Sunday, May 22, 2011

Road Weary

I've been lagging worse than usual about posting lately.  But it's been a little rough the past couple of weeks, emotionally and physically.  I drove over 500 extra miles so far this month.  I took a day off work to attend a funeral out of town which accounted for 320 miles roundtrip.  Ten days later, I drove 240 miles roundtrip to attend a wedding out of town.  You could say there have been some real ups and some real downs this month.  But the road trips along with my regular 80 mile round-trip commute to work have rendered me and my little car a bit road weary. 

The funeral was for the son of a friend of mine.  I didn't know him well, but he was my son-in-law's uncle and I am good friends with his mother I wanted to pay my respects.  I only met him once about a year ago, but he was one of those people that puts everyone at ease.  He was quiet and unassuming but his smile was warm and genuine and when he laughed, you couldn't help but laugh with him.   He was a good man and, judging from the crowd of people at his memorial service, he will be sorely missed.

The wedding was for my nephew who has sometimes taken the scenic route through life and who is personally responsible for many of the gray hairs on his mother's head ...and mine!  When you have known someone all their life, literally from birth, it's hard to notice sometimes when you stop seeing them as a child and, for the first time, see them as grown.  When my nephew and his beautiful bride exchanged their vows this afternoon, I realized what a fine man he had grown to be.   She brings three children to the marriage and my nephew brings one, but if you could see these six people together would never know they were a blended family.  It was a beautiful ceremony. 

I had a surprise visit from one of my nieces this afternoon and we had a little drama involving a snake, a pistol and some popcorn which I fully intended to post about ...but I'm too tired tonight.  I'll start a draft so I don't forget and fill you in on the details in a day or two.  Just suffice to say that, after today, my niece probably sees me in a little different light.  LOL 


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Manisagna is Born!

Yeoldfurt has been under the weather since Saturday and has mostly had just chicken noodle soup for supper these past few days.  He's finally on the mend and ready for some real food again, so I asked him this morning if he'd like me to make manicotti.  He loves manicotti so I got an enthusiastic thumbs up at the suggestion.   After all, it's comprised of his three all time favorite food groups ...meat, cheese and pasta!

When I got home this afternoon, I started digging through the kitchen.  Other than angel hair, spaghetti, flat noodles and elbow macaroni, we don't stock a twelve-month supply of pastas.  I could have sworn I bought a box of manicotti pasta last week but it was nowhere to be found.  All I had were four manicotti shells.  What to do??

While I was digging for the missing box of manicotti, I came across a few extra lasagna noodles in a ziploc bag.  Then I had an idea.  Manicotti (the way I make it) and lasagna are SO similar ...why not combine them into one dish?  And that's how Manisagna came to be ....

I put a layer of meat sauce in the bottom of a 7 x 12 rectangular baking dish.  At one end, I put my four little manicotti shells stuffed with the soft cheese, parmesan and egg mixture.   At the other end, I layered lasagna noodles over the sauce, followed by the soft cheese/egg mixture, followed by shredded mozzarella.  It took three layers on the lasagna side to make it the same height as the manicotti side.  Then I poured the remaining sauce evenly over the top and covered the whole thing with a final layer of shredded mozzarella.  It's been in the oven at 350 degrees for about ten minutes now and it's already smelling good.  I'll make a tossed salad and in another hour or so, we'll sit down to a nice supper.

While we're on the subject of baked pasta dishes, I never boil my pasta before assembling the dish.  I used to and I remember what a headache it was to get the pasta cooked perfectly, then get it cool enough to handle but still hot enough not to stick together.  Not easy.

I don't remember how I discovered this, but somewhere along the way I started assembling lasagna with uncooked pasta.  It was SO much easier to spread the soft cheese/egg mixture evenly on the dry lasagna noodles.  Literally every aspect of the assembly process was easier.  The first time I did it, I assembled the layers to make lasagna, then covered it and left it in the refrigerator over night.  I thought the pasta would absorb some of the juices overnight and soften up.  Then I set it on the counter for 30 minutes the next day to come to room temperature, then baked it at 350 degrees for 50 minutes, as normal.  It was wonderful.  Later on, I discovered leaving it overnight in the refrigerator was not a necessary step.  So now I just assemble and put it in the oven and it always comes out fine.

These days you can buy 'oven ready' lasagna noodles in the grocery stores.  They are shaped slightly different and have shallow ridges (like Ruffles) running the long way on the noodles and they are about twice the price of 'normal' lasagna noodles.  But the ingredients lists are exactly the same.   What a rip-off, huh?

