Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Making It

It hit a surreal 78 degrees (25.5 C) here almost two weeks ago.  Too hot in the sun to even lie in the hammock, let alone do any work.  Last week was grey and miserable, with high temperatures in the 40's, and a dump of the dreaded "wintry mix" precipitation.  We've had sub-freezing temps overnight ever since, and this week is sunny but cold.  Sigh.  Where'd my spring go?

I'm trying to make the best of it and have been quite productive lately.  I got a lot of outside work done during that warm week, while the sun shone.  Now there are many seedlings to attend to indoors.  And I spend a little time outside during the warmest parts of each sunny day.  Otherwise I've been keeping my hands busy inside while I bide my time, however resentful of the vanished warm weather.  Here's a rundown of the projects I've been working on lately.

I painted the nesting box we made all from scrap wood.  Bright colors of course, because if the wood needs protection from the elements, I might as well use colors that make me happy.  Now that we're more or less set up for the broody hen, I'm eager for her arrival.  Still no firm date for that yet.

I finished two new two planting templates - a cool looking hexagonal one for the three sisters planting, and another one for the garlic planting on 6" centers.  I've been using an 8" planting template for the garlic, but after getting carried away with some 350 garlic plants last fall, I've rethought my spacing for this crop.

I also worked on finishing a few projects started with the help of our WWOOF volunteers.  The first is a greens feeder for the chickens.  The idea here is that you plant greens the chickens like to eat under the feeder.  The plants then grow up through the caging and the girls can eat what pokes up.  But they can't tear the roots out of the soil, so the plants in theory should re-grow and continue to feed them for a long time.  Since we move the hens daily throughout most of the year, I plan to use this in the yet-to-be-constructed hoop house which will house the girls next winter.  In the meantime though I'm also hoping it will shield some tiny catnip seedlings from the ravages of cats - both ours and the neighborhood ne'erdowell toms.  The caging for this project was repurposed from a tomato cage that will be replaced with a trellising system this year.

The second is my solar cooking station.  This still needs a bit more work, but it's good enough to supercharge our seedlings with tons of sunlight at the moment.  It mounts to the scaffolding for our solar heating array.  A piece of rebar supports a wooden countertop from the back, and a wooden upright supports it in front.  It's reasonably easy for me to set it up or remove it by myself.  I'm hoping that the solar array doesn't completely shade it out in summer.  I'll watch this, and if need be, lower the station a bit to get it out from under the shade.  All of these projects - templates, nesting box, greens feeder and solar cooking station - were made with salvaged lumber and other free materials.  Only the paint, screws, nails and some other hardware were, in some cases, purchased.

Hand carved wooden spoon and a spoon blank

I carved a wooden spoon (from a spoon "blank") using the awesome woodcarving tools that my husband received recently as a gift.  It's a rather addictive occupation, despite being tough on novice hands, and definitely one best pursued when the weather is fair enough to allow all the shavings to fall outside.  Last year we broke our last two wooden spoons, so it's nice to be able to make some for ourselves.  This one isn't very large, but it could be used with smaller cooking pots.  I put a nubbin on the back of the handle end so it won't just slip into the soup if I set it against the rim of the pot.

Based on a good tip from The Urban Homestead, I made a baking soda shaker from a glass jar with a metal lid.  This is for dish washing, as baking soda is a mild and non-toxic abrasive.  Just take a nail and make lots of holes in the lid, then fill with ordinary baking soda.  The gaffer's tape bands around the jar were my own tweak.  They're there to provide a better grip to wet hands.

Also, a couple of knitted dishrags.  These are made from cotton butcher's twine and based on a pattern for a baby blanket I made many years ago.  Look for large spools of this stuff in a restaurant supply store.  It's much cheaper than buying the small rolls of a thinner gauge kitchen twine in a supermarket.  I recommend you get a couple of spools.  Keep one someplace clean for kitchen uses, and the other one with your garden tools.  You'll find a thousand uses for it outside, but it's not easy to keep the twine clean if you take it to the garden.  These dishrags can be made fairly quickly on days when you're cooped up inside.  They don't wear out as quickly as scrubby sponges, and if you throw them in with the laundry they won't abrade your clothes.  Also, they're thin enough to sterilize just with sun exposure.  Google for a thousand pattern options.  And I'm sure there are crochet patterns as well if that's your fiber art.  I may experiment with dying these later as I have a dying project in mind and these could just be added into the soak.

