...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.


Remodeling Part II

Our Grove of Truffala Trees
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot...."
The kitchen remodel is well underway by now.  Many people have asked if it's driving me crazy not to have a functioning kitchen.  The makeshift setup is just fine for now and has truly helped me slow down.  With an intact kitchen I begin nearly every day with a cooking/prep. to-do list whether it includes whipping up a batch of homemade mayo, shaking together some fresh vinaigrette, soaking beans for the next day's meal, or baking more elaborate goodies.  Although V and I love to work on these projects together, the truth is that they often pull me away from other activities with her.  She'll be three in mere moments so I'm hoping that her curiosity for cooking and baking will continue to grow and we will spend more time in the kitchen together, but I've also realized that it's okay for me consolidate these tasks, simplify, or completely scratch them out for now and just enjoy being with her.  I'll have plenty of time to get back to this household "par" list in the fall once V starts school.  For now, we've been spending our mornings away from the noise and mess of construction to checking out different libraries around the metro area; going to the gym, movies, playground; and checking out kids' classes at our neighborhood community center (one venue where I happen to teach cooking classes.)  Today at Art Club we listened to a reading of The Lorax then crafted some 2-D Truffala Trees using pipe cleaners, cotton balls, bendable straws, glitter glue, and markers.  This art club will be both fun for Vera and an exercise for me to let my child just be and do with art instead of trying to box her into my ideas of what "good" art looks like.

The other fantastic thing about slowing down this week is that I'm three for three on running into a friend/colleague out in public and having an opportunity to clear whatever perceived urgencies were on my day's list and just spend time talking, connecting face-to-face, and even brainstorming.  These connections are so important, especially to a most-of-the-time-stay-at-home-parent who finds it all too easy to stay in her little cocoon at home.  Had it not been for this remodeling mess keeping us away from the house, I might have rushed home from all morning activities instead of taking time to sit and relax over coffee, piles of kids' library books, or a goopy table of art supplies.  The question is, will I go back into this shell once the kitchen is done?  Let's hope not.  Especially with "spring" just a month or so away, I'm hoping to spend mornings out and about.  And--to bring people into our home once our new entertaining space if finished--I'm also tempted to host a Sunday morning pancake breakfast (an idea I culled from one of my spontaneous friend visits this week!), preserving parties, or a night of board games and vino.

Before I flash photos of our gutted kitchen, I have to add another realization that popped up during the redesign process.  A couple of weeks ago I was having a phone conversation with a woman at the company from which we bought our new range hood/vent system.  As we were discussing the ease of cleaning, the representative was saying "...if you're frying something...versus just preparing some mac 'n cheese in a pot on the stove..."  For a few moments I was totally stumped at how one would make macaroni and cheese stovetop.  I asked her what she meant because I always bake mine in the oven.  She said "oh, you must be from the South."  Well, Paris, IL may seem borderline "southern," but mine isn't the classic Gulf-area comfort food.  Basically, I had forgotten that I'd ever prepared mac 'n cheese from a box on the stovetop.  Though I felt slightly ignorant for not understanding what this woman meant, I later realized that I've become far enough removed from certain aspects of the processed food world that I've simply erased them from my memory.  And I guess that's okay.  I can only hope that Vera will never know the creamy noodle dish that comes out of a blue box, but if she does we'll have fun comparing it to the made-from-scratch version.

Here's the status.  Most of these were taken last week.  The progress has exceeded our expectations!
All the cabinets are gone, power is out!
Say goodbye to the last bit of Cream City brick in our house
I love seeing the guts of our house
Lots of great space in this back galley-way--
soon to be open pantry and computer stations
Messages in a fine German scrawl from the woman who built our house--
her instructions for the last remodel,
"Fasten to floor before setting cabinet in place."
Behind the chimney was the plumbing to the upstairs
1/2 bath we installed a few years ago--it will be tucked
into the wall to give us more cabinet space
Chimney is gone completely done to the basement.
More storage space down there now--soon to be
 cemented over
Floor is pulled up
New doorway from kitchen to dining room
Some surprise pipes.  And soon they'll seal up the old doorway
Dropping the ceiling
Maple flooring is in, pipes are tucked,
soffit still needs clipping to mirror diagonal on
opposite side
Will we arch the doorway to match the rest of the
front of the house?
Soon they'll hang dry wall, tape, mud, and paint


Kitchen Remodel

The makeshift kitchen in our front entryway--not exactly roughing it.
The day has come.  We've been dreaming of this since the LeFort Urban Homestead began in 2006 and have been making serious plans for well over a year.  We're excited to work once again with a contractor who has basically become our go-to guy for all house projects.  I think this is the fifth or sixth time he's worked with us and I highly recommend his company if you're in the Milwaukee area.  (Coincidentally, I connected with him after working with his father at our CSA farm a few years back...it all goes back to those wonderful farmers!)