So if you're still boiling the noodles when you make lasagna, please try this method next time you make lasagna.  You may be skeptical the first time, but you'll be a believer after you try it.  And if you think spreading soft cheese/egg mixture is easier on unboiled lasagna noodles, just wait until you see how much easier it is to stuff the manicotti when it's not pre-boiled. 

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fair Warning

Be wary any time you contemplate the purchase of anything where the words 'easy to install' are boldly printed on the packaging and instructions.  Just know going in that some key component will be left off of the list of items contained in the package, or some critical step in the installation process will be skimmed over in the instructions.  It's a given. 

In the days before the Internet, you were left to your imagination and ingenuity to work around these little problems.  At least now there is usually a web address listed somewhere on the packaging and, if you're fortunate, the web address will have additional instructions and sometimes a video demonstration of the installation process.  If you're not so fortunate, well can always fall back on your imagination and ingenuity. 

I purchased two sets of 'easy to install' roman shades for our living room last week.  I was initially impressed with the instructions because they included a paper template you could cut out and tape to the wall in order to mark the screw holes precisely for the hardware.   I've used homemade paper templates for such tasks for years and was impressed to see a manufacturer include one with the instructions.  I read the instructions.  Seemed reasonably clear.  English might not have been the first language of the person that wrote these instructions, but other than a couple grammatical errors, the steps seemed logical and fairly clear. 

The instructions started with a section titled 'Carton Components' which clearly listed each item, the quantity included and a diagram for easy identification.  The items listed were 2 end caps, 2 mounting brackets, 1 shade assembly, 6 screws, 6 drywall anchors, 1 wand clip, and 1 wand.  Yup, all there. 

There was a separate section titled 'Additional Tools Needed' which listed only three items ...a Phillips screw driver, power drill and tape measure.  So far, so good. I gather my tools and move on to the actual instructions.

Step one:  "Slide end of wand assembly over spring in shade assembly. Tighten the screw one quarter turn past when it stops."  Okay...

First thing I notice is the screw is tiny ...and black ...impossible to actually see if it's a slot or a Phillips head.  Use the old 'touch and feel' method ...definitely not a slot.  Go get smallest Phillips screw driver I own (think eyeglass repair) and proceed to turn screw ...and turn and turn and turn some more.  Screw is turning, not tightening.  Grrr. 

Re-read instructions.  No clues there.  Re-read packaging material. A-ha ...a web address.  Go to computer and log onto website.  Oh good, there's a link for a five minute installation video ...this is encouraging.  If the 'how to' video is only  five minutes, how hard can this be?  Now we might get somewhere.  The first two minutes of the video is a sales pitch on all the virtues of their product.  Yeah, yeah, yeah ...get to the installation part!

And there it is.  The missing piece of the puzzle. She is using an Allen wrench to tighten the screw on the rod assembly ...and she refers to it as 'included' in the packaging.  What?!  What wrench?   I pause the video and go back to dig through the packaging.  It wasn't with all the other hardware, clips and brackets.  And then I see it ....taped discretely to the bottom edge of the shade.  All the other small components ...screws, drywall anchors, clips and caps had been packaged separately in a little cardboard box that was plenty big enough to hold the wrench too.  Why they taped it to the bottom of the shade, I will never know.   

Mission finally accomplished and I guess all's well that ends well.  It just baffles me though that in an age where product labeling is so highly regulated in all other areas, there are apparently no minimal guidelines a company has to follow before they are allowed to use the words 'EASY TO INSTALL' on their products. 

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Sunday, May 1, 2011

Chicken ... Is It What's for Dinner?

Soon and very soon, two of our three hens will be on the menu if they don't start laying again.  All three of them are Production Reds which are a cross on the Rhode Island Red and are supposedly very good layers.  We bought them as day old chicks in April of 2009.  They started producing eggs at about five months of age and were very consistent layers for the first year, not even slacking up for winter in 2009.  We were getting eighteen to twenty-one eggs a week, every week the first twelve months.  But all three of them started slacking off in December of 2010 and production dropped down to a total of only about  ten eggs per week. Now two of the hens seem to have stopped laying altogether.  The one hen that is still producing lays an egg almost every day but neither of the other two have produced an egg in over a week. 

There are certain health issues that can cause a hen to stop laying but these birds are alert and healthy.  They might just be spent as far as egg production.  If that's the case, I'm afraid they're headed for the freezer this fall.  That's the way it is with livestock that's raised for food.  These are not pet chickens. We coddle them and take good care of them and enjoy their little chicken personalities ...but they are still livestock raised for food.  If they are no longer able to provide eggs, they will provide meat. 

