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November 13, 2007

Graham Crackers

I've been on the lookout for some good cracker recipes for years. My kids love snacking on crackers of all kinds, but the cost of supplying two good eaters with organic, unrefined munchies isn't cheap, so I've been keen to make them myself. I got lucky several weeks ago when I scored a copy of The Fannie Farmer Baking Book at a second hand store, and lo and behold, it has several recipes for crackers. The most exciting discovery (for me anyway) was the recipe for homemade graham crackers.

That typical graham cracker flavor comes from a combination of graham flour and honey. I don't usually have graham flour on hand, but I found some at a nearby bulk food store without too much trouble. It's similar in appearance to regular whole wheat flour, but with larger pieces of bran.

Click to enlarge image
I followed the recipe exactly (see above photo), but found it unnecessary to flip the crackers halfway through baking. I did the first time, but didn't like the way they browned on top. The texture didn't seem to suffer for baking on only one side.

The one thing I did learn was that it's very important to roll them to the right thickness. I had a few in the middle that were just a bit too thick, and they came out of the oven lacking that cracker crispness.

I'm happy to report that they taste just like graham crackers (who'd a thunk?!)! Most of them were gobbled up within the first day, but we've got a few left almost a week later and they still taste good. The true test will be whether I can use them for pie crusts (or s'mores!).
I can't wait to try the cinnamon version, and I can only hope her savory cracker recipes are as good.

November 04, 2007

Sight Seeing at Home

If you're like me, you don't often get around to taking in the "touristy" sights in your own hometown, thinking you'll get around to it when you're less busy, when there are fewer actual tourists, or when the weather cooperates. Stupidly, that's how I felt about things like the 1000 year old cedar tree that lived in Stanley Park. It had been there for 1000 years already, surely it would wait around a bit longer until I got my act together and finally went to take in this awesome sight. Sadly, sometimes it's a mistake to wait.

This tree was reportedly the oldest of its kind in North America, (standing 131 feet tall, and 42 feet around at its base), and it even managed to withstand the wind storms of last winter that destroyed so much of Stanley Park. Unfortunately, the root system and interior of the tree had become so rotten in recent years that it was unable to support its hulking size any longer, and it crashed to the forest floor last month.

We may have come too late, but it was still an impressive sight, even laying down. It was nice to see that we weren't the only ones who were moved by its longevity - there was a steady stream of people who came to pay their respects to this fallen giant.

The above photo is taken from the mound where its trunk stood for so long. You can see how huge it still is in relation to the people standing beside it - the two halves of the tree were pushed to either side of the trail to allow passage through. The majority of the tree extends off into the distance and out of sight.

We had fun imagining all of the historical events that this tree would have "seen" or lived through in its lifetime. It seems fitting that it will be left to decompose in this place and enrich the ecosystem that it oversaw for so many years.

Since we were doing the touristy thing anyway, we stopped and visited the famous hollow tree that we've driven by for years without ever stopping to take a look. Now we've got our very own copy of the requisite Stanley park photo.

Those of you who have been reading for awhile will probably remember the devastating storms that we had last winter and the toll it took on Stanley Park. I posted some photos of the north east side of the park last year shortly after the storms, but I've never shown you the worst of it. The first time I drove through this side of the park I was reduced to tears (granted, I am a bit of a sap) - it looks like someone took a huge weed-wacker to the north west side of the park. These two photos were taken from the road - this time last year you would never have known that there was water on the other side of those trees.

We were lucky enough to bump into the park warden who lives in the park directly across the street from where this photo was taken. She and her family were there for each of the major wind storms, and they had to leave their cottage and spend the night in the middle of an open field each time to avoid being flattened. Their house didn't end up getting hit thankfully, but she said that sitting out there in the driving rain with the sound of the forest smashing down around them was one of the scariest things she's ever been through.

It's devastating to think that the park will never be the same within my lifetime or even within my kids' lifetimes, but I'm glad that we spent enough time there in previous years to remember it as it was.

October 30, 2007

A Trip to the Pumpkin Patch

I wasn't looking forward to our planned trip to the pumpkin patch this year. The weather had been particularly cold and drizzly the day of our scheduled outing, but our group of homeschooling friends heads out there together every year and we certainly didn't want to miss out. Besides, what would we do without pumpkins for Halloween? (Our pumpkins from the garden were gobbled up as pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving). Thankfully, the rain stopped just before we left, and by the time we got to the farm, the sun was shining brilliantly!

I tend to go a little camera crazy when I get to this place. They just display everything so nicely, and there's nothing so appealing as endless piles of squash, in my opinion (I think it appeals to my strong hoarding instincts).


