...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Spring has Sprung!

The first crocus is blossoming in the front yard and I've planted my spring garden.  It's official--spring is here!  Yesterday we assembled the greenhouse.  It's a small lean-to that will sit on the south side of our garage, where, even though the neighbor's garage is just 5 feet away, it should get plenty of sun.  The two-person project was not without its challenges.  I had a to-do list as long as my arm yesterday, though nothing was urgent.  I should have known the greenhouse would take all afternoon to setup when A) the instructions were first in Danish, then German, THEN English and especially when the first step--putting some hard plastic binding pieces on the bottom of the main sheets of polycarbonate--took us almost 30 minutes.  Ben aligned and joined the pieces while I deciphered the instructions and located all the parts or pieces for the proceeding step.  Considering neither of us is an engineer, we did pretty well putting the thing together.  Ben walked away with a couple minor puncture wounds, but it wasn't anything a couple cold beers couldn't fix.  Vera slept through most of it, which was amazing.

Today I brought out my spring garden diagram, gathered the seeds I'd thankfully organized over the winter,  and busily seeded my early crops, mostly greens (Frisee, Red Salad Bowl lettuce, Lettuce Mix, Mache (a.k.a. Corn Salad), Red Streaks Mustard, Mesclun Mix, India Tendergreen Mustard, Rainbow Chard, and Brown Mustard Seeds) a few beets (Golden Beets and Detroit Red), and some radishes (White Icicle and French Breakfast).  I labeled the rows and covered the newly planted seeds with hardware cloth to keep out the critters.  Later in the season when the seedlings outgrow the mesh protection and I've removed the coldframe, I will cover the whole bed with floating row cover until everything can hold its own this summer.  The floating row cover lets in sun and rain, but keeps out bugs, chipmunks, and the like.  While I worked Vera happily dug around in the dirt with her mini spade and played with her wind-up caterpillar.

Although I drew what I thought was the final garden layout many weeks ago, I recently decided to add even more beds.  I am more or less squaring off the grassy area in the backyard (so Vera still has space to kick a ball and do cartwheels) and building raised beds.  Currently we have the design from the perennial beds that used to exist on the north side of our backyard.  There are so many advantages to raised beds, plus it's time for the backyard to really look like a veggie garden (don't worry, I've saved a space for the chicken coop).  I'm ordering the lumber today and have scoped out a YouTube video of a chick with safety goggles building the beds herself.  I can do it!

Tonight is the backyard chickens workshop.  Stay tuned!


Adventures in Alternative Medicine

(Note:  Before you read this post, know that it might be a bit more information than you'd like...)

In 1999 when I started freelance writing for the Exchange magazine, a food and wellness journal in Milwaukee, I was introduced to alternative medicine.  Since then I have completely changed how I view health and wellness.  My holistic practitioner quickly sold me on acupuncture after one curative treatment for tendonitis post bike wreck, I regularly have a deep tissue massage for general occupational aches and pains, I practice yoga weekly, and I use homeopathic remedies whenever necessary.  So when I had a stubborn "crinkling" in my ears recently that my doctor confirmed was fluid, I was open to trying ear candling.  You can look it up online and check out plenty of pictures, YouTube videos, and doubts from allopathic medical professionals, but I was game for attempting this alternative method for earwax removal.  I asked my mother-in-law to candle my ear when she was visiting last night.  I knew that she had the skills because I'd heard the classic story from Ben about his mom candling his dad's ear one night on the living room floor (this involves, as you see from the pic, a flame, a long candlelike waxed "tube," and some foil.)  Ben was in high school and one of his friends had arrived to pick him up; he took in this odd scene from just outside the window.  We can only imagine that he was thinking torture, witchcraft, or at least about dialing 911 from behind the nearest bush had there been cell phones at the time.  So I knew Eileen was my girl when it came to candling my ear.  The price of the ear candle was the best $2.39 I've ever spent.  It took about 10 minutes while I lay still with my head on a floor pillow holding the pointed end of the candle steady in my ear canal.  I could feel a bit of heat and a gentle suction.  Eileen blew out the candle when it burned down to a few inches and I went into the kitchen to cut it open to see what had drained.  I'll spare you the graphic results, but let's just say it was right up my alley having had a morbid curiosity all my life.  (Growing up, when my mom would find moldy cheese or other food in the fridge I'd always demand to take a look at it before she threw it away.)  Needless to say, I felt great today.

