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The Urban Bystander

Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Of Warmth, Safety and Frugality


Our family has been burning wood for years. Initially, it was the brick fireplace with the oak mantle that caused us to fall in love with the house. We envisioned romantic evenings by the fireplace… Well, maybe romantic is the wrong word. After all, we had a 3 year old, a 4 year old and a 14 year old living in the house back then. If nothing else, we figured that we’d be able to trim our utility bills so that we could afford the occasional romantic dinner out without the presence of any children!

In that first year, we learned that the utility savings were a myth and that we’d never be able to afford a dinner more exotic than ramen noodles, if we didn’t address our skyrocketing heating costs. We began by caulking and sealing every crevice that we could find, but minor air seepage wasn’t our biggest issue.

Photo by Pixabay

book by the fireThe problem was that masonry fireplaces are highly inefficient. Most of the heat produced by the flames is swept up and out the chimney before you realize it. In addition, our chimney was causing not only the heat generated by burning wood to be sucked outside, but also the heat produced by our furnace. The combination was costing us a small fortune here in Central New York where our winters are punctuated by blizzards and bone-numbing cold temperatures.

For us, the solution was to install a fireplace insert. Similar to a woodburning stove, the insert was professionally installed inside the fireplace to create an airtight seal. Equipped with an electrical blower, the unit forces heated air out into the living quarters of the house. It also has the ability to burn the gasses that are released as the logs are consumed by the flames, making it an extremely efficient choice for us.

About $500 worth of wood can help us to save about $1500 in heating costs when compared to operating our furnace alone. Not to mention the fact that a substantial portion of our wood is gleaned for free from the city curb.

Our family tries to reduce, reuse and repurpose as many things as possible and cold fireplace ashes are no exception. They are added to the garden periodically to enhance the soil and are even provided to the quail for dust bathing!

There is very little that is more devastating to a family than a house fire. Between what is devoured by licking flames and what becomes saturated with water, there is rarely much left to salvage. The process of sifting through the remains is heartbreaking…and it is one that we hope to avoid.

Each year, we try to do our part to reduce the risk of a house fire. We try to only burn properly aged and seasoned wood to avoid the buildup of creosote in the chimney. We also hire a professional chimney sweep to ensure that the flue is in good shape for the coming season. Nothing beats reading by the fire when there’s blustery weather outside!




Mary Ann or Ginger?

Carolyn Evans-Dean head shotMany magazines have been asking their readers to choose between Mary Ann and Ginger for almost 50 years, since the first episode of the television show Gilligan’s Island aired in 1964. (Whew! Just the thought that the show is nearly 50 years old is enough to make me feel a bit creaky in the joints!) In quite the sexist fashion, those publications only pose the question to men. I’ve decided to address this age old question in today’s blog post.

My vote goes to Ginger, and I don’t care who knows it! Ginger is a wonderfully easy plant to grow and can be used to flavor all types of recipes.  If the passengers on that fateful three-hour cruise had brought along my kind of ginger, then they could have made ginger beer instead of relying on nothing but coconut milk as the only beverage offered at mealtimes. If you are a fan of ginger ale, then its hotter and spicier cousin may be just the thing for you!Ginger Rhizome from the Grocery Store

While the regular dried ginger that most people have in their spice racks will produce a tasty beverage, the best kind is produced by using freshly grated ginger. If you think that you’ve never seen whole ginger at your grocery store, you are probably mistaken.  Ginger is a rhizome, so it more closely resembles an odd-shaped alien root rather than herbal greenery. It also makes for a beautiful, low-maintenance houseplant.

In an effort to be self-sufficient about my ginger beer cravings, I grow my own plants from the rhizomes at the supermarket. Having given my last plant away a while ago, I started two new pots about 6 weeks ago. There was no fuss to the planting process. I simply filled pots with soil and buried the rhizomes about two inches deep. Placing them in soil in a sunny window, I watered them occasionally and left them alone.

 Young Ginger Shoot

With one tropical plant up and doing well, I was feeling quite pleased…until I looked in the other pot. There was nothing visible!  Being an impatient gardener, I took it upon myself to dig the other rhizome up. Right on the edge, I discovered a tell-tale greenish bulge. The bulge indicates that the plant will soon sprout forth and will be playing catch up with the other pot. If I hadn’t seen signs of life in it, I probably would have washed it and proceeded with making ginger beer. Very little goes to waste around here!

Ginger Rhizome with New Growth

Some would say that my recipe for ginger beer is not authentic because I don’t use champagne yeast to make it. However, I don’t make champagne at home, so champagne yeast wouldn’t be a good multi-purpose ingredient to keep around.

