Saturday, July 26, 2008

Andean Plying: Cool!.......Ouch!...Umm, help!?

It was a quiet Friday night at home last night because I had been struck by a bad attack of allergies. A perfect night to ply those yarn singles that I had finished before Moocow came to visit. (Moocow has the pictures from her visit, so I am waiting for her to send them to me, or post some herself).

I don't have a lot of fancy spinning equipment. Just my drop spindle and my hands. I did want to make a 2-ply yarn, though. (That is, a yarn made by spinning two singles together.) Without another drop spindle, bobbins, a lazy kate, or even a ball winder, I decided that my best option was to experiment with the Andean Plying technique.

What does the Andean Plying technique do? Well, it is a method of winding yarn singles off of a single spindle - and onto your hand - in such a way as to produce a centre-pull "bracelet" of yarn, from which you can pull both ends of yarn at once, without creating a tangled mess. That means that you can make a 2-ply yarn from just one ball of yarn, instead of working off of two spindles, two bobbins, or two separately wound balls of singles.

I decided to follow the winding-off technique on Mielke Fibers' page, because they had decent diagrams. Then, off I went, winding away. It looks complicated to begin with, but soon I watched in amazement (then, in mounting concern) as more yards of yarn singles than I had imagined began to accumulate on my left hand. I quickly came to understand why others have written that their middle finger begins to turn blue.

I also learned a couple of other important lessons:

  1. Before you start Andean Plying, eat and drink something, go to the bathroom, turn on your answering machine, and make sure nothing is on the stove. Once you start, you have to finish!
  2. When the instructions say to keep track of the ends, they mean it! Don't lose that loose end that you started with amidst your growing ball of yarn. Believe me. I learned this the painful way; I had to rewind my bracelet because I couldn't find my other end! (See how super-neat my ball of yarn is, with just a single loose end? That isn't the goal for Andean Plying.)
  3. I like my middle finger, and don't want to lose it. Don't try to remove the yarn by manipulating your finger. Ouch! You slip the ball of yarn off your hand as you would a boxing glove. Then, you slip the resulting bracelet around your wrist.
  4. Do not overload your drop spindle with singles. You fingers (mainly, your middle finger) is only so long. You may run out of room on your hand if you have too much yarn to wind on.
  5. I want a Handy Andy, to save me further pain and frustration.

If you think about it, whoever invented the Andean Plying technique was a genius. A sadistic/masochistic genius, but a genius all the same. Trust the instructions, follow the directions, and it really works!

So, having had the opportunity to practice my winding technique twice, with the bracelet of yarn on my left wrist and the two ends of singles firmly in hand, I proceeded to spin/ply them onto my drop spindle. I was surprised by the change in texture that the plying produced. Whereas the singles were fairly solid, firm threads (probably overspun by yours truly), the plied yarn was softer and fluffier.
Since I didn't have a skeinwinder/yarn swift or a niddy noddy, I wound my plied yarn off of the drop spindle and onto the back of a chair.
Then, I tied four sections around the skein with figure-8 ties, to keep the skein tangle-free.
Here's a close-up of the figure-8 tie (and the yarn!).
Then, I soaked the tied off skein in some Eucalan, a lavender scented wool wash with lanolin.
Soaking the plied yarn relaxes the yarn and evens out any extra twist from over-spinning, so that the finished yarn is balanced, bouncy, and ready for knitting.
Squeeze (don't twist! or rub!) the water out of your skein of yarn and press it in some towels to remove most of the moisture.
Then, hang the skein up and hang a small weighted object at the bottom of the loop to balance that twist. I just hung another clothes hanger on the bottom, weighted with a little pouch with things inside it.
That skein of yarn is still drying, but I will have pictures of the finished yarn soon. Now that I have gone through the entire process once, I feel ready to spin the wine red corriedale that Moocow chose, way back when, for me to spin so that she could knit a pair of Elizabeth Zimmermann mittens.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Soap Nuts

I had never heard of soap nuts, until someone left a comment on my post about natural cleaning, and suggested it as an alternative to buying environmentally friendly laundry detergents. I ordered 100g of soap nuts, from this site, to try it out. There should be enough soap nuts here for 40 loads. I am going to sew up some extra drawstring pouches and mail some to my family so they can try using them, too.

