Monday, January 31, 2011

Gardening? But it's so coooold out....

The 'lovely' view of my sorry greenhouse greeted me as we came in the driveway from church Sunday.  I keep thinking Hubby and the princes have to get onto fixing it, or my garden will be lagging behind yet again.  Then I realized I was wrong in thinking I needed to wait for them, since sowing seeds come first, and that's my job.  It will be weeks before they're ready to go outside in the unheated greenhouse, even if it is in top-notch condition.                                                                                                                                                    
As you can see, I have some clean up to do in the garden boxes, too, so they are not the only ones who need to brave the wet and cold to do some outside work. This week's forecast promises some sun, so maybe I can talk some of my schoolkids out of their chairs to do some garden prep with me. Thankfully, for a quiet Sunday afternoon, I had some research to do inside, so could still enjoy the warmth and continued laziness.                                                                                                                                                                 
I know that one of my shortcomings is a good grasp on garden scheduling.  I want to plant all at once and then harvest.  I am not good at varied start or succession planting, both of which would better suit the plants to the climate changes, and increase our overall yield.  I've looked at garden planners and garden journals at bookstores in previous years, but they're one of 2 things: a garden design book, or they're calendars, but blank...for the gardener to fill in.  As a long-time novice, I need more "Do this, and do it this day" help, and I need it specific to my area.                                                                                                                                                                          
Mother Earth News 
When we were without power for days in November, Hubby brought me home a copy of Mother Earth News.  I had never read that magazine before, and thoroughly enjoyed the articles focused on home, health, farming (chickens!), organic gardening, and in that issue, baking bread.                                                                                             
I couldn't help but be intrigued by the ad for their Vegetable Garden Planner. Not only will it help design the layout, which many such tools do, but also advise me about frost dates for my area, and succession planting for my particular plant choices and bed design.  It will only advise me about vegetables that suit the time-frame and weather I have.  I will receive emails to remind me of planting tasks, which I think will be a great help.  If I decide to make the $25 per year investment after a 30-day free trial, the planner will keep track of my planting from year to year, helping with crop rotation issues.   (I really like that they don't ask for payment information when you sign up for the free trial, but only if you make the decision to continue.)                                                                                                                                                
There is no stand-alone software to download.  It's all done on-line via Adobe Flash Player, so should work through any browser on any type of computer, including my detested PC laptop and our Mac.                                                                                                                                                            
It doesn't seem to allow for the use of my greenhouse, so it won't be doing everything for me...I will just have to try it out and let you know what I think.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Baking Center Reorganization, Take 2

The new cabinet organization didn't stay looking as neat and tidy as I'd hoped.  Not that I was surprised.  
It began looking a little haphazard,
and I knew it was headed downhill from there.                                                                                                                             

On a recent trip to the Big City to fetch Princess Sassy, I stopped in at Storables for another purpose, and decided to give one particular spice organizer a try.  
I'd seen the tri-level, step designs before, but without any thing to hold items on the shelves.  They looked like an avalanche ready to happen.  This one doesn't stretch to fit the space or amount of contents, but I thought it looked more likely to keep things under control.
                                                                                                                                                   I moved the food colorings out of this shelf completely, as they seemed to be a big culprit in fouling up organization plans.  I arranged the flavorings and smaller spice containers onto the spice organizer.  The large things are so few that no matter how they get thrown into the cabinet, they should be easy to locate.  I couldn't help but feel, though, that I was not making the best use of space by keeping this cabinet practically empty, and as one change leads to another, I expanded my organizational tasks to the other cabinet shelves in this same area.

I'd been storing bread baking ingredients in the cabinet to the left, and decided they should be a part of this cabinet instead.  This left me with a mostly empty cabinet there, and I moved on to drawers below the counter that were giving me problems.  

A Baking Utensil Drawers...
and all 3...After

Small Appliance Drawer...Before
and After.  Like the fancy containers?

