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!

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Marching on


I'm writing this one week ago today, fingertips tingling as warmth returns to them. It's somewhere between 40 and 44 degrees outside, depending on whether you ask the Amazon Echo or the thermometer on the back porch. The sky is sunny, and the wind is gusty. As it is in March.

What's this all about? March 11 was our first outdoor laundry hanging of 2021. Sunny and gusty is exactly what you want, and then the air temperature doesn't matter so much. Except to my fingers. 

I wrote about laundry and numb fingers in October, too, and yes, I wimped out promptly thereafter. I'm also disappointed to report that I did not test hanging a towel out in January to see if laundry would dry on a sunny but sub-freezing day in our backyard. I forgot about until I just now glanced back at that October post. Oh, well. Next January?

March is also a time for starting seeds indoors. This year, I treated myself to a warming mat to put under my seed trays, which are set up in the basement with a grow light. 

The seeds went in on February 27. Marigolds were the first to sprout, followed by tomatoes, and now I'm starting to see some petunia, moss rose, and basil cotyledons (the first two seed leaves). Still waiting on the other herbs to rear their heads. I'm brewing an idea for a vertical herb garden along our fence, where the plants can better share the space with rain barrels. Hm...

It's probably time to flip those rain barrels right-side-up again. They'd been disconnected, emptied, and stacked upside-down for the winter. Let's add that to the to-do list and see how quickly I forget about it.


Thursday, March 11, 2021

Foosball table restoration


Jay Blades is everywhere. We first encountered the funky style of this furniture restorer on a show called "Money for Nothing." People would be about to throw something into the dump when host Sarah Moore would rescue it, take it to one of her many artisan/designer associates for upcycling, then sell it and give that money back to the original owner. Your trash was worth something! Jay usually painted one leg of a chair a neon color.

Then, we found "The Repair Shop" on Netflix. Oh, how funny, there's Jay Blades again. This time, he's helping restore old things to their former glory, the only style updates sometimes being a modern upholstery fabric.

Most recently, we discovered "Gok's Fill Your House for Free." It's actually a few years older but just as fun to watch. Think thrift-store and curbside furniture upcycled into cool pieces for home remodeling projects. And, of course, Jay Blades is one of the designers, splashing his bright colors and mod designs on dressers, desks, headboards, and a valet stand.

Anyway, in the spirit of rescuing and restoring home goods, here's one of the latest projects at our house:

Len had already built new legs for this old foosball table we picked off the curb last January, and now he's restoring the game-play components. Polishing rusty rods, replacing a broken guy, cleaning the bumpers and bearings. In the top left, you can barely make out the mess of tiny ball bearings waiting to be put back in.


Thursday, March 4, 2021

Adventures in Cake Decorating #6 - Construction Site Cake


Cakes have several things going for them at the moment.

  1. It's been a deep winter, cold, wet, and gray. We were buried in snow here, and even Texas had frozen over. Who doesn't feel like eating sugar and fat? (New Year's resolutions, shmoo schmear shmezoshmooshuns.)

  2. My coworkers had a secret-Santa gift exchange. My secret Santa sent me some great cake-decorating tools and an idea book. I've had cakes on my mind.

  3. A daily Pinterest notification reminds me of this cool construction site cake I made for a nephew's third birthday. (It must be my most photogenic cake, despite being served on a baking sheet.)

So, let's talk about it.

It's chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, all the better to represent the earth beneath our feet. A little extra cake baked in a bread pan made a partial tier on one end for a three-dimensional, excavation look. 

The edible decorations are candy: Whoppers as boulders and various Hershey minis for a brick or cinder-block wall. Crushed Oreos are the loose soil. I repeated my grass tufts from the Cars-inspired cakes, again using Wilton tip #233 and a little chocolate icing dropped into the piping bag with the green for the occasional streak of multicolor multidimension.

My sister-in-law found the fun orange traffic-cone candles. And, I did indeed use the toy bulldozer to bulldoze the "3" into the layer of Oreo dirt to reveal the chocolate icing mud beneath it.

Using toys as cake decorations always makes me think of a dinosaur cake I saw in the grocery store bakery, oh, ages ago, back when I wanted such a dinosaur cake for my birthday. (Let's be honest, I still think dinosaurs are pretty cool.) I remember it was a sheet cake with a small volcano (maybe made of cake and frosting, maybe made of plastic) and a river painted onto the frosting in deft shades and swirls to look like it was flowing. There were small plastic dinosaurs and plastic palm trees to complete the scene. It's been a long time since I've seen a cake in that style in a bakery case. 

Part of me wants to place nothing on a cake that isn't edible. Another part of me remembers that old dinosaur cake and realizes how fun (and handy) it can be to use toys as decorations. 

I never had that dinosaur cake for my birthday. This is not a lament. I had many awesome homemade birthday cakes as a kid -- one shaped like a flying saucer, a giant Rice Krispies treat in the shape of a jack'o'lantern, a stacked brownie-strawberry-and-whipped-cream thing. More than once I asked for apple pie as my birthday "cake" because I loved my mom's apple pies. But, the grocery store dino cake has stuck with me for some reason. It was one of those imprints that just never leaves your brain.

I wonder if any of the cakes I've made for my niblings will be among their Polaroids of life left out on top their mind-desk, easily rediscovered with a random sifting of the surface, or if they will blur into a kaleidoscope of birthday extravagance, where everything is so big and amazing that no one thing can stand out. Maybe they'll remember instead a super-delicious but plain-looking cake on a random Sunday afternoon, or a cake that toppled when the dog tore through the kitchen (it'll happen), or some other cake in a bakery window that they saw but never had.