product that I’m going for. I’m going to consult with a friend of mine who is a far more experienced baker to see if he can give me any tips that will get us on the road to a stable, quality starter.
I’m currently producing almost all of our sweet treats myself using fresh fruits and whole grains. Today a friend and I made blueberry-blackberry muffins and a blueberry crumble. I didn’t have lemon juice for the crumble, so I zested an orange, which we added to the streusel and filling in about equal measure, and then extracted a spoonful of juice for the filling before slicing up the rest for us to snack on while we worked. The crumble came out really good! The orange flavor is gentle, a bit elusive. If you didn’t know it had orange in it, you probably wouldn’t guess that that was the underlying flavor. I want to try it with tangerine now for a more assertive citrus taste.
I have done some canning through the summer: apricot butter, apricots, strawberry jam. I’ve also put up a lot of fruit in the freezer within hours of its picking and we’ve been having some really amazing smoothies for breakfast recently. Last weekend I sliced up a hand of ginger into a jar full of dry white wine for future savory cooking and I’ve been drying mushrooms when I find them on sale for fall and winters soups and medicinal teas.
My garden is bigger than last year but not as gargantuan as previous years. I have scallions, walking onions, chives, strawberries, and two kinds of tomatoes (cherry and Roma), but otherwise most of the space has gone to culinary herbs now that the cool-weather greens have died off. Looking forward to fall planting. I’d like to put in some Stella d’Oro daylilies for culinary and medicinal use, aside from being just plain pretty.
My self-spoiling purchase this summer was buying a lemon verbena plant at the farmers’ market. It has been years since I’ve owned one and I’ve always loved their fresh, lemony scent. I also put in marjoram, which I don’t cook with often, but, again, I love the scent of the plant. Thyme, common mint, basil, and rosemary round out the list. Hoping to pick up a few more plants at the farmers’ market before fall. I need an oregano plant and I’d like to have lemon balm and lavendar as well, though any perennial herb would probably please me very much.
Someone near my office has the largest, most robust stand of dill I’ve ever seen. I keep hoping to catch them outside to ask if I can take a seed head once they’re ripe to grow in a barrel in my garden next yesr. Doesn’t seem right to take one without asking since someone obviously tends this garden with a lot of love.
The solar oven has seen a lot of use with the warm weather. I’m getting better at cooking with it the more I practice. The more I think of it as a large crockpot, the more successful I’ve been having with it. My biggest success, though, has been getting several of my friends to build and buy solar ovens of their own. I count that as a big success since it means a smaller footprint all around.
Home production of goods is up, energy use and garbage are down. All in all I feel like we’re moving closer to our goals, learning a bunch about sustainable living even in an environment that is not all that conducive to it, and sharing what we learn person to person, online, and in my newspaper column in the Canadian newspaper The Badger. I’m glad this blog is back up and running; I can’t wait to share our next adventures in sustainable living with you.
By mama | August 1, 2010
Let me know if you can see this, serious debugging afoot
By mama | August 1, 2010
Wow, I have been away for far too long! Our server changed locations several times and I got locked out despite many attempts to break back in these past few months. Apparently my mojo was working today because I was finally able to reset the password and get to my dashboard. Longtime readers, leave a comment if you can see this so I know it’s working.
This has been a whirlwind summer. I have been cleaning and canning and refining my ability to formulate homemade cosmetics and cleaners.
Consider this a bookmark, but I will be posting very soon once I confirm that all is working as it should.
By mama | March 29, 2010
Bringing lots of rain. Hopefully that will translate into lots of tasty greens in a few weeks but it is putting a damper on my digging out the worm bin project.
So many projects lined up. Tonight I spent some time readying a chest of drawers for my daughter’s room. Secondhand and the staples and a few knobs were loose, so I got out the wood glue, a screwdriver, and a hammer to tighten it all back up. I have drawers sprawled across my living room drying tonight; hopefully tomorrow they’ll be ready because I’d really like to get the dresser moved into one of my daughter’s closets to give her more floor space and further the organization of her room. She wants a big girl room and I told her that the only way she’s going to get it is if we can get the clutter under control on an ongoing basis. Her room is the victim of generosity from family and friends. We just don’t have enough storage space for everything she’s been given.