Pie and Cake pan drawer...Before
and After: No subtractions,  just restacking 

A combination of moving things around, throwing out parts of broken tools, and the use of a couple spare boxes as sorting containers make for a much better setup.  Again, it depends on people keeping up with the program...But at least I think this is something I can more easily sort out if others mess it up a bit.                                                                                                                                           
Overall Befores:

And now:

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Notebook Tool Pouch

I started with a pattern made from 2 sheets of legal-sized paper to get the dimensions I needed...Large enough for new pencils, but short enough to fit inside a 3-ring binder.  I settled on 12" x 14".                                       

  • Fabric cut 12" x 14" (placed with the grain, not diagonally or crooked), preferably sport-weight/bottom-weight (like for shorts/skirt/light pants) for a bit of strength and stiffness
  • Interfacing or an extra piece of fabric cut 2" x 12"
  • Zipper (in contrasting color for fun), 14" or longer
  • Thread to match zipper or coordinate with fabric

Open zipper and sew down the center of the zipper tape, right sides together (zipper face down), along each 12" side of the fabric....Teeth facing in.                                                                                   

Close the zipper, and turn right side out.  Press the fabric back along each side of the zipper, being careful not to overheat the zipper teeth, because they could melt.                                                                                                                                                              
I didn't do this on the first (flowered) version, but decided it would have been better than reinforcing the outside with bias tape at the end...
Lay the pouch so that the closed zipper is an inch or two from the right with the zipper pull at the top. Lightly press the lefthand fold as a marker.  
Open up the pouch and center the 2" strip of fabric or interfacing over that fold on the inside and stitch down each side, or press if using fusible interfacing, as shown here on the red pouch.  This will strengthen the area in which you need to place holes so the pouch will fit on the rings of a notebook.                                                                                                                                                                        
Rezip the pouch and turn inside out, folded flat as it will be when finished.  (The strip you've just ironed or sewn on should be folded in half down the center.)                                                                                                

Stitch each open end of the pouch, approximately 1/2" from the edges. Leaving the zipper open 2 or 3 inches will keep the pull from getting in the way while stitching, and help later when you turn it right side out.  Be sure you sew above the top edge of the zipper (tape only), not across the teeth.

Do a 2nd line of stitching in the seam allowance...I used a zig zag stitch.  Trim the zipper and clip the corners of the seam allowance so it won't be so bulky when turned inside.

Turn right side out, press, and top stitch around all 4 edges, just 1/8" or so from the edge...Again being careful to sew above the top of the zipper teeth when you get to that point.  
When I made mine, I didn't think to pay attention to the
direction of the zipper.  It should zip from bottom to top
to avoid the possibility of dumping the contents
Using a 3-ring binder or piece of notebook paper to guide, mark the 3 spots where the pouch needs holes to fit in a 3-ring binder.  Use purchased eyelets (installed per package instructions), or sew small, wide buttonholes (per your machine instructions) to finish the holes.  For an easier but less nicely finished method, stitch 1/2" square shapes in the 3 locations to help support each spot, cut small holes inside those squares, and finish the holes' edges with Fray Check or other washable fabric sealer.                                                                                                                           
I finished it off by stitching one last line of stitching about an inch from the left folded edge, centering the ring holes, and further stabilizing that area, and allowing it to stay empty and flat for better fit in the notebook.

When everyone gets theirs finished, I'll buy a new supply
of pencils and pens to fill them!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Pencil-Eating House?

