Thursday, December 31, 2009

Things Always Get Better

It would be easy to reflect back on this decade and become rather depressed. It's been one heck of a wild ride that's for sure. I don't know about you but I'm ready to get off now. It has been a decade of great loss. I believe my generation has been particularly affected by the shattering of our rose colored glasses.

This decade has been one of a great personal loss for me as well. Job losses, watching dear friends struggle to make ends meet, my own struggling personal relationships and losing many loved ones including my father. For a Daddy's girl there could be no greater loss.

But one of the things he taught me that I remember most is that "things always get better." No matter how bad life gets, no matter how dim the outlook seems to be, if you look back through history or reflect on your own life things always got better. Eventually. It might get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.

It's time. I have to believe that. This decade has served as a valuable learning experience for many. We should have no regrets, but instead look forward to the future. Here's to a new year and a new decade. Because things always get better.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Brief Commercial Interruption

Buying a Wii for your grandchildren - $199

Extra Wii controllers - $50

Kicking their butts at Wii bowling - Priceless!

I think my Mom enjoyed herself Christmas morning.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Making Spirits Bright

In a sleepy little town not far from here sits a quaint, gothic-style farmhouse built of old brick with pretty arched windows and surrounded by an old wrought iron fence. Even on an ordinary day it looks like something straight out of a storybook. But during the holidays it is transformed into something truly magical. Lighted ornaments dangle from the trees. Bows and garland adorn the gate and it just goes on and on. Every detail is perfect. It's a full size gingerbread house if I ever did see one. People drive for miles to see it. It is the most tastefully done lighting display I've ever witnessed.

A photograph cannot do it justice. It's one of those things you have to simply have to experience. But that's okay. It's not the photo that is important in this post. No, what matters, and what I want to convey, is that it has been a wonderful thing for this little community. It has brought everyone together and inspired the whole town to step their holiday decorating up a notch. Just look what the next door neighbors did...

Happy Holidays everyone!

It Just Wouldn't be Christmas Without Fudge

The Easy Christmas Toffee is wonderful and addictive, but it just wouldn't be Christmas without fudge. I'm going to consider the extra pounds on my body to be an added insulative layer. You know, like long johns.


2/3 c. undiluted Carnation evaporated milk
1 2/3 c. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. chopped nuts
1 1/2 c. diced marshmallows
1 1/2 c. semi-sweet chocolate bits
1 tsp. vanilla

Combine Carnation with sugar and salt in saucepan; heat to boiling, then cook 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Add nuts, marshmallows, chocolate bits and vanilla. Beat vigorously 1-2 minutes, or until marshmallows are melted. Pour into buttered 8 or 9 inch square pan. Top with chopped or whole nuts, if desired. Makes about 2 pounds.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Feeding the Homeless

We've been feeding the homeless around here far too long. These guys need to find new homes or they'll be in line at the back door of the soup kitchen instead of the front if you know what I mean. Anybody need a handsome little rooster?

Normally by this age a rooster would be so aggressive I would have no issue whatsoever making a royal proclamation of "Off With Their Heads" and sending them to freezer camp. But these guys aren't mean.

Not even a little bit. They're great little roosters and take good care of their ladies. I just don't need this many. But they would make perfect little flock leaders for someone else. They're small. Bantam size. But surprisingly don't seem to have short man syndrome. (They would make great stocking stuffers.)

This one is going to be gorgeous, he's still developing his colors. I'd really like to keep him but I just don't have the room. We're running out of beds here at the shelter and I've already planned on stashing one in the closet.

So what do you say? Can you help us relocate the homeless this holiday season?

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Easy Christmas Toffee

Mmmm. Chomp. Smack. Oh man. Mmmmm. Chomp. Good golly, Gert. You've GOT to try this.

I'm no gourmet chef. I like to keep things simple in all aspects of my life. So when I saw a recipe on an internet forum that's title had the word easy in it, I took notice. I like easy. Easy works for me. And I had everything I needed right here in the pantry. I read over the recipe and thought it sounded worth trying. I never imagined it would be this lip smackin' good though. Try it for yourself. I don't want to be the only one gaining ten pounds this holiday.

