Blanket in the snow

In addition to the ridiculous piles of yarn and sweaters populating my house, I also have a number of 100% wool blankets, which are definitely keeping me warm these days. In particular, I have a queen-sized Hudson Bay Point Blanket that we received as a wedding gift from my parents – it was tucked inside a cedar blanket chest built by my Dad. Best gift ever! We love this blanket – it keeps us toasty and it’s so heavy that it prevents the sheets and duvet underneath it from shifting during the night as well. But I was getting worried (to the extent that one should be worried about textile cleaning), that I would either a) have to pay an arm and leg every couple of years to get it dry-cleaned or b) have an increasingly grimy and smelly blanket on our bed. That’s why I was intrigued the other day to read this article in Mother Earth News on cleaning wool with snow. Who knew? You can clean wool blankets and rugs by scrubbing them with cold snow!

It’s been quite cold in Madison this past week, and last Thursday it was around 5F/-15 C. You need cold weather to make this cleaning method work, otherwise the snow simply melts on contact and makes the blanket too wet. So I decided to give this a try. I took the blanket outside and hung it on our clothesline for an hour or so, to pre-chill it. I then spread it on the snow (about 6 inches) covering the ground:

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The article linked above simply said to walk all over the blanket, in order to smush the snow into the fabric. This didn’t seem like a good idea considering that I was wearing heavy, soiled boots! So I got on my hands and knees and crawled all over the blanket, then flipped it over and did the same thing on the other side. I took a break at one point to admire the scenic view:

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and then shook it out as best I could (which wasn’t very well – that thing is heavy), and took it upstairs to hang it over the banister to dry out.

(OK, the real story is that between crawling all over it in the back yard and bringing it inside, I discovered that I had locked myself out of my house, in 5 degree F weather, wearing jeans and my Bucky the Badger sweatshirt, no mittens, no phone, no wallet. Thank goodness for neighbourhood stores that let you use their phone, and for the fact that our property manager lives around the corner. Phew!)

So, after I made an idiot of myself crawling all over a blanket in the snow, did it work? YES! Yes it did! The blanket smells much better, and I do believe it looks brighter as well. So I think this will become a yearly activity, and I’m happy to be able to continue using my beloved Hudson Bay blanket every day without worrying about it becoming too stinky. A good discovery!

(Finally, for those who are expecting that a blog called “Bronwen Reads” should include some mention of, well, reading, never fear! In between all of the textile-washing this weekend I had the chance to place lots of holds on library books – I’m particularly looking forward to getting my hands on Parade’s End, by Ford Madox Ford.)

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The Homesick Texan’s Green Chile Posole with Black Beans

You know it’s a good cookbook when you keep your library copy at home, accruing late fines, just so you can make a few recipes.

And yes, I did buy my own copy of The Homesick Texan Cookbook and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival. Using the library copy, I made two recipes: Austin-style black beans and Green Chile Posole with Black Beans. It is possible to make the posole (soup with hominy) with canned black beans, but I wanted to try the Austin-style black beans since the author explicitly says that she was trying to recreate the smokiness of a ham-based bean dish using only vegetarian ingredients. She does this using chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, which are smoked. The beans are very very good, although not as salty as they would be if made with ham or bacon; I will definitely make them again. I doubled the recipe, and can’t think why I wouldn’t do so again next time, as dried beans are cheap, and it takes a while to cook them (about 2 hours), so it just seems to make sense to make lots.

Using the Austin-style black beans, I then proceeded to make the green chile posole. I did make a few modifications to the recipe. I actually didn’t use any green chiles, since we had found the black beans to be quite spicy on their own. I also used vegetables from our CSA (community-supported agriculture) share as much as possible.

The first step was to weigh out the fresh tomatillos, and then boil them for five minutes until they were soft.

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(The tomatillos above are being kept company by a frog shaped silicone oven mitt, a regift from my husband’s granny that was one of my favorite wedding shower gifts. My friend’s daughter loves playing with it when she visits us as well).

I then assembled a big pile of lovely vegetables and herbs in preparation for making a puree: spinach, chives, green onions, garlic and cilantro.

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Everything except for the garlic and cilantro was from our CSA share from Harmony Valley farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin. The recipe originally called for onions, but we are drowning in chives and green onions from our weekly veggie delivery, so this seemed like a good chance to use them up. We are really enjoying our first CSA experience – the vegetables are really excellent quality and it is fun to try out new foods.

I whizzed it all up in our lovely food processor, another excellent wedding present:

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I then took the leftover black beans out of the fridge: yum! And took out a can of hominy as well. In the meantime, I had added some vegetable bouillon to the water leftover from boiling the tomatillos, and this was simmering on the stove.

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I had never eaten hominy before: it’s corn kernels that have been treated with lime to remove the hulls. The addition of an alkali also increases the nutritional value, and this process, known as nixtamilization is very ancient. (For Little House on the Prairie fans, this is the same process used when Ma makes “hulled corn” in Little House in the Big Woods: there’s a recipe for how to do this, using lye instead of lime, in The Little House Cookbook).

Here’s what hominy looks like, to the unitiated.

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I really enjoyed the flavour: it basically tastes like corn tortillas, but with a more chewy texture, of course.