We decided to forego the designer after we began working with one last year when we thought this project was going to take flight.  I'm no interior designer (though I've wanted to be one since I was six), but I've designed (or at least initially sketched out) many of our home's built-ins, updates, nooks, crannies.  I can certainly appreciate what these designers do after the additional legwork it took, but will say that the moment the plan clicked for us--me and our contractor--we all felt like geniuses.  It remains to be seen, of course, but I'm pretty sure it's going to be fantastic.  The demolition began this morning and is progressing quickly and will hopefully continue to do so if we can keep the inspectors on schedule.

We set up a temporary kitchenette in our front entryway.  We don't own a microwave and haven't depended on one for a decade or so, but have a slow cooker and toaster oven.  I borrowed a rice cooker from a friend and a portable 3-burner electric stovetop from work.  Good things we're at least familiar with camp cooking because we may need to institute a few of those recipes or techniques before it's all said and done.  I've never used a rice cooker before and am excited to see what healthy foods are possible.  Last night we began cooking "off-site" with a whole chicken in the slow cooker on a bed of root vegetables--carrots, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, and onions.  After eating our portions of chicken and refrigerating the rest, I blended the remaining veggies, herbs, and chicken stock in the blender and--et voila!--we have dinner for tonight all lined up.  For a minute I thought this might be the bloggable challenge I've been waiting for.  But I don't know that I should commit myself to that.  Besides, it's likely that we'll be dining out plenty during the process--I have quite a few gift certificates in queue after pillaging restaurant.com a few weeks ago.  But it would be nice if we could save those funds for kitchen accessories--a kitchen cart, new dish drying rack, perhaps some new-to-us plates--after the remodel is complete.

I probably won't be posting many recipes for a while--though if I do, they will be for preparation in a slow cooker/rice cooker.  I see myself posting lots of "Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned During our Kitchen Remodel" kinds of lists as well as before/after photos.  Here's what I've come up with so far:

1.  When we reduce our kitchen to just the essentials we'll need for the next month, it sort of makes me wonder why in the world we keep all the rest of that "stuff."

2.  When I don't have control over the remodeling-related messes in my kitchen/basement/dining room, I'm going to be very controlling--perhaps obsessively trying to control--the dust, dirt, and grime in other spaces.  (This could be a positive thing!)

3.  If my child can sleep through demolition--and go out like a light in fact--she can probably sleep through anything.

4.  Sometimes to make things more efficient--energy or otherwise--one has to tear out and upgrade.  I was fairly conflicted about this project for that reason.  The old kitchen was workable, but if we wish to stay in a small house and maximize the space, we need to tailor it to fit those needs and goals.  The main goal for this kitchen project is to get more working space.  We did our best to consciously choose new materials for construction--beeswax sealant for the butcher block countertops, No-VOC paints, energy-efficient hood system--and to reuse when possible--keeping the fridge, dishwasher, reusing the sink, repurposing old cabinets between our basement and my parents' garage.

5.  We currently don't have enough wine in the house to get us--well, me--through this project for the next 4-6 weeks.

Aside from the final product, of course, I'm excited to see how this slows us down as a family.  Between finding where everything is in our makeshift kitchen, learning a new rhythm as we prepare food in the front hallway, and realize that we can't use certain parts of the house b/c of temporary lack of heat, electricity, or water we have no other choice, but to kick back and read a book.  Sigh.  Let the fun begin!

