Friday, December 23, 2011

I'm a mommy!

We are thrilled to share with you the joyous news of our son's arrival.
8 pounds, 1 ounce
20.5 inches

About his name...

Kaelen is a Gaellic name meaning strong, fair-skinned, and slender.  Some sources add "mighty warrior" to the list, but we won't tell him that.  It is pronounced KALE-in.

The cats were unimpressed by his homecoming.  Rudy, our tabby, sat on my lap often during my pregnancy.  This afternoon he did again, this time competing for space with Kaelen.  As soon as Rudy started to purr, Kaelen fell fast asleep.  It makes me wonder what Rudy's purring sounded like to him when he was in utero.  My parents are bringing Rosemary home this afternoon and we're looking forward to her reaction.

We're so excited to share the news of our precious boy's arrival with you.  He has forever changed our lives, and will likely become a regular on the blog as I look for ways to incoporate living sustainably, frugally, and purposefully with having a child.

The blog may quiet down (even more) for a little while as we find our footing but I promise: I'll be back!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Update on molting hens

I posted earlier this month about our girls going through a hard molt.  Here are a couple of pics of them.
Front to back: Animal (standard blue cochin), Dozer (barred Plymouth Rock), and Nugget (Rhode Island Red).

The girls are so pretty, soft, and fluffy after a molt.  Animal's lacing (the appearance of an edge around her feathers) is quite striking.  We've noticed that the girls' colors change slightly with each molt.  Nugget's head and tail are considerably darker than they've ever been.

Curry's tail is still rather stubby but she's so soft right now.  Her head, too, is darker than ever.

Croquette, on the other hand, looks like dookie.  She holds up one leg to conserve heat.  She wouldn't let me near her to take any decent pics. 

Scooter, the top of whose crest you see below, was proud to show off her new white plumage.  Polish cresteds are the dorkiest birds, I swear.

The australorps are, hands-down, the softest things I've ever touched.  Once Croquette's new feathers are fully grown, she'll be black and green and gorgeous.  Until then, however... not so much.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Instead of a tree

Taking down a Christmas tree is never one of my favorite activities.  The thought of doing it with a (yet-to-arrive) newborn made it even less appealing.  Instead of dragging the artifical tree and ornaments out of their corner in the attic, this year we decided to decorate our mantel.  The entire process took less than 20 minutes, if you exclude the provisioning of the greens.

I even dusted.
Don't ya love the rabbit ears?  We don't have cable.

I work down the street from a tree stand.  One day during lunch I walked over to ask if they had boughs or garlands.  They had a sign that said "Boughs: FREE".  Awesome!  But when I inquired about the boughs, the guy at the stand looked at me blankly.  He didn't know what "boughs" are.

How do you work for a tree stand that gives away free boughs (branches) and you don't know what they are?  It's not like the menu of offerings at the tree stand had more then 6-7 items on it in the first place.  I was dying to eat lunch and my preggo patience was worn thin.  His coworker told me that they'd have boughs later in the day but didn't have any at that moment.  Being nine months pregnant and facing an uphill hike to employee parking alone after dark, I decided against returning later in the day. 

The following weekend Gene and I ventured out to a nursery in town that sells cedar garland by the foot.  We bought 8' of fresh, lovely smelling garland and headed home.

My mom and her sister had recently divided up my grandmother's ornaments and I was able to procure a few, including a handful of handmade blown glass ornaments from Romania and a couple of strings of antique beads.

I've tucked a glass ornament engraved with Bean's name into the garland, ready to pull it out when he comes home with us from the hospital in the next few days.  (I'm scheduled for an induction on 12/21 if he hasn't decided for himself to arrive.)  I can't wait to display that particular ornament.

In my attic there were a few Santa figures.  I like them because they're tall and narrow.  OK, the smallest one is technically a nutcracker ornament... close enough.  Decorators like things in odd numbers so three of these guys get to spend a couple of weeks on the mantel with the African violet.