What are soap nuts?

Soap nuts, also known as soap berries, are plants in the genus Sapindus, so called because their seeds (actually, the shell of the seeds) contains saponin – a natural detergent – and can be used to make soap.

Soap nuts also have medicinal applications (they are used to treat eczema, psoriasis and head lice, and to remove freckles!), they have antimicrobial properties, and can be used to clean fine jewelry.

Why use soap nuts?

Soaps nuts are an environmentally sound alternative to commercial detergents, which contain a lot of harsh additives that are harmful to you and to the environment. (Check out this website to read more about the hazards of commercial detergents, and for information on some "green" detergents.)

In contrast, soap nuts are 100% biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and a safe, natural way to wash your clothing. They are even gentle enough to be used to wash silks, woolens and other delicate fabrics. In addition, I have read that, when washing your clothing with soap nuts, you don’t need to use fabric softener.

At between 20 and 50 cents per load (depending on where you buy, and whether or not you buy in bulk), soap nuts may be a little more expensive than your dollar store commercial laundry detergent, but it is comparable to other commercially available, "green" laundry detergents.

How to use soap nuts

You can purchase soap nuts (normally in the form of dried shells, but also available as a powder, or as soap nut liquid) from several online sources. Most of the websites I looked at included a cotton, drawstring pouch with your purchase.

To use soap nuts in your washing machine, place 3 or 4 soap nuts into a drawstring bag and throw it in with the wash. You can reuse the same soap nuts for 4 or 5 loads of laundry, depending on how heavily soiled your clothing is. After that, the soap nuts can be discarded, or composted.

You can also boil soap nuts in water to create a liquid soap, with many potential applications. Check out the websites listed below to find out how to make liquid soap, to read about the many ways in which you can use soap nuts, and to buy soap nuts.

Monday, July 14, 2008

I'm Smokin'!!

What had been sitting around for over a year (the natural, undyed Corriedale roving that I had bought at Eastside Weavers back in April, 2007), I actually finished spinning (for the most part) in a matter of three days. Once I finally figured out when to spin the spindle, when to pinch the yarn, when to draw out the fibres, and when to let go, it was a true pleasure watching the yarn grow magically from between my fingers. Now, my drop spindle no longer drops at the drop of a hat. *Ahem, excuse me.* That top-most layer of yarn on the drop spindle (the thing that looks like a top) actually looks pretty decent!

Of course, these are just yarn singles (i.e. a single ply of yarn). Now, I have to figure out how to ply them together to make a two-ply yarn. Hopefully, that won't take me another year.

Mint: FAIL!

Not to turn this into a competition or anything, but when it comes to growing mint, I am among the worst. See for yourself.

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Tiny, tiny leaves

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Long scraggly stems like vines


Let this be a sort of ego-boost for Kea and MooCow!

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spinning on a Wheel

Way back in April, 2007, I bought a drop spindle and some fibre and - armed with an hour of so of patient instruction by Pat Bohrer of Eastside Weavers - was determined to become proficient at spinning with a drop spindle, so that I could move on to real spinning, with a wheel. For the first week or so, I was diligent about practising every day or so. However, as my free time became almost non-existent, my spindle was put to one side. I would pick it up every once in a while to touch the forming yarn, but I didn't spin it. My yearning to spin didn't disappear, however. I read articles about drop spindles and spinning wheels, and about spinning in general. I looked at numerous websites selling spinning wheels and drop spindles, dazzled by the beauty of each piece. I came to realise that drop spindle spinning IS real spinning.

So, even though I resolved to learn how to spin on a wheel this summer, I know I can be content to hold off on buying a wheel of my own until I have the space and the money, because I think that I can be equally content with experimenting with different drop spindles. Yes, beautiful drop spindles can be expensive, too, but still only a fraction of the price of a wheel. However, I may still have moments of weakness!

Today, my friend Clare and I visited Pat again at Eastside Weavers. Our time there passed in the blink of an eye as Pat let us practice using niddy-noddies to wind skeins of yarn, and sat each of us in front of a spinning wheel (Clare got to use a Louet, while I practised on the Ladybug!!) and let us spin until we were felt that we had gotten the hang of it. I think Clare and I each had an, "Aha!" moment, when the drafting, feeding, and treadling motions just seemed to click.