We knew this would happen eventually but were not expecting it until next summer.  Yeoldfurt and I were both a little disappointed to only get about eighteen months worth of egg production from the Production Reds.  So we decided to try another breed and bought four Barred Plymouth Rock chicks from a different source this year.  We lost one of the new chicks to a snake in the chicken coop last week and I think one of the remaining three is a rooster.  We will keep the rooster for a while and try our hand at raising some chicks ourselves and the two new pullets should begin laying by August or September.  But we may not have any eggs to sell between now and then since we are only getting six to seven eggs per week now. 

Yesterday I got a lead on a guy that has chicks available for a reasonable price so we'll go check him out next Saturday.  The chicks are cross-breeds (Rhode Island Red x Americana) and should lay muliticolored eggs when they're mature, blue, white and lighter shades of brown.  He has some young Rhode Island Red hens that are ready to start laying but those are little more expensive.  I'm not sure what we'll come home with but it's always nice to have a new source. 

In the meantime, the one hen that is still laying has apparently put her stamp of approval on the new nest boxes Yeoldfurt built yesterday.  She laid an egg in one of the compartments today ...good girl, Red!!

The old 'nest boxes' were five-gallon buckets laid on their sides on a raised shelf about six inches above the ground.  Two of the snakes we've killed in the coop this year were in one of the buckets when we caught them so Yeoldfurt decided to build nest boxes and set them much higher off the ground.  This is what he built for them.
We wondered if they would need a perch in front of the compartments but apparently not since I found Red's egg in one of the boxes this morning.   There's a lot of work to keeping livestock, even if it's only chickens.  Seems like there is constantly some repair or improvement project that needs to be done.  So it's always nice when your efforts are appreciated.  

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Homemade Laundry Soap Containing Borax in a Gray Water System

In a recent discussion on Kris Watson's blog at Simply Living, water conservation methods such as a gray water system to capture water from the kitchen, laundry and shower were being discussed.  One of the comments left on the post said that you should not capture laundry water if you are making your own laundry soap using Borax because it "can be very toxic to plant life and not good as a gray water option."  No offense to the person who posted the comment, but I feel it's important to clarify some things. 

It is true that Borax can be used as a herbicide to kill weeds and stray grass.  For this purpose, you need one-half cup of Borax mixed with one gallon plus one cup of water.  Wear gloves and mix the Borax powder in one cup of water until well blended, then dilute in a garden sprayer containing one additional gallon of water.  Spray it directly on the vegetation you want to kill.  When mixed with water in this ratio and applied directly to a plant, Borax interferes with photosynthesis and the plant will turn yellow and die.  Basically, it will starve due to the inability to process nutrients drawn up through the roots.  A second and sometimes a third application are required to completely kill the vegetation.  

When making laundry soap, the same one-half cup of Borax is combined with one-half cup Arm & Hammer Washing Powder, one-third bar of grated Zote soap.  The final ingredient for making laundry soap is six gallons plus six cups of water.  So the concentration of Borax required to kill vegetation is more than six times the concentration in homemade laundry soap.  Consider also that the recipe for homemade laundry soap makes enough for at least 120 loads of laundry.  So simplistically, each load of laundry contains 1/120th of one half cup of Borax.  The concentration is then further diluted by the amount of water your washer uses to complete the wash and rinse cycles. 

So let's think about this.  If  two and sometimes three applications are required to kill vegetation when Borax is diluted in a little more than one gallon of water, how likely is it that a dilution at least 126 times weaker is going to have an adverse affect on vegetation?   

We have been making our own soap for over a year and a half now.  When this house was built in 1985, the original owners set up a primitive gray water system to capture water from the kitchen and laundry only.  I say 'primitive' because a state of the art system would include some kind of containment reservoir and some means of dispensing the captured gray water such as a sprinkler system or leach field.  The system in place here is just a two-inch pvc pipe that runs underground about 40 feet out from the house.  At the end of the run, about six inches of open-ended pvc protrudes above the ground to release gray water as it's produced.  The outlet is situated at the edge of the backyard fence line, about fifteen feet uphill from six mature pecan trees.  My husband trenched from the outlet pipe down toward the trees in an attempt to channel the water for a useful purpose.  Any water generated from the kitchen or washing machine flows out the end of that pipe.  In our current ongoing drought situation, the grass at the outlet and all the way down the trench is about the only green in the yard.  We have nine mature pecan trees on this place but the six that benefit from the gray water flowing down the trench are the healthiest of the bunch. 

Installing any gray water system  is most affordable at the time of construction.  After market systems can be installed but significant alterations to plumbing are always expensive.  But if you are able to capture gray water and you happen to make your own laundry soap, please don't let concerns about plant toxicity of Borax stop you from including laundry water in the capture.  You will be missing out on significant water conservation and irrigation opportunities.  

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