I was hoping to carve out time tonight to do some cutting and sewing. I have some old sheets that I’d like to turn into circle skirts and shorts for her before summer. I also have to cut and sew new insoles for my favorite pair of scuffs. The soles and uppers are still good, but the insoles are a tattered mess. I’ve been looking at fabrics trying to figure out what would be cushiony on my feet yet durable. I’m thinking that I might layer some fabrics to get the effect I want. I have some thick, soft felted wool scraps and an end of upholstery fabric. The upholstery fabric would probably adhere nicely to the interior of the shoe with a layer of strong glue and the wool would be comfortable on my feet. I really love my scuffs, I don’t want to replace them if I can repair them.
I also need to get my canning jars out and prewashed since the farmers’ markets are opening again and I can get cheap produce to can. I didn’t can hardly anything last year because of my eye surgery and such. Definitely can’t let that happen again this year. I need to at least put up several quarts of bean soup for convenience eating all year long.
By mama | August 30, 2009
Not every domestic art thrills me, believe it or not. I have always loathed doing the dishes. No idea why, I can just think of 20 other things I’d rather do first. So I’m not sure why it took me 35 years to figure out that paring down to just the dishes that we need and use most often could provide ambition and save me time overall. I know how I think, if there are only four bowls in the house, then I am motivated to wash said bowl immediately after use rather than setting it aside, confident of the ready availability of other bowls, and eventually ending up with a sink full of dishes that I really, really don’t want to do and the more dishes there are, the less I want to do them.
So I’ve been packing up the unnecessary dishes for the next trip to Value Village and it’s been very satisfying to watch them go. Even more satisfying is seeing my dish cupboard looking less cluttered in a small kitchen where every inch of space is precious.
I think I may need to approach every room in the house this way. I’ve taken many loads of things to Value Village over the past year, but I still feel like there are plenty of places I could make cuts that would most likely make my life easier and my house less cluttered. It’s a winnowing process that seemingly takes several passes.
By mama | August 29, 2009
Sounds strange, I know, but I had 1.5 lbs. of honey that had started to crystallize and needed to do something with it, so I decided to brew some cough syrup. I scooped the honey out into an enamel pot, added one chopped, strong white onion, and two cold care tea bags from my ample tea supply. It’s been cooking over low heat for the past four hours. I’ll check it again before bed to see if enough of the juice from the onions has reduced for it to be strained and ready for bottling. Once it’s cooled, I’ll add some echinacea/goldenseal extract to it. I find the syrup to be handy for coughs and that under-the-weather feeling during cold season. You can make it with just onion and honey or even garlic and honey for a soothing simple syrup, or you can add more herbal ingredients for whatever cold symptoms plague you most. If you cook it down to a very thick syrup, you can either pour it into candy molds or pour it out on a silicone mat, let it cool, score it into pieces after half an hour, and have your own homemade lozenges. I may go down and add some fennel fronds to mine just for flavor here in a bit.
There was a local produce sale at my neighborhood store, so I went over to check it out and came home with some nice hot and sweet peppers, onions, and corn. I made some salsa with the peppers and onions and some tomatoes I had on hand from the CSA delivery. Tomorrow I’m taking some to share with a friend when I go to visit her. I might make and can some fennel onion relish in the morning before I leave. I haven’t done nearly as much canning as I’d have liked this summer and I’m feeling inspired after my parents brought several jars of home-canned salmon to me when they came to pick up my daughter for the week.
I plan to do a lot of cooking and preserving while she’s away. Mostly to keep myself from missing her so much, but also to have a head-start on easy meals for when she goes back to school. I’m going to prepare muffin batter and freeze it in the paper liners so that I can bake them the night before for an easy homemade breakfast when served with sliced fruit and a glass of milk. I also want to stuff potatoes to freeze for quick and easy dinners, as well as freezing plenty of soups, stocks, and pesto. I’ve also had more apples drying so that we have plenty for school snacks. I might do some pears as well for variety.