There will be a doorway on this wall very soon
(view from hallway into dining room)
Back "pantry" and Ben's desk will be demolished and soon
have opening shelving and a "family media and
communication center."
Sink will soon be in front of the window
Bringing in a 36" 6-burner commercial-quality stove I can
beat up with all my preserving/cooking
Shifting it all to the left and the doorway will disappear
No more angled corner, will have hardwood floors
Good bye doorway and traffic pattern cutting
diagonally through the kitchen
Woodwork will finally match original woodwork in
lower level


Winter Projects

Our mise en place for making preserved lemons
Last week was one of culinary projects.  Mid-week entertainment was a friend and I making preserved lemons at the homestead.  She spent a semester studying abroad in Morocco where she grew to love the flavor and versatility of this salty, sour ingredient.  I had made them years ago at work, but they've since floated off the menu.  I sourced some small lemons from a local oriental supermarket and we went to town cutting, filling with salt, and stuffing them into jars.  The process is truly quite simple.  There are a couple of basic recipes and a video my friend used as reference.  While they're festering for the next few months, I will be exploring recipes in which to use them.

Stuffed and ready to "marinate"
I'm already quite taken by these beauties and haven't even
experienced their flavor yet.
Thrift store jars
The pork butt/shoulder ready for grinding
Over the weekend we were in the Chicago suburbs visiting Ben's family for the first annual LeFort family sausage making event.  As I have mentioned before, we use an old manual stuffer from Ben's family's farmstead in western Pennsylvania.  His mom's been excited to get involved in the sausage making event since we resurrected the stuffer a few seasons ago.  We took the whole operation south and spent two days creating lots of preservative-free sausages with clean, quality meat, natural hog casings, a generous helping of elbow grease, and a fair share of family tales worked in.  While we grinded and stuffed, his mom verbally turned out pages from the family geneological tomes. Turns out the stuffer goes back as far as Ben's great-great grandparents.  With a patent date of 1858, his mother was guessing her great-grandparents were the original users as their farm was settled shortly thereafter outside of Oil City, PA.  She didn't recall her grandmother using the machine and knows that her mother certainly didn't make homemade sausage, but was on a perpetual search for a recipe that tasted just like a store-bought (likely a butcher or sausage shop in that time) cased meat she once enjoyed.  Using Bruce Aidells' Complete Sausage Book, we made our standard Sweet Fennel Italian Sausage to use on our weekly homemade pizza and also prepared a triple batch of Hunter's Sausage, a highly spiced variety adding smoked bacon instead of the usual pork fat back.  Altogether we used a 16-pound pork butt, which is roughly half the size of our child.  It was a lot of grinding and stuffing, but with three sets of hands (versus the 1 1/2 sets of years past) the process went quickly and without much stress.  I hope to make this an annual celebration both for what the dear hog offers us and for the family history stuffed into each link.

The grinder attachment for my mixer makes is easy
It's an adult Play-Doh Fun Factory
Family affair
She may think it's crazy now, but hopefully seeing all of these culinary
processes will giveV a greater appreciation for food in the future
Ben mixing in all the spices and flavor
Git in there!
The hog casings--rinsed and ready to be stuffed
The old farmstead cast iron stuffer
Stuffed and making links
The art of linking
Many hands made much lighter work!
After a few years of this, I've gotten a good feel for quality stuffing
Fulfilling the dream
Italian Sausage in back, Hunter's Sausage in front--
and lots of bulk Italian for freezing for pizza
Because I don't like to see anything go to waste around the urban homestead, Vera and I spent some time Monday morning making suet feeders out of the remaining pork fat from sausage making.  I'd already frozen and thawed it more than the optimal numbers of times so I wasn't about to put the leftovers back in the freezer.  We rendered it into a beautiful pan of fat then added birdseed as we poured it into "molds."  In a conversation with my uncle that day he mentioned that it's National Bird Feeding Month so I guess it was perfect timing for this project, which had been on my winter list anyway.

Rendered pork fat for the suet feeders
Vera helping scoop birdseed into the molds, which were reused mushroom
containers.  I put kraft paper inside the containers for easier removal,
but on second thought would NOT repeat that detail
Made a few extras in silicone baking cups to unmold and give away
 as gifts--next time we'll remember to add a string for hanging
Vera will walk into childcare on Friday giving the gift of "pork fat."
After the messier projects were cleaned up we moved into Valentine's Day for which my wonderful husband prepared a simple and delicious dinner for his two sweethearts.  V and I decorated the table and we all shared a lovely meal.
The warm glow
Our candlelit Valentine's Day table
This morning it was "warm" enough to take a walk to the lakefront.  We were looking for smooth, flat, roundish rocks to use for a quickly approaching birthday party craft.  Vera took her Nature Pouch and we collected said rocks, threw a few more in the water, then explored and climbed until we got a little chilly.

A sunny winter day in Wisconsin
Stretching, climbing, exercising!