Pelmenyi.  These are meat dumplings from central Russia.  I've been meaning to make them for ages now.  Some unpasteurized whey graciously donated by Sandy, defrosting my freezer, and unfriendly outdoor temps, were the impeti to finally undertake the project.  And they are a project, believe me.  It would be much more fun and go so much faster to have another set of hands to help with assembly.  But I'm on my own this week.  My recipe uses the whey plus one of our eggs in the dough, and three kinds of ground meat (pork, veal, and lamb - discovered while defrosting the freezer, and all local and pastured, of course) plus onion and spices in the filling.  Traditionally these are kept in huge sacks on balconies over the many months of the Russian winter where there's no danger of thawing or spoilage.  They are boiled and then served either with vinegar, or with the super high fat content smetana, to which our closest equivalent is sour cream, though it contains only roughly half the fat of smetana.  Green onions are sometimes added as a garnish with either topping.

Unfortunately, while working on the greens feeder I manage to bash my thumb with the hammer.  I've never been unlucky or clumsy enough to do this before, and I can assure you that it's an experience I neither recommend nor care to repeat.  It didn't seem like that hard of a bash, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve.  It hurt like the dickens, and still requires a lot of caution when doing everyday tasks.  I'm really hoping that I don't lose the nail, 'cause that would seriously screw up the fast approaching heavy spring workload.

It's very satisfying to see a few things made with my own hands that will endure and be useful for many years, mostly with very little expense.  My head is full of little homesteading projects I want to undertake this year.  Last year about this time I had the sense that things were finally starting to come together on the homestead.  And indeed, things did run better last year; more things turned out the way I hoped.  I have that sense this year too.  It's a good feeling, though hard won.  If my productivity holds up (and I freely admit that it's extremely fickle), it could be a great year for progress on the homestead.  We'll see.

I will probably do a post on the three sisters' template around planting time.  If you simply must have more details on any of the other projects, leave me a comment and it may inspire me to get into the nitty-gritty.


Lynda said...

Oh boy! I'm in love with the string ideas! Thanks! I'm also going to try the chicken greens feeder...I've been planting chard in clay pots for them...but they do sometimes pull them out by the roots..I think your idea is the answer. This was a really great post! Thank you!

Melynda@Scratch Made Food! said...

Hello Kate, my book arrived, thanks so much! I already use the baking soda in a jar by both the kitchen and bathroom sinks. But I love the rubber band idea, wet hands are a problem with glass jars. Thanks again.

Paula said...

Wow you've been busy. I love pelmenyi. I was on a filled dumpling kick once and asked a Ukrainian coworker if her culture had a filled dumpling and she said oh yes and then told all about them. She said they used to keep them in a snowbank against the house in the winter. She also told me how to make them and eat them, and then said but it's easier to buy them from the Russian grocery and then told me where in town it was.

I don't think you have to worry about losing your thumb. You may have a bit of a concern if you had bashed the base of your nail where the moon is because that's the only live portion of your nail, and the spot from which it grows. Probably all that will happen is that nasty bruise will slowly grow out with you nail. You might have a dimple in your nail from now on though. I once closed the door to my dad's '63 Dodge pickup truck on my big toe and blackened the whole thing, and it remained black for months and months and months until one day after my shower I noticed it was white again, so I investigated and it turned out that I had a completely new toenail grow out underneath the old one, which came off with a little encouragement. It's pretty amazing how the body heals itself.

Pretty cool that you have a solar cooker. I would like to have one of those.

Homemade Alaska said...

Great idea using the string, I've been making them with cotton yarn. Yours look great! I have not heard of pelmenyi, I'll have to give that a try.

Anonymous said...

Oooh, ouch - that nail looks painful! Luckily, it's close to the tip and should grow out fairly quickly.

