Thursday, May 6, 2021

The dandelion wine chronicles


Inspired by the weeds in my yard and some encouragement from a friend, I decided to try making wild-fermented dandelion ginger wine, following this blogger's guide:

Let's see how it went.

Sunday, April 18 - picked and washed dandelion blossoms, separated petals, put petals in gallon glass jug with raisins, ginger, sugar and water. Covered with layered cheesecloth to allow air but not bugs.

I swirled the jug once or twice a day to stir and better see whether any bubbles were bubbling, which really hide among the petals floating at the top, and also got hard to see as the water clouded golden.

For extra credit, I started reading Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine.

Wednesday, April 21 - It was the third day, so I gave the jug one more swirl in the morning, confirmed bubbles. Boiled water to sanitize another gallon glass jug and our siphoning equipment, but first kept aside some extra boiled water to cool for topping up the brew later. (Boiling not only "cleans" the water, it also helps evaporate the chlorine from the tap water, which, as a disinfectant, could potentially hamper the active yeasties.) 

Later in the afternoon, filtered the brew through a cheesecloth and transferred it to the new jug for the second ferment. I smelled a very light fermentation odor, but mostly I smelled ginger. It tasted like sugar water at this stage.

Interestingly, Bradbury describes the dandelion flowers going into a wine press, golden liquid flowing out. The recipes/instructions I find online all just have this sort of soak approach, no pressing unless you count the ones that have you squeeze the petals in a cheesecloth to extract all possible liquid when it's transferring into the second jug.

By Friday, I could tell that fermentation was indeed underway, albeit slowly. There were tiny bubbles forming on the surface, like a gentle carbonation, and the balloon on top of the jug (my makeshift airlock) was starting to inflate, ever so little by little, from the gas produced by the fermentation. We were on our way!

OK, the next Friday, April 30 - Oh no.

Fermentation was still happening. If I held a flashlight to the jug, I could see the little bubbles inside rising to the top, again, like watching a light carbonation -- more so than I could that first week. But, I also saw something on the surface of the liquid that was not a cluster of bubbles. Mold.

Mold! In denial, I waited a few days. Maybe it's not what I fear it is.

Monday, May 3 - It's definitely mold. Most likely, my brew was fermenting too slowly, giving bad things a chance to get a foothold before the good things (wild yeast) to make the environment inhospitable for the bad things. My guess is that the kitchen was too cold for the first ferment, so it took too long to really get going.

I knew I was going to have to dump the whole things, so I took a chance sip (a wine-taster's swirl and spit). It tasted like slightly sour sugar water. Not great. Fermenting, but not on its way to something potable.

Sigh. Dump. 

I guess I won't return to the taste of spring later this year, but maybe, maybe I'll try again another time.

I will keep reading Dandelion Wine to the end. It's lovely.

Thursday, April 29, 2021

There once was a hole in the kitchen


And to cover it, Len was just itchin'.

Some background: A family owned this old house for decades, and then a real estate agent bought it to flip it, and now we own it. The flipper "renovated" fast and easy. I've said before, she did a great job revealing the house's charm, but the updates don't appear to have been undertaken with thoughtful, methodical, and detailed approach.

One of the major updates to the house was a complete kitchen renovation. They tore out the wall that had separated the kitchen and dining room, and we love how open it is. The head-scratching part of it, though, is illustrated in the photo above. When the kitchen and dining room were two separate rooms, it made sense to have an vent in each room, but now that they are essentially one big room, you can see we were left with a nice, large antique floor vent (which Len also spruced up, but that is a story for another time) and a small, ill-fitting, cheapo, modern floor vent just two feet away. They don't even come from the same duct run. 

Why is this so perplexing? Well, they laid brand new tile in the kitchen. They had to custom cut two tiles to accommodate the small, now-pointless vent. Would it not have been easier (both on the worker and, later, on the eyes) to close off that one short duct to that one small vent and just lay whole tile over it?

That's exactly what Len did, retroactively. Guided by a This Old House segment, Len carefully chipped out the two affected kitchen tiles, covered the hole, and cut a new rectangular section of subfloor. Luckily, in the basement, there were spare kitchen tiles, mortar, and grout leftover from the renovation. 

That's right, that's Tom Silva on the laptop screen, guiding the way.

