Sunday, July 31, 2011

Let There Be LIGHT

The house we live in was built in the mid-80's and has a very 80's style galley kitchen with a double bulb fluorescent light fixture centered overhead.  For the past several months ...okay, maybe the past year or so ...the kitchen light has been 'moody.'  One of three things would happen when you flipped the switch ...bright light immediately flooded the kitchen from the overhead fixture which was ideal,  or semi-bright light immediately flooded the kitchen because one of the bulbs seemed to be functioning at about half-capacity, or a dull candle-like glow immediately flooded the kitchen because both bulbs seemed to be functioning at half-capacity.  If either of the last two things happened, I learned that just leaving it alone for long enough, the bulbs would suddenly come to life and things would be bright again.  As time wore on, the occurrence of the first thing where flipping the switch resulted in immediate bright light from both bulbs became more and more rare.  But since it still worked sometimes, and there were always things on my list that were not working at all, I have just lived with it all this time.  I've always believed in the rule you don't fix what ain't broke.  And in the interest of stretching a dollar, I've tweaked it in recent years to you don't fix what ain't completely broke.  

That finally happened a few weeks ago with the kitchen lights.  Both bulbs just gave up the ghost completely.  With the hours we've both been working and other more pressing commitments on the weekends, it took me a while to get around to replacing them.   Honestly, I kind of thought Yeoldfurt would fix them.  He's gotten after me from time to time for fixing things or devising a plan to fix things that he's already got on his list.  For whatever reason, I just thought replacing the bulbs was on his list somewhere.  So several weeks went by with me cooking with just the hood light over the stove and ambient light from the adjacent rooms.  It was working okay but I did miss having good lighting.  So I decided to drop a hint by taking the plastic light diffuser cover down and washing it one Sunday while he was at work.  It's four feet long so I took it outside to clean it up and left it laying across the wheelbarrow by the back door to dry.  I thought it would serve as a subtle hint to Yeoldfurt that the kitchen light was ready for new bulbs. 

He noticed it when he came home and we talked a little about whether we had any spare bulbs stashed in the garage or one of the shops, but it turns out we didn't so the conversation really didn't go anywhere.  I had to run errands today ...get the car inspected, pick up cat/dog/chicken food in town and go to the bank so I decided to stop at the local hardware store and pick up a couple of bulbs.  It took me all of ten minutes to snap the old ones out and snap the new ones in.  I put the light diffuser cover back on the fixture and flipped the switch.  IMMEDIATE BRIGHT LIGHT flooded the kitchen ...oh, it was grand!  Such a simple thing but you sure do miss it when it's gone. 

I went down the hall to Yeoldfurt's office and said, "High five me, honey ...we have LIGHT in the kitchen again!"  Made him laugh.  He was in the kitchen a few minutes later and said, "You know ...I would have done that for you weeks ago, but you mentioned you were going to do it and I didn't want to take over your project.  You told me once that I have a tendency to take over your projects sometimes and I'm trying to be better."  Ugh!  Then I laughed and told him I had taken so long to get it done because I thought it was on his project list and didn't want to get in his way ...but that I had gotten tired of cooking in the dark. 

Guess we need to work on communication.  Subtle hints might work in some scenarios but sometimes a simple question ...'is this on my list or yours?' ...might be the better way to go! 

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Saturday, July 30, 2011

Home Stretch

Well, I'm embarrassed to admit this but I miscalculated the balance of my remaining allotment of overtime hours.  I'm embarrassed because math is not something I usually get tangled up in, especially if the numbers I'm crunching are remotely related to finances.  Since I'm getting time-and-a-half for the overtime hours, those numbers are definitely related to my finances! 

The only bright spot is that the mistake I made was in my favor.  I thought I would finish this week with a balance of 13 hours of overtime left to work and since 12-1/2 is the maximum number they will allow me to work in one week, I thought it would take me another two weeks to finish.  But, now that I found my mistake, I realize I have less than 10 hours remaining.  That means I can easily finish up next week!  I can't tell you what a weight that lifts off my shoulders, just to feel like the end is in sight. I realized my mistake about 9pm Thursday night and confirmed it with the timesheets when I got to work on Friday.  Ahhh made my day! 

I don't think I'll end up with quite enough in overtime money to paint my little car but it's still a respectable little pile of extra cash we didn't have before.  I will be careful, and hopefully wise, in deciding what to spend it on.  I could keep saving a few more months and paint the car next spring ...or I could buy one or two of the things off of our wish list.  I don't know what I'll do with it yet but I have at least a month to think about because the overtime is paid separately on the first of the month after it's worked.  The remaining 9-1/2 hours to be worked are in August, so I won't have the last of my overtime pay until the first of September.  Hopefully the extra time to think about it will ensure I make a wise decision.

