Monday, January 15, 2018

The Fantastic Floor

It's been a while since our last update, because honestly it's been a while since we got anything done around the house. Between the holidays, travel, new jobs, and spending a month trying to find an electrician who isn't booked until April 2030, progress has been slow. It's been nice to experience what a weekend feels like for people who aren't constantly running behind and covered in dust.A little taste of the future to come for us! (Eventually. Probably. Maybe.) Who am I kidding, as soon as we finish one project we'll decide to start another.

But new year, new motivation... and we're back on track in a big way! Because we have FINISHED THE UPSTAIRS FLOOR. Folks, this one has been years in the making. We knew right when we bought the house we'd need to re-do this floor. It was gross old wall-to-wall carpet full of cat hair, aka Audrey Kryptonite. Ripping that out was literally the first thing we did, the same day we bought the house. We purchased the heated floor mats and all the wood not long after. (The boxes for the flooring are stamped "made in 2013", which made my soul die a little bit yesterday.)

And then it sat.

Until last weekend.

We did lay out the heated floor mats about a month ago, but we had to wait for an electrician to do the final hookup. That took a whole lot of phone calls and waiting. Our original electrician doesn't work on small projects anymore, so he just refused to come back and finish the project he'd started. The new electrician didn't like some of what the first guy had done, so we had to rip out some drywall (again), replace conduit, etc. Sigh. Plus he did such a sloppy job of laying out the lead wires that we had to spend a weekend reorganizing everything. But he did what we absolutely needed him to do, and we were able to work around the rest and get it done.

Heating mats and floor pad laid out, plus a giant stack of flooring and trim in the corner. We're going to have to figure out where that goes soon...
Then it was time to lay the flooring! It's click-and-lock floating floor, which we've installed once before in this house. I was dreading it because the mudroom floor took a lot of brute force to shove into place tightly, and this is a lot more area to cover. But happily, this particular product works a little bit differently, and it goes together easily. This was a good two-person project. We got into a nice rhythm - usually Brett measuring and me cutting, or when there were two different areas to work on, each of us taking a side.

So once we got cooking, it started to go pretty quickly. That means that we also pretty quickly ran into the stuff we'd been keeping on the subfloor - the boxes of unused flooring, the saws, the built-ins that were temporarily pulled out of the closet. So as we worked, we kept having to pause and move our tools onto the finished floor behind us. If you like both jigsaw puzzles and manual labor, this project is for you!

Floor in progress. Note that all the crap has moved to the other side of the room. Not pictured: giant bottle of Advil.
 We definitely made things a little harder on ourselves because of the way we chose to lay out the boards. It's a funky-shaped room in a funky-shaped house, so there probably wasn't really an easy way anyway.

Not standard.
To me, this is the hard part of doing your own flooring. The actual installation isn't really difficult. It's thinking through all the details to minimize your waste and weird-sized corners before you even put down your first board. Once you've laid a couple of rows, you've set the pattern that you'll have to follow come hell or high water for the rest of the room. I'm not a great spatial thinker - I'm your girl if you want an essay, but I hereby issue a heartfelt apology to anyone who has ever tried to follow me somewhere in a car -  so thankfully Brett has this department covered for us.

We decided to start at the top of the stairs - the first thing you see when you enter the room, and also the most complicated area because of the transitions between multiple rooms and corners.

Brett says: "This is my art! Someday I will show this photograph to my grandchildren."
We are going to have some really bored grandchildren.

Two weekends and two extremely sore backs later, the floor is in! And it heats up! Now please excuse me while I go lay down on the lovely new warm floor and moan.

I think she likes it! It took her 9.2 seconds to locate the warmest, sunniest spot and plunk herself down.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Fencing the Goods

As a birthday present, I asked for us to hire some help finishing up the stonework and the fence. Yes, my birthday is in July. Yes, it's now November. That one got away from us a little bit.

Anyway, it's so much fun to see it finally coming together! And it's even more fun to have someone else do the work for a while...

Fence in late summer

Fence in fall
Okay, we may have taken a lot of photos of this scene through the seasons. Monet had his haystacks, I have my fence.

