Friday, January 30, 2015

Before and After: "Dining Room"

When we bought our house, there was a room on the first floor (probably the original dining room) that particularly offended us. The entire room was covered with white and powder blue faux wood grain paneling. You can't see it in this picture, but the paneling went right over the window casings, leaving the sad vinyl windows with no defenses. 

Our first hour in the house, we started to rip out this paneling. What was underneath it? Pink wallpaper, and then 9 other layers of wallpaper. It turned into quite the project. We removed the wallpaper with the help of several friends and former housemates. A friend's dad, a plasterer, came and helped us skim coat the raw plaster we found underneath. 
Skim coating in progress.

The room stayed like this, painted yellow with badly alligatored white trim, for another year and a half or so. When we decided to rent the room out again, we thought it would be a good opportunity to finish up this room for good. So, we scraped the trim. The original intention was to repaint it, because it's pine and was not originally stained and varnished. But after all that work, I couldn't bring myself to cover up the wood again. So, there was more work as we stripped all of the remaining soaked in paint off the trim. 


Here's the wood stained, before we painted the room. 

Our incoming housemate picked the new room color. It's not something I would have ever picked myself, but I think it looks fabulous. 

I'm not sure I've mentioned this on the blog before, but someone painted over all of the oil-painted trim in our house with latex, causing all of the trim paint to fail. It feels SO good to have fixed the trim here. One room down, many more to go.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Sauerkraut: Tasty, healthy, and a great first ferment

Sauerkraut is great winter food. It turns the humble cabbage, a cheap late fall veggie, into a magical, tangy vitamin C-rich party. Eat it with sausage! Put it in pierogies! But most importantly, save tons of money and learn about lacto-fermentation by making it yourself.

Sauerkraut is the first lacto-fermentation a lot of people make. It's pretty reliable, because the bacteria needed for the fermentation are naturally present on cabbage leaves. You don't need any special equipment to make sauerkraut.

"Sauerkraut SMASH!"

Ingredients and materials:

  • Cabbage! One 4 lb head makes about one half gallon of kraut. 
  • Sea salt. 2.5 tablespoons for 4 lbs of cabbage. If you don't have sea salt, use whatever you've got.
  • A ceramic crock or large jars. Half-gallon mason jars are perfect.
  • Something to mash with. A wooden spoon, or if you want to get fancy, a sauerkraut masher.
Oh, and a knife for shredding the cabbage. That's it! Easy!

To make sauerkraut: 

  1. Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage
  2. Slice it thinly (1/4" or so)
  3. Put a layer about 2-3" loosely packed in your jar. 
  4. Sprinkle with salt
  5. Mash with your wooden spoon. Mash it real good. 
  6. Repeat until you've gone through all the cabbage. It should all fit in one half-gallon jar.
  7. Put a weight on top of the kraut to encourage the liquid to cover everything. A smaller mason jar filled with water works great. 
  8. Cover the whole thing with something that will allow gas to escape. A mason jar lid flipped upside down and only loosely tightened works well. 
  9. Check it the next day to make sure enough juice has come out of the cabbage to cover everything. If it doesn't have enough liquid, make a salt water solution and top it off.
Taste it every day after the first 3 days or so. When it tastes krauty enough for your liking, remove the weight, put a normal lid on, and stick it in the fridge. Done!


Tips and tricks:

  • When in doubt, mash harder. You really want to break the cabbage down a bit so the salt can penetrate and draw the juices out. You also don't want lots of air gaps in the jar because it can provide habitat for nasties. 
  • Keep floaters to a minimum. Again, air exposure = opportunities for mold and rot. If there are little pieces floating on top, take them out. 
  • Don't be afraid to let it sit for a week or more. Fermentation can take time, especially in the colder months. If you taste it every day, you'll know when it's ready. 
  • If you are getting serious about fermentation, a ceramic crock can be a great tool. A warning, though: do not use old ceramic crocks, as the glaze may contain lead. You can buy new, lead-free ones here

Weigh it down

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Mid-week Tweets: DIY Duck House and more

Monday, December 1, 2014

Homemade marshmallows for perfect holiday hot chocolate

Marshmallows. Those crusty, stale sugar puffs that come in a plastic bag. They seem like the epitome of industrialized "food". It turns out that's not true--marshmallows started out as medicine to treat sore throats, and were originally made with the root of the marshmallow plant. Marshmallows date back to ancient Egypt, though certainly the confection we call marshmallow is a more modern concoction, dating to 19th-century France. The more you know.

In my circle of friends, bags of marshmallows tend to get passed from one bonfire host to the next, indefinitely. No one wants them, no one eats them.

That is, until it's finally hot chocolate season. There's something about marshmallows melting in hot chocolate that is so happy-making. So when the snow started to fall last week, the fluffy white flakes brought out my fluffy white marshmallow cravings. I decided to try to reclaim the marshmallow from the jet-puffed jaws of Kraft by making my own.

For a recipe, I turned to a fun little book called Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn't Cook from Scratch--Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods, by Jennifer Reese. Reese has done a fun little comparison of the costs (both money and labor) of making versus buying various foods. Marshmallows, she concludes, should definitely be made. She writes about them with particular passion. "Homemade marshmallows are fairy food," she says, "pillowy, quivering, and soft."

