Grillin' and Hangin' Out

I spent Sunday on a couple of simple projects. When we had our favorite HVAC guy over to install the gas line for the propane heater, we also had a line run out to the spot under the deck where we could eventually feed it up to the grill. After drilling a hole in the deck for the gas line, I wheeled the grill into place and made all of the connections. After testing for leaks, I fired it up and it worked great. Inspired by the strangely wonderful smell of a hot grill, I convinced JoAnna that we should abandon the dinner plan for Shepherds Pie, and instead, GRILL OUT! The burgers were nothing short of amazing, with the seasonings that JoAnna uses making us both want to eat more than we should.

A few months ago when the weather was cold, we built a bluebird house and a bat house. The bird house has been mounted to a tree just outside our living room window for at least a month, but has yet to be claimed by a bird. The bat house was mounted yesterday, 12 feet up on a tree.

To understand the scale, the house is 18" W x 24" H. I painted the image of a bat on the front. We saw many bats cruising through the open area in front of the house last summer, so we hope to encourage a colony to eat locally (they eat a lot of flying bugs).

Follow-up on the leaky faucet

It turns out that the leak under the master bath sink was not the fault of the faucet, but caused by a modification that had good intentions. Here's the story: Our Rheem Tankless Water Heater is designed to not fire and heat water unless the flow is substantial enough. The special ultra-low-flow faucet aerators on the 2 bathroom faucets did not allow enough water to flow, so we could never get hot water in either location. So just last week, I replaced the low-flow aerator with a standard one, and since then we were enjoying hot water at the master bath sink. But for some reason, the new aerator didn't fit quite right, and it was allowing some water to trickle back into the faucet cavity, which then found its way out and into the enclosed vanity below. After thinking about the issue since last night, I decided to investigate and I'm glad I did. Not only would I have never known the true cause of the problem, but I would have wrongly accused the makers of American Standard faucets of manufacturing faulty goods (I will go back and edit the previous post where I made that accusation).

Today I learned: Water leaks are difficult to track down.

One More Thing...

I forgot to mention in my recent post that we had our first official mockingbird sighting yesterday. I had seen one down at the road last year, but this time it was up at the house on the power line and on the ground hopping around. JoAnna and I were both out on the deck working at the time, so we both saw it together.

An Ounce of Prevention

Most of my day was spent filling gaps in the house siding where wasps had been going in and behind to build mud pods for egg-laying last year. Like JoAnna said in her previous post, once the wasps had established a "door" to their lair, one would often be on patrol and dive-bomb human and canine passers-by. So, before the weather warmed up too much, I went out with 5 tubes of caulk and some 1" squishy foam on a roll to jam into any crevices big enough for a wasp to gain entry - or for the hatching young to emerge. I think I got it covered pretty well on the two pedestrian sides of the house, but since the north and west sides weren't a problem, I'll hold off on them. There is much to do with spring approaching and we have big plans for the garden this year.

Last night, I finally installed the fancy programmable thermostat that I bought over a year ago. The reason I waited so long is not one of procrastination, but more just waiting for the perfect window of opportunity. The requirement for that window was that if I did something horribly wrong in the installation and blew up the heat pump unit, we wouldn't suffer from lack of HVAC for weeks waiting for a repairman. Now that we have a cold-weather/backup heat source (the propane heater), I was free to risk it all. The programmability of the new device will add the luxury of having the heat come on before we rise in the morning, but the real reason I wanted it is because of the temperature differential setting it features. Here's why I wanted the differential setting: On the hottest summer days, the thermostat would activate the compressor on the heat pump (which runs in reverse for air conditioning) every 15 minutes or so. It would run for about 5 minutes, and then shut off when the house was cooled to the set temp. Fifteen minutes later, the house would be one degree warmer and the unit would start again. I wanted to find a thermostat that would allow for the indoor temp to rise above the set temp by 1 or 2 degrees before running the compressor, and then let the room cool a bit below the set temp before shutting off. Hopefully, this new unit will help extend the life of the compressor since the hardest work for it is the initial start-up. The model I got is Robertshaw RS5220. So far, so good.

Trixie the dog has been driving us crazy every night lately, barking as if something is prowling around the property. She may just be barking at the other nearby dogs as they howl at the moon. Our only option to get a good night's sleep is to invite her in to sleep in the utility room. She has always been a perfect house guest, and she's so happy to come inside, but once we have chickens it would be best for them if she were outside on patrol for varmints.

I saw seven deer run from our neighbor-to-the-west's property across our place to the opposite corner. The electricity meter-reader guy was doing his rounds in his pick-up, and obviously the deer don't like him.

