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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Homesteading Update 14 December 2011

Things have been pretty quiet on the homesteading front lately, which is primarily due to the weather being strangely cold and dry for these parts right in the middle of the rainy season, and my working an average of fifty-plus hours every week, which doesn't include the commute. It's cold and dark when I leave in the morning and cold and dark when I get home, and I'm pretty wiped out by then anyway, so not a whole lot is getting done around the homestead. I have been working on the dining nook on and off, and have the back panels done. I probably won't pick that up again until after the holidays.

Tonight Steve bottled the Apfelwein he brewed four weeks ago using Ed Wort's Apfelwein recipe.  We bought six gallons of Tree Top apple juice cheaply at Costco just for the purpose of brewing them into a potent potable. The wine should be ready in about three weeks, maybe a little longer with these cold temperatures. I'll let you know how that goes.

In other news, this month's electrical bill showed that we used 6.3 therms in December of 2011, partly because we're not using the dryer, and partly because the solar panels have been producing more energy than we anticipated for this time of year because of all the sunny days we've been having.  I should say we used only 6.3 therms, because last year we used 12.7 therms, so this December's use was slightly less than half of last December's use.  Pretty good.

I'm happy about it anyway.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

I Didn't Miss The Turkey And Here's Why, or- The Long Awaited Red Cabbage Post

Steve and I stayed home this Thanksgiving because there was some work that needed to be done on the car, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was the only day I wouldn't need it and he could get it done. And with just the two of us, I didn't feel like messing with the whole turkey dinner thing, so I made Rinderrouladen and red cabbage, and we had that with whole wheat Spaetzle (and gravy).

Rouladen just means 'rolls' in German, and they are easy enough to make.  I'll give you my recipe for them, which is probably the same as everybody else's, and I'll give you the recipe for my red cabbage, which isn't like everybody elses, and I'll give you Steve's recipe for Spaetzle.

The hardest thing about making Rouladen is finding the right cut for it. Fortunately, Portland has a German deli that also does Rouladen. If I couldn't find a proper Rouladen, I would get my hands on the biggest roast I could and cut it into three-quarter inch slices, then make a butterfly cut from one side of the slice (on the small side of the slice, not the flat side) at one third the thickness, turn it to the opposite end and make another butterfly cut so that it's kind of like a capital N, and then flatten it out and pound it thin and even. Thank goodness I don't have to go that extra step, but I could if I had too.

Spread the Rouladen out on a platter and smear it with some spicey mustard (like a teaspoon, but it really isn't rocket science).

Then lay a couple of slices of bacon on the mustard, some very thinly (very thinly) sliced onions, and then a dill pickle spear on one end.  I used scattered capers this time because I couldn't get at my pickles, but dill pickles are traditional and now that I've tried capers, I think dill pickle spears are better for this dish.  Start rolling the beef around the dill pickle spear and roll the whole thing up.

Tie up each of the Rouladen into a little bundle.

Brown them in a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil (I use grape seed oil).

When the Rouladen are brown all the way around, pour in enough water to come half way up their sides. Grab a pancake turner and scrape all that lovely fond off the bottom of the pan.  Throw in a bouquet garni (in this case fresh thyme, parsley and celery from the garden, and a dried bay leaf), put a lid on it, and simmer it for an hour and a half, turning the Rouladen a couple of times during the cooking time.  While the Rouladen are cooking make the red cabbage (see the recipe below).

Remove the Rouladen to a plate and thicken the stock in the pan to make a gravy.  I use a tablespoon or two of arrowroot powder dissolved in some cold water because I have a boatload of bulk arrowroot powder, but you can use cornstarch dissolved in water or flour dissolved in water.  Arrowroot powder and cornstarch can be dumped into cold water and stirred up- they behave very similarly. Flour, however, you're better off starting dry in a small bowl and adding enough cold water to make a paste, and then adding enough water a little bit at a time to thin it enough to be able to pour it.  If you make a paste first, you shouldn't have any lumps. (This method works great with crepe and Dutch baby batters- I mix the eggs into the flour to make a smooth paste and then add the milk a little bit at a time until it's all in- no lumps.)

Once the gravy is done, you can put the Rouladen back into the pan to keep warm in the gravy until you're ready to serve it.  Just keep a lid on it on low.

So while your Rouladen were cooking, you should have made your red cabbage.  I have zero pictures, because they didn't turn out, but that shouldn't stop you from trying it.

Paula's Red Cabbage

In a large saucepan on medium low heat, brown a few cut up slices of bacon or small cubes cut from a slab of bacon.  Remove the cooked bacon and set aside but save the fat.

Dice a small onion and saute that in the bacon fat.

Shred a small red cabbage about the size of a very large grapefruit. Once the onion is translucent, dump the shredded cabbage and cooked bacon into the pan with the onion and toss the cabbage around in the fat to coat it.

Add the following: one cup of beef stock (or a cup of water and a boullion cube), 1/3 cup of red wine vinegar, 1/4 cup of blueberry preserves (the traditional fruit and sweetener is a diced apple and a few tablespoons of honey, but my way is to use the preserves, so you get whole fruits, and to reinforce the red color- it's not strictly traditional but it is my recipe), 1 bay leaf, 1 one inch piece of cinnamon stick, 1 piece of blade mace (or some fresh ground nutmeg), a pinch of ground cloves (whole cloves are too small to fish out later), a small pinch of caraway seeds, and four juniper berries (the last two are optional).  Mix it up and taste the liquid for a balance of sweet and sour.  Put the lid on it and set it to cook for an hour.

After the hour is up, take off the lid and fish out the bay leaf, cinnamon stick, and blade mace and discard them. Then take a tablespoon of very soft unsalted butter and a couple tablespoons of flour and mash them together until they resemble cookie dough.  This is sort of like a beurre manie.  Pull pea-sized balls of dough into the red cabbage and lightly stir them in.  Put a lid on it and set it on the back of the stove to keep warm while you make the Spaetzle.

