Friday, January 16, 2015

How to Travel the World, or at Least Plan to...

One thing I have always wanted to do was travel around the world. Now that our children can take care of themselves, we have more freedom to think about traveling. Of course, there are still many obstacles such as the cash flow, work schedules, family activities, weather, pet care and so on, that keep us grounded at home, but at least we are getting out once or twice a year to new places. If you also like traveling, there are a few tips for planning that we can offer.

Try taking weekend trips. Instead of looking at longer trips only to be disappointed because the cost is too high or the scheduling is just too tight, look closer to home for weekend getaways. We happen to live at the top of the Chesapeake Bay so there are plenty of little waterfront communities that are great for spending a day or two without spending a fortune. We also have several major cities; Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Washington DC, and Lancaster that are between one and three hours away from us. We love checking out theaters or events happening close by and then adding on a hotel room for the night. This year, we hope to do a little boating and camping for even more adventure once the weather warms up. I hate to say that I cannot afford to travel, instead I try to find what I can do with the limited funds that we (like most people) have at our disposal.

Look for cheap flights. Of course, this is often the clincher in the planning of our longer trips but with the recent drop in the price of oil, I hope that the savings will translate soon to airflight costs. I like to look at Spirit Airlines as they often have very low prices but only to specific areas. Some folks complain that they don't like the idea of having to pay for each aspect of the flight, but I kind of like the barebones approach. I can bring my own food and water and don't need to carry much luggage so their system works for me. Besides Spirit, you can check out Google Flights and watch their indicators for when flight prices will drop and make your plans within their parameters. Don't forget to sign up for airlines' email offers.

Look at your calendar for blocks of time where you don't have to take off work. For instance, if you work a normal eight to five, Monday through Friday job, your paycheck might shrink if you take a day off to travel. However, if you chose to travel on days that you might already have off, like the day after Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July or January First, you don't have to use up valuable work days. This is especially effective if the paid holiday is on a Friday or Monday so you can make it a long weekend.

Use offers from your credit cards or other financial partners. It seems everyone is offering some kind of reward for using their financial services, especially credit cards, banks and credit unions. Look closely at your online statements and see what your rewards can be used for. Sometimes you get cash back that you can then save up for traveling. Others offer points that are useful for discounts on hotel rooms or car rentals. Once you get an idea of what they offer, you can make plans around the details. Don't forget the old standby of AAA, the original travel service. If nothing else, you get a reduced rate on rooms, rental cars and even restaurants besides the assurance of their roadside service.

Read reviews before you travel. With the vast quantity of information available at our fingertips through our smartphones, we have no excuse for doing a few seconds of research on a destination. I like to use the Google reviews as a start. Simply plug in the business name and see what other viewers have posted. Another valuable site is Trip Advisor. They have accumulated a vast collection of reviews from all over the world and I always take a look there before I try any new places. 

I am no authority on world travel yet, but as I learn, I am happy to share any advice I get for helping you to get out there in this wild and crazy world and try to visit new places. Feel free to comment on your tips too, if I haven't included them.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Make Labneh Cheese

So this morning I decided to finish up a cheese-making project I have been working on. It is a cheese made from drained yogurt called labneh usually found in Mediterranean cuisines. A few weeks back, I found a deal where I could get full-fat Bulgarian yogurt for fifty cents a pint and so creating an opportunity for this experiment. Making yogurt cheese is not new to me but taking it further than a creamy spread is.

After draining the yogurt in the refrigerator for three days, I let it dry out for almost another week. Draining is simply a matter of placing a coffee filter in a steel strainer and then placing the strainer over a collection bowl before dumping in the yogurt. After draining, I wrapped the mass in wax paper until I was ready to form cheese balls. This morning seemed a perfect time since yesterday I purchased a gallon of good Italian olive oil.  I picked a few sprigs of rosemary and thyme to add an interesting flavor to the creamy but tart flavor of the cheese. I also added dried onion and peppercorns to another batch as you can see in the picture.