The pumpkin patch itself was a bit of a challenge, though. We've had a substantial amount of rain this summer and fall, and the poor pumpkin farmers suffered serious losses (as much as 50% apparently). So not only was the field a mass of rotting pumpkins (probably 95% of them were mushy - making it difficult to even find a pumpkin let alone the perfect jack-o-lantern), but our boots got sucked off our feet with every step.

The sunshine made up for it though, as did the massive flocks of snow geese that were gathering and vocalizing in the area (enlarge the above photo to see them flying in the background).

Huge flocks of these geese pass through the Fraser River delta on their annual migration, and tens of thousands of them spend the winter here before returning to the Soviet arctic to mate.

It ended up being a lovely day, and I was really happy that we forced ourselves to get out of the house in the end. I'll have to file this memory away for those days when I don't want to get out of my pj's.

October 23, 2007

Colours of Fall

A few random fall photos.




Don't you just love this time of year?

October 19, 2007

Gathering

We've been slowly collecting things for the house, which means I finally had an excuse to browse through a shop which I've eyed longingly for years. This place is jammed with reclaimed doors, windows, and other salvaged treasures.

We didn't find a salvaged door to fit our needs, but we have put an order in for one similar to the door on the far left, except the six panes of glass will be bevelled, and we're adding some dentil molding under the windows.

It's a good thing we stopped here when we did - the owner is planning to retire and is selling off his entire inventory. I suspect I may just find a few more "necessities" before we're through!

Another great find was this butcher block/island that we bought on Craigslist.

It's made of solid maple and is just the right size for our smallish kitchen. It should help create the "modern farmhouse" look we're going for, and I can already envision the many loaves of bread that will be kneaded on that countertop!

Now if only I could get my hands on some great reclaimed light fixtures...

October 14, 2007

Grilled Eggplant

It's been awhile since I've talked about anything other than the house, so I'll spare you my thoughts on exterior doors/house colours/trim size for at least a few days and post a recipe instead.

I've been wanting to share this one for a while, and since we managed to produce two lovely eggplants in a year when we couldn't even get tomatoes to ripen, I figured now was the perfect time to share it. The cookbook that this recipe comes from is packed away with everything else I own, but it's a very simple combination, so I was able to reproduce it without any trouble.
The book is called Inspirations, and it's a compilation of recipes put together by a group of seven renouned Vancouver chefs called "The Girls Who Dish". They've written several cookbooks, and while I've only really cooked from this one, I don't think you could go wrong with any of their recipes. This particular favorite of mine is for grilled eggplant with feta and mint, and I don't care if you think you don't like eggplant, I can almost guarantee that you will love this recipe!

Start out by slicing two large eggplants into 1/4" rounds. Brush each side with a light coating of olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Grill until the eggplant is tender (I used the barbeque this time, but I usually just use a cast iron grill pan on the stovetop). Lay the grilled slices (a layer at a time) on a large platter, and sprinkle with red wine vinegar (a few tablespoons should be enough for the whole batch). Next, top it off with with some crumbled feta and finely chopped mint. Layer the rest of the eggplant rounds on top, and repeat. Serve at room temperature with pita bread cut into small wedges and watch it disappear!
This is a great appetizer to make when you've got people coming over (it also transports really well if you're going to a pot luck), but it would also make a nice light summer meal, preferably paired with a glass of your favorite wine.

October 10, 2007

Ground Breaking and Thanks

First off, I'd like to thank everyone who left comments on my last post. Your remarks were much appreciated, and gave us a lot to think about. If you're curious about which way we went, after a lot of hemming and hawing we decided to go with the fiber cement. It was a difficult decision to make, especially as I'd just finished helping replace some of the cedar siding on my mom's house and the smell alone was almost enough to sway me in that direction. But, we're concerned about the risk of forest fire, as we will be surrounded by trees on three sides, and the area is prone to water shortages and dry summers. While researching fiber cement at a local building supply, the man working there mentioned that several of the homes that survived the severe forest fires that swept through BC two summers ago were spared because of their fiber cement siding. A pretty convincing argument in my books.
While talking to our contractor, we learned that the James Hardie line of products was an option for us, and we decided to go with that instead of Certainteed, as we feel that their shingle siding looks more realistic.
For those of you who were pulling for cedar, all of our trims, decking, and decorative moldings will be made of cedar, so hopefully our house should still have some of that natural warmth.
Concern about the risk of forest fire also led us to change our mind about the Enviroshake roofing shingles. It turns out they only have a Class "C" fire rating, so we tossed around the idea of going back to the steel roof option. Unfortunately, the curved roof over our front entrance is concave, and standing seam steel roofs can only be used on convex curves. Can you see where this is going? You guessed it - we ended up having to go with the product that we were hoping to avoid in the first place - asphalt shingles. The upside is, they have a Class "A" fire rating, and since we opted for the ones that come with a lifetime warranty, we hopefully won't have to deal with replacing them in our lifetime. If we ever build another house, we'll be sure to avoid house plans with curves in the roofline (although that was one of the things that drew us to this particular plan!).