Homemade Ginger Beer 

Add to a soup pot, 3 ounces of powdered ginger 

1/2 an ounce of cream of tartar 

Juice of two lemons 

1 1/2 lbs of sugar  

1 gallon of water

Allow mixture to simmer over low heat for half an hour.

Let cool. 

When nearly room temperature, stir in 1 tablespoon of baking or brewing yeast.

Pour into glass bottles and then seal them with a bottle sealer. 

(Don’t take chances with corks as the fermentation process will cause the corks to take off like bottle rockets, spraying much of the finished product around your kitchen on day 2 or 3!)

Let sit for 3 days before opening.

Do not refrigerate until after 3 days has passed to allow the flavors to develop and the yeast to create the bubbly carbonated effect that is desirable in soda. 

There is a slight alcoholic content to ginger beer due to the fermentation process. However, I’ve never noticed any intoxicating effects. For the most part, this recipe produces a tasty homemade soda that can be manifactured at home without all of the unpronounceable chemical additives. While I tend to drink a lot of iced tea year round, it is so nice to have something bubbly from time to time!

So...Mary Ann or Ginger? Definitely Ginger!

Has Spring Really Sprung?

Miniature Daffodils in Mid March 

In years past, I would still be mired in the garden planning process during the month of March. This year? Not so much. I don’t consider myself to be a planting expert. I’m more of a bumbling garden dabbler, approaching each new agricultural season with zeal. Carefully mapping out each organic planting area and armed with the best of intentions, orders are placed for interesting seed collections and little-known heirloom vegetables.

Each year, I carefully till, mulch, water and fight the usual garden pests while dreaming of the first harvest from every plant species. And then life intervenes. The annual slug fest begins. The mosquitoes chase me out of the garden and the weeds win the race to the top, blocking the sunlight from the tender young shoots. I always go back to defend the garden’s sullied honor, but the harvest is never as grand as I imagined it during the planning and planting stages.

This year, the weather has wrought an interesting challenge. It has been unseasonably warm and though local wisdom says not to plant a garden prior to Memorial Day, I have found myself inexplicably drawn to dig in the dirt. The signs of spring are everywhere! We have grape hyacinths and miniature daffodills in full bloom. The trees have starting to flower and even the grass needs to be mowed. I want to plant all of my garden beds now in the hope Mother Nature will continue to smile down on us and gift us with a bountiful harvest. So far, the urge has been kept (mostly) under wraps. Limiting myself to cold tolerant crops like peas and lettuce, I worry that the rising temperatures will actually cause lettuce and peas to bolt! This week, we’ve had temperatures in the high 70’s and there’s still no sign of a typical NY winter.

 Unseasonably Early Grape Hyacinths

Aside from the cold-tolerant seedlings, we have had our first garden harvest of the 2012 season: Chives. They never seem to disappoint me. They grow in clumps in the garden, in pots on the porch and even volunteer each year in the yard. Like most herbs, they thrive in well-drained soil. Never finicky, the plants thrive in either full sun or partial shade, but do prefer a bit of moisture. As they are perennials, there is no need to replant them.

Regular Onion Flavored Chives

We have both garlic chives and regular onion-flavored chives growing all over the place. It may only be March, but it is a sure sign that we’ve been gifted with an early spring. (Don’t tell Mother Nature…She may decide to send a late season blizzard our way!)

Not Just Plain Vanilla

 Vanilla Ingredients 

As someone that enjoys cooking and baking, I am always searching for ways to improve the quality of the food and the cost of the preparation. With skyrocketing food costs, seasonings and spices are increasingly priced at a premium.

One way that I have found to reduce costs is to make my own vanilla extract. Of course, my daughter would patiently explain that it wasn't really an extract since I don't actually squeeze vanilla juice out of the beans. Instead it is a tincture...blah, blah, blah. I'm sure she's right. Well, whatever you want to call it, I find that I am now free to use as much of the resulting liquid in any recipe that I want, yielding a far richer flavor. Baked goods made with homemade vanilla are never bland. This is so simple, that I usually only make up a batch once per year. Today happens to be that day!