Easy Christmas Toffee

1 sleeve of saltine crackers
2 sticks butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
12 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or pecans

Preheat oven to 375°F.

Butter a cookie sheet or spray with cooking spray, line with foil and butter again. Line this with saltine crackers to fit size of cookie sheet. Set aside.

In a heavy saucepan melt 2 sticks of butter. Add 1 cup packed brown sugar, stir until melted and starts to bubble. Simmer over medium heat and allow to bubble for 3 minutes. Pour evenly over saltines.

Bake in 375°F oven for 8 - 10 minutes. Remove pan from oven and sprinkle with 12 oz. package semi-sweet chocolate chips. Return to oven another minute. Then spread softened chocolate chips evenly over toffee with knife. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup chopped nuts (or more if desired.)

Place cookie sheet in freezer or fridge until set and chocolate is hard. Break apart in odd shaped pieces. Devour at will.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Day-time

It was a day like any other day. Household chores and holiday preparations occupied my time. The normal rhythm of time on the homestead undisturbed. Until the middle of the afternoon that is.

Moments after the second feeding of the day the porch dogs headed out for their routine perimeter inspection. It's the only exercise the porch dogs get during the winter months. Three times a day morning, noon and night. If they're feeling frisky and it's above freezing and the ground isn't wet they might make an extra trip out to half-heartily chase a squirrel. But only under those conditions. Heaven forbid their precious paws touch wet or frozen ground. Today though, the UPS driver arrived just as they were on patrol circuit beta.

The alarms were sounded which includes the beagle, Lucy, barking first then the big dog, Bandit, joining in. That causes Willa to take notice and announce the arrival to the barnyard where the roosters start to crow and the hens cackle all while the sheep stand around and beg for handouts, their one track minds always on the food network channel.

The porch dogs quickly move into position for the prime tire sniffing opportunity while the driver jumps out of the truck and walks to the porch with the package. The beagle follows him, because you just never know he might have food in that box, and sits at my feet. I receive the box and return to the warm house and my gift wrapping. Two minutes later I hear the familiar scratch at the door. Perimeter patrol beta was complete and they wanted to lay their bums back down on their comfy beds next to the radiant heater. Only there was no big dog. Strange. I poked my head outside and looked around. I called for him. "Bandit, here boy." I paused and listened for the jingle of collar tags. Nothing. I called again. "Bandit, come here boy. Baaaannndit." Old One-Eyed Calico Jack, the bantam rooster, crowed in response but there was no sign of the dog.

"Well maybe he's back out on patrol" I thought to myself. So I returned to my business. After fifteen minutes or so I stopped at the back door thinking he would surely be waiting there to come in like he always does. He never scratches. He just sits patiently and waits for someone to let him in. But he wasn't there. It's really cold outside. He doesn't like the cold. He's not exactly energetic on his best days. In fact he's almost the laziest dog I've ever met. Second only to my parent's dog. And lately he had been limping a little as if he'd sprained an ankle while chasing a squirrel. He wouldn't be on the cover of any dog agility magazines by any stretch of the imagination. "So where on earth is he? He's never not come when I called him" I wondered.

Worried, I donned my coat and boots and headed outside. By this point I was thinking he had hurt himself and couldn't get up. It was the only logical explanation. The porch dogs both have Invisible Fence collars and never leave the property. They don't even get close to the property line. All the squirrels in the neighborhood know this and will sit just out of range and taunt the dogs. "Nana nana boo boo you can't get us" they say while wagging their tails in the air.

It's not a tremendous sized yard. There are only so many places a dog could hide. I checked them all yet he was not in any of them. I called and hollered and called some more. No Bandit. By this time the kid was arriving home and joined in on the search. He took to the woods behind the house even though it was outside the Invisible Fence area. No sign, no tracks, no nothing.

Obviously the UPS man took him! I mean where else could he have gone? Maybe the UPS guy ran over him, panicked and took the dog to hide the evidence? The guy makes it obvious he doesn't like dogs. I doubt many UPS guys do.