We then plied the singles that we had spun, to turn it into a two-ply yarn! I can't show any pictures of us spinning, however, because I was so excited that I forgot my camera in the car. I can't show pictures of our finished skeins of yarn either, because we managed to leave them at Pat's. I am hoping to go back when Moocow comes to visit, so I will retrieve them then.

I almost bought another, lighter drop spindle (to spin finer yarns), but I will look around a bit more, for that perfect spindle. I didn't leave empty handed, however. I bought two skeins of gorgeous blue/purple berry coloured silk/merino sock yarn.

And also a skein of this superwash merino, with shades of pink, yellow, orange and peach that looks like a sunrise.

I also volunteered to be a sample knitter, to knit up some of Pat's beautifully dyed yarns in patterns that would display them to best advantage, and Pat gave me something to work on. I'm going to keep that a secret until I've found the perfect pattern for it.

Unfortunately, Pat had to stop renting out her spinning wheels, because they weren't being taken care of. Otherwise, I would have rented one to practice on. The Ladybug was so cute, it is definitely a contender, when I am ready to get a wheel.

Borax

This is part of a series describing the basic supplies you need to in order to clean your home, the natural way. They include distilled white vinegar, baking soda, lemons, hydrogen peroxide, salt and, optionally, borax and washing soda. I will start with borax, since my aunt specifically asked about it.

Borax. What is it? I’ve always known, vaguely, that people used to use it to clean things, but I didn’t know the first thing about using it, where to buy it, or even what the packaging looked like.

Now that I’ve determined to switch to natural cleaning products (bringing as many of my family and friends along with me as possible), I decided a little research was in order. A lot of the following information was taken from Wikipedia's entry on borax.

What is borax?

Borax (a.k.a sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate) was discovered more than 4000 years ago, and is a naturally occurring mineral salt that is mined commercially, primarily in Turkey, California and the southwestern U.S., Chile and Tibet. It can also be produced synthetically.

What does it look like?

Borax is a white solid, normally available in powder form. The powder dissolves easily in water.

What is it used for?

Borax has many wide-ranging applications. It is an ingredient in many detergents, as well as in enamel, pottery, glass, ceramics and makeup! In Europe, it is used as a food additive. It is also a flame-retardant and insecticide that kills ants and fleas.

Insecticide? Is borax safe?

Just because something occurs naturally doesn’t mean that it is harmless. Exposure to high levels of borax can cause respiratory and skin irritations. Ingesting it can cause abdominal pain and nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. In severe cases of borax poisoning, a dark, red skin rash may appear.

However, borax is not considered acutely toxic. You would have to be exposed to quite a large dose for it to be harmful. In laboratory experiments with rats, the LD50 of borax was 2.66 g/kg (and 2.66 grams of a powder is quite a lot).

[The LD50 for a substance indicates how much of the substance was required, in laboratory tests, to be lethal to 50% of the experimental population. Often, rats are used.]

Where can I find it?

Believe it or not, most supermarkets across the country carry borax in their laundry detergent aisle, although you may never have noticed it before.


One national brand is 20 Mule Team Borax. Their website includes lots of hints and recipes for using borax in numerous applications.

Should I use borax? How should I use borax?

Considering borax is not 100% non-toxic, is it necessary (or even worthwhile) to keep it in the house at all? You can probably clean your house, possibly your entire house, without using borax. Many natural cleaning formulas don't call for borax and, by all accounts, still work very well.

I have never bought or used borax, myself. However, many of the recipes that I have seen for tougher stains or cleaning jobs require borax, so it seems that it does boost cleaning power a lot. So, if distilled white vinegar, lemon juice, baking soda and salt don't seem to be doing an adequate job, you may want to turn to borax before reaching for a store-bought, chemical-laden conventional cleaner.

In any case, keep borax away from young children and pets. Wear gloves when handling, and avoid inhaling any of the powder (you might want to wear a face mask, and/or work outside).

You can look at this website, and this one, to find out more about borax, how you can use it, and some recipes for home cleaning agents.

Just to get you started, here is a basic recipe for a laundry detergent with borax.