Now all I have to do is keep it in the refrigerator for the next couple of weeks to continue the ripening process. The labneh should be ready to serve with some spiced flatbreads just in time for the holidays. I am happy with the results and look forward to see how the flavor changes from the herbs!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How to Dehydrate Marigold Petals

Some time ago, I found out that marigold petals are the poor man's alternative to saffron. I can make a rich broth to cook rice in, but that beautiful orangy color is hard to come by with normal spices. Since I grow marigolds in my garden and at this time of the year, there are hundreds of blooms, I decided to collect some. Sure I can go out a pick a few now for tonight's dinner, but in the middle of winter my garden will be empty. Solution? Dry some now to add to my stash of dried herbs.

Pick your blooms in the morning after the sun has had a chance to dry off the dew. Of course, you can only use flowers that are grown without any insecticides. I just use my fingers and give them a slight twist. In just a few minutes you will have a good basketful of gorgeous brightly colored flowers.

Now the seed part of the flower is bitter and needs to be removed. I found that using a pair of scissors made the job easy to separate the petals from the seeds.

Sort the petals from the seeds by placing them in different containers. Keep the petals in a clean container as you don't want to contaminate them.

By the time you are done with the basket, you will have a nice fluffy pile of marigold petals and a pile of seed pods. I gave the seeds to our chickens but you could also add them to your compost pile.

 To dry the petals, you need to place them on a tray lined with a paper towel to help absorb the moisture. Don't make the layer too thick or you will run the risk of mold developing between the petals.

Place the tray in a warm oven of 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Every couple of hours, give them a little stir with your fingers to make sure the heat is circulating between the petals.

 When they have shrunk considerably in volume and feel dry to the touch, turn off the oven and let them cool down to room temperature.

Pour them into a dry sealable container and store in a cool and dark cupboard. Now you are ready to experiment with using marigold flowers in your cooking.

They look beautiful in a fried rice dish and add a rich color to soup broths.

Why not use marigolds? They are full of carotenoids, antioxidants and so easy to grow and have a pleasant almost citrusy flavor.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Making Apple Wine Without Added Sulfur Products

This is October and I am busier than ever. Not only do I have massive projects going on, like painting all my cabinets and furniture one piece at a time, but cold weather is slowing moving into the area. I have apples I bought for ten cents a pound bubbling away in a bucket, herbs drying, birthday cards to write, a story to finish and the holidays to plan for - but don't get me wrong, I love it!

This morning, I will explain how you can make a beautiful wine from apples. I use bruised whole apples and save the good ones for eating.

Toss your whole apples into a large stock pot with just about an inch of water at the bottom. This will prevent the apples from scorching until they heat up enough to release their own juice. Cover the pot and heat it up on medium for about 20 minutes or until the apples are starting to split open and soften.

The boiling will kill off most of any unwanted bacteria or yeast spores that might grow during the fermentation process. Stir the apples with a large spoon and crush them so that the heat permeates through to the inside of the apples. They will turn into a soft mush and smell delicious. Turn off the heat.

Now I take the pot and dump the contents into a five gallon fermenter bucket. Add enough cool tap water to cover the apples by about an inch and stir well. Pour in enough cane sugar to bring the specific gravity up to about 1.075. Since I am using a bread yeast, I don't want to make it too sweet or the yeast will stop growing. I believe wine yeast can handle a little more sugar, but you can do a little research to see just what your yeast can handle. The whole point of using the yeast is for it to convert the sugars in the apple into alcohol. Now, I realize that some folks might not know how to measure specific gravity. You have to buy a hydrometer from an online site such as Amazon or your local beer and wine making store. Expect to pay anywhere from 6 to 20 dollars, depending on the quality and size. Follow the directions or try to remember back to chemistry days in school when you probably had opportunity to play with one. Once you get a reading, write it down so that later on, you can see how much sugar the alcohol has used up. By the time the wine is done fermenting, you can compare the specific gravity measurements and know just what the alcohol content is.

