Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 4 (almost there!)

Check it out! Our guest room, which for the past three months has been a construction zone, is now...a room!

Once the paint was on the walls, it was only a matter of a few hours here and there to do all the other little jobs required to put the room back together. Last Saturday, we removed all the old, cruddy outlets and replaced them with nice new ones that match the wall color almost perfectly. This job actually went faster than we expected; Brian feared, based on our experience refreshing the downstairs room, that we might have to add ground wires to all these outlets. (They were three-hole outlets, but so were the ones in the basement, and those turned out to be just for show.) But fortunately, these outlets were actually up to code, so all we had to do was switch off the power, pull the old outlets out of the wall (along with a fair amount of crumbled plaster lodged inside the cavities), and attach the new ones in their place.

Before starting on this job, Brian got a coat of metal-compatible primer onto the heaters and heater covers, so it would be dry by the time the outlets were done and he could then apply the paint. He'd removed the covers when we first started working on the room, so those got laid out in the basement and painted with our new little roller, while the fixed parts of the heater got painted in situ with a brush. By Sunday, everything was dry, and he was able to reattach the covers to the heaters. Once again, the "almond" metal paint blends in nearly perfectly with the wall color.

Then, at last, we were able to restore the bookcase with all our cookbooks on it to its rightful place. This actually turned out to be the most complicated job of the lot, since Brian insisted on keeping all the books in their proper order so we wouldn't have to rearrange them later. So he carefully removed them all, shelf by shelf, and laid them out in order on the floor and whatever other surfaces were available. Then he pulled out the removable shelves and handed them over to me, and he lifted the entire empty bookcase up by its one fixed shelf and carried it up the steps. (Okay, it's only a Billy bookcase from IKEA, which is just lightweight birch-veneered particle board, but he still looked very manly picking it up and casually walking off with it.) Once we got the bookcase back into its accustomed corner, he took a few minutes to check its alignment and shim it up nice and level before we retrieved all the cookbooks.

We also moved the plant table, which had been sitting in the middle of the room under a drop cloth, back into the corner. We discovered in the process that the finish on the top has suffered some damage—probably before, rather than during, the painting of the room—and will need to be sanded down and refinished at some point. Brian fears it won't come out very well, since it's already been refinished once, but I don't see why that matters, since it's solid birch. (The table was a gift from his dad, who built it with his own hands, the first year we lived together.) But even if it doesn't come out perfect, we can always purchase a Plexiglass top for it, like the one we got for our nice cherry table when we turned it into Brian's desk, to protect it from further damage.

It was amazing how spacious this tiny little room felt with all the furniture back in the proper places. I'd gotten so used to maneuvering around the table to get to the closet that it felt positively luxurious to have all that floor space completely clear. But at this point, it still looked a little bare. It was missing the key piece of the puzzle, the one piece that would turn it from a spare room into a guest room: the futon. So, Monday night, we headed downstairs to haul it up.

Fortunately, this futon is a "lounger," which means that the cushion is in two small pieces rather than one big one (the big square piece gets used when the futon is in loveseat form, and the smaller piece is added to turn it into a bed). So wrestling these up the stairs, though still very awkward, was easier than trying to move a single, full-sized mattress. The frame, however, presented us with a bit more difficulty. At first, Brian thought we might be able to get it up the stairs in one piece, but after a bit of maneuvering, it became clear that it wouldn't quite fit through the opening. So we had to remove two bolts (which required the use of a rubber mallet to pound them out of their holes) and separate the frame into the bottom piece, the back piece, and the two rotating feet. Brian made careful note of how these pieces all fit together before separating them, so we could reassemble it correctly once we got it upstairs.

After moving it, we had a bit of debate over how to orient the futon in the room. I'd assumed the only place it would fit was against the back wall, where you see it in the picture above. However, Brian pointed out that it could also have its head against the side wall (opposite the window). We tried laying out the cushions in both positions and found that putting it sideways would actually leave a bit more clearance between the fully extended futon and the rest of the furniture, but it didn't look as good. The back wall, which is visible when the door is open, would look kind of bare with nothing against it, and the extra cushion, which we normally keep tucked against the back of the futon, would be visible if it had its side to the door. So we went with the nicer-looking spot, reasoning that, after all, this futon will spend more time sitting in the corner just looking nice than it does actually sleeping guests. And we can always move it later if we change our minds.