Laundry Detergent

1 part borax

1 part washing soda

Mix together the borax and washing soda (both are powders). You can use this like regular laundry detergent, and this mixture will keep indefinitely.

Next time, I will talk about washing soda, which is not the same as baking soda. Also, stay tuned for information about soap nuts, which a reader of this blog told me about. They are absolutely amazing!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Happy Bread

I baked bread today. Nothing extraordinary or new or peculiar happened that made me post this picture. I just like looking at happy bread, and I thought that I might share my food porn. It really came out beautiful, smelling sweet and warm, and ENORMOUS. It sprang to double the size of the pan. And now I am happy thinking of how it will taste with some butter spread on it.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Is sewing for the birds?

I'm going to try to get my act together and use these new-fangled "tags". I've never successfully caught on, and since I post so rarely, I was stuck on the original design of this blog, in which we had to post to the separate food/gardening/books blog first. Anyways, I've been dabbling a bit in sewing recently. My sister, planning to upgrade to a Singer, gave me her old sewing machine a while ago. It didn't have a manual and it wasn't threaded, so I never used it. Even though my mom is a seamstress and deals with sewing machines day in a day out, I didn't want to bring it to her. But thank goodness for my crafty friend Rita, who figured out how to thread it and even sewed up some birds for my birthday party guests and me.

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Sewing in action!
If you look closely at Rita's sweater in the top left corner,
you'll see that it's printed with balls of yarn, needles, and
thread. Awesome sweater!


These little stuffed birds are adorable and so easy to make by machine or by hand. I'm still a little clumsy with the machine, so I don't mind handsewing. In fact, handsewing these cuties while watching tv (in a well-lit room, obviously) or listening to music is what I call a relaxing evening. It's great for beginners and for using up fabric scraps. And hey, instant gratification!

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The pattern is available here. If I make enough, I may create that sweet mobile.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Healthy Decisions

My uncle passed away recently, after battling cancer for the past five years. He, and my aunt and cousins, were much braver through all of this than I think I could ever be. But he is not the only member of my family who has been touched by this illness. I heard a recent statistic that said that one in every three people will develop cancer.

Perhaps it is the undeniable proof of our mortality, and my belief that it may be due, in part, to the various toxins and pollutants that we are exposed to in our daily lives, but I have been worrying about my family's health, and anxious to make sure that we all do everything we can to live as healthily as we are able.

The first thing we can do, of course, is to try to buy organic produce as much as possible, and to avoid processed foods. To that end, I am a full supporter of buying locally from farmer's markets, taking advantage of any natural food supermarkets, joining CSAs, and growing your own food organically.









Green Clean



Recently, however, I have been thinking a lot about house cleaning. Women used to clean their houses without the dozen different cleaners that we keep in our cupboards today, and they used to clean them with things that we could safely eat. I've decided that I want to switch back to natural methods of cleaning, and I did some research at the bookstore for books that could help.


Green This!


If you want to read about why it's a good idea to return to natural cleaning products, and what kinds of nasty chemicals and toxins are contained in most commercially available cleaning products, I would recommend this small volume, Green This!


Green Housekeeping


Green Housekeeping contains lots of "recipes" for making natural cleaning products that are quite simple, along with generally good advice on how to make your house cleaning more environmentally friendly.


Better Basics For the Home

And, if you are interested in finding the right recipe for every possible cleaning application, as well as homemade skin-, pet- and everything-care recipes, Better Basics For the Home probably has everything you could want, and more. You can also check out the author's website.

Although I think each of these books is useful in its own way, and there are many other similar titles available, since I'm living in a small apartment and don't have that much time (or space) for mixing a large variety of cleaning recipes, I chose the well-organised but fairly comprehensive (and stain- and water-proof) Green Clean (pictured above). None of the books is very expensive, and I figure that the money I will save in cleaning products will quickly recover the cost of purchase.

And it's so simple. All you really need to clean most things in your home are:

  1. white vinegar,
  2. baking soda and/or washing soda,
  3. hydrogen peroxide,
  4. lemons,
  5. salt, and possibly
  6. borax

That's it. I will still buy environmentally friendly dish soap (I am currently using Sun and Earth dish soap, although other brands might be Seventh Generation, Ecover and Method) and laundry detergent (I am currently using Biokleen's powdered detergent, which is available in a cardboard carton, instead of in a plastic bottle).

