Friday, February 13, 2015

Going Green

North East River

Green is definitely the way to go. The more we can live simply, the less stress, the less cost, and the less we take from our environment, the better life can be. Eric and I have started to make major changes in how we run our home. When we moved here several years ago, our motivation for buying was the land. We wanted space for our children, then just young teenagers, to have room to play outside. Little did we know how much influence the North East River would have on our lives. We discovered a community college (Cecil College) just a couple of miles from our home for our kids to start their second phase of education. We found the Tome school for our youngest daughter to enjoy her high school years where she received a healthy social life as well as a sound education.

Our new Ideal Steel Hybrid heating our home
Aside from the social changes, our life here was slow to change besides planting the normal garden plot, adding some fruit and nut trees and grape vines to add to our summer bounty. A couple of years ago, Eric branched out and bought six peeps. We were surprised how much we enjoyed having them and the fresh eggs as well as a source of amazing compost from their droppings. Over the months since, we learned about molting, bullying, possums, and the aspects of chicken raising that we had no education in, but comically, how many people are under the mistaken impression that you need a rooster for a chicken to lay eggs. Nope, no rooster and plenty of eggs.

The old behemoth
A few months back, when oil was at its highest price, Eric and I decided it was time to ditch our old oil burner that had the dual function of heating our home as well as our water. It was almost traumatic when we faced the chore of moving the monster out of our house, across the backyard and into Eric's truck. Thankfully, Eric is not afraid of swinging a heavy sledgehammer and I am constantly thinking of new ways to lift stuff that ordinarily we could never lift. So, the oil was out and Eric installed a new electric on-demand water heater. It works beautifully and we only heat water when we need it. Now before you start to argue that electricity is expensive, realize that our long term plan is to produce our own solar electricity and this is just the first step in that direction. We also pay a little extra each month to buy our electricity from a wind farm, not a coal burning plant.

The original small hearth
Wouldn't you know it, cold weather came before we knew it and we had a house with no heating system other than an old cast iron behemoth fireplace insert that smoked and produced heat erratically. To save our pipes during the times we were not home, Eric installed an electric hydronic baseboard heater in the kitchen. But our house was cold and ironically, oil dropped to its lowest price in years. Most mornings, we woke up to 48 degrees and we only heated the living room portion of our home. Again, we needed to make a change and I started doing research. I love wood heat, and we have plenty of trees on our land, but I didn't want a smoky stove that barely worked. We found a solution. Thanks to a National Geographic special, I found a company that was winning international competitions for being cost effective, low emissions beautiful, without needing any electricity. Enter the Woodstock Soapstone Company and their Ideal Steel Hybrid stove.  I was excited but had to convince Eric that we could afford and should invest in a new woodstove. He trusted me and we placed our order. 
Laying tile over concrete board

Fast forward a couple of months of crazy cold weather and the old behemoth in our living room was slowly dying, pouring clouds of smoke into our livingroom every time we started it. Basically we made bonfires in its iron lungs and poured heat into the environment with enough radiant heat inside the house to keep us warm, barely. 

The email came that our new stove was ready to be picked up from the trucking depo. It was a race in time. The weather reports started warning us of temperatures dropping to their lowest of the winter and we knew we had a short window of mild temperatures. Two days ago, we pulled out the dead cast iron stove.

Tile all in place
I laid a new hearth large enough for the new Ideal Steel Hybrid and the next day had my brother from Round2It, come and help us muscle out the old, slide in the new stove and install the piping safely into our chimney.

Three hours later, we were heating our home with a quiet, intensely warm and handsome wood stove. We are still learning it's intricacies, but are very impressed. As the outside temperatures dropped down into the teens last night, we loaded the stove with six or seven split logs around 9 pm. At seven this morning, we woke up and the house was still 60 degrees and the stove had a nice thick bed of coals.