At this point, the room is about 90 percent finished. It's usable in its present form, but it still needs a few finishing touches. The closet, for instance, is still sitting open without its door, which is waiting to be sanded down and refinished. The main door to the room will need to be refinished at some point as well. The closet shelf needs to be cut down, repainted, and replaced before the rest of the items that live there can be restored to their normal homes. We also need to put back the old bamboo window blinds (which we're planning to keep for now, though we might replace them at some point) and hang some art on the walls. But for now, just having a usable room instead of a dust-filled, drop-cloth-draped cubbyhole is the best Hanukkah present I could ask for.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Green Holiday

I've fallen a bit behind with the Simplify the Holidays calendar that I posted about here last month. I was reading the entries regularly for a while, but over the past couple of weeks, I forgot about it. So today I went back to check up on the entries I'd missed, and I discovered the entry for December 8: The Green Holiday Quiz. This seemed right up my alley, since it combines two of my favorite things: environmental issues and taking quizzes. So I took it, and I found it interesting enough that I thought I'd share my results here with you.

Question 1 is "What activities will you be doing this holiday season?" I said that we would be giving gifts, wrapping gifts, putting up decorations, and traveling to visit loved ones, but not sending holiday cards or hosting a holiday meal or party. This got me 12 points right off the bat for not taking part in those last two activities, though I wasn't sure if that was really fair, since we will be partaking of holiday meals at other people's houses. Somehow it doesn't seem quite right to give us credit for putting the burden of entertaining on others. But after mulling it over for a bit, I reasoned that we're actually sharing the environmental burden with them: we're doing the traveling, while they provide the food. I also took some comfort from the assurance that we're doing a bit of good for the earth by not sending holiday cards, since I tend to feel a trifle guilty every year when we receive cards and end-of-year reports from half a dozen relatives and friends to whom we haven't sent anything. But now I can say, hey, we're not just being lazy; we're being green. So there.

Next, the quiz asked me for more details about the type of gifts we'd be giving. Would they be new, store-bought items? Secondhand? Homemade? How about gift cards, "gifts of charity" (a donation in a loved one's name), "gifts of experience" (such as a class or tickets to an event), or "gifts of your time and care" (such as lessons, child care, or help with household chores)? I somewhat guiltily bypassed those last few and 'fessed up that our gifts would be a mixture of secondhand, homemade, and store-bought.

The quiz then pressed me for more details: what percentage of our gifts would be new and store-bought? I didn't know the answer to that offhand, so I went to the handy Excel spreadsheet on which I keep track of all our holiday gifts, because I am the most anal person in the entire world. It has columns showing what gift we gave to each person and where it was bought, as well as a column indicating whether the gift was secondhand or in some other way green (organic, local, recycled, etc.). I totted up the number of gifts we were giving that were new and store-bought and found that it came to 17 out of 51 gifts on the list, so I selected "about 25 percent," which was the closest answer. Then it asked me what percentage of our gifts would be shipped either to us or to someone else. I hesitated over that one, not sure whether sending a package in the mail was the same as "shipping," but eventually I decided it was and checked "about 25 percent" for that as well. Those two answers netted me another 9 points.

Next it moved on to questions about wrapping. For what percentage of my gifts, it asked, would I use "upcycled" wrapping rather than new materials? Once again, I was a little thrown by the wording, as I hardly consider our reuse of last year's wrapping paper to be "upcycling." Supposedly, the difference between "upcycling" and recycling or reuse is that an upcycled product is more useful than the waste material it was made from. But our reused wrapping is, at best, exactly as useful as it was on its first go-round—and realistically, it's probably less useful, because even though we discard the obviously damaged parts, the paper still has wrinkles and dents that show it's been used before. However, since "reused" wasn't an option, I told the quiz we were using 75 percent "upcycled" wrapping. (The gifts we have shipped directly to my in-laws' house get wrapped there, which means we use new paper for those.) That got me 3 more points.