The steps are simple:

1.) Order vanilla beans. (I find my beans on Ebay)

2.) Make lengthwise slits in the beans

3.) Fill a pint-sized canning jar with either vodka or rum

4.) Add 4 or 5 slitted vanilla beans to each jar

5.) Place jar in a dark place for 3 months to allow the vanilla to
flavor the liquor

6.) Once a week or so, give the jar a little shake

7.) Once the vanilla is aged to perfection, you can pour it from the canning jar into an easy to pour bottle. We like to reuse glass maple syrup bottles for this purpose. Do not store the vanilla in a plastic container, as it could cause the chemicals in the plastic to leach into the liquid and alter the flavor.

8.) Add to any recipe that calls for vanilla extract & enjoy!

 Aging Vanilla in Jars 

They say that you can surmise a lot about someone by the things that they discard in their trash. Our trash collector will probably think we threw a wild party based upon the empty liquor bottles in the recycling bin. I'll be expecting the faithful readers at GRIT to vouch for my character and explain that the only wild thing around here is this groundhog in the backyard!

 Garden Groundhog Mascot 

I spotted this little joker yesterday. Why didn't someone tell me that it was Groundhog Day? I hope this isn't a bad omen for the 2012 garden. 

Stinging Nettles: The Green that Bites Back!

Stinging Nettles 

As a kid, I remember working out behind the barn. I was tasked with the removal of the stinging nettles that grew there. Despite the long pants and rubber gloves that I wore, I always managed to get stung by them somewhere…usually on my upper arms or at my ankles as they were increasingly exposed as I went through a growth spurt. It is kind of ironic that almost 30 years later, I actually want to plant and cultivate nettles for their food value. It is hard to believe that a plant that can cause you to feel that you’ve been poked by tiny needles can also be a protein-packed powerhouse of a green loaded with vitamins A and D. Long used as a medicinal in medieval Europe, nettles were used to treat joint pain and as a diuretic to rid the body of excess water.

In order to be able to prepare them for eating, the plants are harvested and allowed to wilt. Once wilted, they no longer have the ability to sting and gloves are no longer necessary for handling. Treat the greens like spinach after washing them and they make a tasty side dish. Many people actually prefer the taste of nettles to that of spinach. I just don’t notice much of a difference. For me the beauty of growing nettles is that I can sow them virtually anywhere and they will take care of themselves. I won’t have to weed them and they will re-seed themselves each year. Yes, my secret is out. I am indeed a lazy gardener!

While doing the research about growing nettles, I was struck by the vast amount of information available on the internet. It seemed that every article stressed that the plants prefer a phosphorus rich environment and are one of the few plants that can actually thrive in soil that has been enriched with poultry droppings. Raising quail, we have plenty of that!

The most helpful information that I found was a list of things that can ease the pain once you've been stung. It seems that the cures for the irritation can often be found growing in close proximity to an outcropping of nettle. The common dock plant (Rumex) or jewelweed (Impatiens Pallida & Impatience Capensis) can provide relief when crushed and rubbed on the affected area.

 Now that I'm older, I now recognize both of those plants as being the other weeds that I was tasked with removing as a child. Who would have guessed that the cure was so close at hand?


Garden Planning: Can't Wait to Dig In

Assorted Seed Catalogs 

My mailbox has been filling up in recent weeks. While a part of me hates to think of the number of trees that have been sacrificed to produce this year's crop of seed catalogs, another part of me is jumping up and down with glee.

 It is finally time to begin planning the 2012 garden. That's right! Regardless of whether or not the world ends on December 21st (as predicted by the Mayans)we still want fresh veggies to enjoy throughout the summer and fall.

 I always approach the garden with such optimism. The plan usually includes some innovative design plot that I've seen over the years at nearby Cornell University. When I'm in garden planning mode, weeds drought and garden pests don't exist. Instead, every vegetable is envisioned in a blemish free state and is the epitome of perfection.

 Tomato Start in Greenhouse

Despite all of the choices offered by the seed companies, we actually buy very little. We have lots of commercially packaged seed from prior gardening years. We are also fairly good seed savers with much of the saved seed coming from heirloom & non-hybrid vegetable varieties. This means that we will see fairly consistent results from the seeds that we collect each year.

Salad Green Boxes  

Last year, we grew groundcherries for the first time. Related to the tomato, the plants were started in the greenhouse and did very well in our soil. Those seeds were the result of a particularly wonderful seed swap that we do with an internet friend in Wyoming.

 Groundcherries 2011 

We have seeds to grow the things that we like to eat & some for things that we don't!  Unloved seeds, like okra and rutabaga, are traded away to people that actually (shudder) like to eat them. Seed swaps are an excellent way to taste test new veggies and to see if they will do well in your type of soil.