I am thinking of sending weekly e-mails to my family members with recipes and information I can glean from the book I ordered, others at the library, and the numerous organic/natural cleaning websites. There are so many advantages to switching over (it's healthier, less expensive, more environmentally responsible), I hope that they will all be interested in and able to do it.

Of Mice and Men: Summer Resolutions

The summer is half gone, and I have yet to announce the summer resolutions that have been simmering in my mind since the end of last semester. Of course, I was away in Hong Kong. Then, my uncle passed away while I was there and, within a week of coming back to Albany, I was flying out to L.A. again for the memorial service.

I had decided that I needed summer resolutions because I never seem to be able to do anything about New Year's resolutions. You make those over the winter break (if you're a student, as I am), but then the spring semester begins, and you're way too busy to stick to them. Therefore, I think it is a better idea to make summer resolutions. Even though I will be busy this summer, too, I stand a better chance of making a good head start on these. I also have concrete objectives, rather than just a number of vague goals, by which to measure my success.


Lana's Summer 2008 Resolutions

1. Do more exercise.


This includes:

  • at least one 20-minute walk each week. I would especially like to walk along the Hudson River waterfront, near to which my workplace is conveniently located. Also, this would be a good way to get to know my neighbourhood, which is fairly nice for walking.
  • pilates; at least 30-minutes once a week. I also plan to get at least one private lesson this summer (probably all that I will be able to afford), to make sure I am doing it correctly. For the other times, I will be investing in more exercise DVDs.

2. Do some knitting.

I didn't do any knitting this past semester. Fixing the sleeve of the department secretary's sweater doesn't really count.
  • First priority is finishing up my numerous UFOs, especially Moocow's shawl.
  • Use some of the lovely yarn I bought at Webs.

3. Do some sewing.


I have a beautiful Bernina sewing machine (which I bought used on Ebay), which I haven't used enough by far. I have a lot of sewing objectives for the summer. I want to sew at least one each of the following (in order of difficulty/time commitment):

  • an apron
  • a bag (I think I will make my first projects some grocery bags)
  • a skirt
  • a top
  • a pair of pants
  • a dress
  • curtains for the living room
  • a slip cover for the couch

I also want to learn to do the following:

  • machine applique
  • fit/alter a pattern, or create a sloper. If I am going to sew my own clothing, I want to make sure that it fits well!

I probably won't get through all of these this summer, but I am going to do my best.


4. Spinning


I want to take spinning lessons and learn to spin on a spinning wheel. I'm not ready to buy a spinning wheel yet, but I want to learn more about spinning, so that I can make an informed decision when I am ready to make the investment (if I like spinning).

  • rent a spinning wheel
  • take a couple of spinning classes

5. Dance classes


Nope, not of the bump-and-grind sort. That really isn't my style. I've taken ballroom dancing classes twice before, once in high school, and once in college. Both times, however, my partner was a female and, with both of us taking turns as the lead and trying to learn two parts, nothing really stuck.

  • Take ballroom dancing classes for at least the summer, and continue if time and finances allow during the semester.


6. Masters Thesis


I probably should have put this first! I want to graduate by this December, so I MUST work on my thesis.


7. Cooking


I am helping out at the CSA again this season, so I will be getting weekly shares of vegetables. I have lots of recipes that I want to try out, but I have three things in particular that I want to do.

  • Learn to use my pressure cooker, a Christmas present from my parents that has been sitting around.
  • Experiment with puff pastry.
  • Make more Chinese soups. In previous years, I would make healthful soups, with Chinese herbs, at least twice a month. I haven't done that at all this year. I bought two Chinese/English recipe books of Chinese soups, so I want to try the ones for which I can get ingredients.


8. Enjoy Albany


I feel as though I have been working non-stop since I came to Albany, and I haven't really taken advantage of all the cultural and natural resources available.

  • Budget allowing, try some local restaurants. No chain restaurants for me!
  • See an opera (I missed ballet season already, unfortunately) in Saratoga Spring.
  • Go to Lake George when N comes to visit
  • Go fruit picking at nearby U-pick farms: raspberries, blueberries, peaches, oh my!