Next topic: decorations. Approximately what percentage of our decorations would be reusable? Once again, I wasn't sure how to answer. Our usual holiday decorations are made primarily from natural materials—evergreen boughs scavenged from the Christmas tree vendors, pine cones, holly twigs—plus a single strand of LED lights and some bits of ribbon. The lights and ribbon get reused, but all those branches tend to end up in the compost bin or bundled with the other brush at the curb when the holidays are over. Does that count as "reuse"? After some hesitation, I guessed the answer was yes, since even if we're not going to use these natural materials again, we've already "upcycling" them once. So I said we'd be going with 100 percent reusable decorations and was rewarded with 4 more points.

It then asked about our holiday lights. I was disappointed to see that the quiz didn't even ask whether we were using energy-efficient LED lights, as opposed to the old-fashioned, energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs. All it wanted to know was where we were using them (indoors, outdoors, both, or neither) and whether they were solar-powered. So I had to select "outdoors, no solar" and reveal that we would have them on for "a few hours a day for a few weeks or so." Four more points for those answers, so we didn't do quite as well on decorations as we did on gifts.

The final question was, "What's the most traveling you'll be doing this holiday season?" This was the part of the quiz where I knew we'd get spanked, since our annual trip out to Indianapolis to visit my in-laws is nearly 700 miles of driving. (At least we don't fly, which would produce more than twice as much CO2 per person, according to this "Earth Talk" column.) In fact, I probably got off fairly easily on this question, since I only had to confess to driving "more than 150 miles" and not how much more. I only got 2 more points for this answer, but it was better than nothing.

Totting everything up, the quiz reported that my 34-point score indicated my holidays were "about 68 percent green." Not bad, but it said I could do even better by making a few changes. It offered a list of tips, "personalized to my answers," to help me make my holidays greener:
  • Consider alternative gifts, the kind that can't be wrapped. Unfortunately, this suggestion wasn't very practical for me. It's hard to give "gifts of your time and skill" to a friend or relative you hardly ever see, which describes most of the people on our gift list. Yes, we could offer to help my mom with a computer problem—but we do that all the time anyway and don't consider it a present. Gifts to charity don't really feel like much of a present, either; even if I knew which charities all the people on my list supported (those that are old enough to understand such things), I just don't think they'd get a thrill out of finding an envelope under the tree with a card reading, "A donation has been made in your name to...." And while gifts of "experiences," like event tickets or lessons, could be a great gift for the right person, you have to know what experience that person really wants and have a way to provide it. So while it's a lovely idea in theory, it just doesn't work out that often in practice. Bottom line: I think the whole point of gift giving is to show how you like and appreciate a specific person by giving a specific gift that person will really enjoy. If a charitable contribution or a cooking lesson is what that person would truly love, great. But if not, I think it's much better to choose a gift that will be valued, even if it's not as "green." I do my best to save resources in my own life all year round; I think I can afford to stray a little bit at the holidays.
  • If you give material gifts, choose greener ones. Look for minimal packaging, recycled materials, and durable gifts that won't wear out. Once again, this is something I try to do when possible, but it doesn't take priority over the quality of the gift itself. If I want to give, say, a board game, I'm going to choose on the basis of whether it looks like a game my friend would enjoy—not whether it's made with sustainably harvested wooden pieces.
  • Avoid waste when shopping and shipping. Specific tips include bringing reusable bags on shopping trips, using rechargeable batteries in electronic items, shipping gifts in reused and/or reusable packaging, and recycling your packing peanuts. To all of this, my reaction was: well, duh. I mean, of course I do all these things, and not just at Christmas time. I don't see how this tip could possibly have been "personalized to my answers," since the quiz never asked me about it. If it had, I could probably have picked up an extra point or two.
  • Cut down on paper waste by removing yourself from the mailing lists of catalogues you don't need. Yeah, I know this is something I should really do; it's just such a hassle that I keep putting it off. I don't see how it's a specifically holiday-related tip, either, since I get unwanted catalogues all year long. Maybe I'll make removing myself from these mailing lists my New Year's resolution, instead.
  • Ditch the "candy-filled advent calendar" in favor of an "acts of kindness calendar," which sends you an e-mail each day recommending an act of kindness you can do for someone else. I never buy an advent calendar anyway, so this tip is irrelevant for me, but I frankly can't see how getting an e-mail every day with one more thing you have to do is supposed to reduce holiday stress.
  • Focus on experiences rather than stuff. "Pursuing happiness doesn't mean purchasing it," the site advises. "Moments with loved ones are what will be remembered." Here, at last, is a tip I can completely get behind. My favorite parts of the Christmas gathering at my in-laws are always the ones that aren't present-related: baking cookies, gathering around the piano to sing carols, playing adult-friendly board games after the kids are in bed. But somehow, in the rush to get everything "ready" for Christmas, I end up fixating on whether I've checked off all the boxes in that Excel spreadsheet—coming up with an idea for everyone on the list, buying or making all the gifts, wrapping them, shipping them—and I lose sight of the fact that years from now, this probably isn't the part of the holiday that any of them will remember. So maybe I need to cut myself some slack. If I don't manage to get a present under that tree for every single person in the family, does it really matter? With so many of us all exchanging gifts, is anyone even going to notice if one person's pile of presents doesn't include one from us? Considering how long it takes to open all those gifts, maybe making the process a little shorter would actually be a welcome relief for everyone.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

