Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I'm completely giddy right now, because I just got home earlier than usual this afternoon (i.e., before dark) so I let the chickens out and decided to take a peek in the henhouse. Guess what I found?

Three very small but perfect eggs!

Just when we were wondering if our hens weren't going to lay until spring (having your chickens reach laying age during the shortest and darkest days of the year is maybe not the best plan ever), they have given us our first completely homegrown eggs! I'm ridiculously excited at the moment- opening up the door to the henhouse and finding these little treasures waiting there for me just sent me over the moon! I'm so proud of our girls, even if they haven't figured out the nest boxes yet --all of these were in a little nest made on the floor of the main henhouse. Our original four pullets just turned five months old on on Thursday, so at least one of them is laying right away after hitting the five month mark. We hadn't checked the henhouse in a couple of days, but I'm pretty sure that these eggs are from more than one hen- I don't think it's been so long that a single chicken could have laid three times, but I could be wrong. 

I'm almost entirely confident that one of the ladies who laid these is Penny, our Barred Plymouth Rock pullet. She's been far more docile than usual lately, and a couple days ago I noticed her hanging out in the area of the henhouse where I found the eggs, well after all the other chickens had headed out into the run. I knew she was up to something! Also, today I tried the old timers' trick of getting behind a hen and putting your hand out over them- if they stop and squat, that means they're ready to lay. Penny did exactly that, as did Vivian, the two-year-old Ameracauna. Maybe now that one of the younger ones is laying, Viv will go back to laying. I couldn't get behind any of the other hens, they're all too skittish still. Luckily I don't have to go anywhere straightaway tomorrow, so I'm going to do a stakeout of the henhouse early in the morning and see if I can figure out who is laying us eggs. I brought two of the eggs inside but put one in a nestbox, and ruffled up the original nest, to see if I can't convince our mystery chicken to lay in the box.

I'm so pleased that our days of buying eggs are over. We've put in five months of work raising our ladies from wee chicks, feeding them and building them a coop, adopting two more chickens and making sure they all stay well fed and watered and enjoy ranging around the backyard. I love having them around regardless of whether they are laying, but receiving eggs just feels like such a gift right now. 

And just an update for those of you who were concerned about Mimi, the younger chicken we adopted a couple months ago, she is fully integrated into the flock and is no longer being bullied. She gets pecked and chased occasionally, but most of the time all six chooks go around happily as a flock. Our remaining mystery is to figure out how old Mimi is- she's about the same size as the other four young ones, so we think she's pretty close in age, but it's hard to tell! We did have to clip everyone's wings last week, because we kept finding them all flying up to the sit on top of the coop, which is a dangerously short flight from the neighbors' fence and a yard with several dogs.

Good job chickens, and thanks for the eggs!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Post-Thanksgiving Traditions

In this household, the days after Thanksgiving don't mean standing in endless lines trying to score the best deals on televisions, electronics or any of the other stuff that so much of our society goes so crazy for in the name of giving gifts. Instead, we do what we do on the holidays themselves: stay home or hang out with family, relax, eat lots of good food, and be thankful for all the great non-material things we have. And eat some more good food. Namely, we eat a lot of turkey soup and have pie with every meal. It's a pretty nice way to celebrate.

I've also been reflecting on the passage of time: we realized Thanksgiving morning that the holiday marked exactly six months since we returned home from New Zealand. Six Months. Half a year. It's truly flown, and yet so much has happened since then. Time really is speeding up as I get older, and it's a little unnerving. All the more reason to be thankful for what I've got right now.

Last Thanksgiving we cooked for twelve at the Wavehaven, and this year we had Thanksgiving with Matt's family, cooking up a storm at his dad's house and eating with his parents and sister Jessa, as well as Jessa's roommate and her partner. Dinner was excellent, and we ended up bringing home at least half of the leftovers. I also brought home the turkey carcass, so tomorrow we'll be making a big pot of turkey stock. It's excellent timing, because we just used the last of our chicken stock and don't have anymore chicken in the freezer at the moment, so this is a great substitute, and will go a lot further as well.

We made fresh rolls and apple pie yesterday morning that went to K's house for baking, and I made a second apple pie that stayed home and was baked this morning. It's already nearly half gone :)

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I hope you all had a wonderful day whether or not you celebrate, and enjoy the rest of the weekend! Here are a few more pictures from our Thanksgiving:

 The full and busy kitchen.