I've heard about dryers eating socks.  I don't worry about that, because I know where all our socks go.  Rosie, our Lab, carries them around like retrieved birds, or maybe like the puppies she'll never have.  I don't know her exact reasoning, but it means that she scoops socks as she goes, like that Lego Block-O-Dile that rolls over and gobbles up the foot-stabbing little blocks, and many end up forgotten outside.  We have the only yard I know decorated in stray socks.  I'm so proud...                                                                                                                        
ANYway...Whereas I can trace our sock problems, I don't know what happens to writing instruments around here.  (Ponytail bands and barrettes, too, but that's a bit off today's topic.)  I keep thinking I will come across some dark corner, drawer, or other hidden void in the house, where there are piles of them.  I have bought hundreds of pens and pencils through the years, but when I need one, find only broken crayons, the lightest of the colored pencils, or the maimed, haggard pencils with no eraser and badly broken points...The kind that if you dare to sharpen, the lead just breaks and falls out, again and again.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              
So for my umpteenth attempt at keeping track of such things, I have come up with a possible solution.  Not only should it help each child keep track of their own pens and pencils, thereby protecting my stash from misappropriation by others, but it will utilize materials we already have on hand and will also give my kids, who seem to be low on project ideas, a constructive task.  It's not an original concept, but making our own is a new slant.  It will give my non-sewers and new skill, and the sewers a chance for further practice.                                                                                                                                     
The start....
2 sheets of Legal-size paper taped together to create the
12" x 14" pattern piece for our
Notebook Tool Pouches
I'll share the project directions and our results soon.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Doing the Dishes: A system developed over the years

Assigning meal cleanup was a challenge I worked out over the last few years.  The increasing ages of the kids helped solve it, too.  When we first moved into our house, and the kitchen was so much bigger and more of a project than what we'd had before, I had the idyllic vision that they could all work together to make light work of each meal.  Cooperation.  Strategy.  Everyone glad to do their share.  A good look around before everyone left to see that it was clean from top to bottom.  Ha.  Instead: Lots of people moving around, looking busy, hoping everyone else is picking up their slack.  Lots of "I have to go to the bathroom."                                                                                                                                          
My next approach was to assign smaller groups to do dishes, especially for dinner.  I had this clever but complex rotation system.  Each person had a week off, but in the other weeks took turns with the tasks divided, so that they only did their least favorite task for a week, then changed.   I thought the week off was really generous and would help them love the plan and work well during the other weeks.  It was clear, it was color-coded, it was beautiful.  It was supposed to fall together like clock-work.  I was supposed to be able to know who was responsible for each area and keep them accountable.  This was supposed to cover everything and guarantee me a spotless kitchen every evening.  But, no.  Each task was dependent on someone else doing their task completely and within the right timeframe, and that rarely happened.  Dish doing could drag on for a few hours this way.                                                                                                                                                 
Next I tried teams of 2 or 3, who were supposed to divide the work satisfactorily and equitably between themselves, and had older kids working with the younger for training and evenly shared daily work loads.  That led to fights and when something wasn't done; it was always what the other person had agreed to do.  "I did my part, that was so-and-so's job."  And, of course, "I always do more than he/she does."   It was difficult for the older child to train and to be most responsible for the overall job.                                                                                                                     
Now we have one person per lunch or dinner, except after Saturday dinners, when the 14 and 16 yr old work together...The two I know who will value getting the job done fast so they can enjoy a movie or other fun evening activity.  If someone is away from home during the meal on their dish-doing night, they have to work a trade with someone else for their night, so no one gains the extra burden.  I was surprised when Princess Eager and Prince Go-for-it asked to be assigned dinner dishes the same day they had lunch dishes.  Their reasoning was to get past it all on one day.  It works better for me, too.  With one person responsible for the whole day, I know whom to hold accountable, and don't hear, "He left that pan unwashed at lunch," or "She didn't run the dishwasher, so now I can't load it."                                                                                   
I'm afraid I'm making the kids sound horrible, like they avoid work at every opportunity.  They're great, but they're normal kids.  They don't like doing dishes and will complain, I admit it.  Most of the time they grin and bear it...or, at least, bear it, and get the job done to a reasonable level.  Some, for whatever reason, can still take 90 minutes to do 20 minutes' worth of dishes, but I'm confident that one day they'll figure out it's better to get the chores out of the way and give more time to fun.  I tell them often enough!  :-)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pizza Crust....The continuing quest for the best.