Steve's Spaetzle

Bring a large pot of water to the simmer and add some salt (like for pasta).

It helps a lot to do this in a stand mixer:

Beat together: 4 eggs, 2 1/4 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, freshly grated nutmeg and freshly ground white pepper (not black- if you don't have white, skip the pepper), and 1/2 cup of water.  Beat it until it strings off the sides of the bowl.

It should make a stringy, thick batter, not a dough, and will be really sticky.

Spoon the batter in batches into a Spaetzle maker and squeeze it into a barely simmering pot of salted water.

When the Spaetzle rise to the surface, they're done. It will happen pretty fast so be ready for them.  Remove them with a slotted spoon or spider and keep them in a warm serving dish.  It helps to keep them from sticking by stirring a tablespoon of butter into them.

To serve dinner, fish the Rouladen back out of the gravy and carefully remove all that string.  Plate them with the red cabbage and Spaetzle, and then ladle gravy over the noodles and beef. *

I probably shouldn't have written this post before bedtime because now I'm hungry again.

* Some people like toasted, buttered bread crumbs on their Spaetzle, and some people like some minced onion sauteed with those bread crumbs.  Just sayin'.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Drying Rack for the Homestead

My Homesteader drying rack from Forgotten Way Farms arrived almost two weeks ago and I finally put it together today.  We're drying two and a half loads on it as I write (the other half load is on the English rack in the kitchen).  It comes unassembled with instructions so that the shipping isn't as expensive as it would otherwise be.

I really like this rack!  It does take up a chunk of the living room, and maybe not everyone wants to devote part of the living room to drying clothes, but that's where we had the room (this rack is huge), and we're determined to make changes in our lifestyle at the pace we want to, rather than making forced changes later in life. Change before you have to, is the maxim to which we're ascribing.  We get used to living 'simply', as it were, and we'll already be used to it when supply tightens up or our incomes are reduced.  If none of that happens, we'll still have saved a lot of money living this way.

But back to the rack. The only criticism I have, which is pretty minor, was that the instructions had a couple of problems where the instructions didn't quite jive with the pictures, which almost stopped the assembly altogether until I figured it out. The key is to stick with what the picture looks like, because they're right.  Once I had that part done, the rest of it went together pretty quickly.  Something that might make assembly a little easier for anyone thinking about getting this rack is to put a piece of ¾" wood underneath parts that don't touch the floor to make it much steadier to work on.  Also, if you have a speed-loading chuck on your drill or impact driver and a phillips driver bit, it will make fixing the screws into the dowel ends go a lot quicker, and there are a bunch of them. Screwing the ends of the dowels in actually took more time than assembling the rack!

All in all, I think this is a great product, and I'm glad that I purchased the largest size they have.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Running Away For The Weekend: Seattle

Steve and I ran away to Seattle for our anniversary and had a crazy good time, starting with the train ride  from Portland to Seattle.

The Portland train station is in pretty good shape on the interior, and the outside is covered in scaffolding because they're working on it. It's heartening to see the train station being taken care of.

The line that runs between Portland and Seattle is called the Amtrak Cascades.  We opted for business class, and I'm glad we did because aside from there being a little more room, when you check in your seat is assigned and you get to board when they call for business class.  With coach, you have to stand in a long line to get your seat assignment and then you have to stand in another line to board.  You also get a voucher worth a couple of bucks in the bistro car with a business class ticket.  Upgrading our tickets to business class was $32 for the pair and this was for round trip, so I think it was worth it.  It was very comfortable.  By the way, I learned a couple of things on the train:  1) staying awake on the train is next to impossible, and 2) screaming, obstreperous children are just as annoying on the train as they are on a plane.  The difference is that on the train, Mommy can cart the kids off to the bistro car to distract them, which is merciful; on a plane you're trapped. (Don't get me wrong- it's not that I don't like kids- I just really like my hearing.)

The Cascades line runs along the Puget Sound for awhile.  We were incredibly lucky to get such a beautiful day for our trip.

Arriving at Seattle, I saw the cars up there on the left.  They turned out to be antique Pullman cars, and I wish I'd taken pictures of them when I saw them because they were gone on Sunday when we came back.  I asked about them and was told that some people have private cars that they pay a fee to Amtrak to be able to hook up and get hauled around.  Which sounds pretty sweet.  Actually, being able to afford to buy your own Pullman would be pretty sweet, come to think of it.

Once you get into the city, you can ride public transportation for free in the city center during the weekdays, so we hopped a free bus to within a block of the hotel, which was a cinch to find because it's across the intersection of Spring Street and 5th Avenue from the Central Library.  The Vintage Park Hotel is one of those little boutique hotels, which I find I like better than the big chain hotels. The hotel itself was remodeled in the mid-nineties, and in fifteen years, it's showing a little bit of wear and the decor is a little dated, but by and large, it's still a great hotel.  The staff was wonderful; after asking us the reason for our visit to Seattle and learning that we were there to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, they sent up a bucket of champagne and strawberries and chocolate on the house. The concierge handled our dinner reservations for the in-house restaurant Tulio, and when we came down for dinner, the restaurant also treated us to a glass of champagne.

Tulio is a really nice little restaurant, and they too took really good care of us.  I loved the cozy and elegant interior, but due to my being a crappy photographer, I couldn't get a decent picture of the interior for you.  The only picture that turned out decently was the beet salad, which was delicious, but then, I like beets.  Our waiter, Alfreddo, was very attentive and helpful; he recommended a nice glass of wine to go with my duck breast; he steered us to a terrific dessert (the pistachio semifreddo with shaved chocolate and candied orange peel), and he even got the email address of the chef (Walter Pisano) so I could ask for a couple of recipes.  He was there when we needed him and made himself scarce when we didn't.  Probably the thing that I appreciated most was that he made us feel welcome and that he seemed to be glad to be helping us.  Not a lot of waiters make you feel that way.