Matt and Jessa stuffing the turkey.

 Jessa's divine pumpkin pie (from scratch!)

The lighting didn't work well for my photos of the complete dinner table, but here is one for tradition's sake:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Thrifty Finds

Taking advantage of the lovely sunny (but COLD) weather this afternoon, Matt and I walked to our neighborhood thrift store to find a few things we've been wanting for awhile, to fill out our array of kitchenware. We had been keeping a short list of items for "when we have a little extra money," and last night two good friends forced payment on me for the easiest babysitting job ever, so we took advantage of a bit of the unexpected income.

We wholly believe in buying secondhand, except when it comes to most appliances. The only things I can think of in our kitchen that were bought new were the cast iron skillet and Dutch oven (several years ago), the food processor, some canning jars and my set of nesting mixing bowls. All the rest we found at thrift stores or received as gifts (or found for free on the curb...). This pretty much goes for all of our clothing, bedding, and furniture too. There is so much useful stuff out there that is in perfect condition but is given away to thrift stores, it makes no sense to pay extra for something just because it is new. And despite a few temptations, we came home with only what was on our list, plus these great aviator shades that looked so good on Matt that I refused to leave without buying them:

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Awesome, yes?

We don't have very much silverware, and it has become clear that we need a few more sets, particularly for when we have company. We also have a nice collection of mugs and teacups, but all of them are quite small, and we wanted to get a few larger ones (how very American of us):

Since moving into this house we have been talking about how we need a second, larger saucepot, because just having one complicates things sometimes, and we had enough of that while living out of the van in New Zealand. We also only have four bowls for a household of three, and none of the wide bowls that are nice for things like chicken and dumplings and stew, until now:

The other thing I love about shopping at thrift stores is that we can pick out individual items that go with our current collection of dishware, and have a huge variety to choose from. We were able to bring home an assortment of cheap mugs and bowls that go with our mismatched but coordinated bright aesthetic, and that makes me really happy.

And all for less than $20!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Practical Gift Sewing

I've been thinking a lot about sewing projects lately. I have a couple different things planned and underway, but I feel like I keep falling back to the same types of projects- simple skirts or square household things. I need some new ideas! I like all my sewing to be useful and practical, things I can wear or use around the house or give as gifts that will be appreciated, not just something that takes up space.

 I am looking for ideas of things that I can make with the variety of fabric scraps I currently have (quite a few, varying in size, enough to stuff a pillowcase full) without needing to buy any new fabric.

I am relatively new to sewing but I think I could take on something besides square linens! Does anyone have ideas for unusual but relatively easy gifts to sew? (or craft in other ways, too).  I've done a lot of poking around on blogs but I feel like there must be more ideas hidden away out there somewhere! What do you give as simple, homemade gifts?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Winter Wellness

I think I've mentioned (possibly in every post for the last month...) that Portland winters are particularly dark, dreary and dismal. And dank and somewhat depressing. And other alliterative things too. It rains a lot, the days are short and dark, it doesn't snow, and there isn't much sun.

In the face of the Long Dark, as I've been calling it this year, it's sometimes difficult to keep happy, energetic and optimistic. I think most people in Portland, and a lot of other places in the Pacific Northwest, experience some form of season affective symptoms between October and April. For me, it's not particularly severe, it just takes more work to keep myself in a good mood and keep my body feeling healthy when there's not as much to do outside and so few hours of daylight available. I've lived in Portland nearly ten years now, but I don't think I'll ever get used to the winters. Where I grew up, winters are cold and very snowy, and that makes things bright and fun and cozy, which is a very different mental experience. This year, as glad as I am to experience the change of seasons once more, I'm feeling the bite of the gross weather more keenly, it having been a full two years since I've experienced a Northwest winter.

 Scarlet runner beans drying next to the kitchen stove.