I’ve spent much of today pondering my attraction to the slow lifestyle. What makes a woman with ready access to all manner of urban conveniences go out of her way to make as much of her own stuff as possible? A large part of it is quality. I can be a quality snob and yet I’m still a pennypincher, so it’s always made the most sense to me to do as many things as I was capable of myself so that I would be pleased with both quality and price. I’m also a perpetual student. I love to learn new things and, since science and history are two of my favorite subjects, learning how to do things the old-fashioned way or knowing why it is that a certain process works is very satisfying. I’m also not someone who has an easy time sitting still, so the handicrafts give me a way to sit a spell and still get something done. Do a granny square a day on the bus and pretty soon you have a blanket. I prefer to use my time doing things that are either very useful or make me very happy, even better when I can combine the two. Last, and one that has become so important to me since becoming a mother, the projects that I do relax me and give me a creative outlet. Sure, it can be a pain to have to come home after a long day to make a loaf of bread for the next day’s lunches, but once I start working the dough and get into that rhythm, it seems like so many of my cares just fall away and, by the time I’m pulling the loaf out of the oven, I’m calm and happy again.
I like this slower pace. Americans spend so much time dashing around that we forget about the small pleasures of life, the little things that make a big impact and bring us happiness and contentment – that’s why so many of us are sick and stressed out. An hour in my little garden or in my kitchen is worth a dozen psychiatrists and personal trainers. And now that I’ve done some research on various DIY topics and put them into practice, I’m more conscious of my impact on the world around me, how the choices I make affect others not only in my immediate neighborhood, but around the world. Sometimes I make it a game to see how I can reduce my impact even more. What else can I make or do differently?
Believe it or not, for all of my ambitious tendencies, I’ve spent much of today relaxing with a crochet project and a selection of documentaries, getting up to stir a pot or move dishes and clothes around, then back to my yarn. I love days like these. I made a big, delicious glass of apple/carrot/beet/spinach juice about midday with some yogurt on the side, then had a delicious dinner of soft polenta with fresh tomatoes, mixed mushrooms, fresh basil, and roasted garlic while I listened to Haydn on the radio. It’s like a vacation without leaving home.
By mama | August 27, 2009
The other day I got an email from Sara Star over at Spirits Craft telling me that I’d been selected as a winner of the Domestic Witch Blog Award. I’m touched to have my writing so honored.
Today has been a difficult one. Last night I tried taking an L-tryptophan capsule to help with my ongoing insomnia and it worked too well, I’ve been exhausted all day and my stomach has also felt very off. So, of course, what do I do but come home and find myself in the middle of a whirlwind of projects before I can rest? But they were necessary, so I gritted my teeth and hurried through as best I could so that I could get to right here and right now, relaxing in bed with my feet elevated and a big bowl of rice dressed with garlic, Bragg’s, and butter (my palliative for every ailment) cooling so that I can eat.
When I picked my daughter up from summer camp today, her face wobbled when she saw me and she got teary. I asked what was wrong and she sobbed that they had been promised popsicles later that afternoon. She can’t take a popsicle on the bus, so I picked her up and carried her inside, thinking, thinking, thinking. Then I said, “I bet we can make a better popsicle at home.” Her tears stopped, then she looked at me, and said, “Really, mama?” Of course, now that I’ve made this suggestion, I must deliver on it if at all possible, so I started thinking of what we might have to make popsicles with at home. She was very specific that she wanted “fancy” popsicles, meaning she wanted something analogous to store-bought pops, not our usual juice or applesauce popsicles. I started digging through her snack cupboard and found a box of strawberry gelatin and a packet of unsweetened grape soft drink mix. I poured half of each packet into a big pyrex measure along with a half-cup of sugar and a cup of boiling water, stirred it until all of the powders dissolved, added a cup of cold water, then poured the liquid through a small funnel into our popsicle mold (it makes eight; if you have two molds, you could easily double this recipe for delighting many, many kids). They’re now chilling in the freezer, so she’ll have popsicles tomorrow and, given how good the solution smelled while I was mixing it up, I’m betting that they’ll be a winner with my daughter.
She also reminded me that we’d used up the last of the bread this morning, so I put the ingredients for a small loaf of honey oatmeal bread into the bread machine. I usually only use the machine for mixing dough while I’m busy with other things but since I’m not feeling 100% today, I decided to sacrifice quality for convenience this time. I’m having a craving for a loaf of jalapeno bread, something with a nice corn and pepper flavor that will make great, savory toast or grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato. I’m going to tinker with a recipe for cubano bread that I really enjoy, and maybe I’ll roast the peppers to bring out their sweetness and spice.
My lower back continues to bother me as well after straining it awhile ago, tonight I’m thinking of making a castor oil pack to break up any adhesions in the muscles. To make a castor oil pack, you wet a flannel cloth with enough castor oil to soak the cloth but not be a drippy mess, then you place it over the affected area, bind it with some plastic wrap or a strip of old sheet, then lay a heating pad or hot water bottle over the wrap and rest awhile. Once you remove the compress, wash the skin that was covered and do some gentle massage to further relax the area. The flannel can be saved in a container in the fridge and reused many times.
