Winter Cakes

December 2, 2009

When I woke up this morning I had a craving, or perhaps just a hankering, for something with molasses, butter, oats, and cinnamon. I looked for a recipe to use but didn’t really find one that was what I was looking for, so I made something up. Now, I’m not saying this was the most awesome recipe in the world or anything, but it turned out pretty good and really hit the spot. I wasn’t sure what to call this recipe – bars, cake, bread? Then it snowed the littlest, tiniest bit and the kids came in the house (after being out for less than 10 minutes!) just in time to have some warm goodness. Aidan called them Winter Cakes and I thought it was very fitting.

So I’m posting this recipe (though it’s more of an idea than a recipe) partly to share it and partly so I can find it again. I have to write it down before I forget. I did not measure everything, so some things are a guess, such as the spices. I added about the same amount of nutmeg, cloves, and ginger but put in a lot of cinnamon.

Winter Cakes

  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1.5 cups brown sugar (though it would be tasty with molasses, honey, or syrup as a sweetener, too)
  • 3 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/4 t salt (actually I used a little less because it was sea salt which seems saltier to me)
  • 1 cup flour (I used white whole wheat)
  • 1/2 t baking soda
  • 1/4 t ginger
  • 1/4 t ground cloves
  • 1/4 t nutmeg
  • 1.5 t cinnamon
  • 1 cup oats (not sure about this, added enough so that it wasn’t too dry but it had plenty of oats in it)
  • chocolate chips, optional

Cream together butter, sugar, vanilla, eggs, salt. In a separate bowl, mix together flour, baking powder, and spices. Add to creamed mixture. Then add oats and chocolate chips. I put mine in some mini-loaf pan (similar to this one. I baked it on 350 on the top rack (we had a leg of venison roasting at the same time), but cold probably do 300 on a middle rack. I have no idea how long it baked, but the toothpick test worked fine.

This post is part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday. Take a look at what other people are cooking up and writing about real food.


Making jerky

November 20, 2009

Now, before I tell you all about our jerky making adventures and how to make jerky, I have to tell you that I didn’t really do much of the work. Unless you count mixing the seasoning together and leaving it on the counter for several days until it had to be thrown out because it was disgusting, had Asian lady beetles in it, and had a dirty towel land in it (shh, I don’t think I told anyone else that part!). Other than eating the finished product, that was my only real contribution. Tim did the rest, so I must give credit where credit is due.

This post is more about our learning how to do this rather than being able to teach anyone else how to do it. Keep that in mind, too. If you want to learn how to make jerky yourself, I suggest searching some other sites or good old-fashioned trial and error, which worked for us.

First, Scott the Farmer gave us some venison to turn into jerky. He has particular cuts of meat that he prefers for jerky. That’s all I can tell you because I am not wise in the ways of cuts of meat, especially cuts of deer meat. Second, he gave us the recipe he uses. I will post that and give him credit even though I am not sure where he got the recipe from. I suspect it is not from a cookbook or anything, though.

  • Two cups soy sauce (adjust to taste)
  • 4 oz. liquid smoke
  • 2-3 T worstershire sauce
  • red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cups honey

Whisk and let sit.

That’s it. Now there are some other directions Tim found on the Internet, but basically you slice the meat (keep in mind it will get thinner while drying, of course), soak it in the sauce as long as you like. Then put it in a dehydrator or an oven. We turned the oven on to the lowest setting, which turned out to be too high, really. The first batch was in the oven overnight and it was pretty dry. It was still edible, though. The second batch Tim made used more honey and we watched it more carefully so it didn’t get too dry. It was delicious!

The best thing about jerky is that it is a great snack. It keeps well in the car, even in the summer. It’s low in carbohydrates and fat, but high in protein. The problem with store bought jerky is that it is expensive and it almost always contains MSG! Making at home gives you more control over the ingredients you use. And I’m sure there are a ton of recipes for jerky seasoning and there are many stores that sell jerky seasoning packets. I have no idea what is in those, though.

I can say that making jerky was surprisingly easy and super delicious. We have more venison in our freezer that is good for jerky, so we will make some again soon.