See that lovely mud pit above? We finally have a hole in the ground! This was taken on the day that we went over to the property to spray paint the house's footprint on the ground so the blasters could come in and make some room for the foundation. The house is going to run the length of the rock along the trench that you see on the left, with the back extending over the rock's slope, and the front entrance on the right hand side on the rock. I was initially against blasting to put in a basement, but because of where the house has to go (due to covenants, etc.), the front of the house was going to require a 9 foot foundation wall anyway, so it made sense to blast out a little bit more of the rock to give us a full basement for storage (that way we don't have to build a garage or shed right away). At this point, the blasting is nearly done, and we're hoping that the foundation will start going in over the next few weeks.

We're currently recovering from a lovely Thanksgiving weekend, and we've been happily munching on leftovers every day since Sunday. Saturday was also the last regular farmer's market of the year, so we stocked up on apples, asian pears, cranberries and honey. Luckily, they're planning to do bimonthly winter markets this year, so we didn't have to stockpile quite as much as usual.

I'm not sure how much time I'll have for posting in the coming months, as things are just starting to rev up for us. Our part of the work probably won't begin until around December however, so I should be around for another month or so. I look forward to catching up with all of you again - I've fallen way behind in my blog reading!

Thanks again for the good advice!

September 25, 2007

Your Opinion Please

We're down to making the final material choices for our house, and we are having a really hard time deciding on the kind of siding we should use. We were originally set on fiber cement, but are now reconsidering cedar.
The benefits of the fiber cement include fire, rot and insect resistance, 30% recycled content (fly ash), and low maintenance. Cedar is esthetically pleasing, renewable, locally sourced, and also rot resistant, but may require slightly more maintenance. Cost is about the same for both.
Has anyone out there had any good or bad experiences with either of these materials? The houses on my mom's street are all sided with cedar lap and shake siding that is almost 100 years old, so it's obviously a durable product, and I definitely like that it's traditional in this area.
Our deadline is Wednesday afternoon - please help!

September 19, 2007

Crop Failure

Our cooler than normal summer did nothing for our tomato crop, which struggled from the get go. The plants grew nice and tall and looked healthy enough, but they set very few fruits, and the ones that did develop just sat there not changing colour. Even the mature plant that my mom bought at the nursery produced a few ripe tomatoes in early August, but then the rest just sat there. The alternating rain and cool weather was good for one thing though, producing blight.

I'd say that more than half of the tomatoes we got have succommed so far, and the rest of them are still as green as they were at the beginning of August. This is so disappointing - we planted about 17 plants, thinking that would give us plenty between the two of us for canning and salsa, etc., but it looks like we're going to have to buy all that stuff this year.

There are still some beauties hanging out there though! The above Speckled Roman is huge...

...as are the Tiffen Mennonites. This variety (so far) seems to be resisting the blight relatively well.

I'm going to leave the tomatoes on the plants for the next few days, but it's supposed to start raining again soon, at which point we'll bring them in and let them ripen on the counter. My mom cut off most of the extra foliage last week hoping that it would hasten their ripening process and prevent the spread of the blight, so we'll see how that goes.

A couple of them are showing some promise, hopefully we'll be treated to a few fresh tomatoes in the coming weeks.

Some things grew well despite the weather, however. This huge zucchini (which looked very serpentine sitting on the kitchen counter) produced about 30 cups of grated flesh, which I froze in two cup amounts for use in soups and our favorite Chocolate Zucchini Cake.

Did anyone else suffer any major crop failures this year?

September 17, 2007

The Doors

We started the long process of refinishing our reclaimed doors a month or so ago, and I thought I'd talk a little bit about what's worked for us and what hasn't.

We started out giving the doors just a light sanding thinking that we'd rough the surface up a bit in preparation for priming and painting. The problem with that plan was the layer of latex paint that was improperly applied over the oil paint (no primer), leaving it to peel off and gum up the sander. We really weren't too keen on sanding the lead paint - we got a respirator and were very careful - but the sight of lead dust flying through the air (near our garden!) freaked us out, so we abandoned that plan pretty quickly.

Our second option was to use a product called "Rinse or Peel" by Biowash, which is an environmentally friendly paint stripper made with orange oil. It's a thick paste that you spread over the painted surface, and I hate to say it, but I really wasn't expecting too much. Imagine my surprise when we went to scrape the door about 15 minutes after applying it, and the paint pulled off in great gummy sheets! We ended up leaving it on slightly longer the next few times (about 30 - 40 minutes) in order to remove more of the paint layers, and that worked amazingly well, taking us down to almost bare wood.
The best part about this stuff is that you can scrape off the top layer of paste and reuse it on the next door (up to 5 times, depending on how many layers you're stripping at one time). It also kept the lead paint well contained and out of the air.