So while we're talking about alternative health and wellness, I'd like to share a book I'm reading--Make Your Place: Affordable and Sustainable Nesting Skills hand-drawn and handwritten by Raleigh Briggs.  It teaches one "how to craft a sustainable domestic life outside of consumer consciousness."  For people wanting to live more simply, it shows how to create tinctures, salves, and all-natural cleaners, and goes over gardening basics.  It's a charming book and its purchase supports a fellow DIYer.


Keeping It All Together

I felt I needed a book dedicated to my urban homesteading notes, which have become prolific lately.  I decided to make a simple book.  One of my past crafty stages involved bookmaking; a college photography instructor turned me on to this art as a way to display photos. On a shoestring budget, I managed to gather most of the needed supplies including a bone folder, awl, and binding thread.  My interest gradually died off, probably for lack of time.  A couple years ago I took a bookbinding class at the Bay View Book Arts Gallery (BVBAG) housed in the old Hide House complex.  Since then I've been keeping a box of scrap paper in my craft corner.  I save everything from the vellum envelopes they put your stamps in at the P.O. to beautiful hand drawn covers from seed catalogs and interesting images from magazines.  My homesteading book's cover is made from an artful local organic flour bag (I knew I'd saved it for something), the inside cover is an R.H. Shumway's seed catalog cover, and I have tucked in other pocketed pages like a tiny brown paper sack from buying screws at the hardware store.  I alternated lined paper and sketch paper so that I can make notes as well as draw pictures.  I bound the book with a beautiful twig I just clipped from our cherry tree and a small rubberband that only shows on the back of the book.  It's not permanently bound so I can add pages later as I get inspired.


Sunday Dinner with Friends

We enjoyed another wonderful Sunday dinner with friends last night.  My goal with Sundays dinners has been to keep them simple--prepare something I would anyway on a Sunday evening--but invite friends over to share the meal and conversation.  Our friends surprised us by bringing a couple bottles of the infamous homebrew that was to make its debut on this upcoming dudes camping trip.  But we got to taste a little bit before that.  I was rather impressed.  If I had to solely drink my own homebrew in the future (hint, hint Ben) I could definitely enjoy something like the nutty, slightly hoppy flavor of this English Brown Ale style.  Bravo Gentlemen!

I also tried a new dessert with some of our wild foraged black raspberries mixed with organic blueberries.  I made a few substitutions based on what I had on hand and thought it turned out well.

Gluten-Free Upside Down Cobbler
Adapted from The Gluten-Free Gourmet Makes Dessert by Bette Hagman
Makes 6 servings

1/2 c. butter or coconut oil, melted
1 c. all-purpose gluten-free flour
1/2 rounded t. xanthan gum
1 T. baking powder
1/4 t. salt
1 3/4 c. sucanat, divided
1 c. milk or soymilk
4 c. fruit (sliced peaches, plums, or apples; blueberries, raspberries, etc.)
1 T. lemon juice

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Use an ungreased 9" x 13" baking pan.  Pour in the melted butter/coconut oil. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, xanthan gum, baking powder, salt, and 3/4 c. sucanat.  Stir in the milk, mixing just to combine.  Pour over the butter/coconut oil but don't stir together.  Place the fruit with the lemon juice and remaining cup sucanat in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.  Pour over the batter, but don't mix.  Bake 40-45 min. or until top is lightly browned.  Serve warm or cold.  Top with ice cream, whipped cream, or creme fraiche.