Edited to add this link to Making Jerky in Mother Earth News.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade

Impressions of Puerto Rico (Part II)

November 9, 2009

This post is only about our most recent visit. It’s more a list of impressions rather than anything chronological. Though I admit that I cannot resist the compulsion to lump things together into loose categories! (Edited to add a link to a Picasa album with more pictures from Puerto Rico). Just click on the picture below:

Puerto Rico Trip – October 2009
  • coquis
  • little lizards hanging around the hotel
  • a big iguana near the pools at the hotel
  • city birds at the airport
  • sand fleas
  • mosquitoes
  • Moira collecting shells from the beach
  • sand
  • ocean waves
  • the beach
  • building sand castles with moats
  • Aidan in the ocean, riding the waves
view from the balcony at the hotel

View from the balcony at the hotel

  • coffee, good coffee
  • pig on a spit
  • amarillos
  • tostones
  • chillo asado (grilled red snapper)
  • flan de queso and flan de avellanas (hazelnut flan, super YUM)
  • music
  • dancing
  • loud (for the tired kids) music in the lobby of the hotel
  • women and little girls dressed up to dance to the music
  • painting nails with Moira
  • Barbies
  • Tom speaking Spanish (totally rockin’ the language, by the way!)
  • gifts from Eugenio, Tom’s step-cousin
  • dreaming often, of chickens and cats and especially Big Swirly
  • airplanes taking off
  • Isla Verde
  • Moira’s freckles
  • Aidan going down a small, but fast, water slide
  • refinery fire we could see from the plane
  • Asian lady beetles and possible ecological disaster?
  • Internet withdrawal
  • crazy driving, but everyone drives the same way so it works
  • phone calls at 6AM from the lady, Nana, staying with Tom’s dad at the hospital
  • hospital
  • security and police at the hospital
  • Tom’s dad looking like a pirate
  • relaxed
  • tired
  • worried
  • loving watching the kids in the ocean
  • laughing in the pool
  • speaking Spanish, ever so poorly (but I did it, dammit!)

Impressions of Puerto Rico (Part I)

November 7, 2009

I have a post started about Puerto Rico and why Tom was there and the state of health care, etc. But instead of finishing that post, it’s much more fun to make a list of my impressions of Puerto Rico. Now, I’ve been before a few times. Tom and I went once or twice by ourselves and stayed with his dad and step-mom in their condo. I can’t remember for sure if this was one trip or two trips that have gotten mixed together in my (really bad) memory. We ate coffee ice cream on their balcony, watched movies, and had a good time. I remember going to El Yunque, to Old San Juan, to Ponce to spread the ashes of Tom’s Granny in the Caribbean, and to lots of dinners. I remember Tom’s step-mom picking up breadfruit at a road-side stand and making tostones with that and platano.

The next trip I remember was also a long time ago. We went to Puerto Rico, along with Tom’s mom and uncle, because his Grandma Jane was dying of cancer. We all stayed together in a hotel in the Condado area. It was nice because we could walk all over the place: to the beach, to restaurants, bars, etc. Despite going for such a sad reason, we had a lot of fun. I remember Tom’s uncle having “heterosexual moments” as he called them. The women in Puerto Rico really get dressed up to go out on the town, let me tell you. I remember going out for Cuban food, going in the ocean in a rocky area and getting thrashed by the waves (and then Tom’s step-mom making some comment about my weight and how that was somehow to blame?).

I remember her not being all that kind to me before we had kids, but perhaps it was, at times, a miscommunication, despite the fact that her English was very good and 1000 times better than my Spanish! I’m not sure how she felt about me, but I cannot complain because she was always 100% terrific with the kids. She was fun and talked to them and played with them, until the last trip they made to Phoenix when she was not as spry. Still, she did as much as she could on that trip. Anyway, I remember being mad at her on that trip to Puerto Rico, but I also remember having a lot of fun.