DIY fuzzy slipper socks

A year or so ago, I bought several pairs of those fuzzy socks that sell for as little as a buck a pair at drugstores and discount stores all over the country. I really liked how soft and cushy they felt against my feet, but I soon discovered that for actually wearing under shoes, they weren't that practical. They were much too warm to wear in summertime, but in winter, they'd get soggy and cold at the slightest touch of rain or snow. Plus, after just a couple of washings, they lost most of their elasticity, so they'd bunch up under whatever shoes I was wearing.

Eventually I got fed up with them and was going to discard them. But since they were still in good condition, I thought maybe I could make something from the fabric. I started thinking about how I'd never been able to find a decent, inexpensive pair of slippers that actually fit my feet (usually a size small is too tight for comfort, and a size medium is too loose). What if I could upcycle these unwanted socks into slippers?

Once I had the idea, the process of making them seemed perfectly straightforward. First, I layered one pair of socks over the other on my feet to get the heels properly lined up. Then I rolled the tops of both socks down, to make a sort of low-heeled bootie, and stitched them together. I ran the needle through the rolled white and blue layers, then slipped it through the underlying blue layer and back up through the rolled parts. This secured the rolled-down top to the outer layer (blue), but didn't run it all the way through to the inner layer (white), since stitching all the way around the white layer would pull it too tight and keep it from stretching over my feet.

Once the two layers were secured, there was still one thing missing. Slipper socks usually have some sort of tread on the bottom to make them less, well, slippery. So I figured this looked like a job for my hot glue gun. I got it warmed up and applied dots of glue in a grid pattern all over the soles of both slippers. 

This worked, sort of. The slipper socks felt reasonably comfortable for just sitting around, but when I walked in them, I could feel those little bumps of hardened glue right through the fabric, pressing into the soles of my feet. It wasn't really uncomfortable except in one place, right in the middle of the ball of the foot. So I sort of pried that one lump loose, leaving a slightly threadbare spot on the sock, and after that the slippers were reasonably comfortable. The treads still feel slightly odd underfoot, but not really unpleasant.

I still have two more pairs of fuzzy socks to work with, beige and black, so if I make them into a second pair of slipper socks, I might try a different approach with the hot glue. Perhaps instead of big blobs, I'll just lay out a cross-hatching of thin lines that might not feel as hard underfoot. But for a first attempt, I'd say these slipper socks didn't come out too badly at all. And the beauty part is, they killed two birds with one stone—salvaging the material from the old socks I didn't want anymore, and turning them into something I actually needed.

If, however, you would really like a pair of slippers like this, and you don't happen to have a couple of old pairs of fuzzy socks sitting around the house, you can just go out and buy a couple of pairs for a buck apiece at your nearest drugstore, dollar store or what have you. Throw in a little thread and hot glue and half an hour of work, and you're all set. (DIY stocking stuffer, anyone?)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Guest room makeover, stage 3

Forget the Christmas Star and the Hanukkah Lights—this December, the real miracle is that Brian and I actually got the walls painted in our guest room. Before Christmas! Will wonders never cease?