Seeing this picture of your hand is really interesting. All of us work with our hands. I'd love to see a blog meme go around where folks post pictures of their hands. Worn, serviceable, manicured, gnarled, bruised, supple, or dirty, hands say a lot about a person.

louisa @ TheReallyGoodLife said...

Great makes!

Love the colours of the nesting box - as you say, why not have a bit of fun?

Great idea for the chicken greens feeder too - nothing green survives in our run but that might work.

Mmm pelmenyi.

Every time I see a handcarved spoon, I want to give it a go - and the nubs of the back of yours has won me over once and for all -- so simple but so useful. Spoon carving is now on my "must try" list :)

Den said...

Wowser! Inspired and inspiring... Great makes, great post, great you. Thanks for sharing as always. Longing to get to the place you are at when you feel things at the homestead coming together ~ sigh ~ think it will be years...

Anisa said...

We're getting ready to build new nest boxes too - and I'm excited to paint them fun colors!

Love the tip on the cotton string! Thanks!

Christine said...

I love the painted nest boxes - adorable. I'm definitely going to do ours!

Anonymous said...

Ow! I hope your thumb gets numb soon. There's nothing like a thumb injury to demonstrate the evolutionary role of the opoposable thumb.

I am curious about the broody hen! I think that would be a much easier way to raise chicks.

Dmarie said...

gosh, what fine accomplishments! thanks for sharing & so sorry for your nail--ouch!

Kate said...

Lynda, you're welcome. I've always seen the use in keeping twine around the kitchen, but it took me a while to knit anything from it. Hope the greens feeder works for you.

Melynda, glad you got the book. Rubber bands would work too, but I expect the gaffer's tape would last longer - no elasticity to give out.

Paula, yes, pelmenyi are a treat. If your friend kept them in snowbanks, then she was less paranoid of theft than the folks I stayed with in Russia. They liked their balconies because they considered them difficult of access. Not inaccessible, mind you. They didn't put it past someone to rappel down the building from the roof. Thanks for the reassurance on the thumbnail. It seems like it's staying put.

Homemade Alaska, the big spool of twine probably will cost more than a skein or two of yarn, but you'll get many times more yards. True, there's no color, but that just lends itself to the all-natural look.

Emily, it gets a little less painful each day. I *love* the picture of our hands idea. A biography in our hands, or a biography of our hands. I would totally do a post on that. But I'll need to wait until my husband gets home to get a picture of both my hands. Next week sometime? If you start it, I'll participate!

Louisa, thanks. Give the greens feeder a try and let me know if it works for you. I'm thinking some strategy will be needed in terms of positioning so that they don't bury stuff by scratching dirt into the feeder. By all means, try the spoon carving. I'll be curious to hear whether you find it as addictive as I do.

Den, you'll get to that place eventually, where you can just sense that stuff is starting to come together. It took me four years of hard work til I had the faintest sense of that. I expect that feeling to increase this year. Hang in there!

Anisa, bright colors are always fun in the garden. The next thing I paint is going to have a sunflower theme, I think.

Christine, thanks, and have fun painting yours.

Ali, indeed. I was just glad it was my left thumb that was injured, and I was surprised to notice that I don't use it at all while typing. Will definitely post more on the broody hen if she turns up.

Dmarie, thanks.

Sandy said...

Kate, the pelmenyi recipe looks intriguing; I may give that a shot myself. I'm experimenting with soaking some clean beef strips in the whey (I have used milk to soak beef in the past, so why not?). I imagine it will tenderize it. I'll let you know, if you're interested. Also, my mom has been making cotton dishcloths for years. I'll get her some of the white cord from the itchen supply place. She'll be thrilled! Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

"It hit a surreal 78 degrees (25.5 C) here almost two weeks ago. Too hot in the sun to even lie in the hammock"
ha ha
are you joking? That's often the daily max here in winter. You should try +45°C on for size, I guess it's what you get used to...

Leon said...

> They are boiled and then served either with vinegar, or with the super high fat content smetana, to which our closest equivalent is sour cream, though it contains only roughly half the fat of smetana.