Soapstone tiles inside stove
Cold weather? No problem. we are warm and snuggly! And, we are not fretting about a huge oil bill or listening to noisy pumps and fans. It's quiet and efficient, thanks to the fine engineering of Woodstock Soapstone Company!

 Did I mention it has a cooktop?!

Note the custom side design of blue heron

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I am sitting by myself in my living room in front of the fireplace enjoying some music by Simon and Garfunkel. There is something so satisfying about being around or at least listening to talented people. They make me want to be creative and write and sing and well,... just enjoy life more. For me living life is not so much about playing but about being creative and producing tangible things with my efforts. I am in the midst of a project to raise our house eight feet to get out of the reach of floodwaters and I have almost no experience in building, but I do know how to look for possibilities.

This story in our life began with a notice that our house was reevaluated as being in the top flood prone zone for our area and therefore we were going to be charged for mandatory flood insurance for the life of our home. It wasn't a surprise that we were in a flood zone - I had experienced the evidence. But to be charged for it? I decided to read all the tiny print in the information that came with the notice and I noticed that FEMA was offering a grant as a pacifier to individuals who met the criteria to pay for the raising of their house or demolish it and buying out the land. I am a dreamer and I figured, what the heck? The worst thing they can do is turn me down. 

It is now nine months since I started the process of filling out forms and basically educating myself as fast as I could what FEMA was really saying and wanting. The process was a challenge, but anyone who knows me knows I love a challenge. I am willing to work for that grant and although I don't have a signed paper saying I am approved, no one has said no and several meetings have been held already, so I am continuing to dream. What kind of stairs? What trees have to be trimmed back? What to do in the whole new eight feet of space under our house? Where to live in the interim? What new views will I have? How much more sunlight will I get? Can I look into solar panels next?

Imagine. Dream. Stretch your brain. It is a little painful but nothing that a few nights rest won't cure and then you can look back, smile and say, "I did it!"

Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Travel the World, or at Least Plan to...

One thing I have always wanted to do was travel around the world. Now that our children can take care of themselves, we have more freedom to think about traveling. Of course, there are still many obstacles such as the cash flow, work schedules, family activities, weather, pet care and so on, that keep us grounded at home, but at least we are getting out once or twice a year to new places. If you also like traveling, there are a few tips for planning that we can offer.

Try taking weekend trips. Instead of looking at longer trips only to be disappointed because the cost is too high or the scheduling is just too tight, look closer to home for weekend getaways. We happen to live at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so there are plenty of little waterfront communities that are great for spending a day or two without spending a fortune. We also have several major cities; Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Washington DC, and Lancaster that are between one and three hours away from us. We love checking out theaters or events happening close by and then adding on a hotel room for the night. This year, we hope to do a little boating and camping for even more adventure once the weather warms up. I hate to say that I cannot afford to travel, instead I try to find what I can do with the limited funds that we (like most people) have at our disposal.

Look for cheap flights. Of course, this is often the clincher in the planning of our longer trips but with the recent drop in the price of oil, I hope that the savings will translate soon to airflight costs. I like to look at Spirit Airlines as they often have very low prices but only to specific areas. Some folks complain that they don't like the idea of having to pay for each aspect of the flight, but I kind of like the barebones approach. I can bring my own food and water and don't need to carry much luggage so their system works for me. Besides Spirit, you can check out Google Flights and watch their indicators for when flight prices will drop and make your plans within their parameters. Don't forget to sign up for airlines' email offers.

Look at your calendar for blocks of time where you don't have to take off work. For instance, if you work a normal eight to five, Monday through Friday job, your paycheck might shrink if you take a day off to travel. However, if you chose to travel on days that you might already have off, like the day after Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July or January First, you don't have to use up valuable work days. This is especially effective if the paid holiday is on a Friday or Monday so you can make it a long weekend.