Of course, when I say they've been painted, I don't mean that we are completely done with painting. We got one good coat on the walls, but depending on how it looks when dry, we might need to add a second coat—and we will certainly need to touch up a few spots on the ceiling and trim. But the room has made the shift from primer-white to Flioli Antique Lace, the color we finally settled on.

We took a few extra steps when prepping this room for painting, based partly on our previous experience and partly on tips from others. First, we taped off all the woodwork, but rather than molding the tape fully to the baseboards, we just applied it to the top surface and let it stick out to form a little shelf. This is supposed to help catch drips, and it seemed to work, except that with a smaller surface to adhere to, the tape didn't stay put quite as well. So we had fewer drips that needed to be wiped hastily from the floors, but we ended up with a few large ones on the baseboards themselves that will need to be corrected.

Second, we put down a layer of brown kraft paper (which we still have lots of left over from our basement floor project) to protect the floor. When priming the room, we tried to rely on a drop cloth for this purpose, but it was really awkward; it kept bunching up, so it was constantly in danger of brushing up against the freshly primed walls. Even when it did its job of catching drips, there was always the danger that we would tread in them and transfer them to the floor. With the brown paper, we were able to spot the drips more easily and steer clear of them.

Both these steps saved us some effort, but it's clear there's that when it comes to painting, we both still have a lot to learn. Here are a few lessons we learned from this round, which we hope will help us next time we have to paint a room:
  1. A zero-VOC paint is worth the trade-offs. Valspar interior paint, which we went with because we've used it before, comes in three formulations at Lowe's: the pricey Valspar Reserve, which promises super durability plus zero VOCs; the midrange Valspar Signature, which is low-VOC but not zero-VOC; and the basic Valspar Ultra, which is zero-VOC. (All three promise "one-coat coverage," but we're still waiting to see whether it lives up to that promise.) We went with the Ultra, and we both found it very pleasant to work in a room that didn't smell overwhelmingly of paint. It was a great relief after the primer, which left a lingering odor for over a week.
  2. A paintbrush or roller that can drip, will drip. I started the process of cutting in around the window frames, and I thought I'd try using the little mini roller we used to apply the sample swatches to our walls. I got it nice and loaded up with paint, applied it to the wall, and got a spurt of paint that dripped down the wall and all over the floor. After that I switched to using the brush first, then going over my brush strokes with the mini roller to blend them in. Even the brush would drip if I loaded it up too heavily; it was a constant balancing act between too much paint, which made a mess, and too little, which wouldn't cover the wall fully.
  3. When cutting in on the corners around the ceiling, the biggest problem isn't putting down a clean line; it's avoiding splotching paint onto the ceiling when you lean in to touch up the line you've just laid down. Brian eventually had to set a rule for himself that, whenever he was up on the ladder, he was not allowed to hold the paintbrush or roller in the open air; it had to be touching the wall at all times, which would limit its movement to one plane. (Even so, I think next time we paint a room, it might be worth investing in an inexpensive little paint edger like this one, which might make the job less frustrating.)
  4. A good stiff drink beforehand actually helps you relax and put down the paint more cleanly. Or at least relax enough not to scream and cuss and bang the walls every time you make a mistake.
We've still got a bit of work left to do on this room, like painting the heater covers, replacing the outlets, and refinishing both doors, which are in pretty cruddy shape. But getting this paint up on the wall sort of marks a turning point. Now that it's done, the room seems to have gone from being the nameless back room to the guest room, even if it's still a guest room in progress. Give us a few weeks to take care of those last few jobs, and we can finally get to the fun stuff, like furniture, window treatments, and art. Not to mention getting our cookbooks back upstairs where they belong.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Roasted Veggie Frittata

December tends to be a busy time for us, as I guess it is for most people. Between rushing around in the evenings and making holiday treats, I'm not sure how much time we'll have for trying new recipes, so I'm getting my Recipe of the Month in early. It's a roasted veggie frittata that Brian put together last night, more or less off the cuff. He based it loosely on the "Fast Frittata" recipe from our well-worn copy of The Clueless Vegetarian, but added a few extra fillips of his own that were reasonably successful.

