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!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Garden State

Over the past few weeks, the garden has endured a bit of benign neglect. On the bright side, being away even for a few days let me really see and appreciate how quickly things are growing. The contrast is just amazing. I'd spend every waking moment outside if I could!

I'm going to try to do a better job of writing down what I'm observing and when in the garden. I always think "Oh, I'll remember where I planted the lettuce last year" or "Of course I'll be able to keep track of which variety of tomato did the best last summer." Considering that most mornings I have trouble remembering where I took off my shoes the night before, I'm not sure why I persist in this utterly ridiculous belief.

Little pumpkin seedlings emerging in June...
One month later! And still growing like mad. The tendrils are now starting to take over the pathway.

All the pumpkins and squash are doing well in their patch. The Cinderella pumpkins were the first to come up and get established. But the one that's really bowling me over is something new to me: Sweet Mama squash. The plants are ENORMOUS and already covered in little green baby squash. I got a few starts on a whim, and I can't wait to see what the fruit tastes like! (And I hope it's really really great, because it looks like we're going to have one whole heck of a lot of it.)
We got a couple pints of strawberries a week from early June until a week or so into July.

This year, I planted two types of peas - standard sugar snaps (right) and sugar sprints (left). The difference is INSANE. It's even more noticeable now than it was in this photo from a week or so ago. The sugar sprints are three times the size, heavier yielding, and the pods are more tender. I'm definitely going all in with them next year. And as the saying goes, we're gonna need a bigger trellis.

One afternoon's harvest - snap peas, lavender, strawberries, lettuce, eggs.
The lavender also seems very happy now, but I have to say this is the one plant that did not cope well with the lack of attention. I came back after two weeks away, and although Brett was home for a week of that, he didn't have a chance to keep an eye on these plants or do any weeding. The entire border had transformed into a post-apocalyptic hellscape in which all mankind (or at least husband-kind) had died out, leaving morning glories as the dominant species on earth. The vines were twined all through the stems of the lavender, and had to be not just pulled up, but unwrapped by hand.

The tomatoes are just starting up now, and I have to say (knock on wood) that they're looking a lot better than I hoped. Tomatoes are hard in our damp, temperate climate, and I never seem to have much luck. This year I got all cherry varieties, which appear to be a little less fussy. The Sweet Millions plants look the best overall, but the first ripe tomato came from the Sungold. I'm so excited for garden-fresh tomatoes, but I'm trying to reign it in just in case it doesn't go that well.

Now time to get back out there for more weeding!

Well, some of us will weed. Others prefer to watch and sunbathe.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

We're Back!

Whew! It's been ages since the last post, and it's been a wild ride around here. Between new jobs (both of us within a month or so of each other), travel, gardening, and trying to squeeze in a little time to do some actual work in the house, I haven't had much time to do anything but collapse in an exhausted heap.

Thankfully, we've been able to enjoy some much-needed spa-like relaxation in our finished new bathroom!

We put on a few finishing touches:
Brett practicing his contortionist act while trying to caulk around the back of the bathtub. He made it!

Just after the shower enclosure glass install. Since we had to wait a couple of days before getting it wet, it's imaginary shower time!
In what feels like an incredibly significant home-renovation milestone, I have officially moved my toothbrush upstairs. WOOHOO!  Also, I may occasionally be showering/bathing twice a day now out of pure happiness. (Please send moisturizer.)

Here it is, all finished:

Of course, if you look the other direction, you'll see that we still have a ways to go on the rest of the upstairs... but that's for the next few weeks!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Cabinets Go Up

Every new step at this point just feels completely amazing, and adds a whole new level of functionality to the bathroom. I can't get over how fast it comes together now, especially know that literally years of work went into getting here.

So, we mounted the medicine cabinets. Because of the angled framing in our wall, we decided to go with externally mounted ones instead of inset. We bought them ages ago, and HOLY COW I had forgotten how heavy these things are.

Installation sounded simple. It uses a french cleat. Basically, you mount a bracket on the wall, and then just slide the cabinet down on top of it, so a matching bracket on the back slots in. Easy, right?

Well, first, you have to get the bracket into EXACTLY the right spot on the wall. And of course it doesn't come with a template, so you have to figure out just where the cabinet will actually sit. And it must be perfectly level (making it probably the only level thing in the entire house). And then you have to get the second one even with the first. And then you have to heft the ten million pound cabinets over your head and into place.

What could go wrong?