I'm turning into my mother.  This would not be the first time I've uttered this statement.  When I initially found myself cleaning the house before going on vacation, singing or humming a song around the house all day, and writing essays for pleasure, I knew I was my mother's daughter.  Lately, as I think more seriously about urban homesteading dreams and realize that I should spend time evaluating what I can reasonably make instead of relying on outside sources, I am once again reminded of my mother.  When I was growing up we'd go mall shopping and nearly every item of clothing in which I expressed interest she would say, "I could make that!" and we would move on, which is the last thing a teen girl trying to keep up with fashion wants to hear and do.  In fact, my best friend in high school had a mother with the same syndrome so when she and I would go shopping together (once we could independently get ourselves across state lines to the nearest mall) we'd browse the juniors section and mock our mothers saying, "I could make that" (Shame on us! These women are angels!)  I went through different phases growing up when I was proud to wear something homemade.  But there was definitely a point when I felt ostracized in confessing my mom made my clothes while the other girls donned the latest designer labels.  But when my mother made two beautiful, unique prom dresses for me, people were definitely impressed.  Now sewing for oneself is totally en vogue and I'm so proud to say that I, or my mother who still makes things for me or Vera, sewed or knit a piece that I am wearing.  And I am so grateful that she passed this domestic skill on to me.  Nowadays people pay big bucks to learn something they wished had been handed down.

Today I finished a pair of cotton baby booties for a friend who is expecting her first child this summer (I hope you're not reading this.)  Vera seemed a bit jealous of these cute scuffs.  I copied the pattern from Amy Butler's Little Stitches for Little Ones, which I found at our local library.  It was somewhat easy to follow, though at one point I thought I was smarter than the pattern and went my own way only to spend time ripping out my mistake.  With some patience I've finally completed them.


Happy St. Patty's Day

The moment of truth has come for the brisket.  Almost.  It's boiling as we speak.  I'm dreaming of a tender, salty-sweet cut of corned beef.  The taste will be revealed at the dinner table tonight, but so far the aroma seems right on.  I realized that the key to that corn-beefy smell is really the whole allspice.  Mmmm.  Part of homesteading is making the most of what you have so I am making colcannon with kohlrabi tonight instead of green cabbage.  A couple of green kohlrabi have been idling in the crispy drawer of the fridge since November; we'll finally use them up.  About this time of year I find that any potatoes I've stored in the basement are really sprouting (I remember last year after Vera was born we kind of lost track of things until one day Ben came upstairs to where I was still resting in bed post-partum and told me I'd better check out the potatoes, and quick.)  This time the spuds are still firm enough to cook, I'll just pick off the sprouts.

(P.S.  The brisket was delicious!!!)  

Kohlrabi Colcannon
Serves 4

4 medium potatoes (about 1 1/3 lbs. total)
3 cups shredded kohlrabi (peel, slice, and shred...use a food processor shredder plate, if available)
8 medium green onions with tops, finely sliced
2 to 3 T. milk
1 T. butter
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. black pepper
2 T. minced fresh parsley

Peel and quarter potatoes.  In a large saucepan, cover the potatoes with water.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 20 to 25 min. or until tender.  Drain and keep warm.  Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring 1/2-inch water to a boil over high heat.  Add the kohlrabi and green onions.  Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 8-10 min. or until kohlrabi is tender.  Drain.  In the bowl of a stand mixer on low, beat the potatoes until almost smooth.  Add the milk, butter, salt, and pepper.  Beat until light and fluffy.  Stir in the kohlrabi mixture and parsley.

Note:  I know this is a bit late for your St. Patty's Day preparations, but it can be made anytime, not just on March 17, and even if you're not Irish (like me).

My to-do list was brief today so I've had a chance to enjoy some reading and crafting while Vera naps.  I just knit a gauge swatch for a 24-month size cardigan for her (I figure I'll be able to finish it by next winter.)  If you're a beginning knitter and have questioned why a gauge swatch is necessary, imagine how you'd feel if you, like me, used the most beautiful yarn to make a cardigan sweater for yourself and about halfway through realized it might almost fit a first grader.  Yeah, if you started this project before conceiving, you pray that the color combination will suit the sex of your unborn child.  I have my mini-sweater stashed in my cedar chest.  Ben still says, "you can't make her wear that!"  Its quite hideously misshapen.  Anyway, DO THE GAUGE SWATCH.  Take a few minutes and just do it.  You'll thank me later.