Flagstone pathway

And flagstone stairs!

There are still a million things I want to do in the yard that aren't finished yet, but this visible progress is really nice. And so is being able to walk out of the house without getting mud up to my knees!

Sunday, September 24, 2017

What it All Boils Down To

Shana tovah u'metukah! Wishing everyone a good and sweet new year.

The Jewish new year is traditionally celebrated with sweet foods, especially apples and honey. Combine that with my overwhelming urge to celebrate fall by apple-slash-pumpkin-spicing everything in a three mile radius, and you get my annual habit of making a bit batch of something apple-y to share. This year: apple cider caramels!

Somewhere along the line I stumbled across this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Making candy can sound intimidating, but this really is easy. Basically, you dump most of the ingredients into a pot, heat them up to a specific temperature, toss in a couple of spices, and then pour the whole mixture into a pan to set up overnight. The next day, cut it into individual pieces and wrap them in wax paper.

But this recipe also has - wait for it - a secret ingredient! And that ingredient is boiled cider. 

The recipe just lists boiled cider along with the other ingredients, like this is something everyone has a) heard of, and b) has on hand in their pantry. I had no idea what it was, although it sounded charmingly old-timey. Of course, King Arthur sells a little bottle for some astronomical sum of money. But I'm impatient and cheap, so waiting two weeks for a bottle of liquid gold wasn't gonna happen. I wondered if there was a way to make a substitute on my own.

So I did a little digging, and lo and behold, boiled cider is ... apple cider that's been boiled. Go figure. Basically, it's a gallon of cider that's been boiled down to a pint. It takes several hours on the stovetop over medium heat, but it doesn't take much attention and it makes your house smell amazing. The result is a dark, viscous liquid, almost reminiscent of molasses, that tastes of pure concentrated apple. It's intense and delicious, and I'm already completely obsessed.

Get a gallon of apple cider. Pour two cups into a large stockpot. 

Dip in a wooden chopstick, and mark the level of  the top of the liquid. Then pour in the rest of the gallon and start boiling.
When the level of liquid is back down to the mark on your chopstick, you're done.
Boiled cider!
Used as the main flavoring in the caramels, boiled cider makes them taste like a slice of apple pie. You can put it in baked goods like cider donuts or apple cake to amp up the apple flavor, or just straight up as a topping on ice cream or pancakes. It keeps for ages in the fridge. I'm pretty convinced it's fall's perfect food.

We used a good-quality store-bought cider for this batch. But this weekend we did some apple pressing, and I'm looking forward to trying it again with some really fresh juice.

Hermione guards the apples.
When transporting your cider home in the car, remember to buckle up for safety!
What a delicious way to start the new year! 

Hermie says: Happy 5778!

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Dry Humor

Bonjour! This week we are feeling très français, because the house is perfumed with huge bunches freshly-harvested lavender hanging up to dry.

As the last of the warm, dry weather slips away, we need to wrap up our summer outdoor tasks. One of the most pleasant has been pruning and harvesting the lavender border. This was a truly surprising joy for me!

Commerically-grown lavender is usually harvested in early summer, just before the flowers bloom, when the color and scent of the cut flowers will be strongest. However, we planted ours primarily to attract pollinators to the vegetable garden. So we didn't really intend to "harvest" the flowers - just to let them grow and bloom in the garden, enjoying them right alongside the bees.

Since I've mostly grown vegetables, and moved pretty frequently to boot, I'm not that familiar with how to care for perennials. That's changed a little bit this year as I've learned to tend our strawberries and fennel. (And I'm hoping soon, some raspberries!) But I still had to do some research on how to prepare our lavender plants for fall.

What I learned is that the flowers should be cut off, allowing the plants to invest their energy into developing the healthy roots and leaves that will see it through the rest of the year. And if you do that before the rainy season, you can still preserve the flowers! Basically, if you didn't harvest in summer, pruning for the health of the plant is also a fall harvest.