Check the temperature of the mash and wait for it to come down below 100 degrees Fahrenheit before you add your yeast. A candy thermometer works well here. For this recipe, I am using a yeast that I have growing in my refrigerator for making bread when I need to. It grows on flour and water so I will now have a little wheat flour in the mash but I don't think it will matter. As you can tell, I am not a purist but rather an experimenter. I like to throw in a black tea bag to add a little tannin into the mixture. And that's it for now.

I marked the date that I started the wine, noted the specific gravity and then installed the airlock into the cover of the bucket. Slide the bucket into a corner of your kitchen and let the yeast go to work.

After about twelve hours, I opened the lid and was pleased to see a nice fermentation going on. Each day I will stir the mash to break up the 'cap' of fruit that rises to the surface.

I didn't mention it before, but always keep everything super clean when you are working with fermenting foods. I prefer using boiling water to clean any utensils that come in contact with the fruit, but there are a number of commercial products that will also kill any bacteria or fungi spores that might be around.

I will come back in about a week and let you know how this is progressing...

Day 3: This morning, I opened the bucket to find a cap of apple mash as you can see here,

I stirred it up gently and as you can see there is a good bit of foam, showing me the yeast is working.

 I took a sample of the liquid and measured the specific gravity and it looks like it has dropped a little. However, although I am sure the yeast is working and there is a bit of alcohol in this, there are too many solids suspended in the liquid for me to get a real reading.

As far as the taste - it is sweet, foamy and appley. Stay tuned...

I forgot but I looked to see how warm my house is as that will also affect how quickly the fermentation happens and I guess it is a little cooler than I thought at 62 degrees Fahrenheit. That's okay, though. This will be a gentle fermentation.

Week 1: After letting the apple must ferment away in my cool kitchen for a week, I decided to filter out the juices and let the fermentation continue. To do this, I did NOT stir the mixture as I had been every morning. Placing the bucket on the counter, I lifted off the bucket cover and set it under one corner to cause the contents to tilt to one side.

 I set my gallon jug on the floor so I could use gravity to siphon off the liquid. You can see I placed a wire sieve on top of the funnel to catch any large bits of apple that might make its way down the tubing.

Of course, never forget to use spotlessly clean equipment in each of these stages.

Now slowly slide one end of a piece of flexible tubing down past the cap of fruit mash in the bucket until it hits the bottom. Give a gentle blow into the other end of the tube to blow out any apple that may have lodge during the tube placement. Now hold the bucket end of the tubing steady as you gently suck the juice from the bucket until you see it reach about halfway down the tube.

Quickly place your thumb over the opening and drop the free end of the tube to drain into your glass jug. You will see as you do this that the juice will only flow if you are putting one end of the tube lower than the position of the end in the bucket. Just let the juice drain until the apple mash clogs the tube. Dump the leftover mash into a sieve over a large bowl to collect a little more fluid and add to the gallon.

Take another reading of the specific gravity. Mine has dropped a little more to 1.065. Cap off the bottle with an air lock and set aside to continue fermenting.

 A little extra bonus. Instead of tossing the leftover fermented apple mash, I put it through my food mill to remove the seeds, peels and stems. The apple puree leftover I then boiled down to half its volume to make apple butter. It was plenty sweet for my taste and only needed a sprinkle of cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and clove.

The chickens enjoyed the apple peels, seeds and stems...

Friday, September 19, 2014

How to Paint 1950's Solid Wood Dining Room Chairs

Now you might think this is a strange place for me to write about refinishing my dining room chairs, but why not? I am writing about what I do. I took a bunch of pictures and now someone else who wants to update their old dark furniture can have directions.