Use offers from your credit cards or other financial partners. It seems everyone is offering some kind of reward for using their financial services, especially credit cards, banks and credit unions. Look closely at your online statements and see what your rewards can be used for. Sometimes you get cash back that you can then save up for traveling. Others offer points that are useful for discounts on hotel rooms or car rentals. Once you get an idea of what they offer, you can make plans around the details. Don't forget the old standby of AAA, the original travel service. If nothing else, you get a reduced rate on rooms, rental cars and even restaurants besides the assurance of their roadside service.

Read reviews before you travel. With the vast quantity of information available at our fingertips through our smartphones, we have no excuse for doing a few seconds of research on a destination. I like to use the Google reviews as a start. Simply plug in the business name and see what other viewers have posted. Another valuable site is Trip Advisor. They have accumulated a vast collection of reviews from all over the world and I always take a look there before I try any new places. 

I am no authority on world travel yet, but as I learn, I am happy to share any advice I get for helping you to get out there in this wild and crazy world and try to visit new places. Feel free to comment on your tips too, if I haven't included them.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Make Labneh Cheese

So this morning I decided to finish up a cheese-making project I have been working on. It is a cheese made from drained yogurt called labneh usually found in Mediterranean cuisines. A few weeks back, I found a deal where I could get full-fat Bulgarian yogurt for fifty cents a pint and so creating an opportunity for this experiment. Making yogurt cheese is not new to me but taking it further than a creamy spread is.

After draining the yogurt in the refrigerator for three days, I let it dry out for almost another week. Draining is simply a matter of placing a coffee filter in a steel strainer and then placing the strainer over a collection bowl before dumping in the yogurt. After draining, I wrapped the mass in wax paper until I was ready to form cheese balls. This morning seemed a perfect time since yesterday I purchased a gallon of good Italian olive oil.  I picked a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme to add an interesting flavor to the creamy but tart flavor of the cheese. I also added dried onion and peppercorns to another batch as you can see in the picture.

Now all I have to do is keep it in the refrigerator for the next couple of weeks to continue the ripening process. The labneh should be ready to serve with some spiced flatbreads just in time for the holidays. I am happy with the results and look forward to see how the flavor changes from the herbs!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How to Dehydrate Marigold Petals

Some time ago, I found out that marigold petals are the poor man's alternative to saffron. I can make a rich broth to cook rice in, but that beautiful orangy color is hard to come by with normal spices. Since I grow marigolds in my garden and at this time of the year, there are hundreds of blooms, I decided to collect some. Sure I can go out a pick a few now for tonight's dinner, but in the middle of winter my garden will be empty. Solution? Dry some now to add to my stash of dried herbs.

Pick your blooms in the morning after the sun has had a chance to dry off the dew. Of course, you can only use flowers that are grown without any insecticides. I just use my fingers and give them a slight twist. In just a few minutes you will have a good basketful of gorgeous brightly colored flowers.

Now the seed part of the flower is bitter and needs to be removed. I found that using a pair of scissors made the job easy to separate the petals from the seeds.

Sort the petals from the seeds by placing them in different containers. Keep the petals in a clean container as you don't want to contaminate them.

By the time you are done with the basket, you will have a nice fluffy pile of marigold petals and a pile of seed pods. I gave the seeds to our chickens but you could also add them to your compost pile.

 To dry the petals, you need to place them on a tray lined with a paper towel to help absorb the moisture. Don't make the layer too thick or you will run the risk of mold developing between the petals.

Place the tray in a warm oven of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Every couple of hours, give them a little stir with your fingers to make sure the heat is circulating between the petals.

 When they have shrunk considerably in volume and feel dry to the touch, turn off the oven and let them cool down to room temperature.

Pour them into a dry sealable container and store in a cool and dark cupboard. Now you are ready to experiment with using marigold flowers in your cooking.

They look beautiful in a fried rice dish and add a rich color to soup broths.

Why not use marigolds? They are full of carotenoids, antioxidants and so easy to grow and have a pleasant almost citrusy flavor.

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