Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Swamp Yankee Halloween

I can’t help but notice that the trends in holiday decorating seem to be towards the less and less energy efficient. Take for instance those giant inflatable decorations that started with just Christmas but now include just about everything (I once saw a flamingo). Besides the energy that went into manufacturing these there is also the energy required to keep them constantly inflated. It is undeniable that these are far less energy efficient then the old standard of a pumpkin with a candle in it.

Besides being interested in lower impact decorations I just couldn’t afford one of those giant inflatable things to begin with. So this year we came up with a few alternatives:

Jack-o-lantern alternative: I’m not crazy about the idea of buying a pumpkin and throwing it away after Halloween so instead we bought two sugar pumpkins which we can use for decoration and then make into delicious pie filling afterwards! We also bought some decorative corn and we have a plan to reuse it afterwards but you’ll just have to wait to see what the plan is.

Finally, instead of buying one of those giant bundles of corn or hay or whatever they are we made our own. Since we don’t have any corn (or hay) fields close by we used what is in abundance…phragmites!

This reed commonly found in marshes is a mean nasty invasive species so we didn’t feel bad about cutting some down and when we’re all done we can just throw it back in the marsh.

There is the phragmites, corn and pumpkins. Ignore the chipped paint, thanks.

Granted we will have to come up with something involving candles on Halloween night to signal to trick-or-treaters that we are open for business but it will most likely be homemade and a heck of a lot cheaper then a giant inflatable pumpkin!

Now if we could just give the trick-or-treaters phragmites too we'd be all set.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Swamp Yankee to the Rescue: Tights Edition

I am not anatomically suited for tights. I’m not sure if my legs are just disproportionately long compared to my torso, or if it has to do with my gigantic feet (trust me, I’m more likely to find myself shopping alongside drag queens than other short women like myself), but either way tights never fit me. Even if I buy a size larger then the package instructs the legs end up being way too short and the crotch of the tights falls…well lets just say it’s closer to my knees then I would prefer.

This was the problem with two nice pairs of super thick tights I had bought awhile ago. My intention had been to wear them under pants or skirts in the winter for warmth, which I did once or twice but I got sick of constantly doing that weird dance where you grab the waist of your tights and try and shimmy them up. They ended up getting shoved to the back of a drawer.

This year I have developed an unnatural love of leggings (perhaps it is a subconscious product of the four years of my childhood which occurred during the 80’s) so I pulled out the too-short-tights determined to convert them.

Since the feet didn’t have any defining features like socks I decided to leave them on as part of the legs. I simply snipped off the stitching at the end of each foot to open the tights up. I probably could have left them like this but they seemed like they might fray easily so I rolled over the edge a few times and stitched around it with an overcast stitch.

One thing to keep in mind here is that if you sew too tight you will eliminate the elasticity of the knit tights and you won’t be able to get the ankle hole over your feet. To avoid this I stretched the opening as I sewed. The result of this was that the edge has kind of a lettuce leaf look which is just fine by me.

Just promise me that if you try this you won’t abuse your leggings privileges. If college taught me one thing it is this: leggings are not pants and should not be worn like them! Further, wearing them with just a long shirt doesn’t count either; you still need bottoms to go over them!

I’m glad I could put that warning out there; it lets me feel a little better about encouraging something that has the potential for so much good and yet so much evil.

The finished product! (Look at the size of those feet!)

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Daikon and Carrot Pickle

Just in case you hadn't already figured this out I'm going to go ahead and put it out there: I'm a huge dork. I'm sure this comes as a shock to some of you so let me offer some evidence: when I bought a copy of the Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving early this summer I immediately began planning what I wanted to can. I went through the entire book and placed a bookmark on each page that had a recipe I wanted to try. One of the recipes I was really excited about was daikon and carrot pickles. (Just to clarify: home preserving is not what makes me a dork, it's how excited I get about it that does.)

(If you are not familiar with daikon go to a farmer’s market and get some! It is a large, white Asian radish that is good raw, or cooked in soups and stir fries and even pickled.)

Somehow though I had forgotten how late in the growing season daikon usually appear at the farmer’s market…so I waited, and waited and waited. Finally, two weekends ago, they appeared. I snatched up a couple pounds along with a couple pounds of carrots to make my pickle.

The first thing we did was cut off all the greens. Some were actually nice enough that they went into a big batch of greens we cooked up along with some kale and turnip greens. The next thing we did was peel them and cut off the ends.