About twenty years ago, Eric and I bought a gorgeous dining room set of solid wood furniture made by the  White Furniture Company out of North Carolina. Our youngest of four children was just going on two and we needed something for our growing family. A older neighbor posted in the newspaper that his children had bought him a new set of furniture and he was looking for a home for their old furniture. We were thrilled to get the massive set for somewhere around $300 (my husband and I can't quite agree on that figure) and set about moving it into our then French Colonial style home with a separate formal dining room.

The years went by, our children grew up, we moved several times and that heavy furniture stayed with us. Fast forward and now those children are coming back home with their significant others and all of a sudden we need a big seating area for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.

At first, we toyed with the idea of selling the set and purchasing new modern stuff but realized two things; no one wanted the old set and the new furniture that we could afford was not near the quality of what we had. So I took on the challenge of putting a new finish on the old wood, almost against my better judgment (just because I love wood surfaces).
Step 1 - Locate the screws holding the seat
Remove the screws
I pulled the first chair into the kitchen and flipped it over to remove the screws holding the seat in place.

Then I removed the old flathead screws that held the seat cushion in place.
Remove seat

The seat came off easily, revealing twenty years of crumbs and dirt sandwiched between the frame and the seat.

Now I knew I had to clean off some of the grime left from little fingers, especially along the top rail. According to my research, before you redo cabinets, the professionals recommend you clean them with a solution of TSP to clean off the grime. I figured it was basically the same application and bought some inexpensively at my local Lowes.

Scrub the chair with TSP

I made a solution according to their directions, put on some rubber gloves to save my skin cells and scrubbed away with a cotton rag.

Don't forget the gloves

Sand the dried chair

The dirt came off rather easily once I wiped the chair down with the solution and then went back over it a little more vigorously. I rinsed the surface of the chair with a clean rag and clean water.

After letting the chair dry out again, I went over all the surfaces with 150 grit sandpaper to get the wood ready for the paint and to remove any leftover bits of dried crud.

Now I was ready for painting. I chose a flat latex white paint and mixed equal parts of Plaster of Paris and water into it along with a leveling agent called Floetrol. You can find the recipe for the chalk paint from Lowes online here. I was looking for an almost antique look but not distressed.

Prevents brush marks

After I applied the first coat, I was a little skeptical since the chair didn't look very good. I did more research and found that many sites mentioned using several thin coats to get a uniform finish. In case you were wondering why I didn't save myself a lot of work and use a sprayer, it's because the addition of the Plaster of Paris would have clogged the sprayer.
I wasn't too impressed at first

The first coat took about an hour to dry and I gave it a light sanding with my block sander. I used my fingers to look for rough spots and smoothed them out. A microfiber cloth worked well to remove the dust.
Sand lightly between coats of paint

I tried to just enjoy the project and took my time to paint, wait for the full drying time, sand lightly, wipe down, repaint and repeat. Each chair needed four coats of paint. The first chair was my test and so it took me a couple of days. Once I understood the process, I worked on two chairs at a time so that by the end of the week, all six chairs were finished.

Once the painting was finished, the chairs had a very flat, chalky finish and I made sure that we didn't touch them with dirty fingers. I applied a very thin coat of paste wax with a brush. There is a nice round brush you can get for applying paste wax, but I just used a clean old brush I had that I didn't mind sacrificing to only waxing.

Simple paste wax worked well

A brush attachment for the drill
I followed the directions for waxing, letting it dry for at least 30 minutes before buffing out. A second coat finished off the surface beautifully. I purchased a brush I could attach to an electric drill to save myself a little effort on the polishing end. The surface was so nice to touch and the wax added a slight touch of orange over the paint, giving it the antique but clean look.

The finished surface was so smooth 

After the chair was finished, I tackled the seat. Originally, I thought I would reupholster the chairs but after looking at the quality of work, I decided to try cleaning them first, using the attachment on my carpet cleaning machine. It worked after three or four passes and lots of scrubbing. A day for drying and they were ready to be screwed back together.

My chairs were beautiful!

I set the chairs aside to cure for at least a week before we used them

Check out the difference!

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