After we'd removed as much paint as we wanted (the above door was one of our first tries, so it's got a few more of the original layers on it), we used wood filler to fill in any chips, scratches, and unevenness. After a light sanding to remove any excess, the doors were cleaned up with a couple of coats of primer.

I know it doesn't look much different from the original photo, but in person it's got a much smoother and more stable surface than it did originally. We're planning to use an environmentally friendly paint on the doors (which will be applied at the house - I don't trust us not to scratch them in transit!), but I used my favorite conventional primer on them (CIL Smart Paint Anywhere Primer) instead of the "green" stuff, because I didn't want to run the risk of it ever peeling off (this stuff is fantastic, I've even used it to paint over ceramic tiles).
My favorite tool for getting a perfect finish when painting are these little foam rollers. They leave the paint so smooth and even that I often end up going over whole walls with them after we've applied the paint just to tidy things up.

As for the door knobs and hardware, which were also covered in multiple layers of paint, we tried a couple of different things. At Monica's recommendation we soaked them overnight in vinegar to soften the paint so we could scrape it off.

This worked pretty well, but we found that it seemed to remove too much of the finish on these knobs and turned them a different color than the plates (the one on the right). So we made a run to Value Village in search of a crock pot to try the method of slow cooking them, hoping that that might not damage the finish quite so much.

This method worked really well. We let them cook for a few hours while we were out, and by the time we came home home the paint practically fell off on its own, and it left more of the original finish intact (the knob on the left, above).

The face plate sitting on the edge of the crockpot in the previous photo had so much paint on it that it wasn't really budging after it's long vinegar bath, but after a nice soak in the slow cooker, it peeled off all in one shot. I would definitely recommend this method for removing paint from your old hinges and hardware, but the vinegar definitely works if you don't have a crock pot to dedicate to the job.

Here's how they look now. I thought I liked the idea of painting them black again, but after seeing them in their natural state, I don't think I'll be doing that!

After all this work, I think I'm beginning to understand why the original owner decided to replace these doors with brand new ones instead of refinishing them (okay, only sorta)!

September 13, 2007

A Few More Island Photos

No time for a real post tonight, but I thought I'd share a few more photos from our trip.





These two beauties are members of a herd of Highland Cattle at Ruckle farm (one of the original farms on Salt Spring Island). If I were to raise cattle, these would be my breed of choice.



My daughter took this one of the view looking up through the Douglas Fir trees.

September 10, 2007

Unusual Market Finds

A farmer's market is a great place to find unusual varieties of things that you'd never find in a typical grocery store, and this week I must have been in an adventurous mood, because I came home with several things that I'd never bought before.

This Rock Melon (back) caught my eye because it was so darn ugly, but it smelled absolutely heavenly, so I decided to bring it home with me. The Tiger Melon was something I considered trying in the garden this year, but didn't, so I thought it would be a good idea to test it to see if they're worth growing (they taste much like a Honeydew, but are the perfect size for one person). The Yellow Ruffled tomato was just plain pretty, so I picked it up too.

While savouring these farm fresh delights, it occurred to me that I had the makings of my own crop of unusual fruits sitting right in front of me, so I scooped some seeds from each one and set them out to dry (tomato seeds are easier to dry if you soak them in water for several days until the gelatinous coating on them dissolves).

Any guesses what this plant is? It's a Tea Tree (as in tea tree oil)! The anti fungal/antiseptic oil is difficult to extract from the leaves, but they can apparently be used in their natural state as a tea to soothe a sore throat.

I've bought these before, but they're another thing that I rarely see anywhere other than at the farmer's market - cheese curds. They're yummy little nuggets that are great for nibbling, but my kids have been begging me to make poutine with them (a dangerous French Canadian specialty which involves french fries topped with melty cheese curds and a generous helping of gravy). I can feel my arteries clogging at the very thought of them!
Aside from perusing the farmer's market, we've been busy trying to finalize plans for the actual groundbreaking on our property (frankly, at this point I don't even believe that's ever going to happen), planning activities for the upcoming "not-school" year, and doing a bit of preserving.
We picked 6 quarts of wild blackberries when we were on the island, which I froze, and I've also been busy making and freezing pesto. The basil plants that were spared from the food processor were frozen loosely in bags. The leaves will be crumbled into sauces to add a bit of summer freshness to our winter meals.
Before I go, can somebody please tell me how the heck I'm supposed to tell when a Green Zebra tomato is ripe?!


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