Though the money will take a while to roll in, the immediate benefit and the one I think I'm most looking forward to is having my afternoons back.  On a normal (no overtime, minimal errands) day, I get home about 4:30 in the afternoon.  Yeoldfurt leaves for work almost three hours later than I do so he doesn't get home until 6:30 or 7:00.  He always sets the thermostat up to 80 degrees when he leaves for work.  Since I get home a couple of hours before he does, I have time to cool the house off for him.  It also gives me time to take care of a few domestic chores and time to plan and start supper.  He normally doesn't want to eat until an hour or so after he's home, but I like to have it ready so he can eat when he wants.  He usually calls me when he leaves work to let me know he'll be home in 30-40 minutes.  I wait until about 15 minutes before he's due and put a frappacino (his favorite beverage) on ice for him in the fridge.  We spend a few minutes catching up with each other and then he goes to his computer for some unwind time before supper. 

That life may sound totally boring to some, but we both miss it.  The past two months, we've been more like but ships that pass in the night.  Communication is minimal and sometimes strained, not by mood but by too many hours apart, too many outside demands, both of us frustrated by feeling stretched too thin.  I want to go back to having everything ready for him when he gets home and having enough of a handle on the house and the chores that I'm not embarrassed if someone drops by.  In a perfect world, we'd both be at home full-time, just doing what we enjoy and enjoying each other's company.  But nothing like two months of long extended hours to make your 'normal' schedule feel like a vacation. 

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Keeping Up with the Little Things

Lately, one of the hardest things for me to keep up with seems to be the Inventory List.  We've been keeping a list for over a year and you'd think I'd have it down pat by now.  Apparently, that's not the case.  For the third time this year, I did an all out count this afternoon of what we have in storage.  I printed the three page list, went down to storage and physically counted every item on the list.  There are 106 line items on the list (excel spreadsheet) and I had to correct the totals on 18 of them.  That's roughly a B- for accuracy ...totally unacceptable to me for something as important as food storage.  Somehow I need to make the list (and the process of keeping it current and accurate) more user-friendly. 

The current format consists of five columns ...a description of the item including the increments of measure for quantity, the goal amount for one year's supply, the amount currently on hand, the amount needed to meet goal, and the date updated.  I'm not sure the 'date updated' matters since once it's entered on the list, it doesn't tell you if the date refers to when you added to storage or removed from storage ...why does it matter?  It seems to me the amount you have versus the amount you need is what's critical.  I also get hung up on quantities because there are so many ways to measure things ...quarts, pints, gallons, pounds, cans (in varying sizes), etc.  Coffee, for instance, doesn't seem to be packaged in even pound cans anymore.  It's always 2 lbs xx ozs or 3 lbs xx ozs.  If you're OCD about accurate numbers like me, you'll make yourself crazy trying to convert all the odd ounces to figure out exactly how much coffee you have on hand. I  am tempted to change the line item label from 'Coffee (pounds)' to 'Coffee (BIG cans)' and leave it at that.  A 'BIG can' of coffee lasts us almost two months so seven 'BIG cans' is definitely a year's worth or better. 

Do those of you who maintain several months to a year's worth of food storage keep an inventory list?  If so, how is your list organized and how hard is it to keep current?  Do you keep it on computer or hard copy or both and do you keep a duplicate copy as a backup? 

I'm looking for a better way and welcome any suggestions.  

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Twenty Three Doesn't Seem Like Much

It's not a huge number, depending on what it references.  In this case, it's the number of my approved overtime hours I have yet to work.  Government jobs are not like public sector jobs in that overtime is not driven by the amount of work that needs to be done.  Overtime in a government job is purely budget driven, at least that is the case in Texas where a balanced budget is a requirement of the state constitution.

In the last half of the fiscal year, the state legislature examines the amount of revenue remaining in the current year budget and doles out overtime allotments according to the needs of the various state agencies.  It's then up to the individual agencies to dole out the hours to each office according to specific needs projects proposed by their managers.  I'm not sure if it works this way with all state agencies, but in the branch I work for, a total number of overtime hours are alloted to each office and workers who are at all interested in working overtime sign up for the hours.  Some workers sign up for a limited number of hours and others, like myself, sign up for as many as they will give me.  After all the 'limited hours' requests are subtracted, the remaining hours are divided among the 'as many as you'll give me' group.  I was initially authorized for 55 hours to be worked between June 6th and August 19th.   You could work up to 12-1/2 hours of overtime per week and up to 6 hours on certain Saturdays but you had to complete whatever hours you signed up for by August 19th.  If you took any sick leave or vacation time or there was a holiday in any week, you could not earn overtime that week.  So you had to pay attention to how many hours you committed to and you had to be serious about that commitment or risk not being allowed to work overtime the next year.