He started with the remnants of a bag of Brussels sprouts we bought at the Amish market last weekend to make our favorite Roasted Brussels Sprouts. We had about 8 or 10 left over, not enough to do another batch, so he quartered them and put them in a cast-iron skillet with a chopped onion and a couple of diced potatoes. He tossed the contents with a quarter-cup of olive oil and a little salt, and cooked it over a high flame for about 5 minutes. Then he moved the whole pan to the oven, where he roasted the veggies for about half an hour at 400 degrees F, shaking the pan every 5 minutes or so to keep the veggies awake.

Once the veggies looked nice and tender, he beat 4 jumbo eggs in bowl with 3 tablespoons of Parmesan, plus a bit of salt and pepper. He stirred the roasted veggies into this egg mixture, then dumped it all back into the skillet and cooked it on medium. Once it started to set, he flipped the whole thing using his signature pan-to-plate method: flip the frittata out of the pan onto a big dinner plate, then slide it off the plate back into the pan and cook until it's firm. Unfortunately, this maneuver didn't go quite as well as usual. First, he got the timing a little off, so the frittata was slightly scorched on the bottom, and second, a piece of it broke off in the transfer, so it looks a bit ragged in the picture.

Despite this setback, the finished frittata was tasty. The earthiness of the roasted veggies made a nice counterpart to the lighter egg batter, and we finished off the meal with some whole-wheat toast. However, adding that half-hour of roasting time to the process meant that this frittata was no longer "fast," so it's probably not something we'd want to whip up on a busy night. Also, while the Brussels sprouts were good this way, they weren't oh-my-God-so-good like they are when roasted. So while this is a pretty good way to use up the leftover sprouts from a bunch, I don't think it's going to become our primary way of cooking them. It may not be a blue-ribbon recipe, but it's a reasonably easy, satisfying winter meal.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Thanksgiving bounty

Every year, Brian and I (well, mostly Brian) supply the pies and cranberry sauce for my family's Thanksgiving dinner. This year, however, we went beyond our usual responsibilities and brought a whole wealth of homemade goodies—some of them home-grown, as well. Our offerings, pictured below, included:

1. Rhubarb pie, made from our own home-grown rhubarb. Brian's recipe for the filling, made up out of his own head, is:
5 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 Tbsp. corn starch
If using frozen rhubarb, mix it with the sugar and corn starch while still frozen, and then let the mixture thaw. If using fresh, mix everything together and let it sit until the sugar starts to draw the moisture out of the rhubarb (the mixture will be gooey).
While the mixture is mingling, make the crust: 
2 cups all-purpose flour (not bread flour)
1 tsp. salt
2/3 cup unsalted butter (no shortening here, thank you)
ice-cold water
  1. Combine flour and salt. Cut in the butter, straight out of the fridge, with a pastry cutter, until the the mixture is as fine as you can get it. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, mixing with a fork, until you have a smooth dough, coherent but not sticky.. Usually it takes around 7 or 8 tablespoons. Try to work the dough as little as possible. Divide the dough into two balls and coat each one in flour, then roll it out on a floured surface until it's as thin as you can get it. 
  2. To transfer the bottom crust to the pan, lift it by one edge and gently fold it in half, then lay that across the center of the pan and unfold it. This helps keep it from tearing. Let it settle into the pan and trim it off to about 2 inches all around the edge. Pour the filling on top and dot with butter (a tablespoon or two altogether).
  3. After rolling out the second crust, slice it into narrow strips and weave them into a lattice on top of the filling. Start by putting down one vertical strip, then one horizontal one on top, then two more vertical ones on either side of the first. Then fold back the first vertical one over the top of the horizontal one so that you can lay the next horizontal ones under it, but over the other vertical ones. Continue weaving in this way, folding back more strips each time, until the lattice covers the whole surface. (Yes, this is a lot more work than just laying all the horizontal strips one way and the vertical ones another, but it's much more structurally sound. If you do the lattice the lazy way, it will all break off in one big sheet as soon as the pie is cut.) Trim off the overhanging strips all around the edge.
  4. Roll the overhanging dough up all around the edge to form a nice, thick wall that will keep the pie juices from spilling over. Then, just in case, put a cookie sheet on the lower rack of the oven to catch any stray drips, and put the pie on the upper rack. Bake at 400 for around an hour. Check it after 30 minutes, and every 10 minutes after that, removing it when it looks nicely browned.
  5. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, to oohs and ahhs of admiration.
2. Pumpkin pie, made with store-bought pumpkin (since we didn't get a great crop of winter squash this year) according to the ultra-simple recipe on the can. Basically, you just mix the pumpkin with a can of evaporated milk, 2 beaten eggs, 3/4 cup sugar, 1 teaspoon cinnamon, and 1/2 teaspoon each of nutmeg, ginger, and salt, then pour it into the crust and bake: 15 minutes at 425 and another 45 or so at 350. Our one innovation was to use real Ceylon cinnamon from Penzey's Spices, rather than the cheap cinnamon sold in most grocery stores (which is really cassia and not true cinnamon at all). I guess this made a big difference to the flavor, because this pie went even faster than the rhubarb.