After you’ve made the beans and pureed all the greens, the rest of the soup is very easy. You just dump the puree, beans and hominy into the boiling broth and let it cook for half an hour. Because the spinach is pureed along with the rest of the ingredients, it turned out less green than I thought was appetizing, so I added a few fresh spinach leaves at the end to add some colour and texture.

We’ve really been enjoying eating outside in our little backyard these last few weeks:

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The verdict: delicious! and easy! I need to try some more recipes from this book, and I need to use my food processor more often as well.

I’ve got a project in the works for the blog that I’m excited to share with you, by the way . . .

An evening of tightwaddery, or, working the second shift

Following a happy (and slightly obsessive) week of reading Amy Dacyzyn’s Complete Tightwad Gazette, I decided to have an evening of tightwaddery. As you will be able to see from the retro nature of my kitchen decor, I don’t live high off the hog by any means, but I figured it would be fun to give some new things a try. My cupboards were bare, so I focused on frugal food.

Oh, and before we embark on this timeline, you’ll find more on the “second shift” here. Sigh.

5:30. I got home from the first shift, my full time job. I tidied up from breakfast a little, got changed, grabbed my pannier bags and headed out on my bike to the grocery store. I brought along a notebook, half planning to see what it’s like to make a price book. The price book is the cornerstone of the Tightwad Gazette approach to buying groceries, which can be boiled down to:

1. The “pantry principle” – buy food only when it is cheapest to do so, and plan your meals based on what you already have in the pantry (pages 474-6)
2. Keep track of the cheapest grocery prices in a price book, which lists the prices for staples at all stores in your local area. Plan shopping trips accordingly (pages 33-34).
3. Avoid processed food and eat foods in season (sprinkled throughout the book).

5:30-6:15 – grocery shopping

I already practice #3 on the above list (being a good reader of Animal Vegetable Miracle and the daughter of a man obsessed with root vegetables), and I keep a fairly well-stocked pantry as well. On this trip, however, I paid a bit more attention to stocking the pantry rather than meal planning, and bought multiples of several canned items that were on sale, potatoes, plantains (cheap!) and little else.

This was cheap. And REALLY REALLY HEAVY.

6:15 – 6:30 – Make bread, Part 1

Even without the influence of the Tightwad Gazette, I tend to bake bread rather than buy it. I find that I can easily make a batch three loaves of bread every two weeks or so. The bread tastes way better, so I look forward to breakfast in the morning, and I prefer to bake rather than go to the bakery. Some people think I’m crazy for doing this, and I admit that I was stupid for doing it while going to grad school and working part time. But now, thanks to the joys of 9-5, I’ve gotten back into the habit. The Tightwad Gazette, of course, advocates baking your own bread, and even includes a detailed analysis of the cost-breakdown of the bread machine versus the old-school method (pages 455-458).

This week, however, I did things a bit differently, and supplemented my normal recipe with some cold cooked oatmeal leftovers that I had in my fridge. Following the basic recipe for whole wheat bread in the Joy of Cooking, I proofed the yeast, and then added the oatmeal to soak a little:
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6:30-7 p.m.

While the bread dough was soaking, I made some breaded chicken thighs (making your own convenience food – pages 422-5) and put on a pot of potatoes (pages 187-88) to boil.

Then I added the flour to the oatmeal mixture:

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and set the dough to rise:

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It was a bit softer than normal, and seemed to rise more quickly.

7 to 7:30 – I finished cooking my chicken, mashed potatoes and asparagus, ate it, and put the rest away to eat for lunch at work the next day (of course, the Tightwad would approve – see pages 133-6). By this point, the kitchen looked like a bomb had gone off, and I did two sinks’ worth of dishes (for an analysis of the cost savings of handwashing versus dishwashers, see pages 404-6).

7:30 – 8:30 – I punched down the bread and put it in loaf pans to rise. In light of the Tightwad Gazette approach to processed food (and feeling slightly self-punishing?), I had decided not to buy crackers at the grocery store. Instead, I decided to make homemade cream crackers, using some cream that I had in the fridge that was on the edge of going off. Since moving into an apartment with an extremely tiny fridge, I’ve found that I waste far less food than I used to. This article on food waste in the Toronto Star is pretty alarming.

I used the recipe for Cream Crackers in How to Cook Everything. The dough was easy to make, but pretty difficult to handle, and it was hard to roll the crackers out thin enough:

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While the crackers were baking, I did another load of dishes and tidied up the living room.

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In order to conserve the energy from heating up the oven (pages 206-7), I put the bread in to bake directly after the crackers. I did another load of dishes, cleaned the bathroom, put away the remainder of the groceries, and collapsed onto a chair to read for a half hour before going to bed.

Here’s the bread:

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By the end of the evening I was feeling,
– utterly and completely exhausted, with legs shaking and a mild feeling of nausea
– totally sick of doing dishes
– mildly satisfied with the results of my baking, but annoyed by the crackers, which took at least twice as much labour as the bread, and didn’t even turn out very well
– reassured that I lived pretty frugally anyways, and didn’t need a book to tell me how to conserve energy, not waste food, and check the unit price when grocery shopping

and most interestingly, I think, I felt frustrated and angry by how tired I was for fairly little return, especially because I knew that I would just have to do all the same housework again soon enough (ok, except the crackers, which I will not be making again). I had just worked the second shift, and I wasn’t feeling very liberated.

and I was too tired to bother making a price book.