The kitchen floor, when it was first laid and grouted during the big flip, sat around for a year collecting dirt before we moved in and ascertained it had never been sealed. We cleaned and sealed it last spring, but the once-white grout was mostly a light tan by that time. When Len grouted these two new tiles, the contrast was stark. We ended up re-grouting the entire kitchen floor so it would match. 

And of course, a couple of days later, we sealed it. Like you're supposed to.

There once was a hole in the kitchen,
and to cover it, Len was just itchin'.
Len erased that dumb hole
with a little help from Nicole.
Now that tile floor is totally [90s slang for awesome]!


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Mourning the Apple Trees and Moving On


There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now. Often used to inspire some action in one's life, it can also be taken literally, and that's what I'm doing today.

Twelve years ago, we hefted a grapefruit-sized (maybe bigger) Wolf River apple in our hands and thought, You are 300 miles from your birthplace in Thorp, Wisconsin. We are going to eat you. And then we are going to plant your seeds, just for fun. Probably nothing will come of it.

That was in fall 2008. The seeds we planted from that Wolf River apple, soon became seedlings and then saplings. They spent their first three years in pots, overwintering in our unheated garage with newspaper and blankets as insulation. In the spring of 2012, Len did the hard work of digging holes in the heavy clay of our townhouse yard and planted them . They bore fruit in 2015 and every year after that, although harvests were not large.

Our apple tree history in blog posts:

April 21, 2009 (seedlings)

November 3, 2009 (winterizing)

March 20, 2010  (after winterizing)

March 4, 2012 (pruning)

May 13, 2012 (planting)*
*The city suddenly cut down the ash tree in our backyard one day; Len dug out the leftover stump, and that is where the third apple tree now resides.

Summer 2015 (first fruit)

And now...

February 2020, we put our house up for sale because we'd signed a contract to buy the new old house. The apple trees were now almost as tall as the house. They would have to stay behind. (Our babies!)

I did a lot of searching and reading and video-watching. I cut scion twigs from each of the three trees (pencil-thick, straight, recent growth, each at least 12 inches long), wrapped them in a damp paper towel in plastic bag, and stored them in my in-laws' garage fridge, which held only beverages, so the scions could stay away from any other fruits or vegetables that could off-gas and cause early budding.

I ordered four dwarf rootstocks from an orchard, and they arrived in March. I tried my hand at whip-and-tongue grafting. Two of my four grafts seemed to have survived! Leaves popped on the scions. I planted one in the yard of our new old house and kept the other in its pot as a backup.

Come summer of 2020, some insect ate away the new leaves. I continued watering diligently, but there was no new growth. We eventually tossed the potted spare -- it also looked more like a stick now and less like a baby tree.

Now, spring of 2021, still nothing was happening on the grafted tree in the yard. I had to accept that it really was dead. (In fact, I just pulled it out of the ground like plain stick -- I guess the roots rotted, and the graft site had ultimately failed. Maybe I overwatered.) The cousins in Wisconsin have sold the farm. Unless we go steal an apple out of our old yard, this heirloom line of Wolf River apples ends its journey where it is rooted. 

Instead, we'll carry on the tradition honorarily. Last fall, I ordered three heirlooms from Trees of Antiquity: two Egremont russet apple trees, an English Victorian variety supposedly good for fresh eating and cider, and a Napoleon (a.k.a. Queen Anne) cherry tree, which is the kind my Grandma used to have in her yard (that tree cut down just last year and also on property soon to be sold). The trees arrived early this April!

Our new experiment, besides just trying to grow trees, is the art of espalier. Espalier should be a good strategy for growing more productive trees in a compact space, here along the fence (I know, I know, easy access for the squirrels). 

The first task was (gulp!) an aggressive prune to encourage side branching. 

Wish us luck.


Thursday, April 15, 2021

Rainy day lentil and chorizo stew

Early spring is a tease. A stretch of beautiful sunny days hinting of summer suddenly give way to gray, chilly days of off-and-on rain. It was on one of those days, and I needed warm comfort food. I  also wanted to "iron up" in preparation for a blood donation appointment, so lentil stew was on the menu.

I started with this From a Chef's Kitchen recipe for Soupy Spanish Lentils with Chorizo, and modified it to suit the contents of my own cupboard and freezer -- and yard. Yes, the infamous dandelions make an appearance.