9. GIS


I want to improve my skills as a GIS user. Summers are usually slower here at the DEC, so I hope to use my down time to:

  • learn how to use the Network Analyst module
  • complete some ESRI Virtual Campus courses
  • Read and work through the Idrisi Andes tutorials, since I had to fork over the money for the 9-month license for a class last semester


10. Blog more regularly!! At least once a week. You probably won't be interested to hear about work, and schoolwork but, hopefully, with all my summer activities, there will be more interesting things to blog about.


It does seem like a lot, doesn't it? I can't relax and laze the summer away, but I still intend to enjoy it by keeping myself productive, although well-rested (I hope). I've already started on a couple of my resolutions, so I'll probably be giving an update this weekend.

Hong Kong trip: A Belated Tale

I was away in Hong Kong for two weeks at the end of May and in early June. I must say, I think it was a mistake to bring my big, clunky SLR-like digital camera; I was forever finding excuses not to take it out and about (the main excuse being the rain, which was almost unceasing the entire time I was there), so I don't have very many pictures to show for the time I spent there.

How quickly the body forgets 90-plus degree weather and 99 percent humidity! I lived there for 10 years, but it took some readjusting. It saps the will to be active; my brother was like a wet dishrag for most of our stay, perky only in the presence of air-conditioning.

My family and I had had plans to make a little side-trip somewhere, such as to mainland China, or Vietnam, or even nearby Macau. With the heavy rains, which seemed to blanket the entire region, and the situation in China, however, we decided to stay in Hong Kong.

I did get to meet up with a number of good friends from high school, not the least of whom was Kea. That, in my opinion, made the whole trip worthwhile. And, when I was tired of the dearth of home-cooking (my grandparents, with whom we were staying, never dine in) Kea and her SO invited me to their place and we cooked up a simple but delicious meal. I learned to make Vietnamese meatballs (yum!!!), we had lots of choi sum sauteed with garlic, and we also bought some fresh scallops, which we served steamed in the shell with loads of minced garlic and scallions. We chased that with freshly made lime soda, and lychees and mangosteens for dessert. I think that was one of the best meals I had the entire time I was there.

I'm Not the Worst Garderner In the World!



Remember last year when I was complaining about killing off mint? Well, I'm still killing off mint. I don't understand. I moved it to a less sunny spot and it was doing so well through this winter, and now it's gone all scraggly again. As you can see here, almost all the lower leaves have turned brown and dropped off. Maybe it's the heat. Maybe it's the fact that it's been raining for a month (I did my best to keep it shaded). I know it isn't root-bound because I re-potted it recently. Oh well, maybe mint's just happier in cooler weather. But everything else is doing much better.

I managed to grow a lot of things from seed this spring, which is a first for me.

Thai and Italian basil:


Well, the green pot on the right was a gift, but the others I grew from seed.

Now I have more basil than I can possibly eat.

Marjoram: inexplicably stringy-looking, but otherwise healthy.


Parsley: I didn't know parsley grew this big.


And check this out. I planted bell pepper seeds from a bell pepper I ate, not really expecting anything to come of it, and I actually got a mini bell pepper. It was amazing to watch it grow on the stem (I swear it got bigger overnight), but it only reached a couple inches diameter when it dropped off. I have no idea why. Still tasted decent, if a bit bitter. I made hummus with it. If I'm lucky I'll get a couple more peppers before winter.





Meanwhile, I've been keeping my thyme alive. The one in the middle was a gift from Ceddy and Char at my housewarming party. I nearly killed it and for months only a few little sprigs on it survived, like the last holdout strands of hair on a baldie in denial. It would die, it would grow back, it would die again. More water, less water, made no difference. I called it the Zombie Thyme. Eventually I re-potted it in a half-gravel half-potting soil mix, and it made a miraculous recovery.



You sure learn some odd things on gardening sites. Who knew that chamomile tea and cinnamon are anti-fungal agents? That's how I prevented my basil seedlings from keeling over from damping-off disease this time around.

I also learned that commercial potting soil is usually too heavy. You've got to mix a bunch of perlite and vermiculite into it. So now I joke about spending my money on not just any dirt, but executive dirt.