Friday morning's breakfast was at Belle Pastry on the corner of Spring and Western. This is a picture of the goody case.  Steve had the chocolate croissant (pain au chocolat, as I learned in high school) and a ham and cheese croissant, and I had an almond croissant.  This place is well worth seeking out if you're in Seattle.

Okay, yeah, we did the tourist thing. I got a picture of the sign, naturally, but nothing of the interior.  Pike's Place Market is a huge tourist trap, of course, and there's a lot of kitschy-krappy stuff there, but, and this is a big but, the food stuffs are gorgeous.  The fish and meats and vegetables and creamery goods were so beautiful I told Steve we are getting a place with a kitchenette the next time because I want to cook with this stuff!  One of the girls at the Belle Pastry told us that she buys all her vegetables there, and I could see why.  I even found nice chanterelles for as little as $6.95 a pound, which believe me, is a great price for chanterelles. (Finding them for free in the forest is way better, but you do what you can.)

This is the shop across from the market, and is really part of it. I grabbed a chicken gyro there- spicy and delicious.

Dinner Friday night was at Purple at Fourth and University, and it was good too, but the size of the dining room which was cavernous, made it really, really loud.  I also experienced something a little weird that I've never experienced in a restaurant; the seat in which I was sitting, which was just like every other chair in the place, was high enough that my feet didn't reach the floor, and there was no rung on which to rest them, so they dangled throughout my meal.  Not too comfortable, on a couple of different levels.

Saturday we wandered back to the market to buy some things we saw, and then wandered up Pike which was a much gentler slope and easier for me to walk.  By the time we got back to our hotel, we were in need of a restorative, and we managed to catch Tulio's manager on the way into the restaurant.  He was kind enough to allow us into his closed restaurant for an espresso, which we had at the bar.  It was precisely what I was hoping for, which was a relaxed cup of coffee in a nice setting.  Sitting there, we decided to have dinner there again that night, rather than having to go out again, so we made reservations.  The manager asked where we were from and why we were in Seattle, so we told him, and were treated again to another glass of champagne at dinner, on the house.  We didn't have the heart to tell them that it wasn't that night, but oh well.  At least we learned that they are nothing if not extremely gracious.

The next morning we walked down for breakfast at one of the Seattle's Best coffee houses, which was unremarkable, and then popped down the block to the Walgreens drug store for a couple of items.  I missed the group of Asians in leathers that Steve saw, but the fellow that checked us out had a rather feminine afro hairdo, three lip rings, and a luridly colored skull tattoo on his right hand. This probably wouldn't have been as memorable as it was if he hadn't been helping another store employee argue with an old man in a track suit about the price of the cheap wine on the shelf, and that in itself wouldn't have been so memorable if the old man in the track suit hadn't been wearing, and I am not making this up, a purple velvet pimp hat with a leopard hat band.  We got out the door and halfway across the street before Steve said, "Wow- that was a freak show," to which I agreed.  Freak show was the only way to describe it.

We got back to the hotel, finished packing and checked out.  Because the day was so sunny, and it was all downhill from the hotel to King Street Station, we decided to walk the ten or so blocks there.  It turned out to be a really civilized and pleasant thing to do and we were both glad we did.  At the station, we had time to get a good look at it, and it was depressing how bad of shape it was in. Fluorescent lighting dangled on wires from what had been a beautiful, ornate ceiling.

I was really appalled.

This is one part of the station that hasn't seen too much damage from the ill-advised and ill-conceived  modernization that plagued it in the seventies.

But the good news is that it turns out that the station is in the process of being restored.  The station was started in 1904, from designs by Reed and Stem which was the same architectural firm that designed Grand Central Station in New York, and was completed and opened in 1906.  In 2008, the station was purchased from BNSF (Burlington Northern and Santa Fe) by the city of Seattle for the sum of ten dollars, and it's the city of Seattle that is restoring it. Ridership is up in Seattle, and the Sounder commute trains also use the station. From the pictures of the plans, it should be really beautiful, and much more user friendly.

I think we're going to have to run away to Seattle again.  And again and again.  What a good time!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ten Years Before The Mast

The mast and me, five years in
"I had a thought," said Steve.

"Well treat it kindly.  It's a stranger in a foreign land," I replied, which was something my dad always said when presented with the same statement.

"Don't say that anymore- that's old," said Steve, who knew I didn't mean it, but was tired of hearing it just the same.

"Okay.  What was this thought of yours?" I asked.

"Marrying you was probably one of the smartest things I ever did."

Damn right,  I was tempted to say.  But really?  I've been saying for years that marrying Steve was the smartest thing I ever did.

Teaching him how to yeast bake was the second smartest thing I ever did, and convincing him to brew his own beer was probably the third smartest.  But I digress.

Steve and I were married ten years ago today on the front porch of a friend's mother's old victorian on the St. Johns river in Jacksonville. We were both wearing our jeans and Birkenstock sandals.  This same friend's father presided over our ceremony. His sartorial splendor consisted of jeans and sneakers on the bottom half, and a tux and tie on the top half.  He had renewed his notary status just for the occasion, and I still feel that our wedding was perfect.

I'd do it over and over and over again, just the same way, for all the same reasons.

Happy anniversary, Honey Boy.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Insulating Ourselves Against the Cold

After the new metal roof, solar water heater, and solar PV system were installed, the very last portion of the roof project was to get the insulation beefed up, which is just what we did.

The first thing the fellows installing the new insulation did was to install the bird box baffles, which essentially provide a channel for the air coming in from the vents under the eaves (called the bird boxes) to flow into the attic unimpeded and out the ridge vent.  They hold back the insulation from covering the bird boxes.  Once the baffles were in, they blew in the new insulation, and here it is.