Lentil and Chorizo Stew
  • 2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 large link of fresh chorizo sausage (I cut mine in half so it would fit easier in the pot)
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 stalks celery, finely chopped (we keep frozen sliced celery handy for impromptu soups)
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • half a large red bell pepper, diced
  • 4 to 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 cups brown lentils
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • juice of half a lemon
  • 3 tomatoes, chopped
  • a handful of fresh greens (dandelion, spinach, chard, whatever)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  1. Heat oil over medium-high heat in a large pot. Place sausage in the pa
    n and cook 6 to 7 minutes, turning to brown on all sides. Transfer to a plate. (Sausage will not be cooked all the way through at this point.)
  2. Place onion in the hot fat. Reduce heat to medium and cook 7 to 8 minutes or until beginning to soften. Add the celery and bell pepper and cook 4 to 5 minutes more. 
  3. Add the garlic, stir until fragrant.
  4. Add 4 cups of chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the lentils, smoked paprika and crushed red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil.
  5. Slice chorizo into 1/4 to 1/3-inch slices. Add to the pot with the lentils.
  6. Reduce heat, cover slightly and simmer 30 to 45 minutes or until lentils are tender, adding additional chicken broth as needed to maintain a "soupy" consistency. 

    I had the red wine vinegar and tomato paste ready to go for the original recipe but ultimately didn't use them.

  7. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice, tomatoes and dandelion greens, and adjust seasoning with salt and black pepper. The soup will be hot enough on its own to quickly wilt the greens.
The original recipe also included Manchego toast. I went for garlic bread from the freezer.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

Just dandy - a lawn that's greenish


Feast your eyes. This is what organic lawn maintenance looks like.

Hundreds and hundreds of dandelions (and other weeds for which I don't have names but know I don't want taking over my yard), pulled out by the roots. This is just one hour's work in one afternoon. There have been several afternoons spent before it, and I even did 15 minutes of rapid weeding yesterday morning before logging on to my day job.

These hours of hand-wrenching, back-aching work are what you have to look forward to if you want to maintain your lawn in an organic, earth-friendly, chemical-free way. That is, if you're trying to maintain the typical neighborhood's green-grass lawn on a lot that was not so well-maintained in the years before you owned it. We're nursing our suburban fescue back to life.

This endless toiling is a big reason why most eco-friendly lawn options involve natural landscapes of native plantings. 

Here's an example from a neighbor's house.

It doesn't look like much right now, but then, the Illinois prairies are only just awakening from winter dormancy. In the summer, tall grasses and wildflowers fill out the little homegrown preserve here. It's pretty and requires far less watering than a short-grass lawn.

We're keeping most of our open lawn, though, because we like to get out on it to play yard games. I like to keep our lawn and garden as green as possible, and I don't just mean the color of the grass. We moved our compost bin and its contents with us, when we moved houses last spring, so you better believe I'll be using our compost to fertilize the lawn. Our lawn mower is a good, old-fashioned (but brand new from Home Depot) reel mower, and our weed whacker is battery powered.

But, we've never been 100% green. We balance being green with some convenient shortcuts, because not everyone can be a full-time homesteader. So, in our garage, there's a stinky little bag of organic chicken manure from a local garden center, and there's also a bag of very non-organic "weed and feed" from my grandma's garden supplies. I'll pull as many weeds by hand as I can, and I'll even ignore a few of them, but I might pull out the weed killer spray at some point for a targeted assault. We'll use water collected in our rain barrels as much as possible for watering the grass seed when we sow later this spring, but I know we will sometimes just use the hose straight from the house, because going back and forth with the watering can is a huge time commitment.

All that is ahead of us yet. For now, I'm diligently scouring the yard with the forked precision weeding tool, a.k.a the "pokey dandelion thingy."

I'm letting most of those piles of pulled dandelions dry out, and then I'll toss them into the compost bin. But, yes, we did eat a handful.


Thursday, April 1, 2021

No photo, because I already ate it: Chocolate pudding


You know what chocolate pudding looks like. So, you don't need me to put a photo here of the chocolate pudding I made. There isn't a photo of it anyway, because I already ate it.