The visit before last was when Aidan was about 8 or 9 months old. I remember sitting on the back patio of Tom’s dad and step-mom’s house, listening to the coquis and helping Aidan cruise around the table they had on the patio. I remember the loud window air conditioner in the guest bedroom and the rooster that one of their neighbors had. We found it annoying. How funny is it that now, more than 5 years later, we have our own roosters? I remember seeing Tom’s uncle’s long-time girlfriend (there really should be a better way to say that… significant other? partner?). We visited her house, listened to music, and she gave us a picture of Tom’s uncle. I remember having lunch with Viola, who is Tom’s grandfather’s second wife. At this point, both of Tom’s grandparents, as well as his two uncles, had passed away. I remember that it rained every day we were there, except the last day. That was when we went to Old San Juan. I remember carrying Aidan in a sling and walking all over Old San Juan. Old San Juan, by the way, is quite hilly. It was a workout, that’s for sure. And I was not in nearly as good a shape as I am now. We had lunch there and also did some quick pictures of us with Aidan standing by El Morro.

This is a picture of a street in Old San Juan. I think Moira took the picture, or maybe it was Tim.
puerto pico 288

This most recent trip was really fun, despite Tom’s dad being in the hospital. We stayed at a nice hotel resort, where we got a discount because Tom’s step-cousin (his step-mom’s nephew) works there. We saw some sites, but mostly we went to the beach and played in the ocean and with the sand. For Tim, the kids, and me it was more vacation than anything else. We went there to see Tom’s dad in the hospital, but the kids could not see him (no kids under 12 are allowed to visit). We went there to support Tom, who was very lonely and overwhelmed. We went so the kids could see their dad and see part of their own heritage and ethnicity. It’s the first time they realized that they are Puerto Rican. They knew that Ito (that’s what they call Tom’s dad) and Tita (what they called Tom’s step-mom) lived there. They knew Ito and Tita spoke Spanish. They knew their dad spoke Spanish, but hadn’t really heard him speaking it conversationally. I think the trip was an eye-opener for them, and that’s good. My only regret is that we had not visited in the last 5+ years. I vow that we will definitely go more often, and not just for the good food.

Catching up

November 3, 2009

We’ve been busy lately, where lately means the last month. Tom was in Puerto Rico for 2 weeks before we joined him there for another week. Now we are back and trying to catch up on life and housework while also fighting a cold.

I have a ton of things I would like to write about: new kittens (they are about a month old already!), another dead hen, more hens laying eggs, roosters not turning out as gentle as you had hoped, painting and redoing the floor of our half bathroom, Puerto Rico, our neighbor not wanting us to have livestock, how we are trying to prevent and combat illness naturally, etc.

But it will all have to wait because first I have to catch up on life before I can catch up on my blog. Plus, I need to catch up on reading some blogs.

Pancakes, cornbread, and brownies

October 16, 2009

This last week, I was busy in the kitchen as usual. One thing I did was to clear out the pantry a bit and organize things. We have a lot of glass containers that we bought from IKEA more than a year ago. Some were empty on the floor of the pantry, while others needed to be combined or put into smaller glass containers. For example, I ended up putting rice in glass containers instead of leaving it in the loosely closed plastic it came in. I had an empty container that I filled with chili powder I bought at the bulk dry goods store in town, called Sugar N Spice. I need a lot of chili powder and cumin to make our own taco seasoning. I could actually use a few more glass containers, but I believe the closest IKEA is in the Chicago area.

I guess I was feeling particularly energetic, so I decided that while I was at it, I would measure out the dry ingredients for several batches of pancakes and cornbread and store it in the jars. Not that it is all that difficult to make cornbread or pancakes from scratch, but I admit that sometimes Bisquick sounds so darn convenient. So this is a compromise. Having the dry ingredients premixed and stored in the pantry will save some time. In fact, I’ve used the pancake mix and so far it’s been pretty fast to make pancakes. The biggest problem with this method is figuring out how much of the dry ingredients to measure out. However, I figured I’ll just scoop some of the dry ingredients out, add an egg or two and as much milk as it takes to make them the right consistency. It’s easy and requires no measuring that way. Now the only problem is that I need a bigger container for the pancake mix because now it is so much easier to make pancakes that we have had them twice this week. It’s just about time to make more chili and cornbread, too.