Did you know that when you call the main UPS telephone number you get someone that sounds like they are in Japan and they don't understand the urgency of your dog being dognapped? I mean it's not like they're busy this time of year or anything you'd think they'd jump all over this missing dog issue. But instead it took several hours and phone calls to finally get a denial that the driver had the dog. He insisted he never saw the dog. I asked which direction he went after leaving our place, just in case the dog followed him. He said he left our place heading North and didn't stop again for several miles.

Bandit had been missing for hours by this point. The sun had set and it was getting very cold. More search and rescue efforts were made around the property but no signs of life were found. Lucy, the beagle, searched for hours trying to find her friend. Finally after the last evening patrol she gave up. There was no point. He had disappeared without a trace. Meanwhile, inside the house every possibility was being discussed. The Invisible Fence was tested and found to be in working order. So how did he get off the property? He had to have been taken quickly inside a vehicle or else he would have screamed and hollered when he received the shock the system puts out. It was a mystery. One we would probably never solve. He was just...gone.

Late that evening, while breaking into the midnight snacks, a dog was spotted at the back door waiting patiently for someone to let him in. He was muddy and wet, well, frozen actually and limping terribly. He looked like he had a VERY long, hard day. And he was exhausted. Clearly he had crossed the creek to get back home. There were icicles dangling from his fur.

There is no question in my mind that Bandit stowed away on the UPS driver's truck and bailed out at the next stop. Why, I have no idea. A boyhood prank? Just a tawdry night on the town? Or a grand adventure to write in his memoir maybe? I suppose we'll never know as he doesn't seem to want to talk about it.

BTW, If you've never read the story The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time I would highly recommend it. It's a fabulous read.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cook Big or Stay Home

Betcha don't have one of these!

Isn't she lovely? I've named her Golda. Harvest Golda. She's helping me make some convenience food.

What? Pressure canning doesn't sound like convenience food?

Ah, but it is. See, it's convenient for me to make a big old batch of chili right now. It might not be convenient for me to do it later. It will, however, be convenient for anyone to pop open a jar and nuke it when they want it. Even if I'm not around. Like, you know, in case I actually take a shower, get dressed and go somewhere.

Hey, it could happen.

Homemade Canned Chili
(makes 7 quarts)

10 lbs ground chuck (wait 'til it's on sale)
4 cups of chopped onion
2 cloves of garlic, minced
12 cups of V8 juice (you can also add tomatoes if you don't have a teen who hates them)
1 cup chili powder
3 tbsp salt
hot pepper flakes to taste
cumin to taste

Brown meat. You may need two large stock pots for this. Drain off excess fat. Add onions and garlic; cook slowly until onions are tender. Add remaining ingredients and simmer 20 minutes. Skim off excess fat, if necessary, before canning. Ladle hot chili into hot jars, leaving 1 inch head space. Remove air bubbles. Adjust two piece lids. Process pints 1 hour and 15 minutes, quarts 1 hour and 30 minutes, at 10 pounds pressure in a stem-pressure canner.

To serve: Add cooked or canned pinto or kidney beans heat and serve. OR pour contents into crock pot; add one block of Velveta cheese; cook until melted, stir. Serve as party dip with tortilla chips. (I don't know anyone who doesn't like this dip, but your waistline may suffer.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Making Old-Fashioned Lye Soap

I've always wanted to make a batch of old-fashioned soap, just like Grandma would have made. Nothing fancy, just plain and simple soap. But then I read all about it and decided I didn't really need to make my own lye from wood ashes. Nor did I feel a burning desire to render my own fat. But I still wanted to learn the method for making soap. It's easier than you might think.

First you need to gather up all your supplies. You'll need a large pot either enamel or stainless steel. I happened to have an old water bath canner lying around. You'll also need a glass or other heat resistant container for making your lye solution. I used a giant Pyrex measuring cup. You'll also need a wooden spoon and an instant read thermometer. However, the most important supplies are safety goggles and chemical gloves. Lye is nasty stuff and you need to treat it with respect. I purchased the lye at a farm supply store, you might find it at a hardware store as well but they'll probably charge you an arm and a leg for it.