I have still been trying to adjust the baking times and temps to get the crust to consistently brown the way I like.  The tops of the pizza get done so nicely...Sometimes the crust is brown, and sometimes it's too light.  Too often the latter.  -An oven/baking issue.                                                                                                                                                                                                       
I have also been haunted by Devadeva Mirel's statement on her blog, Sabjimata

  - A recipe/method issue.   I've tried recipes that rise for hours or days before and never noticed a difference, but should I try again?  ---Sure.  Why not?                                                                                                                                       

So this past week, I decided to address both issues.                                                                                                                                                                        
Recipe/Method Issue:                                                             
With a renewed interest in this book after attempting artisan bread again recently, I decided to give an artisan recipe a try.  I mixed this up on Wednesday for baking on Friday:      
Olive Oil Dough
adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day                                                                                                                                                                 
6 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup vital wheat gluten
1 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp salt
3/4 tsp instant yeast
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 3/4 cups water
Stir in a tall bowl or container, using large spoon or hands, until all is moistened.  No kneading necessary.  Cover the bowl with lid or plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 2 to 5 hours.  (I left mine out for almost 4 hours, since our house was a bit cool.)  Then put it in the fridge until early in the day you plan to use it.   (In my case, I set it out on the counter at 10 or 11 AM for use at 5:30 PM.)                                                                                                                                                       
The dough almost doubled on the counter, but didn't change much in the fridge.  I am used to bread dough that tries to overflow the bowl overnight, and resembles a puffy chef's hat or mushroom.                                                                                       
I divided and shaped this as I do any pizza crust dough.  It was a little softer at first, but worked fairly easily.  I put on sauce and topped it as usual.

Oven/Baking Issue: 
Probably not the wisest to try 2 new things at once, as it's hard to judge either in comparison to what we've had before...But I also made the oven adjustments I'd been thinking over.  In a discussion about my Wolf oven on the Gardenweb Kitchen Forum, Segbrown gave some information received from Wolf regarding the use of the elements in different baking modes.  The Stone mode I'd been using, the oven put 40% to broil and 60% to the stone, which, I assume, was from the bottom element.  I know, also, that the convection fan was on if I used the top oven.                                                                                                                                                           
I decided the fans were probably contributing to the tops getting brown faster, and also the high percentage of broiler heat.  I needed more heat from underneath and less heat swirling around the tops to get my crusts more done.   My choices were to try Bake, which is 90% bake (lower) element and 10% broil (top) with no fans, or Roast, also without fans, which offers 75% bake and 25% broil.  
I chose Roast at 500 degrees.  (Pizza stone on rack in bottom-most position, and preheated for an hour, as usual.)  Since I had already eliminated the fans, I wasn't sure I wanted to drop the broiler use too dramatically at the same time.

Results:  2 thumbs up.  The pizzas took a few minutes longer to bake...9 instead of 6.  But I can certainly live with that, if the crust is...well... crusty.  It was crispy and brown...YES.  Some didn't notice any difference in the crust as they wolfed down their multiple slices, and said it was as good as usual.  But Princess Artiste said it was different...With more to the flavor and she liked it better.  Hubby said it seemed chewier, and in a good way. 
Nice big air bubbles...Now if I could get my
Artisan breads to do that!
I didn't notice too much difference on the main part of the pizza, but the bare edges, which I often toss to the dogs, I kept for myself this time!  There the crust seemed lighter and, indeed, better and more interesting tasting somehow.  There were more air bubbles.  I thought I'd be glad to eat a whole portion of it on its own without the toppings.                                                                                                                                                          
Another great thing is that I could quickly stir up a new batch as soon as I removed this one from the bowl.  So I let it sit on the counter for a couple hours, then refrigerate and ignore it until next Friday when I set it out of the fridge 1-6 hours ahead, and at pizza time, it will be ready to shape.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