It's pretty high now.  And it works really well.  On most nights, with outside temperatures in the forties, we were now losing one degree Fahrenheit in warmth inside the house.  On nights where it dipped into the thirties, we were now losing only two degrees.  After observing this for a few days, it occurred to me that we will probably be able to heat the house comfortably with a fire in the morning, and a fire in the evening, which means that our firewood should be easier to make last longer.

There is no telling how cold or severe a winter we'll have, although by all accounts, it should be a lulu due to another La Nina event, but I think we're in pretty good shape.

Better than I initially thought, anyway.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Winter Prep

I had hoped that growing hops would be the gateway plant by which I would successfully suck Steve into gardening, but it didn't happen.  I did marginally better by turning over the strawberries to his care this summer.  It seemed like the thing to do: his being home during the day meant that he was getting the lion's share of the strawberries, and frankly, his back is more suited to the constant bending over that harvesting strawberries requires.  I basically said, "you're getting all the strawberries; here's an article in the Mother Earth News about growing strawberries, so you can do it."  To my surprise he agreed.

Yesterday was a good day for readying parts of the garden for winter, and one of the things we did was to put the strawberries to bed for the winter under a blanket of straw.  We stuck applewood cuttings about every foot and a half along the sides of the beds to hold the straw in place.

I had to laugh when Steve said, "it's good that we're getting the strawberries ready for winter, but I think we'd better leave the Franken Berries and Boo Berries where they are until after Halloween."

Next I picked up the potato bags one by one and lugged them over to the big plot, which is where I'll put next year's garden, and dumped their contents onto the soil.  They all contained a mixture of compost, shredded leaves, and pine bedding that I used for growing potatoes this year and I wanted to compost that in place.  They also contained a bunch of potatoes, which is what I'd hoped would happen when I left them where they were this summer when I harvested some of the potatoes.

I'm pretty sure I'll have potatoes next year because I didn't bother with picking out the teeny tiny potatoes, and if they survive the winter, well then they deserve to grow.  If they don't, I'm still going to try to grow them, but I'll use Nita's method over at Throwback From Trapper Creek.  She dry gardens, and she also produces most of what her family eats, so I'll see if her method works for me. Someday, when I grow up, I'm going to be able to produce food like Nita does.  She's a for real homesteader, and I'm just a rank amateur.

The next step was to pull the buried chicken wire out of the big bed so that it (the bed) can be dug up next spring.  I read that gophers and other pesky ground-burrowing varmints love garlic as much as we do, and the only way to keep them out of the garlic is to grow it in a metal basket.  I managed to get the first one out, but had trouble with the second one, and Steve had to finish yanking it out after I'd tweaked my back.  It was't the soil so much as the clover that grew into it that made it so hard to get out.  But we finally did it, and I further raked out the potato bag contents, and then we covered that with more straw.

I hope to install sides to this bed to keep the grass from growing into it and to keep the contents from spilling out of it, but that will have to wait until later this winter.  The next time Steve mows the lawn, the clippings will be strewn in there as well any leaves we pick up. Supposedly, you can improve clay soil this way, but it's going to take a long time and I'm not kidding myself about it.

We also moved the compost bin to the end of one of the raised beds so that we don't have to travel so far out into the yard this winter.  Part of the reason I want to garden in the big bed is to give the raised beds a rest, and maybe even get some cover crop in them this winter.  I only have four total that I can rotate crops among so we'll see.  But having the compost bin over the end of the raised bed seemed like a good idea, logistically speaking.

Yesterday I also harvested the last of the tomatoes, and got a bunch of small green tomatoes off the two volunteer tomato plants.  Enough that I'm making them into pickles even as I write this.  Dinner last night was one of my favorites: fried green tomatoes.  I have enough of them to do it again this week. We also got a bunch of red serranos picked, which I'll string up into a ristra, and then once they're dry I'll break them into crumbled chili pepper flakes for sprinkling on pizza.

So the garden wasn't a complete and total flop this year, in fact, I did get some good out of it.  There are still turnips and celery out there and hopefully I'll get parsnips this winter, too.  I just have to keep at this gardening thing until I learn how to get it all done.

Monday, October 24, 2011

New Garage Lights

Last winter I decided I needed to wire a couple more lights into the garage because one half of my firewood was so dark that at night I couldn't really see what I was looking at.  This weekend I finally got around to doing it.

This is the second of the two original fixtures.  Well, you can't really call them fixtures- it's just a box and a porcelain socket- but you know what I mean.  That got opened up, and I ran a length of 14/2 (that's 14 gauge wire, with 2 conductors and a ground) indoor rated wire from the old socket to where the next box is, which is a new one about eight feet away.  The original porcelain socket had an old-fashioned connection which I actually like better than the new ones; you just shove the wire into the hole.  The black conductor from the new wire goes into a little hole right next to where the black from the old wire was connected, and the new white conductor goes in next to the old white conductor.

This is a bad picture, but the boxes really are easily nailed to the joists.

This is the new box for the third light.  The line from the old light goes in one side of the box, and the next line goes in from the other side of the box.  The holes through which the wires go are called knockouts, but in this case they don't really knock out- they open wide enough to slip the wire in from the outside, and then snap back to hold the wire in place.  Between the pinching knockouts and the staples, this fixture won't go anywhere.

Then the jacket gets cut off the wire to give yourself some room, and the ends of each of the conductors is stripped of its jacket.  The bare copper is the ground wire.  When our house was built, most of the receptacles were not grounded correctly, and although we have a new, properly grounded panel, the old fixtures in the garage were not properly grounded, so I didn't worry about it.  I just connected the grounds together and shoved them into the box out of the way.