Long story short, we only had to re-mount the brackets a couple of times, and a cabinet only came crashing down on us once. So I'm calling that a win.

So although there are still some small things to take care of, all the main pieces are in and the look is basically finished.

Here's the original Pinterest picture that was our main design inspiration for the sink area:

And here's our finished product!

I love how it turned out. It's just what I hoped for, and best of all, it's full of natural light. I can't wait to move upstairs!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bath Mitzvah!

Today, our bathroom became a grown-up. I took my first bath in the new bathtub!!!

Sadly, my spoilsport husband says I'm not allowed to shower before the glass enclosure is installed, even though the water works. I promised to stand up really straight and not to accidentally turn on the sprayer or body jets AT ALL. He was not convinced.

Not that I have any experience with accidentally turning on the sprayer instead of the rain shower head.
It looks so innocent.
We're not 100% done yet. We still need to hang the medicine cabinets, install the vanity hardware and towel hooks,  caulk the sink and tub base, and touch up some drywall and paint. And of course there are a few minor issues to resolve. We turned on the chandelier and the breaker immediately blew. The tub filler is kind of wobbly. But these seem like small things with easy fixes. More importantly, the tub didn't leak into our bed in the room underneath or just fall straight through the floor. (As you can see, our standards are very high.)

But that said, all the big pieces are really in place now. Check it out!

I'm hoping to take care of a lot of the remaining details over the long weekend.

Because a finished project means more time to relax in the sun with our pupper!

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Unbearable Lightness of Seeing

Every light in our house is on.

I repeat.

Every. Light.

Not just every light that happens to work at the moment. Not just every light that isn't on one of the many breakers we've had turned off for a year. Not just every light that's plugged into that one outlet that still works for no apparent reason.

Every light.

Today, the electrician turned all the wires that have been dangling in the upstairs bathroom for months into lovely lights, power, fan, and heat. So not only does that mean the electrical work in our new bathroom is basically done(!!!!!), it means the breakers that they connect to are back on too. And those breakers also control our kitchen vent hood, hallway light, and bedroom light. It's like we got half our house back overnight!

Brett and I spent half an hour running around the house, flipping switches and cackling like movie super-villains.

Sconces! Outlets!
Light switches, fan timer, THERMOSTAT! (Er, and a little drywall patching to do. I didn't say we were done with that part.)
And finally, thrillingly, we had confirmation that the heated floor works!! It was terrifying to cement in something before being able to really test it. I needed to feel it turn on to really believe we hadn't screwed it up. But then I didn't expect this conundrum... it was 80 degrees out today. How do you test a heater in that?

Obviously, I cranked it up to 90, and then splayed out face-down like a sea star for maximum skin exposure to the floor. That's clearly the logical response.

Since it heats up really gradually, this led to a lot of weird mind games as I tried to differentiate between the effect of my own body heat and the radiant floor. It's heating up! No wait, it's just warm from my arm. No wait, it's really working! No wait, it isn't and we broke it and my life is over! Oh no, actually, it's definitely working now.

So, long story short, it works. And now I need therapy.

Now please excuse, me, I need to go flip some more lights on and off and giggle maniacally.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Brush with Joy

This morning, Brett turned to me and asked "Want to do something naughty?"
Me: Ooooh.... yes please.
Brett: Let's go brush our teeth in the new sink!

When people tell you about major life milestones, they usually focus on things like getting married, buying a house, having kids. Nobody ever told me about the intense joy of the first-teeth-brushing-in-a-new-sink milestone.

I can't imagine why this has been left out of the standard literature.

A truly life-changing moment. Look at those (very hygienic) smiles!

And because I still need to keep repeatedly going upstairs to make sure I didn't just dream this - I give you proof!

It's aliiiiiiiiive!

Friday, May 19, 2017

More Plumbing Progress!

Every day is a new present! It's amazing that it took us three years to get to this point, and now it's only taking about a week to go from empty room to fully functioning bathroom.

First - running water!

The sink and toilet are in and ACTUALLY HAVE RUNNING WATER. And the electrician even got started with a couple of fixtures.

I've never wanted to pee so badly in my life. Should probably wait until it's not up on shims, though...

A sconce over the vanity. Not sure why the electrician only hung one of the two today, but... okay?

Shut up, it's really hard to take a picture of a light fixture that doesn't light up yet, in front of a window in full daylight.

Pretty soon the whole house will have running water and electricity! A girl could get spoiled with all these frivolous modern conveniences.

Of course, some of us are already spoiled rotten. But who could resist those puppy eyes?