My experiment with soil-less hydroculture was also an abject failure. Unless you stick to water-loving, abuse-proof houseplants, you have to go pretty high tech for it to work.

So maybe by now, I deserve promotion to World's Second, or possibly Third Worst Gardener? Because I'm still killing mint.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Sour Cherry Jam Update

So I tried the jam mixed with blueberries over a vanilla panna cotta with granola (for crunch) and, well....WOW! You can really SMELL those cherries in there. Next year I think I shall make a double batch!

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Sour Cherries and Sweet Jam

I'd never had fresh sour cherries before. This year, I realized by accident that sour cherry season is upon us and so, in spite of my DH's grimaces at having to wake up early on a Saturday morning, I dragged us halfway to West Virginia to Hartland Orchard in Markham, VA. Unlike the more popular sweet cherries, which had already sold out, the sour cherries were selling for just $1/lb at this u-pick farm. (Not such a deal when you consider th $20 we spent on gas just getting there, but hey, where else was I going to find fresh sour cherries? There haven't been any at our farmer's markets, that's for sure.) When we got there, the only other people picking the fruit were speaking Russian and Italian, but boy, did they know what they were about. One guy even brought his own ladder and chatted on his cell phone while plucking choice cherries from the top of his tree.


Now, what does one do with three pounds of sour cherries? When life throws sour cherries at you, make jam!

Wisely, I used up the rest of a Williams Sonoma gift certificate on a nifty cherry/olive pitter, which made short work of my pile. I had changed into a dark-colored, old t-shirt just in case, but this fancy pitter, by OXO, has a little shield to keep cherry juice from splattering all over the place. It worked, and I stayed nearly spotless.

For the recipe, I followed the instructions inside the SureJel package of pectin I'd purchased. I didn't realize until recently how difficult it is to find pectin at a grocery store. Either they don't stock it, or they're sold out, or they have the wrong kind. (Pectin comes in full-sugar dry, low-sugar dry, no-sugar dry, and liquid forms.) I went to four stores before I finally found the regular kind of pectin I wanted. For some unfathomable reason, that store had placed it next to the ZipLock containers.

After you stem, pit and wash the cherries, you throw them into a deep pot (because the jam will spit at you when it starts boiling) with all the pectin. Bring it all to a rolling boil, then add all the sugar at once. Return to a rolling boil for one minute, skim off foam if necessary, and then ladle into sterilized jars. (Hartland does not claim to be an organic farm, but after an hour of picking, our hands did not have any of that sticky pesticide residue that I've experienced at other farms, so that was a good sign. The other positive sign was that there was no scum to skim off the jam. Being a novice jam-maker, it may be because cherries give off less scum than other fruit, but I still appreciated being able to skip that step.)

This is where I got into trouble. Since I didn't have a pot big enough to keep my jars in a hot water bath while I cooked the jam, and my stove didn't have enough space for that many pots anyways, I went with some advice I'd read on the internet about putting the cleaned jars on a towel-lined sheet pan in a hot oven. That was a good idea, until I set the towel on fire.

The smoke detector went off, but I thought it was just angry at me again for turning on the oven. Then I heard a cackling noise coming from inside the oven, just like the noise a fireplace makes. I opened the door and my towel was ablaze in the back corner. Of course, all this happened right at the moment my jam had reached the final boil, when it should be stirred constantly and vigorously for ONE MINUTE ONLY. I ignored the jam for the moment and yanked the sheet pan, jars, burning towel and all, out of the oven. I set the blazing pile in the sink and tried to put it out using my nifty All-Clad oven mitt (free with each outrageously expensive purchase). That mitt will never be the same again, but it didn't do the job. I didn't want to turn the tap onto the hot glass (which would shatter) and my hot, shiny sheet pan (which would warp), so I calmly moved all 7 jars off the pan, dragged the fiery towel into a corner of my tiny sink, shoved the sheet pan back in the oven, and turned the tap on. In retrospect, the oven method isn't a bad idea, but I really should've used a Silpat instead. The towel extinguished and my smoke detector still going, I finished making my jam, which only turned out to yield 2 1/2 jars.
After all that, I have only two aspirations for my first, botched attempt at jam-making. One, I hope it doesn't kill us, and two, I hope it tastes good.