There are also no photos of the pudding while it was being made, because I was busy making it. Making pudding is not difficult, but it is a busy recipe. In case you have never made pudding yourself, I'll tell you why. There is constant stirring. Con. Stant.

Instead, I'll share a photo of the recipe itself, which came from Martha Stewart's Everyday Food magazines. I believe they're no longer being published, but I've kept a handful of them among my cookbooks, because the recipes are always tasty and generally weeknight-friendly.

I'll also be so kind as to give you a link to Martha's recipe online:

If you want to eat this pudding the same day you make it, you might start making it earlier than I did (6 p.m.), or plan on eating it as a midnight snack (around 9:30).

A note about the milk: I wondered if the pudding would noticeably lack a richness if I did not use whole milk. However, 2% milk was what I had in the fridge, and so 2% is what I used. This pudding turned out tasting like chocolate fudge -- no lacking anything. 


Thursday, March 25, 2021

It's electric!


Another cool restoration project and electrical update #3 to the new old house. Partially completed ourselves (i.e. by Len, with his lovely assistant), but most definitely also involving a hired electrician.

The life and times of a brass chandelier. This brass chandelier used to hang in my in-laws' foyer. At some point, they replaced it with a brighter, more modern light fixture. Because he dabbled in upcycling, restoration, and nostalgia, Len gained possession of their chandelier some time after that.

Since then, we've just been holding onto it. Its bright new condition is the latest (and final?) stage of its metamorphosis.

Before: decades of dust, tarnished brass, missing socket covers, missing crystals.

A couple of years ago, Len cleaned it up a bit and steam-punked it with old Christmas light globe bulbs for the Alley Art Festival in downtown Aurora. It could have been a funky addition to some moody dining room, but now we're glad it had no buyers.

Aurora Alley Art Fest 2018

This time around, he more thoroughly cleaned and shined the brass, replaced missing teardrop crystals, and funned it up by hanging decorative skeleton keys where other crystals would have hung. He also made new socket covers (candle tubes) painted cobalt blue.

Electrical Update #3. So, restoring the chandelier was just one part of a larger project. This third electrical update wasn't as big as last year's Electrical Updates #1 and #2, when we updated the circuit breaker box, ran wires to a couple of ceiling fans, added power to the porch and garage, and so on. In fact, we originally thought Len could just do this one himself.

Until we went into the attic.

The plan was simply (ha!) to move a ceiling light fixture from its location at the top of our stairs to a new location -- maybe five feet away -- centered over the stairs' middle landing, where we'd then hang the chandelier. The ceiling and the wires were accessible via the attic, so Len would just extend the wires and poke a new hole in the ceiling... 

Well, our house's internal workings are a mishmash of old, new, and in between. The ceiling fixture was still connected by old knob-and-tube wiring. We decided it wasn't safe to try splicing new wires to such old wires ourselves. The knob-and-tube wiring was also buried in the attic insulation, where it is apparently not supposed to be. 

Further complicating the issue is that the fixture operates on a three-way switch -- one light switch at the top of the stairs and one at the bottom of the stairs, either of which can turn the light on and off. 

We called Mr. Sparky, the electrician we'd hired for Electrical Update #2, and we figured we might as well have him take care of a few more things while he was out. The project became:

  • Run wire and add a new box at the new location for the stairwell ceiling light.
  • Disconnect the knob-and-tube wiring and refeed the wires to both stairwell light switches.
  • Add another fixture box in the upstairs hallway, so we could add a ceiling light where the hall has always been darkest.
  • Add a wall switch for the new hall light.
  • We decided to save a couple hundred dollars by leaving it to Len to complete the final step, installing the two light fixtures. 
Normally a straightforward project, hanging a light fixture gets a little hinky when the colors of your fixture's wires don't match the colors of the wires coming from the box in the ceiling. It's hard to follow the general rule of thumb of white to white, black to black (or red to black if you've got red going to the wall switch), when both wires in your fixture are black or, in the case of the chandelier, gold. 

Oh, and by the way, from the vantage point of a midway stairwell landing, the second-floor ceiling is very tall.

For the wires: Some Googling taught me to expect -- in general -- the hot wire (black) to have smooth insulation and the neutral wire (white) to be identifiable by a seam or ridges in its insulation. Fingers crossed.