Now here is the tricky part: the recipes call for very thin slices, usually 1/8 to one 1/4 of an inch. To do this all by hand would be possible but very tedious. So I invested in a $10 mandoline. These can be very dangerous so try to look for one with a nice piece that allows you to push the food across the blade while keeping your hand far away. Other than that downside they are very useful for massive amounts of chopping, especially the repetitive kind involved in canning.

(This is my mandoline, not to be confused with a mandolin because strumming this could have disastrous consequences. Unfortunately I left the handy piece that prevents me from cutting off my fingers out of this picture.)

I disregarded the instructions to cut the vegetables into spaghetti like strips and instead cut them into 2 inch lengths and then sliced these into 1/8th inch slices which will work perfectly for sandwiches.

Following the instructions I made the pickling liquid with water, vinegar, sugar and grated ginger. I then cooked the carrot and daikon in the liquid for a minute and then placed one star anise in the bottom of each sanitized jar, packed in the veggies and then covered them with the pickling liquid, leaving a half inch at the top. These were processed in a boiling water bath.

I ended up with 6 pints of these pickles which will come in handy not only for bánh mì sandwiches but also to eat alongside many Asian meals. I may be a dork but at least I'm a dork who eats well.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I have found that no matter how determined you are to be a forager it is generally something that happens more by chance then by a plan. Take for example a recent trip to the beach. This beach just happened to have nice fresh long strands of kelp washing up (if you haven’t seen kelp, look it up, it is very impressive seaweed) and kelp just happens to be the seaweed that we buy to make dashi, and dad just happened to know this. So he snagged a few pieces of kelp as they washed up (because of their size a few is plenty.)

When we got home he washed the sand off of them and hung them on the porch to dry, which they did…for awhile. The only problem is that when it was particularly humid they reabsorbed moisture from the air which essentially un-dried them. So there they still sit…waiting for a dry stretch so we can store them for future use in Japanese food.

(Toaster the cat was included to give you an idea of the size of a small piece.)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Salsa Verde (Kind of)

Alas we are at the end of what was a very unsuccessful tomato season for us. We still had lots of green tomatoes on the vine and with a week or so of very wet fall weather some were starting to rot. So instead of hoping they might ripen I just salvaged the rest.

Since we already made a batch of green tomato and apple chutney (fabulous!) I decided to do salsa verde. Around this house real salsa verde is made primarily with tomatillos but since we didn’t grow any (and they are insanely expensive at the farmer’s market) I thought some fake salsa verde would be useful. I used (as always) the Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving recipe for salsa verde which, besides green tomatoes, calls for onions, garlic, chilis, lime juice, cumin, oregano, salt, pepper and cilantro (shudder). Since I subscribe to the anti-cilantro school of Mexican cooking I omitted it from my salsa.

My yield was just over 2.5 pints. Although it could be used for green chili it is also good as an accompaniment to refried beans and rice.

On a side note: Although I love the Ball Book of Complete Home Preserving and would recommend it to anyone, you can find some of the exact same recipes on the Ball website. So if you are an experienced preserver just looking for a recipe it is a good resource. In fact, you can get the salsa verde recipe I used there.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dye Job

Maybe its because lots of mom’s clothing dates back to the 70’s, maybe its because we line dry things, or maybe its just because we don’t easily part with clothing unless it has a gaping hole in it (and usually that hole has to be somewhere important like the crotch before we’ll actually throw it away), either way we have lots of items of clothing that are faded but still structurally sound.

In an attempt to salvage these items mom and I decided to re-dye them. The skirt that I dyed was one that I had picked up at the Salvation Army several years ago. It is a very nice white cotton skirt with embroidered eyelets that is lined. It was a little on the dingy side when I got it and somehow it has gotten much worse (I say that as if I’m not really sure how it happened, even though I spill something on whatever I’m wearing several times a day).

I don't have a great before picture of the skirt but this closeup shows the nice embroidery and one of the scary stains I may or may not have been responsible for.

For this project we were extra frugal and fished out a whole bunch of packs of dye that we had lying around from previous projects. I decided on coral for my skirt.

One of the downsides to dying skirts like this is that while the skirt itself was cotton and absorbed the dye just fine, the liner was synthetic so it, along with the zipper, stayed perfectly white. In this case it doesn’t bother me but it might have been an issue had I chosen a much darker color.

In the end I think the color came out a little streaky. Perhaps I had too much fabric in too small a container which didn’t allow it to all evenly get exposed to the dye. I’m hoping this will even out as I wash and wear it. But other then that I am happy because it turned what was a structurally sound but ugly skirt into a far more useful one.

