Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Using Available Home Space

Back when I was still working at Microsoft, I got an opportunity to work on a CD-ROM project (Remember, children, back before the web could do things like stream multimedia content, there was this brief period in history where people got their content on CD-ROMS! thus ends your history lesson for the day).

This project happened to be on Frank Lloyd Wright (I can't believe it, but I actually found the link to several used copies on!), and included a biography and photos and text on most of his structures, as well as cutting-edge (for the day) three-dimensional walkthroughs of some of his most famous houses, like the Ennis House , which by the way has appeared in the culturally iconic Karate Kid movies (number III, I believe) as well as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

While Frank Lloyd Wright didn't design homes in the time of "Green Building" and "Sustainable Development", which are hot topics now in the architectural world, he did often make very good use of small spaces and natural heating and cooling, especially in his series of Usonian Houses , which were made to be modular, partially constructed by the owner themselves, and employed natural cooling (no air conditioning) and radiant floor heating under a tinted-concrete slab (something newer green homes are emulating). If you want to take a look at the way he used very small spaces with efficient built-in furniture and unique features like pull-out kitchen countertops (much like the roll-out breadboards), the book Wright-Sized Houses has some beautiful photos and inspirational ideas to incorporate.

During the time that I worked on this project, we got the opportunity to take a tour of the Brandes house in Sammamish, Washington. and were able to see first-hand some of the innovative ways that Wright used small spaces and inexpensive construction as well as his signature connection to the environment in which the house was situated. That style of home was brought to mind when I saw the following video. This young architect has taken the notion of using small spaces and built-in functionality to an incredible extreme, and we could all learn something from his ability to think outside the box when it comes to space and design!

Okay, and since I'm a Lego Geek, I can't pass up on the opportunity to drool over these sets. Who can resist the Guggenheim and Falling Water in LEGO!!!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Just Plant a Seed!

I'm all caught up right now in long-range gardening plans, especially for the backyard (most of which we have just let be for quite awhile now). We're really looking into multi-level contoured gardening for the backyard and moving away from the notion of having specific raised beds and areas set aside for food production separate from the landscaping. These are very long-range goals of course and sometimes I feel overwhelmed with trying to plan out where everything will go.

But that brings me to the simplest of all joys of gardening: putting a seed in the ground. Whenever I feel like gardening is just too tough or complex or overwhelming, I just go out to some dirt and put a seed in the ground. It doesn't really take much more than that. A little dirt, a little sun, a little water, a seed, and voila! The miracle happens. Even for a apprehensive gardener like me, I can make things grow!

So today I weeded out all of the raised beds, transplanted most of the remainder of the starts, and just put some seeds in the ground: more snap peas, some lettuce, more carrots. I'm trying to do more phased gardening where instead of just planting seeds once, letting them all grow up, and harvesting the food, I'm remembering to keep planting. Plant some snap pea seeds in March, get a few snap pea starts that are bigger, and plant more snap peas in April. That should keep us in snap peas for more than just the usual week or two.

As years have come and gone and I've just done the simple act of planting seeds, I've grown in my intuitive knowledge of our own land, what grows where, how long things take to sprout, and how many different crops I can grow in one season. Some of the seeds I sow today will not sprout. But that's okay, because others will, and my gardening will keep on growing.

So even if you're nervous about gardening, about getting it right, don't let that stop you. Just get out and throw some seeds in the ground and see what happens.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Four and a Half Eggs? The Chickens Oblige

I recently had to cut a recipe in half, and that brought the number of eggs required to 4 1/2. How to do that? No problem, one of our chickens recently started laying again and obliged me with a half-sized egg!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Sunroom Starts

Last year, we enclosed our front deck to make a sunny room/covered entry into the house. Although it's not finished off yet, it has already shown to be extremely useful at mitigating climate (providing a warmer entryway than the cold outdoors in the winter, and shading our front door from the hot western sun in the afternoon of the summer). The deciduous tree right outside the windows ensures that it stays cooler in the summer but lets the sunlight in during the winter months. This time of year when the sun can be shining but still chilly outside, it has proved to be about 15 - 20 degrees warmer than the outside air during the daytime hours.

We also used it this year to start some veggies for the garden, and it has proved to be a nice little greenhouse growing room. Now that last week's frost, sleet, and pounding hail are (hopefully) all done with, it's time to plant all of these little guys out!

And speaking of veggie starts, these radishes are coming right out of our cold frames and into our salads. Yum! The cold frames did not provide enough heat to germinate the tomatoes I planted, but the basil, cilantro, lettuce, and radishes are all in good form. This radish variety produces a variety of colors, it's the Easter Egg II from Territorial Seed

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Cooking from scratch. Cooking From RAW Ingredients!

Recently I was involved in a bit of a Facebook kerfluffle about cooking from scratch. The gist of the discussion was whether or not it was part of a homemaker's job to cook for the family. My personal take on this is that there's not much that comes in a box or package that passes muster for nutritious living in our family's book, so cooking from scratch is more or less a necessity if my family is going to eat in a way that I feel is healthy. I understand that the time constraints that many families face make cooking a very difficult time trade-off to fit in on a regular basis, especially if both parents are working full time. But if one parent is home, and their job is as the "Home-Maker" then in my book, cooking is part and parcel of the deal.