2nd Step Toward More Healthy Eating

In Monday's post, A Step Forward in Healthy Eating, and even saving $$, I mentioned that I got connected to 2 food businesses last week, and I told you about Azure Standard.  I am excited to tell you about the other, and show you my first delivery from them!                                                                                                                                        
This second business is owned and operated by another Pacific NW family interested in healthy eating.   It's called Wildly-Organic Online Market and they deliver organic fruits and vegetables, locally grown when available, to neighborhood drop points in 3 counties.  They offer some bakery and other grocery items, as well, but I was primarily interested in adding vegetables and fruit to our diet in more quantity and variety (a Bucket List item).  Having a regular ordering and pickup system, I think, will help me accomplish this...and getting organic is even better.                                                
Wildly-Organic offers a few options in $35 packs, including a fruit and veggie combination pack, an all-veggie pack, and an all-fruit pack.  Smaller, add-on packs of fruits and vegetables are also available for $15.  There are standard offerings, but at specified shopping periods, the customer can customize their particular packs to suit the family's needs and preferences.  I can indicate certain things that I never want included in our packs, and add things, too.                                                                                                                                              
To start, I chose the all-vegetable pack, plus the fruit add-on. Then I was able to go in and pick and choose which items in the standard pack I didn't want and replace them with duplicates some of the other items, or substitute something else entirely.  I can even replace fruits with veggies, and vice-versa.  This enabled me to double up on certain things I knew we'd particularly want instead of getting smaller amounts of a larger variety that wouldn't be enough to feed all of us.  For instance, I got 2 heads of cauliflower instead of 1, plus a handful of potatoes...Neither of which would've been enough for a family meal.                                                                                                             
I had from Thursday night to Saturday night to adjust my order, and picked it up Monday afternoon at a home about a 5 to 10 minutes' drive from home.  It is packed in a bin that I'll wipe out and exchange for my next order in 2 weeks. 

Monday, January 24, 2011

A Step Forward in Healthy Eating, and even saving $$

I have finally arranged to buy from 2 different food businesses I've been studying for a long time.

I was a customer of one, Azure Standard, for awhile in the 90s, but the neighborhood cooperative drop-point I was using disbanded, so I needed to start again and never managed it.                                                                                                         
Azure Standard offers "quality bulk and natural foods," particularly grains that I'm interested in milling for our breads and cereals, but also many other things, including frozen foods and fresh produce. They have many locally grown (Pacific NW, mostly Oregon, where they're located), and organic options, and deliver to several states.                                                                                 
Customers order on their website, and the food is dropped at a shared community site.  It was finding a group open to a new person to share their drop point that was a challenge for awhile.  Last week, I was able to connect with 2 possibilities.  One was located about 35 minutes away, but didn't order often...I was told I could put my order in the cart and if the group met the $550 minimum for free delivery ($50/per person minimum), it would come in the middle of next month, but if not, the next.  I need to count on ordering more often than that.                                                                                                                                                                               
Next I found another open group, also at least a 30 minute drive in a different direction, but they ordered every 2 weeks without fail.  That was great, but the woman I spoke to suggested I could find one closer to home.  The problem with any distance is that I must be able to be present when the truck arrives.  Any afternoon delivery times are somewhat subject to the driver's day, and a phone call, sometimes without much notice, notifies patrons when to be on location to pick up.                                                                                           
By calling Azure Standard directly, I was able to get the name and number of the contact person for an open group in my town.  They were able to check order history to assure me that this group placed full orders once or twice a month.  Perfect.  The contact person was wonderful to talk to, and I can place my first order next Friday with subsequent deadlines every 2 weeks.  The deliveries will arrive Wednesday mornings alternating with Tuesday afternoons...10 minutes from my house.                                                                                                                              
My cart is ready and waiting, full of grains, dried beans, and baking supplies.  I have been driving over an hour to get my wheat and oats for a higher price...And I always forget to order enough in advance so I don't run out.  I've also never been able to find a good supply of soft wheat or corn, and Azure Standard can provide all these needs and more.  