Today I learned: It is a good idea to routinely check plumbing connections, especially the ones you don't see often. The American Standard faucet in the master bath has a slow drip when open, but luckily I caught it before any damage was done. Back to The Home Depot with it.

Update:The problem with the faucet was mine (see post on 2/22/2011), so I retract my remark about American Standard.

Wasps & Worms, Sprouts & Seedlings

This blog entry was started on Tuesday 2/15, but here it is Saturday night and I still haven't finished it.

Kelly has been working on wasp-proofing the past few days. The wasps get in between the boards that make up the outside covering of the house, and last summer, every time you'd go in or out, they'd buzz around and be a bother. Kelly was stung a few times. Monty, the guy who has done so much work for us here, was stung a few times too. They've dive-bombed me a bunch of times, somehow managed to avoid getting stung, but my fear of flying-things-that-can-potentially-hurt-you is so great that I would avoid going outside. Kelly has put a lot of effort to make the house less hospitable to wasps, and I'm really grateful. I hope it works.

I gave a cooking lesson on Saturday 2/12. Cute couple, and they were a lot of fun. This was from a gift certificate that's a few months old. I've got a bunch of outstanding certificates, and I usually have to remind folks to cash it in.Here was the menu:
Herb-Stuffed Mushroom Caps
Brie-Stuffed Figs over Mixed Greens with Balsamic Vinaigrette
Braciole with Penne in a rich tomato sauce
Grilled Zucchini Planks
Roasted Cauliflower
Even though we halved the recipe, there was still enough tiramisu for them to have it for dessert two more nights. We made a large pot of tomato sauce for the braciole, and that's always better the next day, so they'll have a few more good meals ahead of them.

Kelly's been eating well, too. In an effort to make menu planning easier, I wrote down a bunch of our household favorites on the backs of old business cards. He picks out 5 or 6 things at a time, and I base my shopping list on those menus. After we eat those selections, the cards go in the "used" pile, and are out of circulation until the rest of the options have been used. This keeps things interesting for me, and gives him a wide array of things to choose from, so he's not asking for the same thing every week. :-) Here's what's on board for this week:
Bulgur & Mushroom Pilaf, Swiss Chard
Eggplant and Sweet Potato Curry
Tomato & Coconut Chicken
Pan-Seared Trout, Roasted Cauliflower, Baked Potato
Spaghetti & Meatballs, with Broccoli
Roast Turkey, Rice & Gravy, Sautéed Spinach with Garlic
Chili & Cornbread
Usually we round out the meals with a green salad. I try to not make more than our two servings so there aren't a lot of leftovers laying around. Lately we've been having soups for lunch, and those will migrate to salads as the weather gets warmer.

A funny thing happened tonight though: He had chosen Egg Foo Yung for this past week. You cannot find bean sprouts in Pulaski. They are not available for sale at the center of the universe walmart. It's no big deal to make sprouts, since I have mung beans, (mung are traditionally what are sprouted and sold commercially. They're small dark green beans, about half the size of a pea, used a lot in Indian cooking, but I also see them in asian markets... and I also sprouted some red lentils and some adzuki beans.) The only problem is that I had to keep putting off making the egg foo yung since I had to wait the 8 days for the beans to sprout to where they're good to eat. So anyway, today was the 8th day, and we were doing stuff around the house (Kelly cutting wood for the SuperHighIntensityTechnique boxes and I was relocating the wire rack from the utility room to the kitchen so i could put herbs & lettuces in a sunny window) and I realized it was time to start prepping for dinner. I got all my ingredients together, and started making food. I called Kelly to the table, and put his dish in front of him, and he said, "Hey, this doesn't look like Egg Foo Yung!"

Well, it wasn't. I had "accidentally" made Pad Thai.
Egg Foo YungPad Thai
Bean SproutsBean Sprouts
...fried in oil...fried in oil
spices, flavorings, etc.spices, flavorings, etc.
My brain kind of short circuited or something, because I had a one-track-mind to make Pad Thai and it was quite a shock to realize that, at that moment he pointed it out, we weren't eating Egg Foo Yung!

It was still really really good. Since I didn't make the rice that goes with it (Pad Thai is made with rice noodles, which cook in about 4 mins), it got on the table a lot faster. Luckily, I have enough sprouts left that I could still make Egg Foo Yung for dinner tomorrow, so I'll have a chance to redeem myself. I'll remember to make rice before I start.


Kelly and I have spent the past several evenings with our laptops, planning out the garden. It's 75x25 feet. Huge for a potager, but small for a farm! We've plotted all 1875 sq ft on a grid, down to the bee-attracting flowers. We'll be sowing seeds acquired from a wide array of sources: some are bona-fide heirlooms purchased from the Internet, some are saved from grocery-store produce (yes, it works), and others were from packets bought at the dollar store or the drugstore.