Actually doing this "chore" makes me feel like some kind of seed-catalog cover model. First of all, it's easy. You just bundle up flowers in your hand and snip the stems off above the leaves. Harvesting the entire plant only takes a few cuts, and every touch releases a wave of gorgeous lavender scent. Up close, I can watch fat, fuzzy bees flitting between the flowers. I left a few of the smaller, late-blooming stems in place for them. (Pro tip: This particular aspect is only idyllic if you watch really, really carefully to make sure you don't harvest a bee. I may have had a few near misses in this area.)

Our plants are still young and fairly small, so I hadn't realized just how many flowers there would be.

This isn't even half! Waiting to be sorted, bunched, and hung.

French lavender, sorted on a marble counter, with the sunshine pouring in ... are you sure I'm not in Provence? 

Sorting and bunching actually took quite a bit of time and effort. And then I had to figure out where and how to hang it to dry for a couple of weeks. Inner MacGyver, activate!

Most sources recommend drying lavender in a dark place to preserve the purple color. Since this was late harvest, however, the color is already somewhat faded and mold and rot are bigger concerns. I decided to hang the bunches in a sunny spot to remove as much moisture as possible. What sunny indoor spot can I take over completely for a few weeks? Ah-ha - the laundry room window. (Wear those socks sparingly, hubby...)

One laundry rack, one basket, one roll of paper towel, and a lot of rubber bands and binder clips later...

Now I have a little time to think about what I want to do with all that dried lavender! I know for sure that I want to make some sachets for clothing drawers. Other than that... lavender bath salts? Selling a few bunches? Suggestions welcome!

A pensive Hermione, probably considering what to make with dried lavender. 

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Paint the Town White

Now that the bathroom is done, we're working on the rest of the upstairs. We're making a lot fewer changes, so this should be (comparatively) simple.

First up - paint! We're painting before laying the floor so that we don't have to worry about accidental spills or drips. It feels a little odd to be painting an unfinished room, but it is convenient. At least, it's convenient when I'm not stepping over piles of lumber or squeezing around a table saw.

We're not making any more significant changes to the walls, but they did need some minor patching before we got going. The spackling and sanding were fairly painless... with one big exception.

You may remember that we removed a wainscot-height wallpaper border a few months back. Underneath where that wallpaper had been, you can see an older coat of paint in a different color. That's the darker blue strip in the photo below.

I've been dyyyyyyiiiiiiing to paint this over. It makes the space feel really unfinished, and I knew a coat of paint would completely transform the feeling of the room. But when I got up close to the wall for the repairs, I realized it wasn't going to be quite that straightforward.

The appliqué had been applied, and then the entire wall was painted over. So where you see that strip, there was actually a small raised bead of paint along the top and bottom edges. It was just large enough that it would cause a visible line even after a new coat of paint.

I was worried about damaging the drywall, so I started gently with a drywall sanding block. When that wasn't effective, I moved to 150 grit sandpaper... then 80... and half an hour later I was shoving my entire body weight behind the orbital sander. I even had to do it a second time, when the first pass still showed a line through a test area of new paint.

Naturally, it was 80+ degrees outside, which is exactly when you want to be stuck in a face mask, goggles, and hair covering. I am officially sick of the orbital sander.

But the result is so worth it! Our walls and ceiling are painted. We still have to do the closet ceiling and the stairwell, but the real transformation has already happened - suddenly we can feel what this room will be like when it's done.

And now, for no reason other than pure happiness, enjoy this video of Hermione rolling around in the sand.

Friday, September 1, 2017

In Praise of Blackberries

Since I love homegrown food, you might think I would also do a fair amount of wild foraging. Unfortunately, my plant identification game is just not that on point. I'm fairly convinced that given even the slightest opportunity, I would pull a Chris McCandless and promptly poison myself on some ersatz potatoes. But there is one plant I forage with absolute confidence and wild impunity. I'm referring, of course, to the blackberry.

If you've spent more than about ten minutes in the Pacific Northwest, you've seen blackberries growing wild in every forgotten corner. They're unmistakable. Most of the year, they're a terrible pest. The invasive, thorny vines grow like you neglected to invite a wicked fairy to your christening, forming a tangled mass that wends its way under and over and around and straight through anything that holds still.