I should make some rice packs for myself, too, mine are about at the end of their useful lives. Using cotton or cotton flannel, sew a square, rectangle, or roll and fill it with rice or rice and herbs – lavender is really nice – then you can heat the packs in the microwave for 30-60 seconds and place them on sprains, strains, or aching tummies. Sometimes when it’s very cold out, I’ll warm them up and put them in bed so we can slip between pre-warmed sheets that feel so cozy.
In a few more minutes, my pick-me-up tea should be ready: kombu (a seaweed easily found in Asian groceries), adzuki beans, and a shiitake mushroom steeped together, tightly covered, for 30 minutes; then you drink the broth and, if you like, eat the kombu and the mushroom – the beans can be composted. I discovered the kombu and adzuki tea in a whole foods cookbook awhile back. The mushroom was my own addition and I think it really adds to the overall nutritional value of the brew. I’m not sure exactly why it works, but it always make me feel better when I’m under the weather. A bit of an acquired taste, though, sometimes I toss in a bit of ginger or tamari for flavor.
My daughter is going away for a week to visit her grandparents before school starts. While she’s gone, I’m planning to split my time between work, projects, and relaxation, probably with plenty of spa treatments thrown in. One of my projects will be making a schultute (literally, school horn) for her first day of first grade. It’s a German tradition. You make a big cone out of posterboard and tissue paper, fill it with their school supplies and some treats or small gifts, then, when class starts on their first day, they get to open them, then display them on the classroom wall for the rest of the year. I think it’s a very sweet tradition and one that my daughter is very excited about. She wants me to make her a red schultute with sharks on it, so I need red posterboard, a bunch of shark stickers or gray paper to make cut-out sharks, then some tissue paper. I have all of her school supplies for next year, so I just need to come up with some treats, preferably homemade.
But, for tonight, I’m going to take it easy in the hopes of feeling much better tomorrow.
By mama | August 22, 2009
My hanging bunch of basil feels dry enough to crumble and package into a spice jar, probably with enough left over to share with a friend or two. All day I’ve had a wide variety of fruits and vegetables rotating through my low oven: apples, nectarines, blueberries, sweet cherries, and zucchini. Tomorrow I’ll dry more zucchini and summer squash; I like them as a healthy substitute for chips. If you slice them thinly and dry them, they become nicely crisp. I like them plain, but sometimes I dress them up with herbs and spices or a thin coating of curry paste for the sake of variety. I may also smoke some almonds tomorrow since my home-smoked almonds have become a very popular treat among my family, friends, and co-workers. This fall I want to try smoking some mixed soup beans before I make calico bean soup. I’ve tried making vegetarian versions of this family favorite, but without the customary ham or sausage, it just doesn’t taste right. Maybe a light smoking of the beans would give the soup some of that rich, smoky flavor that I associate with it.
My lower back gave out after scrubbing the floor, so I took it easy the rest of the day and, between rounds of dehydrating for winter, I made progress on my current embroidery project and spent some time playing with and reading to my daughter. So, once again, tired after a long, fruitful day.
By mama | August 22, 2009
My daughter had some impacted wax in her ear that was causing problems, so we were home Thursday and Friday to take care of that with a combination of heating pads, homeopathic ear drops, and gentle massage around the affected ear. It drained on Friday morning and she’s been feeling better ever since.
However, since she was mostly laying in bed, that gave me time, when I wasn’t working from home or taking care of her, to do some cleaning and work on projects.
I’ve been drying excess fruit in the oven pretty much around the clock and my daughter is eating it as fast as it cools off. Today there are the last of the apples, nectarines, and blueberries in there. The house smells amazing. We also baked sugar cookies because I wanted to experiment to see if I could bake cookies in the solar oven. I baked most of them in the conventional oven, but put a dozen onto the bare floor of the solar oven, then promptly forgot about them as I got busy with laundry and washing the kitchen floor. My daughter reminded me that they were out there. They didn’t come out soft like the ones from the regular oven, they came out thin and crispy but still very tasty, the butter and sugar both browned to a deep golden color. I won’t call them an absolute success, but they helped me learn some more about my solar oven. next time I’d bake them on a silicone mat for ease of removal and I might form and chill a butter-heavy dough before putting them in an already-heated oven so the butter didn’t just melt off and the cookies might retain some loft and softness. My other thought was to make a pan-sized sugar cookie and place it into a heated, covered pan for baking and slicing.