We've got over 130 different types of seed! Of course, many of them are essentially different varieties of the same vegetable (for example, 4 carrot, 6 onion, 7 peppers, 8 brassicas [chard/cauliflower/broccoli] and 5 potato) but each vegetable group has its own schedule for planting. Leeks need to be sown NOW, in February, even though we can't transplant them for 6 weeks. We shouldn't put a watermelon seed in dirt until after April 1st. Tomatoes MUST be started early, but not TOO early, or they'll get "leggy" and they won't survive the transplant.

The other thing that we spent a lot of time on was figuring out what we can do to maximize our desired results. Let's take beets, for example... and permit me to use round numbers in this example... If we want to eat fresh beets in the summer, and still have enough for canning and pickling for wintertime, we need to come up with about 100 beets. If we sow 125 seeds, we'll probably have about 100 to transplant. If those 100 seedlings need to be spaced at 4" apart after transplantation, how much of the 5-foot wide plot should we plant? Now do this for broccoli, cucumbers, melons, peppers, onions.....and so on. We plotted this all out on a spreadsheet, so now it's just a matter of waiting for the right moment to sow and keeping track of transplanting dates. I'm trying to not think of all the time I'll be on my hands & knees in the garden, but at least I'll feel confident that I'm doing the work as efficiently as I can. The planning and researching time will pay off in better results. We just don't have the years of experience it takes to be great farmers, but I've been studying! I'm trying to learn the folklore like "Do not sow the seeds of beans, cucumbers, squash or melons until the apple trees have dropped their blossoms." and "Onion tops will begin to turn yellow & fall over when mature. At this time, push the tops over with the back of a rake. This will force the bulbs into their final maturing stage." I know so much more about what each type of plant needs to flourish, and how to care for each plant... which means there will be more food to enjoy eating!

I need get my hands on "crowns" of asparagus and rhubarb, as I understand are damn-near-impossible to start from seed. They need to get in the ground sooner-than-later, since they take a few years to get established enough to harvest. There are some things it's NOT worth growing; we're not going to grow any mushrooms, citrus, or grains like wheat or rice*, so we're not going to be totally self-sufficient, but I think we'll be off to a good start.

I've conceded to having chickens again, but just for the eggs (...we did eat that one rooster, though). I think that this year we'll limit our non-canine menagerie to those worms I've been keeping to process kitchen waste (the rest will get fed to the chickens) just because they're self-maintaining, and that rich dirt will go back in the garden and the flower planters around the house.

Tomorrow is Sunday, and we'll finish the S.H.I.T.-boxes and fill them with topsoil. Once I've sown them, they'll go in the greenhouse and turn into lovely little seedlings. I've got to find some setup so i can grow herbs and lettuces in the kitchen, but that can wait.

On Monday, I've scheduled a meeting with a guy at M@rtin Meth0dist Co||ege to see if it makes sense to try and hire any of the students as culinary assistants for catering. I'll keep you posted.

*we're growing corn to be eaten as a vegetable not as a grain, so no smart-alec comments, please.

February update: Los Angeles, Chicago, and Prospect, TN!

Remember us?
Those fools that moved to Tennessee but still have one foot in Los Angeles? Here's another long-overdue blog entry. They might come more frequently if y'all let me know you read these, and make a comment!

Well, yet another trip to Los Angeles is behind us. Though we spent only two weeks, it felt like a whole month, but it was SUCH a nice trip. Kelly arranged another work trip so that it coincided with Barcamp San Diego, which also coincided with my 40th birthday! My friend Judy from culinary school went with me to Barcamp, and she said she had fun. We came "home" to the Marina Del Rey hotel afterwards, greeted by Kelly, champagne and birthday cheesecake. His gift for me was a drawing:

We took the opportunity to visit with a few other friends during this trip. I admit I'm disappointed when I let people know that I'm in town and they can't find time to see me. I'm sad to realize I'm losing my friends. It's frustrating to maintain relationships with people I can see only once every 6-8 weeks. There's only a few more of these Los Angeles visits left in my future, if things go as planned. I'm not so naive to think that things WILL go as planned, and it's likely that Kelly will still be flying back & forth, but his travel is reimbursed. Mine's not, so it's expensive for me to drop $300 on round-trip airfare only to spend my days waiting around for Kelly to get off work and meet me for dinner. Weekends are better. We went to Chinatown (which I love visiting) on a day with perfect weather, and spent another day driving through interesting neighborhoods, and discovered a couple new restaurants. I don't experience a restaurant like a normal person. I get butterflies (bats!) in my stomach when I go somewhere nice, but that lacks some detail, in that "close-but-no-cigar" way, that inspires me to want to get started on my own place here in Tennessee. I knock myself back down to Earth quickly when I read some other chef/idiot's blog and realize what a pain in the butt it is to run a restaurant. I think if I ever open my own restaurant here I will special-order a chef's jacket that has extra-long sleeves that fasten with buckles around the back:

I caught the current plague somewhere in Los Angeles, and while I made it through the flight just fine, the ride home from the airport wasn't fun. The closer we got to Prospect, the worse I felt. I spent the next three days shivering with a too-high fever, and then the next four trying to convince myself I was well. I don't remember much from that week.

Sunday, (02/06/11) we got back home from a visit to Orland Park (Chicago). We went up for a visit for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. Bob & Sue are pretty much the best in-laws you could ever hope to get, and I enjoy spending time with them. Both dogs were with us on this trip. They're getting better at doing the roadtrips with us. Render is especially happy at the Mohan house, since she gets full run of the place (except the front room!) Noodles is content to sleep in her crate most of the day, but gets plenty of attention in the evenings.

We ate in almost every night, and I cooked. I have trained myself to bring only one good knife PETTY: New West Knife Works (e-mail me if you want a super-secret discount code!)

I also bring along a very small assortment of spices in bead containers.

(you can find them in the bead- or scrapbooking- section of a craft store) which I hardly use, but they're there when I need them! I do my best to make things that are plain enough for "Plain Bob", so most of my cooking there isn't much more than applying heat and/or water to raw things. I made a really good stir-fry, though, using plenty of fresh veggies, diced chicken, and adding only cornstarch, soy sauce from packets saved from previous takeout and some white pepper brought in my mysterious spice vials. :-)

We brought our new Nintendo Wii with us, and both Bob & Sue had a great time with it. We played the Resort Sports and the Wii Fit games every night. They even played the bowling game by themselves when Kelly and I were out shopping for food! Bob was a master at the jet ski game, and Sue got an immediate high-score on the ski-jump game that nobody could beat for a while.

We were there longer than we expected to be, as what was supposed to be a 4-day visit turned into a full week-and-a-day, but it was all good times. The extended trip was due to the blizzard that swept the midwest and dumped 18" of snow on us, followed by an ice-storm that coated the southern half of Illinois. Once we felt that we had a safe window of opportunity to drive, we headed south. We opted to drive halfway and spend the night in Metropolis, IL (yes, they have a statue of Superman downtown, but no, we didn't go check it out) at a surprisingly comfortable and dog-friendly Motel 6.

I'm glad to be home for a while. It's been a whirlwind year for travel, and I certainly don't regret it, but it defined my life in a way I'm not accustomed to living it. I know I'll probably be aching to go back to Los Angeles, or regretting not joining Kelly in Las Vegas for the NAB show (That saying that "the grass is always greener" is so true!) but for now, I really like sleeping on my own soft sheets in my own comfy bed.

Today Kelly gave me a home-alone day! I asked him if he wouldn't mind working outside the house (from the library) one day a week and he was happy to agree. I hardly know what to do with myself!  Well, I take that back. I am doing chores. So far, I've done laundry and did the dishes and cleaned the kitchen counters. I even gave Noodles a bath! As soon as I'm finished with this blog entry, I'll sweep & mop the kitchen floor. Whee. What a busy little bee I am. Once that's all done I'll make dinner. Kelly selected chicken fajitas tonight, and I'm going to make tortillas from scratch, which I haven't done since culinary school. That will prove interesting, I'm sure.

We had a trio of guys here attacking the woodpile to the south of the house. Yesterday was actually their second go at it, and they're making progress. Our neighbor Scott, came buy and took every stick of wood he could carry after the first session; he'll probably be back for the results of this second round tomorrow. Once the area is cleared, I'm hoping we can make that space into some combination of a rock garden and a wildflower meadow.

The next major project on the homestead is to make our seedling boxes. We have this book by John Jeavons How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine ( link)

and we like the ideas he proposes. The plan is called "BioIntensive Gardening" ( and the idea is that we can grow enough food to sustain a family of 4 for a year in the space of our 75x15 garden plot. It doesn't include wheat or rice, but it would give us enough to eat fresh all summer and enough to preserve (by freezing, drying or canning) for eating during the winter. I've been calling it "Super High Intensity Technique" simply so I can use the acronym when referring to the seedling boxes we need to build.

We're also looking forward to getting chickens again, and we're still debating how soon we'll be getting a few goats... but we're not in any hurry to do either of these.