This a picture of the new-fangled porcelain socket.  This is actually the end of the line fixture (I really had trouble taking pictures in the garage this weekend, probably because it's so much darker in there this time of year).  For the middle of the line fixture (which is what this is), I wrapped the black conductors from the incoming line and the outgoing line around the one side, and then wrapped the two white lines together on the other screw.  Once the fixture is wired in, you can shove all the wire into the box and screw the fixture to the box.

The lights below are the new garage lights.  The older ones are closer to us, and the new ones are closer to the garage door.  I can't really show you the difference they make because I truly am a terrible photographer, but take my word for it- I can see all the fire wood now.

The only problem with that is now I can really see how much the garage needs to be cleaned.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Our Solar Photo Voltaic System

Our solar PV system was finally finished this week, and what a long, ongoing saga that turned out to be.  I'll spare you all the details though.  Really. You want to be spared.

Suffice to say that because the city and the county were involved, as was the local utility, the PV system took a lot longer to get done than the solar water heating system did.  And the two young yokels who installed it had a bit of a problem with understanding what was my property and what was their property - nothing was stolen or anything, but they helped themselves to standing on a garbage can (and crushing the lid) and they helped themselves to my scrap lumber and pallet (which were earmarked for projects) to cover the gigantic hole by the side of the garage that they had to dig, with my shovel, which they neglected to wash off again.  I realized while I was fuming that most people probably wouldn't care, but you can't help your feelings and mine were incensed.  Let's just say the project manager got an earful. So did poor Steve, since it was his project, but all was made right in the end and now we're producing power off the roof.

Half the panels up, sitting on their rails

So there are eighteen 250 watt solar panels up on the roof, each of which has its own micro inverter.  This appears to be the way to go with inverters these days, because the advantage is that if one fails, only that panel fails until you replace the micro inverter.  They also stay cooler so they last longer. And they're also a lot less expensive than one big inverter, which is expensive to replace as well.  The inverter is what wears out the fastest on a solar PV system, so if you have the opportunity to use micro inverters, go for it.

Panels all up; now the fun with the inspections begins

I think I mentioned before that we are grid-tied; Steve didn't want to deal with batteries (or their eventual disposal) so we now have a net meter, which is the meter that runs backward when you're producing power.  Something interesting that I want you to remember if you decide to do solar power is that while we were waiting for the PGE (Portland General Electric) guy to come out and swap out the old meter for the new net meter, Steve couldn't wait and flipped the switch on the solar panels and we were producing power for a day or so.  It turns out that meters from the seventies (and after) when ours was made were made to count the power running into them as well, because back during the so-called Energy Crisis (remember that?) of the seventies, people were messing with their meters, so long story short, we're going to have to pay for the power we were producing those first couple of days.  Pretty funny.

Our panels, on a good, clean (no smog) sunny day, with zero dust on them, and the sun hitting them juuuuust right will produce upwards of 30kW a day, which will probably never happen for a variety of reasons. However, because we average about 13kW in usage a day, we should be able to produce most of our own power, winter weather not withstanding.  Most of it.

The system cost around $27,000, but because of four years of federal income tax credits and four years of state income tax credits that we'll be able to take, plus the rebate from the Energy Trust of Oregon, when we're done, we'll have paid around $11,000 for this system.  At the rate we're currently paying PGE for our electrical usage, it will be a long time before this thing pays for itself, but we don't know how much energy is going to cost in the future, do we?  The important thing to us was to get this system installed while we had the cash and could replenish our savings because we're still working.

If the cost of energy goes through the roof, we'll be glad it's not going through ours.  And if it doesn't go through the roof?

We'll just have a really cool, really expensive toy.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Unnatural Beekeeping

My bees are dead.

We've had some rain and the weather turned distinctly cooler, and I thought they were just hanging out keeping warm in their hive.  But today when I came home, almost the first thing out of Steve's mouth was "you need to put some Tanglefoot on the hive stand- I saw ants out there."

That didn't sound good so I asked him if he'd seen bees flying around, to which he said yes.  But while I was spreading Tanglefoot on the hive stand leg, I noticed that what was flying in the door way was some sort of hornet, not a honey bee.  Uh oh, I thought.

I asked Steve to wash one of our food grade buckets while I donned my grubbies and bee gear, thinking that if there had been a swarm I missed, and if they'd left any honey, I'd grab it. I admit that I wasn't prepared for what I saw when I got it open.

Starting from the back I saw nice, clean but empty comb.

Then the comb got progressively darker, but still empty.  Then I finally got to one that had capped cells, but it was even darker comb and everything appeared to be dead.

And then I saw them.

All the bees were dead in a large pile at the bottom of the hive.  They appeared to be moldy, but it was kind of hard to see through my hood.  At any rate, it was a massive die-off, and not a swarm.  I have no idea what did it- there should have been plenty of ventilation in the hive because the bottom was screened, not solid.  It might have been Colony Collapse Disorder, but I don't know what that looks like. I don't know if the mold (if that's what it is) attacked and killed them or if it happened after they died.  I also don't know how much of my hive I can reuse, or if the comb will be worth anything to me.  And there was absolutely no honey, whatsoever.  Were there not enough flowers in the neighborhood? I'm really baffled.

I thought that if I left them alone, they would do better without me, because it seemed that every time I got into the hive, I'd smash some of them moving things around.  I might have been too hands off, although honestly?  I don't know if I'd have been able to save them anyway.

I'm having curiously mixed feelings about this.  On the one hand, I'm supremely bummed, especially since now I have two livestock failures (my chickens, remember?)  on my hands, but on the other hand, I'm relieved that I don't have to worry about them this winter, which I was wondering how I was going to manage.  Bees need to have their food moved where they can reach in the winter; they've been known to starve to death even though food is just a little beyond where they want to go when it's cold. And in addition to keeping them fed, I wasn't sure about how to keep them warm enough, and still ventilate them.

I also feel bad about being so gung ho and going ahead with getting them when I probably should have done a lot more research before jumping in.