The way I like pel'meni the best though is in the water they were boiled in - you just add some onions, a bit of butter and whatever spices you like before boiling and you can also add stuff after you done boiling them (personally, I love to add crushed garlic at this point), so the whole thing is kinda like a dumpling soup. Give it a try, you won't be sorry :)

Smetana is sour cream :) The fat content really depends on where you get it from - it actually can be just as watery as any stupid "fat free sour cream" back home. I guess people you stayed with knew where to get the good stuff. (Source - almost 20 years on and off in various places all over ex-USSR).

Sorry about your thumb. Hope it'll get better soon! (I've had a similar injury several years ago - the old nail actually did fall off but there was a shiny new one underneath :)

Kate said...

Sandy, thanks again for the whey. After a double batch of the pelmenyi dough, I froze most of what you gave me. I'm really looking forward to experimenting with it. Oh, and the l-f ketchup is delicious on the pelmenyi!

Anon, as you say, it's all what you're used to. My body is still in winter mode, as it should be in March; thus little to no cooling ability. 78F will be absolutely nothing to blink at in three months' time, but my body will be better acclimated to it then as well. 78 F in the middle of March is ridiculous in my area.

Leon, I will certainly try your pelmenyi soup idea. Thank you for the suggestion. I've been thinking of serving them in some rich broth anyway, sort of like the Bolognese do with their tortelini. I guess my hosts in Izhevsk had access to good smetana, though it was just the standard stuff from the shops, sold in little plastic bags. It was always unbelievable rich, and very satisfying. I don't think our sour cream holds a candle to it.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

How on earth do you manage to get all that done AND keep your fingernails clean? I'm humbled.

And that picture of your seedlings made a believer out of me. I'm going to see if I can get mine more light, and I'm going to try that crazy Japanese feather trick you suggested.

Maria said...

You've certainly been keeping busy! I love the hand carved spoons - you've got me thinking about trying that myself...

Jackie said...

All that activity and just threw in a riff from Romeo and Juliet on the fly :-)
"tis enough, twill serve"
Thanks for the great ideas!!

Kate said...

Tamar, you don't seriously imagine that my fingernails stay clean, do you? Clean hands and fingernails are an iterative process for most of the year, for me anyway. Hope your seedlings are doing better. And just so you know, some of mine get leggy too. I'm too cheap to use grow lights, so I'm dependent on good weather.

Maria, I certain encourage you to try spoon carving. It's a fun activity.

Jackie, you caught me. I do that sort of thing for my own amusement. It's rarely noticed. So kudos to you for your sharp literary eye.

Meghan said...

I love the spoons you carved!
A while back, I ordered this set of carving tools from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0000DD0O2
I had wanted to use them for spoon carving, and I thought I did my research well, but I have no idea how to use them. How do I sharpen them? Do they need to be sharpened right out of the box? Did I get the right things?

I'd love it if you could shed some light on this for me.

Kate said...

Meaghan, those tools don't look anything like my husband's. His are from Pinewood Forge and consist of just two knives. You can see them on this page, in the spoon-carving kit:


I would assume that the tools you have would have been delivered already very sharp. They look like carving tools of some sort, but I don't know much at all about carving. So I can't be much help. Sorry.

Meghan said...

Thanks for the tip, I appreciate it!

S and family said...

I saw a super-elaborate greens feeder on backyardchickens.com, but your version seems so much more do-able. I'm going to give your version a try. LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing!

Kate said...

"S", you're welcome. I'd be curious to see this super-elaborate greens feeder. If you happen to have a link, would you mind posting it?

Vince said...

Being a carpenter in trade I havedone my finger nail a few timesI know how thatfeels. to makeit less painful heat up a nail to red hot and slowly twist it into the spot that you hitand it will releive alot of the presssure.
I would be intersted in picking your thoughts on on the berry and friut trees you planted. Bascially on what kind of yields you expected to get from each.

Kate said...

Yikes! Vince, that cure sounds almost worse than the injury. My busted nail is much better now, thanks for the sympathy. I will keep it in mind in case it ever happens again, but mostly I'll just hope that it doesn't.