In preparing for the camping trip the guys are taking in May (the one where they'll sample the home brew I blogged about a month or so ago) I made some of my campfire starters.  This was an idea I originally found in Mother Earth News magazine.  It's a great way to use things you may have around the house while saving money on something manufactured.

Campfire Starters

Empty egg cartons
Used candles
Dryer lint
Old metal tray or aluminum oven drip pan
Old pot, small

Set the egg cartons on the metal tray.  Pack the lint into the egg cartons as tightly as you can.  You can jam A LOT of lint in there!  Melt the candles in the pot (be sure to turn on your hood vent b/c this could smoke a bit.)  Carefully pour the hot wax over the lint-filled egg cartons, saturating them.  Some excess might drip over, which is why it's good to have an old tray underneath.  Let cool completely then cut the firestarters apart.  Store in a glass jar or sealable plastic bag.  They really work!

I'm reading a great library book right now, Farm City by Novella Carpenter.  I seem to alternate between homesteading related books and other topics so right now I'm back to reading about "business" stuff.  This book is hysterical!  She lives in the ghetto of Oakland, CA and is living my dream of having poultry and waterfowl, honeybees, fruit trees and all sorts of vegetables.  It's wonderfully written and truly funny.  I recommend it to any backyard gardener or urban farmer.


So Eager to Get Gardening

This time of year I find myself just kind of lingering and putzing around the garage at my garden shelf preparing whatever I can for the season.  Vera and I returned from a walk today and I let her keep sleeping in the stroller as I straightened up some things on my shelf: sorting through branches I keep for making impromptu trellises pulling out the bamboo poles I may use for a mason bee house, organizing the collection of stakes and broken broom handles I use as stakes, checking my buckets of peat moss and bone meal to see if I need to restock, and generally whisk brooming my shelves so they're tidied and ready.  I opened the coldframe on this beautifully sunny day to give the spinach some air circulation and better light.  And I'm hoping to start deciphering the lean-to greenhouse erection directions this weekend.  I smell spring in the air--even though they call for more snow possibly this weekend.  I will relish the moment and think positively about warm weather soon.


Signs of Spring

I saw Robin Red Breast yesterday!  I couldn't be more excited about spring.  I've been itching to get the compost spread on our raised bed b/c any day now, when the ground thaws, I'd like to get some seeds in--even if it may still snow again.  I examined the outdoor compost turner yesterday and found that the rotting matter on top wasn't extremely broken down.  This is usually the case with our compost.  Ideally, we should have two compost turners outside--a rotation of one that is actively being filled and the other that's decomposing without disruption.  Currently the outdoor one sits idle in the winter, but whatever was added last in the fall doesn't really break down b/c there's not as much heat in the winter to speed the process.  In fact, I emptied what I could yesterday, mostly from around the circumference. It reminds me of my mom always telling us kids to eat the soup from the outside of the bowl first where it was coolest.  There's a similar, although opposite, idea here; the middle was still frozen.   So I temporarily gave up.  What I did spread on the garden, the slightly undecomposed material, will get turned into the soil once the ground has thawed.  Then I will most likely add more topsoil so the organic matter can continue to break down underneath it all and I don't have to look at chipmunks and squirrels rummaging through egg shells and avocado skins (though they're bound to turn them up anyway.)  When I finished with my work I went inside and said to Ben, "I have good news and bad news.  The good news is that I found the garlic press cleaner, the bad news is that it was in the compost bin."  We'd been missing this goofy piece of plastic for months, having to clean out the essential garlic press with a toothpick.  We use this kitchen tool often so we agreed that we'd gladly sanitize/sterilize the cleaning tool and put it back to use.  Last year I found our sink's drain basket in the compost.  It's like a little treasure hunt each spring.  What will next season hold?  This could become a running joke anytime something goes missing around here.