Another thing that happened in the kitchen this last week is that I made brownies twice and accidentally put in 3/4 a cup of sugar instead of 1 3/4 cups of sugar. The first time I did this I thought they didn’t taste all that sweet, but I thought that maybe I had had some store-bought ones lately and that was why they didn’t taste so sweet. But no that wasn’t right because I haven’t had any store bought brownies recently. Plus, the next time I made them they were also not sweet enough, as well as not being quite right because I had run out of baker’s chocolate and had to use cocoa powder and butter to substitute. So anyway, somehow it dawned on me what I had done and I realized that the brownies would probably be just fine with way less sugar. They are not quite sweet enough with 3/4 a cup of sugar, but I think that 1 cup or so might work. I will have to try and report on the results. All three recipes are from the Joy of Cooking. The brownie recipe I use is the Book club brownies.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday. Check it out for more great recipes and thoughts on food.


House Version 1.0

October 10, 2009

Here are some pictures of Version 1.0 of our future house. This first picture has the south side of the house at the bottom of the picture. As you can see, the south side is all windows. This is part of passive solar design, taking advantage of the low-lying southern winter sun (in the southern hemisphere it would be opposite, of course!). To the left/west is the great room and you can see the Lego table and chairs in that room. The living area would be to the south, with the dining in the middle and the kitchen at the northern part of the house. I thought it would be a good idea to have the kitchen to the north to warm up that part of the house. The right/east half is the greenhouse area. Mo added the bush thing and the white blocks are the outline of the pool. There are clear Lego pieces to the right to let in the morning sun, as well as tall windows between the greenhouse and the great room.

South side of house; great room to west and greenhouse/pool to east

South side of house; great room to west and greenhouse/pool to east

In this next picture, the view is from the west side of the house. This is another view of the great room and you can see the tall windows dividing the great room from the greenhouse, along with a few windows and the front door on the west wall.

view of house from west side

view of house from west side

This is just a close up of the great room. I’m not sure it’s big enough, but I’m pretty sure that table is too big. 🙂 Imagine couches near the south-facing windows and a kitchen near the north of the room. And lots of sunlight streaming in from the greenhouse in the morning.


close up of great room

This picture is a closer view of the greenhouse. The dead horse is not part of the plan, I assure you.


close up of greenhouse/pool

This is another view from the east side of the house. You can see the big windows that divide the great room and greenhouse, along with the door (black framing).

View from the east side of the house

View from the east side of the house

This view is from the east side again, but you can see the greenhouse to the south and the sleeping area to the north. Directly to the north of the greenhouse is a largish hallway, which I thought could be a pantry. That design idea didn’t make it past Tom, but more on that later. I had planned that the area to the north of the kitchen would be the laundry room, then the room north of that would be the bathroom. The reason for that was to make all the drainage and greywater systems easier. All water draining from the kitchen, laundry, and bath would basically be in one place. How convenient! It’s a good idea and I tried to do that in Version 2.0, but it’s a little different.


view of the sleeping area from the east side

This is the sleeping area, to the north of the greenhouse and great room. At the top of the picture (which is west) you can see the laundry room and bathroom. To the right/north of that is the master bedroom. Yes, it has a barrel in it. No, there is no reason other than it’s a Lego rain barrel and I needed somewhere to keep it. 🙂 At the bottom/east of the picture are the kids bedrooms. The big white piece is part of the roof as Mo insists the house needs a roof, even if it is just made out of Lego. I made a big hallway between the bedrooms so we could put bookshelves on every wall in the hallway and keep books there. That’s better than a room devoted just to books, I think.

view of bedrooms from east side

view of bedrooms from east side

This is a closer view of the kitchen, laundry, bathroom area (from the east side again). The thicker Lego bricks are about the right size to represent straw bales. I have those thicker bricks as an interior wall because most likely we will be building this house in sections. First would probably be the great room, so it would have straw bale walls that would eventually end up as interior walls. The thinner bricks are interior walls and will probably be made just like the interior walls of many earthships, that is, out of old bottles because bottle walls are beautiful!

kitchen, laundry, bathroom from left to right

kitchen, laundry, bathroom from left to right

So, what was good about this design? The passive solar, south facing windows definitely stay in Version 2.0, just with a lot more. The greenhouse is still on the east side of the house and is still next to the great room, with big, tall windows dividing the two rooms. I also tried to keep the laundry, bath, and kitchen drainage near each other, partly by combining the full bathroom with the laundry room. Our current house has the laundry in the full bathroom and it works quite well. I kept the kitchen near the north side of the house because I think that makes a lot of sense.