Even when things don’t come out perfect, I like learning more about what I can do with my oven. Every mistake that I make teaches me more about how to work with this marvelous piece of equipment. I really want to take it to the beach on a sunny day and bury it in the sand for insulation, then use it to cook a late lunch.
I’ve been out in the garden a lot, last night I spent an hour sifting old potting soil to remove perlite, rocks, and large debris. I’m trying to get as much of the perlite out of my garden as I can. I hate to throw perfectly good soil away, though, so I’m out there with an old colander sifting it all into buckets, then I’ll separate out the rocks and bark from the perlite and compost the natural materials. I haven’t decided if I’m going to throw out the perlite or use it as a white mulch around something that needs some protection from the heat – I really hate to throw things out if there might be a use for them. Tonight I’m going to use yesterday’s reclaimed soil to prep the carrot and radish pot. I’m hoping to get at least two harvests of carrots, maybe even more of the radishes.
Last night I added an organic activator to the outdoor compost barrel. I need that barrel for one of next year’s apple trees, so I wanted to break down the components as much as possible well ahead of spring planting. I also set up a folding plastic table and, until I can build the box planters that I want, it doubles my planting space so easily and gives me a place underneath for plants that need some sun protection.
In our walks around the neighborhood, I can’t say how sorry I am that so many useful plants are planted way too close to the road, soaking up pollution from traffic. There is a juniper near us that is drooping with the weight of its berries (they’re used as a spice and as a medicine) and it’s way too close to traffic for me to feel safe about harvesting any. What a waste! So many wild edibles and medicinal plants that I can’t harvest. I really need to get back to the land so “traffic” is no longer a reason for not foraging for free, useful plants.
There are some exciting events coming up in my area. There is a Portland Fermentation Festival on Thursday, August 27th 6-8pm at Ecotrust’s Billy Frank Jr. Conference Center, 721 NW 9th Ave. Portland, OR. I’m going to try to make it to that to see what people are doing with natural fermentation processes and, hopefully, to taste lots of yummy treats. There is also a native plant sale coming up at the nature park on Millikan Way on October 3rd from 12-4pm. I’m going in the hopes of finding some native edibles such as Indian plum. That nature park also has family hikes and a lot of other fun, educational activities throughout the year, usually free or very cheap.
I found out that the recreation center near our house is going to start offering a parent-child martial arts class. My daughter is very enthusiastic about the idea. I’m going to see if I can get us registered for that, as well as get her registered for swim lessons again.
Still so much to do but my back is aching from doing the floors. I’m hoping that a lie-down will give me the relief I need to finish my other projects for the day, not to mention tomorrow’s projects.
By mama | August 20, 2009
In the outdoor compost pile, we had cherry tomatoes and millet volunteer this year. The harvest from the tomato plant has been meager though the quality has been very good. I think that the millet is foxtail millet. It has soft, feathery heads and tiny seeds that would actually look nice in a vase with some fall flowers. I picked a handful of the seed heads that were drying on the stalks to save seed. I brought them inside, laid them on a paper towel that I’d set on a wire rack, and the seeds should finish drying, then be easy to strip from the stalks without damaging them. Once they’re dry and off the stalks, I’ll package them in an envelope to plant next year or to trade with other seed savers.
We don’t have enough millet for hulling and eating at this point but because it has proven to be so hardy, I definitely want to keep the seeds. I think that home grain production is an important and almost forgotten art.
I’ve been doing further experiments with the solar oven. Today I baked some bite-size spinach tarts by laying a silicone baking mat on the floor of the oven and setting the frozen tarts right on it. They cooked all the way through in about three hours. They didn’t brown quite like they would have in an electric oven but they were perfectly edible. I warmed tomato soup in a small pot on the side for an electricity-free dinner that was quite tasty. The more I use my solar oven, the more I like it. Someday I’d like to build a stand for it to sit on with an electric eye that would move it to follow the sun for longer cooking times and less time spent turning the oven for maximum sun.
I’ve been spending so much time on creative projects lately that I realized my house is in need of some attention. Oops! I guess this is a cleaning weekend.