As it is, I'll be doing a lot of research anyway, but now I have at least thirty-thousand deaths on my hands.

No, wait a minute- make that thirty-thousand and four.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Maybe You'll Remember

Some time ago I ran across a wooden clothes drying rack that I thought was pretty great, but I can't remember if posted about it, or if I found it through a link a reader included in their comments.  The racks are made by the husband half of a couple who are living off-grid somewhere here in the states, and I wanted to get one of their racks, except now I can't find them.

I realize that I could only be slightly more vague, but if anybody knows what I'm talking about, please chime in....

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Winter of Our Disconnect

Burning wood during more profligate times

Steve and I are playing a game of chicken of sorts these days.  As the autumn season wears on, we're trying to deal with being colder and colder by putting on more layers and sucking it up, rather than turning on the furnace.  Oh sure, we have two cords of dry hardwood stacked up in the garage, but I'm determined to make it last longer than last year's one cord of mixed woods and pallet of Bear bricks, which gave out some time in February.  A look at this past year's natural gas bill showed that March had the highest usage of the entire year, followed by April, then February, when the wood ran out, and then May.  We want to start burning the wood as late in the fall as we possibly can, so that it will last as late in the spring as it possibly can.  We also don't want to burn too much gas, so it's a balance of weighing how cold it is outside, against how cold it is inside, and deciding if: 1) we're going to tough it out, 2) it's cold enough  inside but still warm enough outside that we can make the house more comfortable with just a little bit of gas, or 3) it's cold inside and too cold outside to warm the house with a little bit of gas so it's time to start burning the precious wood.

You might think we're crazy to be this obsessed with paying attention to our consumption of things but it really seems to be paying off. Part of this conservation, particularly with the gas, is being borne out with the solar water heater.  Last year during the month of September, we used twelve therms in a thirty-two day billing period; last month's billing period was thirty-three days and we used a total of four therms.  That's a quarter of what we used last year during the same month.  It's hard to say how much gas I used for cooking for either year, but I would venture to guess that the savings is attributable to our solar water heater. It'll be interesting to see how that savings changes over the course of the fall and winter seasons when it won't be nearly as efficient as it is in the summer.  The collector plates still heat up quite a bit in overcast weather, but rain definitely keeps the collector much cooler, so we don't get as much heat out of it then.  However, it does warm it a little bit, which means the regular gas heater is heating pre-warmed water (which runs through insulated piping from the solar tank) rather than heating cold water, so we'll gain a little bit of benefit from the solar heater, even in crappy winter weather.

When the solar PV system is finally finished, I'll tell you all about that, but right now it's a bit of a sort spot.  The darn thing is taking sooooo much longer than the solar water system did, and that appears to be the fault of the project manager of the company we used, which by the way, was the same company as the water system; the crew that did the solar water heater system was really great; the crew that installed the solar PV…enh, not so much.  But that's all another post, and I promise pictures and stats and all that good stuff.

The other, more difficult to quantify, kind of chicken that Steve and I are playing is with the finances.  We've decided to knuckle down and try to live on my income, and throw everything that Steve makes at the mortgage principal.  This might not be so scary if our incomes were more in line with each other, and since I make about half what he does, what I really mean is if my income were a little closer to his, but since that's not the case, it means that things are about to get very lean for us.  Aside from getting out from underneath the mortgage that much sooner, another reason this is a good idea is that it gets us used to living a leaner lifestyle anyway.  I really want for the two of us to be able to retire together, because I want to spend more time with my husband.  We had a late start in life together, and I'm bound and determined to make up for lost time.  It doesn't mean that the minute the mortgage is paid off we're checking out of the rat race, it just means that once that's accomplished, we need to take a look at what we're currently doing and figure out how reasonably soon we could quit working.  Probably the single biggest expense we'll have once we don't have a mortgage and gainful employment will be healthcare insurance, which, if I'm being realistic, will probably be more than our current mortgage payment!

But that's the challenge for the next six months: make the wood and the money last a whole lot longer than they usually do.  Think we can do it?  Think you could do it?

In the meantime, I need to stop writing and crawl under the covers with Steve on the couch.  I'm freezing.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Shallot By Any Other Name

It seems that every time I try some sort of new homesteading skill for myself, I learn a new respect for the folks who subsisted on the skill or who do it for a living.  Take saving seed, for instance.  Letting the garden go to seed is not difficult- I'm actually pretty good at that- but gathering and cleaning seed is a chore. Now, granted, the folks who do it for a living are probably assisted by mechanical devices, but it's still a somewhat mind-numbing experience to clean seed out of the seed heads of several different alliums…come to think of it, it was a tuckus-numbing experience as well, because I was at it for a few hours today and sitting on an as-yet un-cushioned bench for the duration. First I cleaned the seed out of the only onion that had a chance to develop a flower head, which didn't take too long.  Then I cleaned the seed from the only leek flower head that seemed to be mature enough- the other two were still green and didn't want to give up their seed, so I didn't force the issue.  Then I cleaned the seed from several (maybe nine or ten?) shallot seed heads. Which brings me to my next revelation.
In trying to find out how to grow shallots from seed, all I managed to learn is that true shallots don't grow from seed; they  only grow from bulbs, and that shallots that set seed are really a kind of onion. Furthermore, true shallots are mildly onion flavored and are never strong, which also points to the 'shallots' I planted this year truly being onions, and not shallots.  The first one I cut up was so volatile I felt like I was cutting up a small bag of mustard gas.  So this boatload of seed I saved is not really for shallots. Even if they're little onions, they're good little onions.  They were great in the pan sauce I made for the chicken last night.  They were great in the oxtail soup I made tonight (which reminds me I need to write that one down because it was easily one of the best soups I've ever made and I am no slouch in the soup department). But getting back to the shallot seed, when all was said and done, I probably had around one-half to two-thirds of a cup of shallot seed.  Way too much for one little garden.  So you know what I did?  I packaged it all up into little 2 gram packages so that any of you (okay, the first twenty-two of you) who would like to experiment with seeds that are for onions masquerading as shallots could try growing them from seed with me. It will be a grand experiment of sorts.  Just let me know by dropping me a line saying so with your name and address and I will get them out to you.