I think I got rid of my string lights during last summer's attic purge.  But I had a ton of the IKEA tea lights and several juice glasses.  Mason jars would work fine, too.  I tucked five of these behind the garland, being careful to make certain that no part of the greenery was above the glass.

When lit, the candles emit a lovely flicker because of the vertical lines in the glass.  It's much prettier than string lights anyway.

Finally, I hung our stockings.  The snow scene on the right is mine, which my mom made for my own first Christmas.  I found the Santa stocking at left hanging on the back porch of my house, which I bought the summer before Gene and I met.  The Santa has a very pretty petit point face.  Who could have known that just a few months later I'd meet the man I'd later marry?  Good thing I kept that stocking.

The mitten in the middle will have to make due for Bean's "stocking" until he gets his own.  I think that my mom wants to make one for him but is waiting to learn what his name is before she starts it.  Besides, stocking kits will be on killer discounts in about two weeks!

Since putting up the greens our antenna reception has improved, allowing us to receive an additional channel.

Do you ever take a break from holiday decorating?  Do you do any sort of alternative decoration?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Under pressure

The title to this post is a little double entendre

First, I'm officially overdue.  My due date of 12/14/11 has come and gone without "Bean" sprouting.  I open facebook every morning to a slew of messages from friends around the globe asking if the baby has arrived.  The notes usually are along the lines of "haven't see a post from you in 8 hours - the baby here yet?".  These crack me up as I tend to sleep for about 8 hours daily.  Maybe I need to post at 3a when I heave my bulk out of bed to pee?

I've begun maternity leave.  I decided that I wasn't going to get any sort of medal for sitting around at work wasting time until my due date.  So now I'm at home and have my days free to... well... I'm still figuring out what to do with myself.

Yesterday I went with a girlfriend and her 3-year-old daughter to Watson's, a nearby nursery that had 2 reindeer on site.  Here is Bean with the oh-so-curious Donner.  Blitzen is the brown reindeer in the background.
"Your belly looks like Santa's."

After our visit with the reindeer, my girlfriend fed me a delicious beef stew made with the last of the veggies from her incredibly prolific garden.  My own veggie garden suffered badly from neglect and I spent much of the summer green with envy of her gorgeous vegetables.

The beef stew gave me a hunkering for more.  But with a doctor appointment that went from 2-4 yesterday afternoon and no ingredients in the house for stew, I'd have to wait until today to create that simmered-all-day flavor.

... or would I?

Pressure cooker to the rescue!

I stopped by the grocery store on the way home and picked up stew meat, bagged carrots, baby red potatoes, and bagged green beans.  In my pantry there were home-canned tomatoes, broth, and corn, plus onions, garlic, and all the requisite seasonings.

The great thing about beef stew is that you don't really need a recipe.  It lends itself fabulously to what I call "method cooking".  Once you have the general method of how to make it, you can repeat and create new variations based on what's in your own pantry.
Make sure veggies are bite-sized.

I made this in my pressure cooker but you could easily make it in a slow cooker or on your stovetop.

Here's what went into my beef stew.  Change up the veggies in your own version based on what's available to you.

2 lbs beef stew meat
1 tbsp vegetable oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried rosemary
1 quart home-canned tomatoes
1 pint home-canned corn
1 lb baby carrots, cut in half
1.5 baby red potatoes, cut in quarters
1 pint chicken or beef broth
1 lb green beans, cut into bite-sized pieces
salt & pepper to taste
enough cornstarch to thicken the mix

1. Brown meat in the oil.  Add chopped onion, whole garlic cloves, and tomatoes.  Close the pressure cooker, vent according to directions, and cook on the highest pressure for 25 minutes.

2. When time is up, open the pressure cooker (safely!), add the corn, carrots, potatoes, broth, and enough water to cover everything.  Bring to a boil and close the cooker again.  Cook for 10 more minutes under highest pressure.