But then late summer arrives. The berries bloom. And for a few brief weeks, you lay down your flamethrower and your enmity, and just enjoy the incredible bounty of shining ripe purple-black jewels.

Every summer, I say I'm going to pick enough blackberries to keep us in jam, pies, and smoothies all year. And every summer, the time gets away from me. So this week when I get home, I'm pulling out the kitchen colander, walking out to the corner, and filling it up with berries to freeze for later. My legs are scratched, my hands are full of thorny splinters, and my fingers and teeth are going to be stained purple for days. And I couldn't be happier.

I'm sure there's a life lesson somewhere in all of this. I'm just too busy eating wild, juicy berries to think about it.

One of my favorite berry-picking buddies.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

May this House be Safe from Vampires

We LOVE garlic, and we use it in pretty much every meal we cook. It's also fun to grow, because you can plant it in late fall and it's one of the first things that comes up in the spring. This year, we tried a few new ways to preserve our garlic harvest. Let's just say the house is very safe from vampires now - and probably from any visitors at all, for at least the next 24 hours.

For some reason, the hardneck garlic failed completely; only the softneck grew. I was initially planning to cure it in a garlic braid. However, once we pulled it up we saw that we'd left it in the ground too long, and the outer skins were damaged. That doesn't hurt the fresh garlic, but it does mean that curing it whole wasn't a good option. Time to get creative! I present: garlic preserved two ways, pickled and frozen. 

First order of business for both: clean, separate, and peel a bazillion heads of garlic.

I don't have a shortcut for pulling the cloves apart apart, but I do have one for peeling.

Cut the ends of the cloves, and put them in a metal mixing bowl.

Put another bowl on top. (Preferably the same size; we just didn't have one. You're going for more "basketball" than "UFO". )

Now hold the two together and SHAKE! Vigorously. For a while.

When you're done, the skins should slip off easily.


Okay, now we're ready for an actual recipe.

Preservation Method 1: Pickled Garlic

I love the clove or two of garlic you sometimes find in the bottom of a pickle jar. So why not make a whole batch of them?

Recipe adapted from Homegrown Pantry by Barbara Pleasant
Makes 3-4 half-pint jars

2c white vinegar
2/3c sugar
1/2 tsp mustard seeds
3c peeled garlic

Mix the vinegar and sugar together, bringing to a simmer over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds. Pack garlic into clean, hot jars; fill with brine. Process in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.

We cut the recipe in half, since we didn't want to make that much. As a reminder, NEVER mess around with the basic proportions or ingredients when you're pickling or preserving. The acidity, sugar, salt, etc all contribute to maintaining a safe environment for food storage. However, you can play with the seasonings. The original recipe called for some hot peppers, which we left out because we don't like them.

I'm going to let it sit in the fridge for a few days, so the brine can mellow the heat and bite of the garlic. I can't wait to eat some!

Preservation Method 2: Freezing

For most of the garlic, we wanted to preserve it in a form we could use for cooking.Since we weren't curing whole heads, freezing seemed like the next best way to hang on to the original fresh flavor.

Apparently you can just peel and freeze individual cloves. But I decided against that, since it meant more prep when we were making meals later on. We wanted a method that would make it easy to throw some garlic into a recipe in a month.

A little research revealed that this was another handy use for my favorite preserving tool: the ice cube tray! We minced the garlic, packed it into an ice cube tray, and then filled each cube in with olive oil to hold it together. Once it was frozen, we popped the cubes out of the tray and into a freezer bag to store.

Important: garlic packed in oil should NEVER be kept at room temperature or even in the refrigerator. It's a botulism risk. This method is for freezing only, and garlic preserved this way should go straight from the freezer into your cooking pan.

We've already used part of a cube in a recipe, and it came out wonderfully. Since a lot of dishes that have garlic also use olive oil anyway, having a bit of oil in with the frozen garlic doesn't hurt anything. In fact, the flavor is even a bit more intense because the garlic infuses the oil.

So those are the two ways we're saving our homegrown garlic. Looks like this house will be safe from vampires for a long time to come!