Two weeks ago, a few workers dropped out and reneged on their overtime commitments and the hours they reneged on were up for grabs.  Again, some of my co-workers opted for a limited number of the newly available hours and some of us opted for as many as they would give us.  I ended up with 12 more hours.  So instead of winding down and looking forward to a regular 40-hour week beginning in August, I had to step up the pace a bit to insure I got all my hours worked by the August 19th deadline.  I worked 10-1/2 hours last week, which leaves me a balance of 23 hours yet to be worked and four weeks in which to work them.  I could push hard for the next two weeks and have only a few hours to work the third week but I'm tired.  I'm tired physically from the extra hours, I'm drained mentally from the long days and I'm worn out emotionally from seeing everything else in my life falling off schedule, either slightly or drastically. 

I could relax a little, back my schedule down to just six hours of overtime per week and take the whole four weeks to finish.  But if something came up during one of those weeks missing a day due to illness or a personal emergency of some kind causing me to take a day of leave ...I would lose the opportunity to work overtime that week and might not be able to finish all my hours. I'm a procrastinator about some things, but never about work so I will probably keep up the current pace and just get it done as soon as possible.

Yeoldfurt has been a good sport through all this.  He is patient and uncomplaining about whatever falls off schedule at home and has pitched in more than once to take up the slack on some chores that are usually mine to take care of.  In appreciation, the one thing I make sure doesn't fall off schedule is meals.  Neither he nor the critters have missed any and we've only been out to eat three times since I started the overtime.  He'll come home from work this evening to a clean house, a cold Frappacino on ice and a dinner of barbecued pork ribs, potato pancakes and green beans.  I even managed to catch up the laundry.  It's been a productive day.          



Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Oh Boy, a Blog Meet!

There were only four of us, with three blogs represented, but it's a start, right? 

Redneck's oldest daughter will be a freshman at TAMU this fall and, she and her folks made the first of many trips out this way getting her set up and settled in for the fall semester.  Their trip happened to fall on one of Yeoldfurt's days off, so we met them for dinner yesterday at Boondock's in Somerville.   The guys both ordered the all-you-can-eat catfish and kept the waitress hopping.  Mrs Redneck went for the shrimp and I had my usual chicken fried steak.  She and I both ended up with to-go boxes which, for me, just means my lunch today will be extra enjoyable. 

We parted ways about 8:30 and headed home to feed the horses and bed down the chickens.  It was dark-thirty by the time we rolled into the driveway and Yeoldfurt headed down to the chicken coop while I went up to the house to start feeding horses.  The old adage about 'going to bed with the chickens' has some truth to it ...Yeoldfurt found the hens all gathered around the cedar tree outside the coop, having already bedded themselves down for the night.  Like sleepy-eyed toddlers, the four younger pullets trundled off to their private quarters at the back of the coop and promptly tucked themselves in their usual corner for the night.  But two of the three older hens had to be picked up and put in the coop.  They were roosting on some cinderblocks at the base of the tree only two feet or so from the coop.  But as far as they were concerned, they had roosted for the night and they weren't moving a feather on their own.  Like typical adolescents though, once wakened from their sleep, they were ravenous and went straight to the feeders. 

I finished with the horses just a few minutes after Yeoldfurt finished with the chickens.  We were done with chores and in the house by 9:45.   We both work the rest of the week and I start back on overtime, so it didn't take long for us to call it a night either. 

We had a good time yesterday, I'm glad we got the opportunity to meet these folks.  When you've been following someone's blog for a year or so, you start to feel like you know them.  You get to know their opinions and attitudes when you read their own posts and I think reading their comments gives you a glimpse of their character.  What a person chooses to post gives you an idea of what's important to them, what they think about from day to day.  But how they respond to what's said to them, especially in regard to one of their posts, gives you an idea about their character. My impression just from being a follower of Modern Day Redneck has been that they are a salt-of-the-earth family.  Now that I've met them, I know I was right.  It's too bad they live four hours away, but with their daughter just starting as a Freshman at TAMU this fall, I know they'll be down this way fairly often for at least the next four years.  I don't think you have too many friends.   And when you meet people for the first time and end up just talking for three hours, you can be pretty sure you have some common ground.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Update on Vacuum Sealing

I brought all my beans and rice up from food storage this afternoon, divided them into meal-sized portions and vacuum sealed them in clean canning jars.    It was a little work washing and drying all the jars but it was worth it because now instead of knowing I have so many pounds of whatever kind of dried beans or so many pounds of rice in storage, I now know how many meals I have of those things in storage. 