For reaching the high ceiling from the stairwell landing: We used a couple of dining chairs, a solid wood door, some thick planks of wood, and the stairs themselves to build a makeshift scaffold upon which our six-foot ladder could stand. There is no photographic evidence of this creaky engineering "marvel."

Troubleshooting electricity. OK, light fixtures installed, go down to the basement to flip the two second-floor breakers back on. One on, OK. Two—BUZZZZZZ—trip! Oh no. One circuit has a problem and keeps tripping. 

We were finally able to flip the breaker on without it tripping by making sure the chandelier was off at its light switches -- trial and error because, with the three-way switch, up or down on either wall switch could mean either on or off. With the breaker on, we could see the newly installed hall light worked fine. When we tried to flip on the chandelier, BUZZZZZZ. Switch it off, quick!

Len went up and down the ladder to no avail, checking, reconnecting, and re-checking the wiring of both ceiling fixtures before concluding it was the load of the chandelier's light bulbs, not an incorrect installation, that was causing the problem. We'd hoped to use slightly larger and brighter, flame-shaped bulbs, but they were too high a wattage for the old chandelier (and/or the old house?) and were now overloading the circuit. Hence the scary deep buzzing when we tried to give it power.  

Back to the smaller 5-watt bulbs. That fixed the buzzing and the breaker tripping. 

Oddly, we were getting no power to three second-floor wall sconces and three first-floor ceiling fixtures. The weird thing is these fixtures are on a different circuit than the chandelier and new hall light. They're controlled by the breaker that originally flipped on with no problem.

Did we do something stupid while connecting the light fixtures? Lots of Googling and wondering if a short circuit somewhere along the line had somehow caused a loose wire to jump out of its connection. With our limited inventory of electrical tools, investigation would require opening up and checking the connections of every fixture and light switch on the circuit. 

It was very, very late at night.

Just call Mr. Sparky back to solve the mystery. Looking at several of the affected fixtures, Len realized their common denominator was knob-and-tube wiring. He called the electrician to come back when he could -- no emergency, just some lights out, hopefully he can figure out what's wrong. Luckily for us, he came back the next afternoon. 

Here's the peculiar way knob-and-tube wiring works. When the house is originally being electrified (a century ago?), the installer of the time takes wire from the wall sconce or whatever fixture, just finds a hot wire running through the center of the house, and ties it into it. All of these lights were at some point tied into the same single hot wire. When we had our electrician of 2021 cut the knob-and-tube wire from the stairwell ceiling fixture and disconnect it at the circuit breaker box in the basement, that one cut actually disconnected all these fixtures.

The good news, I guess, is disconnecting old knob-and-tube is just that: disconnecting. It's less destructive to just leave the wire where it is, a dead line snaking through the guts of the house, rather than ripping it all the way out. So, the electrician just reconnected that one wire in the basement, and now all our lights work.

The house's internal workings remain a mishmash. We have bright new light in our upstairs hallway, so I can see myself in the full-length mirror outside the bathroom. Our stairwell now glows with the soft, romantic light of a rejuvenated vintage chandelier.

Just one last thing to take care of...

Patch this hole where the stairwell fixture used to be.
UPDATE 4/1/2021:
What else will cause that terrifying buzz and trip the breaker is a loose connection. This was the case on two different occasions with this chandelier.
  1. After looking at the older photographs of the chandelier, we realized a piece had been assembled upside-down. Reversing it required unwiring the chandelier from the box in the ceiling. Upon reassembly and rewiring -- BUZZZZZZ! It couldn't be the bulbs now. It was that one of the wire connections was not as solid as it should be. This thing was touchy.

  2. We found 5-watt LED bulbs that are as bright as 60-watt but only draw the lower wattage's power. Bulbs in, works great! But, these bulbs stick up a little higher out of the candle tubes. Len made new, longer candle tubes. After installing those and putting the new LED bulbs in -- BUZZZZZZ! Now wait a minute! These bulbs worked a half hour ago.

    This time, it was one of the connections at the candle socket. The pulling and pushing of swapping out the candle tube socket covers had ever so slightly loosened a wire-to-screw connection beneath just one of the bulbs. We found which one by screwing in the light bulbs one at a time, and flicking on the light switch. One in, light works. Two in, light works. Three in, you get the idea, until number 4. BUZZZZZZ! OK, check those connections, tighten. Try again. Works! Hooray!