3. Apple butter, made in our slow cooker from some apples we picked up at the supermarket for a buck a pound. They weren't great eating apples, but they worked fine for this purpose. Brian consulted a bunch of recipes online, then conflated them all together into this simplified version:
  1. Peel and chop 8 apples. Load them into the slow cooker and cook them for 8 hours on low. (This part of the process is basically just making applesauce. Brian says if he had to do it again, he'd probably make the applesauce in the pressure cooker instead, which is much faster. You could also start with commercial applesauce, which is what most recipes recommend, but what fun is that?)
  2. Add 1/2 cup water, 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 tsp. cinnamon, 1/4 tsp. nutmeg, 1/4 tsp. allspice, 1/8 tsp. cloves, 1/2 Tbsp. dark molasses, and the zest of half a lemon, and cook for another 8 hours on low.
  3. At this stage in the process, the apple butter will have a soupy consistency. Brian reduced it by transferring it to a pot on the stove and cooking it, uncovered, stirring it steadily, for another half hour or so. However, he thinks it might be possible (and easier) to reduce it right in the crock by just taking the lid off and bumping it up to high, then letting it bubble away, stirring it every so often, until it looks right.
4. Rhubarb jam, made from the last our home-grown rhubarb that we salvaged after the frost had hit. Brian used this very simple recipe that he found on a site called Leite's Culinaria. The only ingredients are rhubarb, sugar, water, and a lemon, but you use every part of the lemon: the juice, the rinds and the seeds, which supply the pectin to make the jam jell. Brian had his doubts about how well this would work, so he kept poking at the seeds in their little cheesecloth pouch to get them to make sure they were doing their job, with the result that the jam actually came out slightly too well jelled, with a consistency more like jellied cranberry sauce. (He thinks if he tries it again, he might put the lemon pips in a tea strainer instead and just leave them be.) He also didn't go through the whole process of canning the jam properly, in sealed, sterilized jars. Instead, he just scooped it into clean jars and stored it in the fridge. With the amount of sugar that's in it, it's hard to imagine that any bacteria could grow in it anyhow.

5. Ice box garlic pickles, made from last summer's extremely bountiful cucumber crop. We made jar after jar of these last summer, eventually switching from dill pickles to garlic pickles because we used up all our dill, and by Thanksgiving day, we still had two jars left. Fortunately, my kith and kin were happy to help us dispose of them. The recipe, as passed down from Brian's mom, is:
  1. Slice up about a dozen 5-inch cucumbers and stuff them in a jar with 4-5 sprigs of dill.
  2. Combine 1 quart water, 3/4 cup vinegar, 1/3 cup kosher salt, and 4 cloves sliced garlic, and pour it over the cucumbers. (The original recipe called for this mixture to be boiled for 5 minutes first and poured on while still hot, but Brian's mom started letting it cool first to keep the pickles crisper. Brian has taken this one step further and no longer cooks the brine at all, which is one reason our pickles lasted until Thanksgiving without going completely limp.)
  3. Store the jars in the fridge. They'll be ready to eat in 2 days, but better after 4, and they'll stay good for...well, as long as four months, as we've now discovered. They will be very salty after sitting in the brine that long, but some people (my sister in particular) seem to like them that way.
So that's how we contributed this year to a homemade, home-grown Thanksgiving feast. (We also ended up putting up several guests in our home after my parents' house developed an unforeseen plumbing problem, but that's another story.) Happy Thanksgiving to all! (And yes, now it's okay to start putting up the Christmas decorations.)