3. Next, add green beans to the stew and cook without the lid until crisp-tender (approx 4-5 minutes).  The prevents the green beans from getting mushy, over-cooked, and turning grey. 

4. Add salt and pepper to taste, and thicken with cornstarch if desired.  If you've never thickened hot liquid with cornstarch, be sure to stir it into some cold water then add to the hot soup to avoid clumps.

Start to finish, this stew took about an hour in the pressure cooker.  It was the first time I'd used my cooker in stages, meaning that I'd cook, then open, the cook, then open again.  It worked well.  I served the stew with toasted, buttered asiago cheese bread.  It was hearty and perfect for a cold December evening... and tasted like it had been simmering all day.


Thursday, December 8, 2011


More years ago than I should admit, I spent Christmas in Europe with friends.  The days leading up to Christmas were in Bavaria, possibly the most Christmas-y place on Earth, and afterwards I continued to stay with friends in the Grenoble area of France.  Not technically the Alpes, but close enough.
My German friends lived in and around Munich and took me to a variety of Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt), both the enormous one in Munich's famous Marienplatz as well as a small one in a neighboring town called Aichach.
photo: Borderless Adventures
My mother's family has roots in Northern Germany and I suspect that's part of the reason I so dearly loved Christmas in Bavaria.  It's Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker wrapped up in a living, lovely package.  The sights and smells of a Christkindlmarkt bring to mind everything that is wonderful and magical about Christmas: sweet pastries filled with nuts and raisins, nutcrackers ranging from elaborately decorative to utilitarian, pine trees weighed down with hundreds of white lights, hand-painted tin ornaments, cedar wreaths, sweet treats like lebkuchen and pfeffernüsse.  I always crave marzipan stollen this time of year, too.  Here's the stollen I made last year:

And glühwein (pronounced gloo-vine).  Oh, good heavens, don't forget the glühwein!
Glühwein is soul-warming, spiced, sweetened wine served hot.  The name literally means "glow wine", and for good reason.  It's red wine steeped with cloves, cinnamon, and orange slices.  Some recipes call for extra alcohol to be added, such as brandy or amaretto.  "Glow" indeed!

At the Christkindlmarkt in Munich, paper cups of steaming glühwein are sold at booths around the market.  But in Aichach, the glühwein was served in ceramic mugs loaned to the market by the townspeople.  You pay a small deposit for the ceramic mug.  When you had glugged your glühwein, you returned your mug to the stand so that it could be washed and reused.  It keeps the liquid warmer for a longer period, too.  Talk about reducing your environmental impact!

Bavaria in December is cold.  And Ido  mean cold!  A warm mug of glühwein warms both your hands and your belly.  The spiced scent of it tickles your nose as you sip it on a freezing, perhaps snowy, winter night and allows you extra time to browse the market's booths.  It's an ideal beverage après-ski, for cuddling by the fire, for decorating the Christmas tree, or for accompanying a book or movie.  However you enjoy glühwein, do so in the company of loved ones.  And tipple slowly: its effects sneak up on you faster than that creepy coworker who is determined to catch you under the mistletoe.

  • Hot wine drinks (note the differences between glühwein and glogg)
  • Recipe for glühwein (I haven't made this one yet, but will try it Christmas day).  This blogger also has some festive pics of different markets around Europe.
My suggestions for making glühwein:
  • Use whole spices rather than ground.  Ground spices will cloud the liquid. 
  • Buy the spices in the bulk section of your supermarket to avoid having to mortgage your home for a few sticks of cinnamon and a whole nutmeg.
  • If you want, make a sachet of cheesecloth to contain the spices, or use a tea ball.
  • Allow the wine to steep, not boil.
  • If you use honey, reduce the amount you add by half because honey is twice as sweet as sugar. 
  • Taste the resulting beverage before serving to make sure it's sweet enough for you.
I'm dying for some glühwein.  I can't wait to make a pot of it and take it to my parents' house for Christmas Day.  Bean is making us wait for his arrival, however, so there won't be any glühwein for me until he's here.  My doctor told me today that he'll pencil me in for an induction on 12/21, which is a week after my due date and nearly two weeks from now.  I wanted to cry: I want this baby to be born!
Enjoy some glühwein for me.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Eggs in winter

I used up the last of our girls' eggs this morning.  We're officially relegated to store-bought eggs until the ladies kick into gear again. 