You will also need a mold of some sort. I used a wooden box and lined it with aluminum foil and waxed paper. You could also simply line it with a damp cloth. Once the quality control manager inspected and approved the box I kicked her out of the kitchen. It's not safe for pets or kids to be around when you're making soap. Make sure you set aside enough time to not be interrupted.

Accurate measurements will ensure your soap turns out the way it should. Weighing the lye is the best method. Make sure you are wearing your goggles and gloves!

Using a lye calculator that I found online I determined that I would need to add 13.7 ounces of lye to 26 ounces of water for the amount of lard I was using. Always add the lye to the water in small amounts. If you did the opposite, adding water to lye, you could end up with a volcano effect. (That would be bad, don't do that no matter how cool it sounds or you'll need new countertops.) Stir with a wooden spoon, this will turn the spoon dark brown so don't use your best one. This solution will heat up considerably and you will need to let it cool to about 110-125 degrees. That takes awhile.

In the mean time you should melt your lard. I used 104 ounces of lard. Allow the lard to cool to the same temperature as the lye solution. Again, it takes awhile. Play a hand of solitaire or pick your toes or something to keep yourself entertained.

Slowly and carefully pour the lye solution into the melted lard. When you do, it will change colors like the photo below. Now, you can spend the next hour stirring this with a wooden spoon by hand or break out that hand blender you never remember to use for anything else. The blender will speed the process right up. Keep in mind the hand blender can't run constantly though or you'll burn up the motor, but you can run it off and on for about 15 minutes and achieve the desired result. Be carefull not to splash, this is why I'm using a large canner instead of a small pot!

You're going for a thick custard like consistency and a white color.

Pour the soap into your mold, cover with a towel or blanket to keep the heat in and set it aside. If you want to have a little fun, put a sign on it that says "Do Not Disturb" and then leave for the evening. Your family members will drive themselves crazy trying to figure out what's under the blanket.
The next day pull the soap out of the mold and cut into bars. Then place them somewhere where they can breathe and cure for 2 to 4 weeks allowing them to get nice and hard.

That's it. That's all there is to it. Just a little lye, lard and water and you can be squeaky clean for months!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Sweetest Thing

I can't remember the last time the sun was shining here. It's been gloomy and depressing. And wet. It's rained so much there was a small pond in the pasture, now it's a mini skating rink. The kid has been sick. That's always fun. Then we got the pleasure of performing our own version of Ice Road Trucking early Monday morning on the way to the orthodontist. A drive that should have taken 20 minutes ended up taking 1 1/2 hours. We actually got there before the doctor. Then I got the bill. Another depressing experience. Then another appointment that afternoon with the autism specialist. He ain't cheap either nor are the new meds. They must be made of gold.

Now it's freezing cold. Can't keep the water unfrozen for the birds or the dog. I opened the pop door for the chickens. They took one step out, gave me a dirty look and went back in. I don't blame them. Even the sheep have stayed in their sheep shack. Wind has blown so hard the cushions for the porch furniture are missing.

Then there's the news. Have you heard or watched any of it lately? The world has gone stark raving mad. Tis the season to be jolly, but I'm just not feelin' it. In fact I'd give the Grinch a run for the money in a grumpiness contest. So yesterday I put my long johns on and headed out to do the chores. I'm sure there was a storm cloud following over my head just like in the cartoons. Grumble, grumble, grumble...

Then I stopped at the mailbox. And inside I was surprised to see a little box. A little box with my name on it. What on earth could that be, I thought? I haven't ordered anything. So I trudged back to the house, shed my 18 layers of outerwear and sat down at the kitchen table to find out what was inside this mystery box.

It was chocked full of all sorts of wonderful goodies! All bright and cheery. It was like a box of sunshine delivered right to my door! My heart swelled up 10 times it's size.

Christine, the crazy gal that drove all the way from Wisconsin to pick up Sparky and his ladies sent the little treasure box. So I immediately thought of her little girlie and the chickens and my heart swelled even more. When we exchanged the chickens that day in the poring rain I noticed Christine had the most fabulous pair of cheery socks. I later commented on them and guess what...

she made me a pair! A perfect fit. It's amazing what a little sunshine can do to a person's attitude. It was the sweetest thing when I needed it most. Now I'm feeling red and orange and pink instead of blue. :)