 Daily Harvest 2011 

Each year, we decide to try a few new varieties of something but we try to spend exactly $26. Why $26? Because many of the seed companies offer free shipping or discount coupons redeemable on purchases over $25. A good portion of that $26 is spent on permaculture. Things that we can plant once and reap the harvest from for a number of years. Though I love to garden, I really don't like to work so hard at it!


Breaking Bread: A Cautionary Tale

Baked loaf of bread 

Carolyn Evans-Dean head shotI've always been the type of person to read books with rural settings and watch old-fashioned television shows. You know the ones I mean...They were always set way back in the days and would feature Paw hitching up the wagon to go fetch Doc when someone was injured. Though the shows rarely featured anyone that looked like me, I always imagined myself living back in those times. Of course back then, the gender roles were pretty well defined and there wasn't much leeway in them. Rather than being the one going into town to fetch the Doc, I'd have likely been the one sweating over an open fire to make dinner out of whatever varmint Paw had managed to snare.

As an adult I embarked on a more self-sufficient lifestyle, trying my best to recreate some of those moments for my family. Making bread was one of those key elements that I desperately wanted to bring into our home. I mean how hard could it really be? Breadmaking has been going on since the beginning of recorded time, right? On tv, the woman of the house would start the breadmaking at the crack of dawn. It had to be easy because she likely hadn't had any coffee and was probably dozing as her hands found a familiar rhythmic kneading pattern in the dough. The family would gather around the dinner table at the end of a long, hard day of eking out a living and they'd break bread, often sharing the meal with a neighbor or a passerby.

I've found that even after more than 10 years of making bread, both by hand and with a bread machine, things still go awry. Most of my bread failures fall into two sports categories: bread that resembles a football in both size and texture & yeasty dinner rolls that resemble hockey pucks. There was that one unfortunate incident where the bread... Oh never mind...That story is just too embarrassing to share! Needless to say, I have become quite proficient at both making and breaking bread.

Over the years, I've determined that the secret to making good bread is to find one recipe and tweak it until you get it right. If you use a different recipe each time, you'll never learn what it takes to correct bad bread. There are only a few ingredients in a basic bread recipe: flour, water, yeast, oil, salt and a bit of sugar or honey.

The first bread that you'll want to experiment with is a basic white bread. Don't get caught up in the old white bread is inferior to wheat bread debate just yet. Instead, entertain the notion that any home baked white bread loaf will be infinitely superior to the plastic bagged version in your local supermarket. As a bonus it won't contain any of the ingredients that only a top chemist can pronounce. Bread making skills are honed on white bread and are perfected on wheat bread because it can be a bit tricky to make a finely grained loaf of wheat bread that doesn't damage your teeth when you bite it.

Bread Dough on Floured Cutting Board

Here is my favorite white bread recipe to make two loaves:

2 packages of active dry yeast
2 1/4 cups of lukewarm water
1/2 cup of slightly warmed milk
2 1/2 tablespoons of sugar
1 tablespoon of salt
1/3 cup of cooking oil
7 1/4 cups of sifted flour 

Dissolve yeast in the water. Add sugar, milk, oil and salt. Stir mixture
gently. Add about half of the flour to make a batter. Continue to stir to
ensure that the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout. Gradually
add enough remaining flour to make a soft dough. Dough should not be so
sticky that it sticks to the sides of the bowl. If after adding the
remaining flour, you find that the dough is still sticky, you may add up to
an additional 1/4 cup of flour. Extra flour should only be added in small
increments and not all at once.

While still in the bowl, cover the dough with a towel or lid and allow it
to rest for 20 minutes. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Start
kneading,  after about 5 minutes it will become smooth. (Do not over
knead...This will make for a tougher bread texture.)Divide dough into two
equal portions and form each into a loaf. Place into two greased 9x5 inch
loaf pans. Let dough rise again until it has doubled in size. This can take
anywhere from an hour to an hour & a half. Preheat oven to 400 degrees and
bake for 30-35 minutes. When properly baked, bread will sound hollow when
you tap on it. Remove the loaves from the pans and allow them to cool.

Bread Dough After Final Rise

To keep the crust soft, you can massage the entire loaf with a little butter. Some people may balk at this, citing the additional calories that are added. However, kneading bread is really good exercise for the arms, so those calories were likely burned and you'll have well-toned arms to show for your efforts! In this society where things are often done at the touch of a button, we sometimes forget that those pioneer women of the past got their exercise through a hardscrabble lifestyle and not a treadmill. If only we owned a butter churn, I could give up the gym membership and still have arms to rival those of First Lady Michelle Obama ...

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