I think it has taken me until last week to really get used to operating in the cold wet weather again and to get truly settled into my routine of school and internship. Figures that it takes me almost till the end of term to get really use to it- only two more weeks of classes and then finals! Since I started my internship, I was commuting by bus on the four days each week that I come downtown, because it's extra-far to bike all the way to my internship. But last week I totally crashed, energy-wise, and realized that somehow I needed to integrate biking back into my routine in a manageable way. I was doing lots of walking, to and from the bus stop, from internship to school, around campus, etc, but was still feeling achy and stir-crazy from lack of a good workout. So now I've decided that on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will bike to campus, lock up my bike and ditch any extra gear in my locker, then catch the streetcar across downtown to my internship. This way I don't feel the pressure to bike every day (it's a long ride...) but I still have it as a regular part of my week--and I can already feel the difference. I am also working on integrating yoga classes into my week, at the rec center on campus.

I also realized I was feeling sluggish because for the last few weeks, on weeknights I wasn't keeping up with the things around the house that generally fulfill me- usually I would get home, Matt and I would throw together some dinner, and then get in bed to read or go straight to sleep. We were leaving the bed unmade, clothes piled on the floor where we dropped them, and dirty dishes on the counter for several days at a time. At the same time I started biking again, we started trying to make more of an effort to keep things tidy during the week, and it makes such a difference. Just taking five minutes to make the bed in the morning, put away clothes, wash dishes (or put them in the dishwasher) and wipe down the counters makes the house feel so much better and helps me feel much more put together.

I also remembered recently that in previous winters I have taken Vitamin D supplements to help cope with the lack of sunshine, and it has been really helpful. So I've gotten myself back onto a daily regimen of Vitamin D3. Also, I've been eating a lot more fruit than usual, because of a behavior intervention project for my Health Behavior class. We each had to choose a health behavior in ourselves that we would try to change using self-regulation techniques, and I chose to increase my fruit intake, to at least two servings per day (I was absolutely terrible at eating fruit before, sad to say). It worked, and I think my body and mind are both a lot happier for getting a more well-rounded diet and more fruit sugars and vitamins.

I've often found myself reading silly websites or watching stand-up comedy on Youtube when I need to put a smile on my face, but it's never totally fulfilling. Then I discovered The Perennial Plate, and I think this is my new go-to site for cheering myself up. Real people, real food, and real goodness. I can't recommend it enough. It makes me feel whole again, no matter what else has been going on.
What do you do to keep yourself well when the weather outside is frightful?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Vegan Pumpkin Loaf and How to Process Winter Squash

Matt's sister Jessa asked me last week how I prepare pumpkin for pies, and I thought it might be useful to post directions for cooking up pumpkin for use in breads, pies, and other dishes. Fresh, plain pumpkin tastes so much better than store-bought pumpkin pie filling or canned pumpkin, and it's surprisingly easy to prepare. These instructions apply to any kind of pumpkin or winter squash (Matt and I actually prefer to use "true" squashes like Red Kuri and the type below for pies rather than jack-o-lantern type "pie pumpkins." We think the flavor is exponentially better and the texture of the flesh is much smoother and thicker). 

I happen to have photos of the process because on Friday evening Matt and I set about preparing a massive pumpkin we got at the farmer's market, to make up some yummy breads for snacks and breakfasts this week. 
First, preheat your oven to 350 F. Then, using a strong, sharp knife, cut your squash in half or into quarters, depending on how big it is. The pumpkin we were using was so big we just kind of hacked it apart. Scoop out the seeds and stringy flesh from the cavity. You can put the seedy stuff aside at this point to make roasted pumpkin seeds

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I love this variety- Queensland Blue. The taste and texture are amazing, and the flesh-to-seed-cavity ratio is great!

Your pumpkin needs to be cut into manageable pieces that will fit into baking dishes and also your oven! We had to rearrange the oven racks and carefully arrange all of this pumpkin to fit it in. The thinner you slice it, the faster it will bake. Bake until you can stab the pumpkin flesh with a fork and meet little to no resistance- our big chunks took about 45 minutes. Also, baking squash releases a lot of moisture, so be prepared for a big cloud of steam when you open the oven!

Remove the baked squash from the oven and let it cool in the pans. Once it is cool enough to be comfortably handled, scoop the flesh away from the rind and into a bowl. I do this with my fingers because the rind is usually so soft at this point that a spoon will puncture it. 

Now you are ready to use your baked squash, or freeze it for use later. You can puree it in a food processor before freezing it, or else freeze it as is, in freezer bags or other containers, to puree and use later. I did a little of both. I used four cups of squash in baking, and still had three large containers' worth to go in the freezer! That one pumpkin cost us $3, and will last us a long time!