Some of the changes in Version 2.0 include a bigger pantry to the north of the kitchen, the sleeping area to the west of the great room, and a half bath. I added a half bath after talking to Tom. He just didn’t think one bathroom would be enough for a family of 4. He values his privacy while, um, doing his business in the bathroom. The kids and I don’t care, but that will probably change for them as they get older. The sleeping area of the house is long and narrow, to take advantage of the south-facing windows. In Version 1.0 the sleeping area is on the north part of the house. Even if that area is bermed with earth at the north side, it will still get cold in the winter. So, I took the sleeping area and put it west of the great room and made it long and narrow. I promise I will post pictures of Version 2.0 as soon as I take them.

Monkey brains and other things

October 9, 2009

I have a recipe of sorts to post. It isn’t really a recipe, more of a meal idea, inspired by another meal idea. I read Cold Weather and Comfort Food at Miss Effie’s Diary. She called her meal Wild Rice Stuffed Squash. I took her idea and changed it a bit, making it more like Tom’s hamburger helper and calling it Monkey Brains. Tim called it “Monkey Brains,” I guess because it looks like eating monkey brains. So that was what we told the kids it was and they were intrigued, just not intrigued enough to try the stuffing in the squash today.

The Monkey Brains had the following ingredients: grass-fed ground beef, onion, garlic, red peppers, celery, zucchini, broccoli, and tomatoes, acorn squash, and wild rice. We also added basil, parsley, salt and pepper. All the vegetables and herbs are from our garden or the farmer’s market. The rice is from a local store called Sugar N’ Spice. Carol, the owner, sells bulk herbs, spices, flour, rice, baking goods, etc. The grass-fed beef is from a family cattle company that is about 30 miles from us, the same people who sold us our cows. Our freezer is full of grass-fed beef.

freezer full of grass fed beef

freezer full of grass-fed beef

So, like Miss Effie, I cooked the rice and the acorn squash while I made the stuffing. The stuffing is really the part that can vary widely, depending on what you have available. It would work with any ground meat, or even stew meat, I would think. She used a white sauce in her recipe and I used a tomato base. She used mushrooms and cranberries, too. Tom doesn’t like mushrooms and we didn’t have cranberries, so that was out. But, then I started thinking about ground beef and veggies and realized that what really sounded good was Tom’s hamburger helper dish. That’s why I called it more of a meal idea than a recipe. In fact, last night it worked out that the squash wasn’t done so we pretty much ate the stuffing, which wasn’t really like stuffing at all, and talked about how we could do something similar with a casserole.

By the way, I have to say that the celery from my garden has flavor. I mean serious flavor. Nothing I’ve ever had at the grocery store compares. I don’t know if it’s the variety I planted (not sure what variety it was as Scott the Farmer gave it to us) or the soil or just the taste of organic celery. I really don’t know, but I know that it has lots of flavor and it doesn’t take much to add flavor to a dish.

This post is part of Fight Back Friday at Food Renegade. Go ahead and click to read more interesting posts about food!


Awesome Link!

October 8, 2009

OK, I’ve worked on another post about our future house. It’s almost done, but I need to find the time to finish it. In the meantime, check out this link for more videos on all kinds of natural building materials. This specific link is for straw bale videos, but if you explore the site you will see all kinds of other videos for other building materials. Check out the Natural Building category. Enjoy!

Earth Architecture: Building with Straw Bale.

House of our future

October 4, 2009

Finally, a post about building a green home. I admit I haven’t thought about our future home much over the summer and spring. Now that it is autumn and the oats will soon be taken care of, it will be time to explore our property some more and look for that south-facing hill that will serve as a building site. I am sure that our future home will be many years in the making, as we plan to do much of the work ourselves. Since the kids are still little (shhh don’t tell them they are little) it would be very difficult to start building. So right now we are in the planning stage, where we are thinking about materials, foundations, layout, and building sites.

One thing I have been able to build is a Lego house. I built Version 1.0 (and Version 2.0 after discussing things with Tom) and I wanted to post a bunch of pictures, but I think that I need to give some background before I rush into the pictures. Some of my readers are probably very familiar with alternative or “green” building ideas, but some might not be. If anyone is interested in an introduction, I recommend The Good House Book. This book has chapters on foundations, walls, roofs and shows traditional, modern, and alternative materials to use, as well as explaining what a good foundation or roof should do. As far as websites, I recommend Green Home Building as a place to start (this link is in the sidebar to the right, by the way).