Hope I haven't spoiled your appetite because I want to share a recipe I've adapted.  I made this last week using cellared squash and carrots, and preserved tomato puree and realized what a great way it would be to preserve squash, carrots, and tomatoes when their ripeness briefly intersects in late summer, early fall.  I don't have a canning recipe developed quite yet.  I'm sure one could safely pressure can it, but I like to work with the hot water bath canner so I will have to experiment with a safe pH level this summer and come up with a recipe and processing time.  Till then you could certainly freeze this in freezer grade bags or containers.

Moroccan Winter Squash and Carrot Pasta Sauce
Serves 4-6

2 T. grapeseed oil
1 c. chopped onion
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 t. paprika
1 t. salt
1/2 t. ground black pepper
1/2 t. ground coriander
1/2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. turmeric
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/8 t. ground cayenne pepper
Pinch of saffron
1 c. water
1 lb. canned or frozen tomatoes (or tomato puree), drained/thawed
2 T. lemon juice
3 c. cubed peeled winter squash (butternut, kabocha, hubbard, acorn, etc.)
2 c. peeled chopped carrots

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Add onion; saute until soft, stirring often, about 5 min.  Add garlic; stir 1 min.  Mix in paprika and next 8 ingredients.  Add 1 c. water, tomatoes, and lemon juice.  Bring to a boil.  Add squash and carrots.  Cover and simmer over medium-high heat until vegetables are very tender, stirring occasionally, about 20 min.  Puree in a blender and return to saucepan.  Season to taste.

Note:  This is great over pasta, but can also be used as an interesting pizza sauce.  Get creative with the toppings!


Scraps of Memories

I finally finished the quilted pillowcase I started a couple weeks ago.  I had a throw pillow in the living room that I'd found at an antique store years ago; it was pretty scratchy and uninviting and always ended up on the chair in which people rarely sit.  So I decided to have some fun making a new case for it.  I had an interesting scrap of fabric I found in my grandma's attic years ago.  It was sew onto a pink moppy piece of fabric and looked like a drawstring purse.  I ditched the moppy material and kept the other piece, with gray and red roses, thinking I'd use it sometime in a small project.  The day finally arrived.  I made that piece of fabric the centerpiece of my crazy quilt top and added other memorable scraps I'd saved: disassembled pieces of my grandpa's old silk tie, trimmings from a tie-dyed apron I made for my nephew, parts of a vintage pillowcase, some embroidery linen with an interesting print (which I ended up embroidering on the new pillow), some strips of a red sheet, and bits of calico my mom gave me.  As I randomly sewed the pieces together--not planning the width or orientation of the strips--it became an "anything goes" quilt as I crafted without regard to colors, patterns, textures, and sizes.  It was like I had a blank canvas and I just made it up as I went along.  The new pillowcase fits nicely on this now comfy, squooshy throw pillow.  It goes well with my favorite red leather armchair, a relic that belonged to the doctor who started my dad's business in the early 20th century; there's still a burn from on of his fancy cigars on the underside of the cushion.


The First Celebration

People always say that time flies when you have young children, but that really couldn't be more true.  Over the weekend we celebrated Vera's first birthday.  It was one year ago that she was born upstairs, right on our bed.  And one year ago we were challenged with figuring out how to nurse, when to sleep, how to keep ourselves fed, and how to care for mommy post-partum.  As difficult as many of the past 365 days may have seemed, we all survived!  We celebrated the big day with a gathering of family and close friends.  I prepared a meal and we squeezed nine adults plus Vera around our dining room table.  I thought it was lovely.  I decided to serve some sort of egg and spinach dish each year to remember her birth day.  When I woke up with contractions one of the first things I thought was how I was supposed to pick up a delivery of eggs and winter spinach from a farmer that morning.  When our doula arrived she called the farmer and he ended up delivering these goodies just 30 minutes before Vera arrived.  We always say, "it was a good day for deliveries."  Something I love about Vera being this young is that her birthday is an opportunity to start new traditions.  It's a fresh beginning.  So much for her to experience still.  The second year will hopefully be a joy.