Looking at recipes for pumpkin breads, it seemed like almost everything called for at least 3 eggs, and while we had plenty of eggs on hand, I wanted to make them last awhile, so I went looking on the internet for eggless recipes. I found a promising recipe, modified it a bit to cut down on sugar and increase the use of pumpkin, and came with this vegan recipe that is a definite keeper:

5 c. flour 
3 c. brown sugar 
4 tsp. soda 
1 tsp. salt 
1 tsp. cloves 
1 to 3 tsp. cinnamon 
4 1/4 c. solid-pack pumpkin 
1 c. canola oil 
1 to 2 c. chopped walnuts (optional)

Sift the dry ingredients together. Blend in pumpkin and oil. (It's not necessary to puree the pumpkin here, because mixed with the oil it stirs in smoothly). Fold in nuts. Pour into small loaf pans lined with parchment paper or greased and floured. Bake at 350°F for 1 hour or until an inserted knife comes out clean. Makes 3 to 4 loaves.
This bread is so. good. It came out deliciously moist and perfect for breakfast or with a cup of tea. I got three good loaves out of it, and put one in the freezer, because even we wouldn't be able to eat through all of that before it goes bad! 

Happy pumpkining!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Winter Garden Quandaries and Garden Planning

Hello, it's me, resurfacing after another busy week! I've just been out for my weekly survey of the garden, and I finally managed to convince myself that the kale I planted several weeks ago simply wasn't going to sprout. It was Dwarf Scotch Kale and very cold hardy, so I'm not entirely sure why it decided to be inactive, but the seed was about two years old so possibly it had gone bad. It's disappointing, because we love kale and are both craving greens and vitamins now that the days are so short and the darkness is so long. The spinach and radishes I planted around the same time were growing strongly, though slowly, and I'm out of radish seed so I decided to replant the areas of kale with spinach.
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Spinach (left) and radishes last weekend. 

This is the first time I've ever really tried to grow crops through the winter in Portland. The summer was so chaotic that I didn't manage to sit down and plan out crop rotations or really learn what I should about winter gardening, so it's kind of by the seat of the pants this year. Does anyone in a similar climate have any advice on what/how to grow during the winter? Portland is in hardiness zone 7. Between October and March it rains pretty consistently and high temperatures hover between 45 and 50 F (7-10C). It rarely snows, but we usually get a couple really cold snaps right around the new year.

I'm really looking forward to sitting down over my winter break and spending a good long time on seed ordering and garden planning, reading up and learning more of the specifics of timing and soil composition, that kind of thing. A month from now I'll be on vacation from school for four weeks, and apart from putting together some holiday gifts, garden planning for the next year is my #1 priority. I usually end up starting things like tomatoes and peppers inside in early March, so I need to get down to business soon. 

Most of the garden is in cover crops this year, all of which are growing really well:

 Austrian (field) peas. 

Field peas and fava beans fighting it out with weeds in one bed. This was taken last week, they're definitely winning out this week!

I took these pictures just this afternoon, looking toward the garden and backyard from the kitchen windows:
 The Asian Pear tree on the right is finally dropping its leaves, but the apples seem determined to keep theirs. 

The garden beds. You can see the freshly tilled patches that I planted in spinach today. I don't know if these photos convey just how cold and dark it is at 2 pm on a November afternoon in Portland. After daylight savings last week, it now gets completely dark just after 5 pm.

Anyone have advice or stories about winter gardening? I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Mulch from the Animals

I just came in from a couple hours spent outside between rain showers this afternoon. It was chilly! I wore four layers of long sleeves, a wool cap and two pairs of socks. Brrrr. I did some raking of leaves in the backyard and investigated the progress of the winter garden, but primarily I worked on mulching various beds around the place. Our little menagerie might be here to give us meat and eggs, but they also give us lots of extra goodness in the form of their poo! One of my weekly chores is to rake out the chicken coop and henhouse and move the droppings and soiled straw to wherever we are using them, and then fill the coop with fresh straw for the next week.

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The freshly cleaned coop.