I still don't know how to grow shallots from seed, but I'm going to guess that since they're probably really onions, I can grow them like onions.  My success rate with the alliums is kind of fifty-fifty; I can grow the dickens out of garlic, and the shallots did pretty well, but I'm not doing so well with the onions.  See the shallots in the picture in my header?  That was this year's shallot crop.  I sure hope I do that well with the seed, because I'm not ordering any bulbs for next year.  Part of this whole homesteading thing is to learn to be self-sufficient (not that I believe in true self-sufficiency because even the homesteaders had to drive into town occasionally for things), so learning to save seed against the day when you can't get it is a good skill to have, just in case.  Learning how to turn those seeds into food is an even better skill I think, and I'm still working on that one, too.

Don't forget to let me know if you'd like to try so-called shallot seeds. Offer good while supplies last, as they say.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Finches and Flowers

Sometimes you learn things the hard way, and sometimes that's okay. I planted an anise hyssop and a German chamomile for making herb teas, more correctly known as tisanes.  While I knew that it's the flowers on the chamomile that you want to harvest for tea, what I didn't know was that they freely reseed themselves.  It's a good thing that in addition to being good for tea, they're pretty, so at this writing they're welcome to join the many weeds in the backyard.

What I also didn't know was that for the anise hyssop, you want to harvest before they flower, which I didn't do.  Didn't know.  So for the better part of the summer, I've at least enjoyed the purple spikes on the anise hyssop.  So did the bees, until some unknown (to me, anyway) species of bee aggressively chased them off, but even that was okay because there were basil flowers right next door.  I should have been on top of those too, or I would still have basil to harvest. As it was, the bees had more fodder.

Do you see six goldfinches?
At any rate, the pretty purple hyssop flowers came and went, and before I really started thinking about what happens with flowers once they're spent and the ensuing seeds they're likely to spread everywhere, I was treated to the pretty sight of around ten goldfinches breakfasting on the anise hyssop seeds.  I counted at least nine anyway.  They were hard to count because they wouldn't hold still.  Even harder to photograph.

So next year, the anise hyssop gets harvested before it flowers, and the basil gets pinched regularly so that it keeps making leaves.

And I move on to learning something else the hard way.  Bound to.

Note: I'll have a post on the solar PV in a few days. It's getting installed this week.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Hate Clothes Shopping So Much That...

....when my husband happens across a sale on the LLBean website, he encourages me to go check it out.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Dead Chicken Sketch

By overwhelmingly positive response, this post is going to be about slaughtering and butchering a chicken for dinner.  There will be blood, and there will be guts, but it's not bloody guts, so if you can handle a gory movie you can probably handle this post.  My intent is for it is to be instructional, not sensational. I also want to remind you that if you can't see the picture well, click on it so you can see the bigger version.

Ethel was definitely not a hen
I have to preface this by saying that I wasn't at all sure when I started with the chicks that I'd ever be able to kill one for a meal, but my aim with the birds all along has been that they would be livestock for me, not pets.  They were intended primarily for help in the garden, with their eggs being a useful side benefit and good source of protein. Then I had to cull one that went horribly lame.  That by itself was an interesting experience because I learned that I could kill a chicken if I had to.  So it was with some dismay when I learned around eight or so weeks of age that the remaining birds were cockerels.  They had to go, but quick, because the city doesn't allow them and rightly so.  I was certain that Vivian and Violet were boys- their faces were taking on a roostery aspect and they were crowing.  But I wasn't at all sure about Ethel, and even though she was the most agressive of the bunch, her head didn't look particularly roostery like the other two, and her tail was not as pronounced as the other twos'.  Still, on that second morning after discovering that I had not one but two birds that were crowing, Ethel popped out the pop hole and started the morning's ruckus herself. My friend Rae still wasn't convinced they were all cockerels because some hens have been known to crow, and some hens have been known to grow spurs, and frankly I wasn't convinced Ethel was male either.  But crowing, hen or otherwise, is not allowed where I live so down to Rae's forty acres they all went.  When we came back roughly six weeks later I was astonished first at how big they were, and well, this here's Ethel. Definitely a rooster.

Before you get started with the business of turning live birds into chicken dinners, you want to first set up an area in which to do it.  A plastic topped table is helpful because it's easily washed-- otherwise get a plastic tablecloth.  You also need a large pot of steaming water. I've read that it needs to be 140 degrees, but LJ (Rae's intended) told us that if you can dunk your finger in three times and it finally hurts like hell on the third dunk, the water's hot enough.  And then finally a cone of some sort placed upside down on a wall, or in this case, on a post is also helpful for calming down the bird and making the whole sordid deal for them a little easier to take.  I've read that this is the most humane way to kill chickens, so I was relieved when I saw that Rae and LJ already had a cone set up.  I mean, I've seen how they raise their animals and know that each species has plenty of room to wander and fresh air and sunshine and shade, depending on what they want and need, and they are living good lives, especially her hogs, who for all the world look like they're smiling contentedly while they're stretched out in the deep shade of their little woods on a hot day.  I was happy to see that they would also have good deaths, and really, that's the best you can hope for in this world. We all of us want our deaths to be as quick as possible, and that's what the very, very sharp knife you're going to use is for- make sure that the knife you'll use is extremely sharp, because it will make quick, clean work of the kill thrust, as well as be a whole lot safer for you. It also makes getting the chicken apart a lot easier.  The last thing you'll want handy is a bucket for catching everything.  Rae and LJ thoughtfully had a plastic garbage bag stretched over a bin tote, and that worked very well.