I first learned about green house building after a friend, Heather, posted a link to pictures of her mother’s earthship. I had no idea what an earthship was. I remember looking at the pictures and not understanding what I was looking at as it mostly looked like a regular house, but a very cool one. So my next step, of course, was to ask Heather what the hell an earthship was. That, and Google, of course. Those two things sparked my interest and I read and learned a ton about earthships and other alternative building methods, including cordwood, straw bale, earthbags, cob, etc. Before hearing of earthships, I had an inkling in the back of my head that houses throughout the world were not all built the way modern houses in the US are built. I had heard of houses built out of straw bales, but didn’t know much other than the fact that you can build out of straw.

I’m not sure I am up for building an earthship as it seems like a ton of work, but I like the idea a lot. They are not just houses built of out old tires filled with rammed earth, but are supposed to be self-sufficient, zero waste systems. So it’s not a house, but a system. People who build earthships often live off-grid, which means they are not tied to power lines (or water or public sewage treatment or anything like that). The houses have solar and/or wind power, rain catchment and treatment, and greywater systems (the greywater is used to water the indoor plants and to flush toilets, assuming the toilets are not compostable). Blackwater, or water with fecal matter, is piped outdoors into landscaped areas. This way the landscaping gets watered while the water gets filtered through the plants.

If you want to learn more, here are a couple of videos you can watch:

Anyway, you can see how these ideas are really interesting and how building an earthship is really a lifestyle choice, not just a building choice. Anyone can build a log home or a straw bale home that is just like a regular home, with a furnace and air conditioning, public water and sewage or septic tank, and is tied to the power grid. You can build an earthship that way, too (and in some areas building code require a septic tank). You can build a straw bale house that is more like an earthship, too. So since I am not really into using a sledgehammer to ram earth into old tires, I figured straw bale is our best bet (though I’m not sure that is the best option since we are surrounded by woods!), but I want a lot of the same features as an earthship.

Some of our goals for our future home are:

  • to use solar and wind energy, and possibly micro-hydroelectric and be off-grid, if possible
  • to have a home that does not require a furnace or air conditioning
  • to reduce our energy use overall so that living off-grid doesn’t cost a fortune in solar panels and batteries or become a hardship
  • to use well water, but to also capture and store rainwater for gardening and landscaping and maybe to eventually use well water as backup from filtered rainwater
  • to not have a septic tank, but instead use graywater and blackwater for landscaping
  • use recycled, reclaimed, and natural materials to build the house, such as straw, dirt, aluminum cans and mortar for interior walls
  • to use materials that are local and abundant, as much as possible
  • to build into a south-facing hillside to take advantage of the thermal mass of the earth
  • to use passive solar building methods
  • to have a masonry oven heater

Now, we do live in a cold climate, so the idea of no heating might sound crazy. However, that is the reason we want to

  1. build into a south-facing hill, to take advantage of the thermal mass of the earth on the north side of the house
  2. have flooring that absorbs heat and lets it out later (another thermal mass), such as wood or tile,
  3. have a masonry oven heater
  4. have super insulation in the form of earthbags or straw bales, and
  5. design with passive solar methods, such as south facing windows to catch winter sun, which will in turn warm the earth to the north side of the house and warm the flooring and northern walls of the house, as well.

In cold northern climates, rooms should not be too deep, otherwise the northern side can get cold. Of course, it seems that if the northern side is also bermed by the earth this will be less of a problem. The straw bale walls also serve to keep heat in the house during the winter, and heat outside during summer.

A masonry oven heater is usually totally indoors and is made of materials that absorb heat and release it slowly (thermal mass again!). It has a chimney of course, but it looks like this on the inside. I really like the look of this one as well as the fact that it is in the middle of a great room. That is exactly what I want, a great room with a masonry oven heater in it.

So, here is one picture of the house I built out of Lego. I’ll post more pictures next time, as well as explaining why this was Version 1.0 and why I had to scrap it to make Version 2.0, which looks more like the Long House on the Prairie that was part of what inspired me to started the blog in the first place.

Version 1.0 layout (south is to the left)

Version 1.0 layout (south is to the left)