Last year we got no eggs from December until sometime in April.  This year some of the girls starting molting in August, which was very early for them.  I took it as a signal that our La Nina winter was to be very cold but thus far it's been fairly mild.  I suppose we still have several months to go.

The cochin & Polish cresteds molted first, followed in close succession by the production birds.  As was the case last year, the australorps (black hens) were the last to go.  Also like last year, they look miserable: they're ratty and have broad swathes of bare skin in 40-degree weather.  We've found, too, that our normally friendly birds shy away from being touched when they molt.  It's got to be an uncomfortable process for them.

This is a pic I took of Croquette about this time last year (click link for more pics).  She and Miss Piggy, our other australorp, look like this again now.  Croquette has taken to standing in the middle of the yard, one leg pulled up to conserve heat, looking cranky.  There's nothing we can do for her but offer our sympathy.

When Gene and I first got chickens a few years ago, we made the decision not to force them to lay during the winter.  I'm rethinking that choice now, especially since they eat 50 pounds of feed each month at a cost of about $17.  Freeloaders.  Frankly, it's annoying to buy eggs at the grocery store when you know there's a flock of hens in your own yard.

So how come hens don't lay in the winter?  If you think about it from a biological perspective, it makes perfect sense: it takes warmth and ample food to raise chicks.  Neither of these things is available during the winter months so when the hours of daylight dwindle to less than 12 hours, hens' laying tapers off until it stops completely.  As the hours increase in the spring, the production of eggs follows.

Modern chickens have been bred into two categories: ornamental and production.  Ornamental birds, like our cochin and two Polish, tend to lay less frequently, go broody (i.e. desire to hatch eggs), and "switch off" for a longer period during the winter.  Production birds, as the name implies, lay more eggs per week for more months of the year.  Our nine-hen flock has six production birds: buff orpington, black star, Rhode Island Red, barred Plymouth Rock, and two australorps.  They're the workhorses of the group.  Other common ornamentals include "silkies" and others.  Most of the birds you find in feed stores are production birds, though ornamentals are increasingly more common.

We've definitely seen the difference between our breeds.  Beaker, one of our Polish cresteds, spent much of the summer trying to hatch the other girls' eggs or even sitting in an empty nesting box.  When she finally quit being broody, she laid a half-dozen eggs, then molted.  We'd get another standard cochin in a heartbeat - they're sweet, gentle, curious birds who don't mind being handled by children - but probably won't get any more Polish.  The Polish are noisy, neurotic, and poor layers.  That said, they're easy to catch because they can't see anything!

As an aside, we used to have a bantam cochin, who was also gentle with kids.  Tribble's short legs, feathered feet, and our rainy climate meant that moisture wicked up onto her body all winter.  She hated the rain and we constantly struggled with mite infestations on her.

Getting back to my point about laying cycles: it is possible to get the hens to lay during the winter.  We've decided that the girls will get a much-needed break through December.  They laid well last summer and we believe it's important to give their bodies a rest.  Come the New Year, we're going to put lights in their coop to encourage production.  Twelve to fourteen hours of light are needed to get them to lay.  The sun sets around 4:30 p.m. here in January, so we'll turn on the light in the coop from 3:30 until 7:00 a.m., then allow the natural daylight to take over for the rest of the day.  It's best to have the light in the morning to avoid the coop going dark before the girls have had a chance to get onto the roost.

Have you used supplemental lighting to encourage egg production in your backyard flock?  How were your results?