So to the slaughtering:  After catching your bird and placing it head down in the cone, give it a few minutes to rest there.  My own personal feeling about why hanging a chicken upside down works to calm them is that their little tiny brains don't know what to do with all that blood rushing to their heads, but that's pure conjecture.  At any rate, it works, and once they seem pretty calm you can go to it.   Pull the skin at the front of its neck away from the spine- it's very loose so you can do this comfortably.

Then with the knife edge pointing down, thrust the blade into the neck between the spine and the jugulars, and with a sharp twist of your wrist pull down and out to cut the throat and open up the neck.

You can hold the bird's head away by the comb to facilitate it bleeding out, because the faster it bleeds the quicker it dies, and we want to be humane here.   Once the bird is dead, cut off the head by separating it between the neck vertebrae, and unfortunately this is easier said than done, but the bird is dead at this point, thank goodness.

The next step is to dunk the bird in the hot water to loosen its feathers for plucking. I'm going to forewarn you here that they never tell you this, but after you dunked that bird it stinks.  It didn't before, but when it comes out of the water it smells like a hot, sweaty bird so be prepared for that.   You want to dunk the bird to the point where its feathers meet the scaly part of its legs and swish it around in there for about thirty ten or so seconds.

Then out it comes and you can start pulling feathers off by the handful.  Our birds had just started their fall moult, so there were quite a few new feathers coming in, which made plucking them a real chore, so my suggestion is to do this whole process earlier in the summer if you can wing it (sorry).  By far, getting the bird clean is the longest part of doing this, so be prepared for that.  A stiff raspberry daiquiri goes a long way here.  Once you have the bird clean, it's time to cut off the legs at the knees.  I did not get this part documented on film, but thankfully it's not hard.  As you're holding the bird by the scaly part of the leg, feel for the knee joint which is where the scaly part of the leg meets the now plucked part of the leg. Feel for the spot where the two bones meet with the thumb holding the bird and cut through the joint in between the two bones.  At this point, the bird really starts looking like dinner.

Okay-- the next step is to eviscerate the bird, which isn't as bad as it sounds, but is a step fraught with peril. Chicken guts are full of nasty bacteria that will make you so incredibly sick they will put you off eating for awhile, in fact, they may put you off breathing as well, so be extremely careful not to puncture anything inside there.  To do this, you want to put the bird on its back, and at the spot where every culinary bird you've ever seen has a gaping hole in it, i.e., right between the legs, grab the skin and pull it out and as taut as you can, and make a small, careful, one to two inch incision in the skin,a and just the skin. You want to create a hole large enough to get a couple of fingers in, keeping the blade well away from the cavity.

Stretch the hole until it's large enough to get your hand in, and reach into the cavity and feel around gently for a roundish, hardish thing.  That's the gizzard and it makes a great handle for pulling out the guts, so grab it and pull out the guts.  (I was shown as a kid how to cut up a chicken and part of that lesson included gouging out the kidneys which are nestled in the back, so I didn't find pulling out chicken guts all that distasteful. You might feel otherwise.)

Look around for the bile duct which attached to the liver. The bile duct is that little black thing that looks kind of like a slug, and it's full of really nasty stuff, so very, very carefully cut it off the liver without nicking it and throw it away.  Save the liver for pate de volaille.  Rae likes the gizzards, and she can have them as far as I'm concerned, and LJ likes the heart and he can have that, but everything else is garbage so throw it all out.

Lung is that dark pink thing on left
Next gouge out the aforementioned kidneys with your thumbs, and make sure you have the lungs out as well.  Those are the pink spongy things toward the top of the cavity. The last thing you want to do is cut the vent off with the tail.  Commercial birds have the tails on and I've never really understood this because I don't find the Pope's Nose particularly edible; it's most skin and fat and that's just icky to me.  So taking it off with the vent make sense to me because it makes getting the vent off a lot easier.   Give the bird a good rinse, and ice it down, or package it up and ice it down. I've never been one for the vacuum food sealer, but in this instance one makes a great deal of sense.  At any rate, you want to get that bird as cool as possible as quickly as possible to keep the bacterial growth to a minimum.  Chickens spoil very quickly.  Leave it in the fridge for a day or two at the most to let it go through rigor before you try to cook or freeze it.

So that's it.

The de rigueur chicken puppet
The whole experience was interesting to me because I noticed that I felt curiously unsentimental and detached about these birds, maybe because they were such a huge disappointment.  It also made me realize that I could do it again.  This summer's garden was not the glorious success that last year's garden was; the climate in the Pacific Northwest continues to get more difficult for amateurs like me to grow in because the springs are getting longer and colder and wetter, which makes planting problematic (not to mention figuring out what to plant a lot harder) and the summers are also getting cooler and shorter.  My tomatoes appear to be a bust this year; only half are ripening, and by that I mean the bottom half of the tomato is ripening- the tops are staying stubbornly yellow, and I've not clue what's caused it.  So this whole enterprise of learning how to feed ourselves from the backyard just in case we have to someday is starting to look like we'll starve.  I've been thinking about keeping rabbits, which were very popular during WWII. In fact, they kept the wolf from the door for a lot of people at that time, but I've also been worried that I'd start up a rabbitry, get a mess of rabbits on my hands, and then not be able to kill them.  This past weekend's exercise has put that fear to rest for me; I'm certain at this point that rabbits will be part of the homestead.  And if that's the case, we'll stand a lot better chance of not starving to death, if push comes to shove at some point.  I also figure that if it does get that bad, I'll probably be feeding the neighborhood as well, but I'm okay with that. We all have to look out for each other, and it was in that spirit that Rae and LJ taught us to to kill and butcher a chicken.

Since it also taught me something about myself as well, I'm profoundly grateful to them for the lesson.

Editorial note:  this is my 400th post, so I'm glad I was able to commemorate it with something useful.