I've mentioned before that we're adding in more vegetable growing space in front of the house--this is where I've been putting the chicken straw for the last month or so, with a little bit siphoned off for the compost heap. There are still a few gaps as you can see, but one more cleaning and I'll have it all filled in. I'll try and get another thick layer on in the next couple months, then we'll just let it sit and do its thing for the rest of the winter. Chicken poo composts "hot" and so can't be used to mulch vegetables because it can burn them. It needs to break down first, which our long wet Portland winter will help it to do. In the spring, we'll till it all in, and plant potatoes here. Our front yard faces due south, so it should be prime growing space! This soil around the edge was dry and compacted before we tilled it up this fall, and I'm eager to see what it looks like in four or five months!

The bunnies in the garage live in suspended cages, so all of their droppings and urine are collected in straw spread on the ground below them. I raked a big batch of this up today and used it to mulch the garlic. Rabbit poo has a different chemical composition than chicken poo, and is safe to apply straight to the garden without composting first.

 This mulch, spread on top of a layer of shredded newspaper, will keep the garlic bed nice and warm until the cloves are ready to sprout.

I can't tell you how glad we are for all that our animals give us, even before we've gotten meat or eggs from them! Their litter is revolutionizing our garden and our compost pile, the chickens have created exponentially better tilth of the soil under the fruit trees than was there a few months ago, and of course both our furry and feathered friends are endlessly entertaining. Everything they provide us with gets used to sustain the earth or ourselves or both. If you're pondering a small backyard menagerie of your own, I definitely recommend it!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friday Foraging

These days, for a variety of reasons, Matt and I try to get things for free when we can. Not because we're trying to live off the backs of others or because we're just cheapskates. We're kind of poor, so free is nice, but we also don't like seeing things go to waste. We would rather an item get reused than thrown out, and if good food is available at little or no cost, we'd rather take advantage of it than spend money that could go towards things like paying off student debt. We constantly make use of the Craigslist "free" page, Freecycle, and the awesome free box culture here in Portland. My girlfriends and I swap clothes instead of buying new ones. Matt gets free meat and eggs from his work on a regular basis. We sometimes trade for items with friends. We occasionally dumpster dive for goodies for the compost or the chickens or ourselves (many Portland restaurants and supermarkets have specific dumpsters for food items). And, we have taken to gleaning fruit where we can find it for free. There are a few different fruit trees around that we check on, numerous chestnuts, and today we stopped by a grapevine I spotted in the neighborhood during the summer. It must be ancient, as it is growing up through a fifty-foot-tall fir tree, covering most of the tree, and hanging down into the parking lot of a local business (I'm not saying where :). Only a few clusters of grapes were really ripe (and within reach), but it looks like there are plenty more, hopefully they will ripen soon. I don't know much about grapes, but these ones taste like the Concords that I've had several times.

We'll definitely be checking the vine again in a week or two to see if we can get some more! Yum!

Fridays tend to be pretty simple, relaxing days for us. Right now we both go full tilt at work/school Monday through Thursday, so Friday feels a bit like Saturday. It's the day we sleep in, cook a fancyish breakfast (pancakes and bacon this morning) and catch up with each other a bit. I always like reconnecting with our little homestead on Fridays, especially now that I'm usually gone dark to dark, I don't see much of our various animal friends or the garden during the week.

Here's five of the six hens, digging into some squash rinds from our dinner last night. They LOVED them. About twenty minutes after this picture, nothing remained but a few small bits of rind scattered around the yard! No one's laying yet, all of our young'uns should start to lay around Thanksgiving, unless they decide it's too cold and dark. We're trying to trick Vivian into laying sooner by extending their "day" with a light on a timer that shines into their coop for a few extra hours at night and in the morning. No luck so far.

I spent a chunk of today working on my midterm for my Foundations of Public Health course, and researching for a program analysis I'm doing on the Cooking Matters program and a policy analysis of Oregon's school nutrition policy, which kept me inside (sometime soon I'll write more about the amazing stuff I'm learning these days. I'm completely in the right program, I know it). Tomorrow I'll spend some quality time with the garden. I can see from the windows that all the cover crops are doing well, but we had two frosts this week so I'm not sure if my (tiny, slow!) kale sprouts are alright. It's been wickedly cold, for Portland, and I even managed to leave my warmest, and favorite, gloves on the bus yesterday. I think I'm going to start wearing my weatherproof bike gloves for everyday, they're pretty nice looking and totally waterproof and windproof. Better than buying a new pair, unless I can find some for free :)