Whether quarts or pints, I only filled each jar half full of whatever I was putting in it because when I cook them this fall and winter, the amount that's in the jar now will still fit in the jar after it's cooked.   It was suggested to me to fill the jars completely before sealing to minimize how many jars I had to wash and dry and make more efficient use of the storage space in the jar.  But right now it's more important to me to know how many meals I can get out of what I have stored.  Filling the jars with only as much as they would hold after the contents are cooked gives me a better idea of whether my stores are adequate.

I lost a whole 8-pound bag of pinto beans in this process.  A good number of the beans in the bag were visibly moldy and they smelled 'off' they all went to the compost pile.  Losing 8 pounds of anything is a shame, but it just convinces me all the more that vacuum sealed in glass containers is the way to go.  

It's just the two of us here most of the time, so a quart jar of red beans & rice is a meal.  Filling the quart jar only half-full, each one ended up with 1-1/3 cups of Red Beans and 2/3 cup of rice.  I ended up with 19 quarts which translates to 19 meals for us.  Fresh chopped onion and Cajun spices will be added when I cook the red beans and rice so that when I pressure can them, they will be ready to eat.  When I serve one for dinner, I'll only need to cook a little sausage and cornbread and Yeoldfurt will be happy.

Pintos and great northern beans were sealed in pint jars because they will be consumed as side dishes more than full meals.  I ended up with 24 pints of those or 24 meals worth.  Once all the beans were in jars, I filled quart and pint jars all the way to the top with what was left of the rice.  I ended up with 7 quarts and 16 pints.  Served as a side dish, that much rice translates to 60 meals worth for us.    

The vacuum sealer attachment to the Foodsaver worked very well with the wide-mouth jars ...a success every time.  When I ran out of clean wide-mouth jars and tried to seal the regular-mouth jars, I had a little trouble at first but not that much.  I had one jar that seemed to seal but then 'popped' a few minutes later and was a failure.  When I removed the loose lid, I could see rice powder residue on the gasket it was my own fault.  I got a clean lid and it sealed, no problem.  I did have to double-load when doing the regular-mouth jars.  I put one lid on the jar and then set a second lid on top of it, then put the vacuum sealer over the jar.  Double-loaded like that, when I removed the vacuum sealer, the bottom lid stayed with the jar and the second lid was still in the vacuum sealer.  Not a big deal. 

This method of storage won't be for everyone but considering the 8 pounds of Pinto Beans I had to throw in the compost pile today, I would say it's an improvement for us.  It was worth the effort as far as I'm concerned.  When I'm ready to start pressure canning again this fall, I can bring up only as many jars as I want to do that day.   My pressure canner will hold 7 quarts, so if I only want to process one batch, that's all I will be bringing up from storage. 

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Improving the Process

Spare time is as hard to come by as spare change, so whenever I figure out a way to make a necessary chore more efficient, I get happy.  Since I'm very much a rookie at most of this food preservation stuff, just about everything is 'new to me' so I tend to get happy a lot these days.

We have had issues in the past with things 'hatching' in our rice and I know the same thing can happen with beans.  The bug larvae are already present in the rice and beans before it's harvested and, unless you do something to prevent it, they hatch later.  You can freeze the product for several days when you first bring it home but we don't have a separate freezer so finding space to do that would be an issue.  Storing the product in an oxygen-free container is a way to suffocate the larvae but since we store much more than we can use at one time, we would have to constantly re-seal and remove the oxygen.  So I have been searching for an easy and efficient way to overcome the problem.

I was reading a post recently at my friend, Frugal Faulein's blog  where she was talking about processing just one or two jars at a time of a new recipe to make sure it's a winner with your family.  Her suggestion was to also process some dried beans at the same time to make good use the extra space in the canner.  That got me to thinking about all the dried beans and rice down in storage that I need to process.  Right now, we have about 30 pounds of dried beans and at least 15 pounds of rice in storage that I want to process in pint and quart jars for ready to eat meals.  Then I thought about how hot it is and started dreading heating up the kitchen with a 90-minute batch of canned food in the processor.  I haven't pulled the pressure canner off the shelf yet this year.  There's just something about triple digit heat that makes me not want to think about canning.