Recipe: Homemade Marshmallows

Adapted from Make the Bread, Buy the Butter

3 packets unflavored gelatin
1.5 cups granulated sugar
1 cup light corn syrup (yup, not the best ingredient)
2 egg whites
2 tsp vanilla extract

A 50/50 mix of confectioners' sugar and cornstarch, for coating.

  1. Dissolve the gelatin in just under 1/2 cup water over low heat. Turn off heat and set aside. 
  2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, and 1/2 cup water over medium heat and stir until dissolved, then continue to heat until temperature reaches 265 degrees. 
  3. When the temperature is getting close to 265, beat your 2 egg whites until stiff with an electric mixer (you will not want to do the rest of this by hand). 
  4. Slowly drizzle the hot sugar mixture into the egg whites, beating continuously.
  5. Add the gelatin, still beating, and continue beating until the mixture cools and begins to stiffen (it actually started to gum up the motor of my mixer). 
  6. Add the vanilla

From here, you're going to lay a thick bed of the confectioner's/corn starch mixture on a tray, and pour the marshmallow on top of it. The book says to smooth it until flat, but I wasn't able to get it to do that, so I just let gravity flatten it out. I put the mixture in the fridge for 4-5 hours, then dusted the top with the starch mixture and used a cookie cutter to cut circular marshmallows that would fit nicely atop a mug of hot chocolate. You could also use a pizza cutter or a pastry knife if you wanted squares. I rolled the cut edges in starch, and voila! Marshmallows!

I agree with Reese; homemade marshmallows are truly excellent. And aside from sugar dust, they are not hard or time-consuming to make.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Using IFTTT on the Backyard Farm

The phrase Whittled Down Life implies an ever-increasing simplicity, as though somehow by cutting out enough excess, life will become magically uncomplicated. In reality, the more we simplify our lives in some senses (relying less on processed food, driving less, buying less stuff), the more there is to keep track of. When you grow your own food, you've got garden planning and maintenance, food preservation, and all that good stuff. When you drive less, you've got to plan your trips more carefully and pay closer attention to the weather. You get the idea.

Luckily, we live in the digital age, and there are tools out there that can make life easier for even the most disorganized punk domestic. Let's talk about one of those tools:

IFTTT (If This Then That) is an online service that lets you create recipes of conditional triggers for all kinds of things. Basically, it allows you to link different services together in an automated way. Everything from text messaging to Craigslist is included in their list of services you can use to make recipes.

With the right devices, you can use IFTTT to automate everything from remembering to open the cold frames to regulating the temperature of your tomato starts. Though IFTTT can't do everything, it is a valuable addition to the  digital homesteader's tool belt. As more and more tools become a part of the internet of things, the possibilities will only expand.

Here are some recipes we've found useful around our garden farm and home:

Text message a warning when it's getting too warm out for the coldframes to be closed.

IFTTT Recipe: Open the cold frames! connects weather to sms

All of your plants can get fried in a matter of minutes if a cold frame is left closed on a warm day. Cold frames act like solar ovens to keep plants above freezing in cold months. In those times of the year where temperatures fluctuate, like fall and spring, it can be hard to keep a constant eye on the outside temperature. This IFTTT will text you a warning when the tempurature climbs above 50 degrees. You can also set up your own to trigger a notification on your smart phone.

Email a warning when it looks like it's going to frost tomorrow

IFTTT Recipe: Frost Alert connects weather to email

If you're like me, and have trouble keeping up with the news, you might miss one of those ever so important frost warnings. This IFTTT will email you a warning the day before the predicted frost. This should give you enough time to muster the sheets and tarps, or do some last ditch harvesting before it's too late.

Need free woodchips? Looking for pullets for sale? Notify me about Craigslist posts!

IFTTT Recipe: Free Wood Chips! connects craigslist to sms

The possibilities are endless with the Craigslist IF. You can set up a search for any posts in the free section mentioning "wood chips", or find yourself a cheap piece of furniture, or equipment for around the home stead. It might take a month before you find the right deal, but IFTTT is doing all the work for you, so it pays to play the long game if you've got time on your side. I published the above IFTTT as example, but you'll have to make your own for it to be useful. That is, unless you live in Western Massachusetts, in which case hands-off my free wood chips!

These recipes just scratch the surface.  Has IFTTT made a whittled down life more possible for you? Share your thoughts, and show us your recipes.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Drawing the Caravan Blueprints

We're drawing up plans for the tiny house caravan we designed and built from reclaimed materials. The unique 54 square foot design provides seasonal shelter that's towable by a four cylinder sedan. Over the years, many people have asked us to make plans, so they too could build their own inexpensive and portable tiny home.

After much deliberation we have settled on using Blender for making the drawings. We want the plans to be accessible and free, not just in cost, but in their freedom as information. This way the design could be modified and adapted by anyone, to fit their own needs and available materials. Blender is available for download to run in Windows, OS X, and Gnu/Linux, and is certain to stay viable for many years to come, because of its vibrant community of developers and users.

If you're interested in receiving an announcement when the plans are complete, please sign up below. Your email address will be used for nothing else.

Whittled Down Caravan Blueprints Updates

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mid-week Tweets