Azure Standard's many offerings, by Category

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Day for Baking: Part Heart, Part Science

Today I felt like baking. One of those unexplainable urges that occur on a winter Saturday...(Perhaps filling the void left by the end of the college football season and the winding down of NFL playoffs!)  Whatever the reason, I wanted to put on an apron and pour myself and my heart into the process of baking.  What is it about baking that feels more like an emotional experience than a household task?  I'm sure it has to do with memories, and the physical warmth of the kitchen on a cold day, mixed with the amazing smells, and promise of amazing flavors.  It's some kind of magic that soothes and encourages.                                                                                                             
Blah, blah, blah.  Enough of waxing poetic...                                                                                                                                                           
I got up this morning and went right for my bowl of cracked wheat artisan dough in the fridge. (No apron... Pajama pants.)  I had a little battle with the soft dough, trying to shape it into a large baguette shape, so that, hopefully, it would yield slices large enough to make reasonable sandwiches.  Even cold, it was threatening to sag into more of a flattened mound than a loaf, so I placed it in a glass baking pan and buoyed it up by packing folded towels in around it. I hoped to keep it rising up, rather than out.                                                                                                                                                                                                 
It worked fairly well, and in an hour and a half, I lifted it gingerly from the pan, made slices in the top and set it on the baking stone.  I poured water in the hot pan underneath to create steam and shut the oven door.  The loaf was already flattening....But when I returned in 15 minutes to insert the probe so I could finish the loaf to 190 to 200 degrees inside, the loaf had poofed nicely taller and I was satisfied.  I was even happier to see upon cutting this loaf that it actually had some good sized air bubbles I'd been lacking in previous artisan attempts.                                                                                 
Next, Princess Sassy texted me, asking if Princess Eager (11) might like to make a spectacular batch of cookies to welcome and reward Prince Steadfast after a long and successful day of wrestling competition.  I asked what kind they were hoping for, and she said that he actually wanted brownies.  I'm not a big cookie fan, and making them gets a little tedious.. Brownies, though, just suited my yearn to bake, so I snatched the job for myself.  --I should have waited awhile, because they won't be here for a few hours yet, and the hopefully gooey, uncut brownies are torturing us all!                                                                                                                                                  
I need to make granola, but 'need' stuff is not the type of baking that appeals to me today, so I left the kitchen to Princess Eager and her specialty chocolate chip cookies (we'll have a crowd of kids here tonight), and checked the Gardenweb Kitchen Forum for interesting discussions.  The discussion that caught my eye was OT: Time to take a reading break....The Science of Baking.... by Txpepper.  In the post, she linked an article written for The Atlantic by Joanne Chang, concerning the science of temperature in baking.  So now I could immerse myself in baking while enjoying a cup of something good, and sitting back with my feet up...a break from my oh-so-not-so-busy-day.  I've been interested in the science of cooking and baking since my Foods Science class in college.  This article was actually the 3rd in a series, so I printed all 3 and headed, mug in hand, to enjoy them snuggled into a comfy chair. (I just can't read, or at least enjoy reading, lengthy articles on a computer screen.)

These are the 3 articles, plus her specialty cookie recipe:
I really liked her!  She had me chuckling by paragraph #2, and completely relating to her in paragraph 3.  The relationship distanced when she so passionately pursued restaurant work and became a pastry chef, but I kept reading and kept enjoying, living vicariously through one who did what I never will. She's just enough scientist and pastry chef mixed with a good dose of real person to be able to communicate the concepts in an interesting and understandable manner.  Her cookbook is now on my list, and I may even make the chocolate chip cookies.  (Another recipe to make then refrigerate...Grumble, grumble.) It's a huge bummer that the things I am drawn to learn to bake are things I shouldn't be eating!  Good thing I have a crowd who will force themselves to take that bullet for me.

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