That's when I remembered the gadget we bought from Foodsaver to vacuum seal canning jars.   

This weekend, I will be filling dry sterilized jars half full with beans, rice, or a combination of beans and rice, then vacuum seal them for processing this fall when the weather is cooler.  Sealed in clean glass jars, the food will be safe from varmints of any kind and with all of the oxygen removed, they will stay fresh for much longer ...and, as an added bonus ...nothing will be able to hatch!

When I am ready to pressure can them in a few months, I will open however many jars I want to process, then  rinse, soak and pre-boil the contents in one big batch.  The last fifteen minutes that the beans are boiling, the lids and rings will be boiling in a separate pot of water.   That process will take about an hour and a half which is just enough time for me to run the jars through the sterilization cycle on my dishwasher.  By the time the beans have boiled for one hour, the sterilized jars will be just cool enough to handle.

I can move the pot of beans off to a cool burner and put the pressure canner on the hot burner to start heating up.  The lid will be off and the rack and four inches of water will be in the bottom.  While the water in the canner is heating up, I would place a couple of rings of fresh onion and whatever seasonings I want to use in the bottom of each jar, and then add hot beans, leaving the recommended one inch of headspace.  Each rim will be wiped carefully, the lids and rings placed on the jars, then the jars go into the canner.

Following the specific directions for my canner, the pint jars will be processed for 75 minutes and quart jars will be processed for 90 minutes.  Start to finish, it should take about three hours to prepare, pre-boil, pack and process the beans ...a little less if I'm processing pints, a little more if I'm processing quarts.  But during the hour the beans are pre-boiling and the 75 to 90 minutes that they're processing, I will be free to go do other things.

This may not be a new idea at all to you canning experts out there.  But as I said, I'm still a rookie at food preservation and time is one of the scarcest commodities of all around here.  Efficient ways to store both food and canning jars is another issue I wrestle with from time to time.  So having figured out a way to improve in both areas, I am already getting happy.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

Few Things ...

...can dishevel a house quicker or more thoroughly than two grandsons descending for a whirlwind weekend visit.  They were only here three days and two nights but the only room that looks good this morning is the room they slept in because ...GOOD BOYS that they are, they made their beds and picked up their room every morning before wandering out to the kitchen for breakfast.  They rode the horses several times, made a serious dent in Yeoldfurt's stash of 22 cartridges, and ate just about everything that wasn't nailed down.  If we are able to arrange for a week long visit in the future, I can see we're going to have to stock up a lot more than we did for this short visit! 

The oldest is a natural with a rifle, nailing almost every target he went after.   He has outgrown the Cricket 22 we bought a couple of years ago and was shooting my singleshot bolt action that I inherited from my dad.  That rifle has been through three generations so far and is now in the hands of the fourth.

The youngest is eager to learn and will be as good as his brother with a little practice.  Both boys are right-handed but left-eye dominant.  The oldest has figured this out and shoots left-handed to give himself a better aim through the sights.  The youngest still insists he has to shoot right-handed which means he throws his head way to the right trying to get his left eye lined up with the sights.  He'll figure it out and when he does, he'll be a crack shot like his brother.  

The youngest is my can't-get-enough-saddle-time-cowboy right now.  Even the triple digit temperatures didn't keep him from wanting to ride at least once every day.   He's fearless regardless of the size of the horse he's on and I can see I'm going to have to watch what I let him see me do on the horses.  We were riding separate horses the first evening and he saw me kick my feet out of the stirrups and jump off when I wanted to get down.  He figured that's the way it's done so off he jumped.  I turned around just in time to see him land on his feet and grin at me.  He's barely three feet tall and the saddle he was sitting was five feet off the ground.  He must have noticed the panicked look on my face and said, 'What?' Silly boy ...I'll have to watch what I do when he's looking. 

The youngest is still lightweight enough for our kid-horse, Katie, to pack around.  I am right there with him for moral support and to get the horse saddled up but Katie is the one teaching the youngun to ride.  She has a bum knee now so we don't let anyone over 50 pounds on her back.  Katie is in hog heaven with a kid on her back.  That horse would positively have her feelings hurt if kids are around she didn't get ridden and, believe me, there's nothing more pitiful than watching a 1000-pound horse pout!  The oldest grandson and our grand niece both learned to ride on Katie and we still have the 9 month old granddaughter coming up through the ranks.  But after all the grandkids are too heavy for her, we may have to borrow some pint-size neighbor kids to keep Katie feeling useful.  

And this is how I found the boys every morning.  Worn out from the activities the day before, resting up for whatever the new day would bring.   Short visit, but good times.  

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