As you can imagine, the notion that a homemaker should cook for the family caused a bit of a brouhaha in this day and age of "Don't put me in a box and tell me what I should do" feminism. In reaction to the June Cleaverism of the 1950s, we have swung so far in the other direction that no woman wants to be told that she should be in the kitchen (and far be it for me to tell anyone what they should be doing). But to me, it's not really an issue of feminism or not. My husband is often the at-home parent and when he is, he cooks. End of story.

In the midst of all of the hubbub (anyone notice that there are so many great synonyms for a Blogging Brouhaha?), was this simply astonishing quote:

"i think that we don't all understand cook from scratch the same way - for the ones who supposedly cook from scratch at every meal every day, you wouldn't be on facebook if you understood "from scratch" the way some others do. My sister in law cooks "from scratch" every meal and she is never out of the kitchen, unless it's to go buy some raw ingredients - RAW ingredients"

Which I think is worth addressing in depth. There are several parts to this myth that bear some serious discussion. The first is that cooking from scratch, or using "RAW ingredients" is some sort of terrifying bugaboo that modern homemakers just can't face. To debunk this, I'm here to tell you that I started out as a lousy homemaker. I was going to be the career gal: you know the one who has it all and comes home from her mentally stimulating and fulfilling job to kiss her lovely well-scrubbed kiddos hello and sit down to a family meal together. Except that I really couldn't make that one work. Kid #1 more or less demanded that I set the career path aside and become a full-time mother (which of course meant that I needed to start homemaking as well). Not having been much of a cook to start with, I had to learn from scratch to cook from scratch. Which is all to say that if I can do it, anyone can.

Myth number two is that it takes some insanely inordinate amount of time to buy and cook with RAW ingredients (I'm going to just keep capitalizing that one because the effect is so epic, as teen son would say). So much time in fact that you would never be out of the kitchen unless you're leaving to go buy those RAW ingredients. Now on account of my children's food allergies, I'm required to cook from scratch even more than the average homemaker. I can't simply go buy a bag of Bisquick and whip up some pancakes, nor can I buy the already made and pre-frozen waffley thingies. I have to start with some RAW goat's milk, RAW eggs, and add in the flour etc. until a pancake batter appears. To confront this sisyphean task, I simply bought a copy of Betty Crocker's cookbook and I go to the store once or twice a week. If I'm feeling especially organized, I whip up a triple batch of the pancake batter in the evening after dinner and store it in a handy lidded container in the fridge so we can pour a few spoonfuls on a hot griddle whenever POOF we want a pancake to appear. Time to make pancake batter from scratch: About 15 minutes.

Again, I'll make the point that I utterly and totally started out as the suckiest cook ever (my hubby can attest to this), not unlike Julia Child. So if I can do it (even if I have never risen to the level of a souffle-maker but have just mastered the basic pancake), anyone can. Heck, cowboys on the trail of a cattle drive managed to make flapjacks from scratch, and they were certainly no gourmet chefs, so I'm fairly confident that most folks can master it.

Myth number three: If you buy into the enforced slavery of the cooking-from-scratch mentality, you won't even have the time to update your Facebook account.

So here's a typical menu and time breakdown:

Breakfast: Omelette with sausage, onions, zucchini, and mushrooms: 15 minutes
Lunch: BigAss Salad with chicken breast, dried cranberries, pecans, and goat cheese: 35 minutes including cooking the chicken breasts and making the dressing
Dinner: Turkey with Portofino sauce over steamed cauliflower (I'm eating Paleo right now and not doing any breads or pastas): 45 minutes

Shopping: Two one-hour Costco trips a month amortized on a daily basis = 4 minutes per day
Three Weekly trips to the grocery store by foot = 2.5 hours = 22 minutes per day
One weekly trip to get our raw goat's milk = one hour = 8 minutes per day
Caring for chickens (where we get our eggs) = one hour = 8 minutes per day

Total Shopping time: 42 minutes per day
Total Cooking time: 1:35

Total Kitchen Slavery Time: 2:17

As you can see, I don't spend anywhere near my entire day cooking and shopping, and I even have time once in a while to update my Facebook status and get in these crazy discussions! Also, three of our grocery shopping trips double as dog-walking time, so they really should get some time deducted for that, and most people don't have to go out of their way to buy raw goat's milk or raise chickens for eggs. I'd say for most folks it could be 1.5 hours or less to cook from scratch with RAW ingredients, including shopping time.

Robin's Cooking From SCRATCH with RAW Ingredients Time Saving Tips:

- When you can, prepare ingredients for more than one meal at a time. If you're chopping onions, peppers, zucchini, etc., chop two or three instead of just one. Store the others in tight-lid glass containers in the fridge. Now when you want to whip up a salad or a stir-fry, it's quick and easy.

- If you have a batch of time available, mix up batters ahead of time as well. Making a double or triple batch of pancake, waffle, or muffin batter to have available in the fridge makes quick work of nutritious breakfasts. The kids like to bake teeny muffins in a cute little pan I got that fits in our toaster oven. It's almost like those fun "easy bake ovens" that you can buy for kids except that it works really well and the food is nutritious. Having batter on hand for them to make themselves a breakfast muffin also saves money from the endless boxed-cereal grocery bills.

- Plan meals from menus (I'm just now getting the hang of this one!) and shop from a grocery list made from those menus. Then you're guaranteed to have the ingredients on hand to cook what you want when you want to. If you don't have to do last-minute trips to the store, you save on gas, time, and frustration.