I hope that the fact that the skirt is in dire need of ironing will distract you from the fact that if you zoomed in on the photo really really close you'd probably be able to see that my legs desperately need shaving.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Applesauce: A Tale in Two Parts

The full array of apples grown locally are just showing up at the farmer's markets (well maybe not just...but only within the last couple weeks) so its the perfect time for apple preserving. Although we had many things in mind like apple pie filling (for which we couldn't find the required cooking starch) and brandied apple rings (for which we couldn't find the right kind of apple corer) we decided to start simple with applesauce.

We bought a bag of wonderful Macouns from our favorite local orchard and then supplemented this with 20 pounds of local apples from the grocery store (99 cents a pound!). We divided this between Macintosh, Macouns and Cortlands.

Since applesauce preferences in this house vary we decided to make two batches. (I like mine unsweetened but the boyfriend likes his sweetened with lots of cinnamon.)

Part 1: We decided to do the unsweetened batch first. We cut off the blossom and stem ends of the apples (discarded these), and cut out the cores (but those went into the pot whole). We chopped up the apples and after going temporarily into lemon water (1/4 cup lemon juice to 4 cups water) they went into a big pot with a little water to simmer. We decided to leave the skins on since they weren’t waxed and mom is convinced this is where all the nice color resides and possibly some of the nutrients. (I can attest to the color but not the nutritional value of the skins.
Our first big mistake was trying to simmer an entire batches worth of apples at one time. There were too many to practically be stirred and we ended up burning the ones on the bottom (just like with our tomatoes!). We ended up cooking the apples in much smaller batches and putting them through the ricer as we went.

Our second big mistake: using Cortlands. While all the other apples got soft enough to squish fairly quickly the Cortlands were amazing in their ability to stay rock hard after much simmering.

Our third mistake was thinking we could leave it completely unsweetened. Between the tartness of the apples we chose and the lemon juice which is required for canning it was just too tart so we ended up adding a little sugar.

Our fourth mistake (this is a lot for one project isn’t it?) was not leaving enough headspace. Even though we followed the instructions it wasn’t enough and I think some of the applesauce escaped the ring during the processing because the outside of the jars were sticky. Luckily they all appeared to seal fine.

Part two: With all the lessons in mind from our first batch we were much more successful our second time around. We left out the Cortlands all together but don’t worry, they didn’t go to waste, they went into apple crumble which is a much better use for such structurally sound apples.

We also cooked and squished the apples in much smaller batches to avoid burning. I also suspect that the skins sticking to the bottom might have increased the likelihood that they would burn so this time we peeled them off. But we didn’t throw away the peels. Instead we simmered them in a second pot with some water to extract the color.

Once all the apples were cooked and squished we added the water from cooking the skins which gave it a nice pink color. We also added the lemon juice, sugar and lots of cinnamon. I also left more headspace in the jars this time (although I’m not sure it was enough).

(Batch 1)

(Batch 2, which doesn't look as good but don't let the camera fool you, it really is better.)

Luckily this is a learning experience and not something we will be depending on this winter for all our food (I’m not sure how long we’d last on jams and pickles). So my applesauce wisdom is this: careful with which varieties you use, make sure they have similar cooking times and make sure they don’t burn!

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Shredded Paper Dilemma

Like all good mildly paranoid people we shred a lot of the mail we get like credit card offers and things with our bank account numbers. This leaves us with the problem of what do with all that shredded paper. According to mom’s obscure knowledge of recycling rules you can’t recycle shredded paper. We’d compost it except dad won’t let us because he’s worried about the chemicals. So burning it seems like one of our only useful options (of course in the winter when you have a fire going anyway you can skip the shredding phase and go straight to burning it).

The only problem is that throwing handfuls of shredded paper into a fire is a little unwieldy so we came up with the idea of stuffing paper towel and toilet paper rolls with the shredded paper to make mini logs.

(The ingredients.)

(This would be a good use of child labor...I mean...a good activity for young children.)

(The finished product.)

Since we’ve started using the stove we’ve had a chance to test our shredded paper logs and the consensus is iffy. They don’t make great kindling but they burn fine once the stove is going.

This brings me to my heating challenge which my family has reluctantly agreed to (and by that I mean that I told them about it and they grumbled something under their breath which I took as consent). I’m curious how long we can go without using the oil heat and set an optimistic date of November 1st. This may not sound like much but the lows around here are already getting down to the high 30’s.

For heat this leaves us with: one small woodstove, one hot water bottle, one oven in which to bake things for which we may “accidentally” preheat the oven rather early and three cats of varying agreeableness. But one problem remains: the basement (where I happen to reside) which doesn’t particularly benefit from the woodstove. Luckily the basement stays a lot warmer then anywhere else so we’ll see how it goes.