Friday, November 18, 2011

Best brownies ever

Since I was stranded in bed with my iPhone last week recovering from a pulled muscle in my back, I spent quite a bit of time on the Epicurious app.  I found what looked to be an easy, quick brownie recipe with great reviews.  While in Atlanta a few weekends ago I visited Your Dekalb Farmers Market, which is a post in and of itself, and picked up a jar of Dulche de Leche.  Up to this point I'd only made my own and seeing it there on the shelf reminded me how much I liked it, and that it would be so super yummy with some chocolate!  Hence, brownies with dulche de leche!

I like my brownies moist, but not overly sweet.  These brownies are rich from all the butter and a little bite suffices nicely.  They were so delicious Chicky and I made two batches that week because they were so popular.  Both times I made the brownies I dropped dollops of dulche de leche on the top and spread it with an off set spatula. Another option, for a more candy-like top on the brownies, is to wait and spread on the dulche de leche after the brownies come out of the oven and cool for a little while.

cocoa brownies
Best Cocoa Brownies Evah!
from Epicurious

Makes 16 large or 25 smaller brownies

Use the best cocoa you have for these - any unsweetened natural or Dutch-process will work.

10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (natural or Dutch-process)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cold large eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup walnut or pecan pieces (optional)

Special equipment: an 8-inch square baking pan.

Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Line the bottom and sides of the baking pan with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang on two opposite sides.

Combine the butter, sugar, cocoa, and salt in a medium heatproof bowl and set the bowl in a wide skillet of barely simmering water.  Stir from time to time until the butter is melted and the mixture is smooth and hot enough that you want to remove your finger fairly quickly after dipping it in to test. Remove the bowl from the skillet and set aside briefly until the mixture is only warm, not hot.

Stir in the vanilla with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, stirring vigorously after each one.  When the batter looks thick, shiny, and well blended, add the flour and stir until you cannot see it any longer, then beat vigorously for 40 strokes with the wooden spoon or rubber spatula.  Stir in the nuts, if using.  Spread evenly in the lined pan. Add dulche de leche by dropping a spoon full here and there and then spreading the dropped caramel lightly with an off-set spatula.

Bake until a toothpick plunged into the center emerges slightly moist with batter. 20 to 25 minutes.  Let cool completely on rack.

Lift up the ends of the parchment or foil liner, and transfer brownies to a cutting board.  Cut into 16 or 25 squares.

This is Alton Brown's Dulche de Leche recipe.  It's totally worth the effort and believe me, you will find a way to use up the extra.  It's good on ice cream, cake, and straight off the spoon!

1 quart whole milk
12 ounces sugar, approximately 1 1/2 cups
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Combine the milk, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a large, 4-quart saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the baking soda and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Stir occasionally, but do not re-incorporate the foam that appears on the top of the mixture. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and continue to cook until the mixture is a dark caramel color and has reduced to about 1 cup, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer. Store in the refrigerator in a sealed container for up to a month.


Friday, November 11, 2011

New Black Keys album coming out!

This is the video that convinced me my back had to get better soon, because I need to dance and this guy has the moves!


 Love the Black Keys.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Egg overload

The chickens are doing well - really well. They are happy moving around in the ark and digging in the compost for worms (they like bugs, but worms are their favorite) whenever they get the chance. And they lay eggs. Lots of eggs. Six chickens = six eggs a day. We've been having frittas, french toast, scrambled eggs, egg salad, and quiche on a regular basis for dinner and we've still got eggs left over.

Last week my brain remembered that I've made an egg hogging breakfast casserole at Christmas that uses two dozen eggs in one go! I also remembered having lots left over, but that was before the boys hit adolescence and they would actually get full at a meal. Those days are long gone and I had no doubt we'd finish it this time.

It's a filling casserole, thanks to the half loaf of bread in it, so I divided the mixture between two pans and we had one for dinner and the other for a breakfast. I added some sauteed veg to the egg mixture (because I think veg are delicious with eggs and sausage) but I'm betting the original recipe is fine without it.

Cowboy Christmas Breakfast
adapted from Gourmet Today
serves 12

1 (1-pound) package bulk breakfast sausage (not links)
1 (15" long) loaf of Italian bread (about 4" wide)
1/2 stick (4 T.) unsalted butter, softened
24 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch scallions, chopped
1/2 cup red onion, chopped (optional)
1 small zuchhini, sliced (optional)
3 roma tomatoes, chopped (optional)

Put a rack in the middle of oven and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Generously butter a 13-9 baking dish.
Cook sausage in a 12" heavy skillet over moderately high heat, stirring frequently and breakingup large lumps with a fork, until browned, about 10 minutes. Pour off fat from skillet (I used some of this fat to saute the veg) and cool sausage to room temperature.
Saute onions in the same skillet, if you wish, until translucent. Add zucchini and tomatoes and continue to cook until tomatoes have slightly broken down.
Cut 1-inch-thick slices from half of loaf; reserve remaining halve and end piece for anther use.
Pulse butter and garlic in a food processor until smooth (I mixed mine together in a bowl, small chunks of garlic don't bother me). Spread a thin layer of garlic butter on both sides of each slice of bread, arranging bread tightly in one layer in baking dish. Sprinkle sausage on top.
Whisk together eggs, milk, salt, and pepper in a large bowl until frothy. Whisk in scallions, vegetables, and half of cheese. Pour egg mixture over sausage (bread will float to the top) and push down on bread with a spatula to help it absorb liquid. Sprinkle with remaining cheese.
Cover with a large sheet of buttered foil (buttered side down) and bake for 30 minutes. Carefully remove foil and bake until top is slightly puffed and eggs are cooked through in center, about 20 minutes more.
Let casserole cool for 10 minutes, then cut into 12 squares.

Note: This dis can be assembles up to 12 hours ahead and refrigerated, covered with buttered foil. Bake as directed.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Each morning as we drive to school we round a corner in the road and there's an open field. Some days there's a cloud hanging low nestling among the trees on the edges. A month ago there were over forty Canada geese foraging for breakfast in the mornings, only their graceful heads peeking up over the tall cover. This morning the sky was pink and clear and every single airplane that had flown by had a trail hovering - more than twenty. Almost every morning I think (as I'm on the road), I should bring my camera and take a picture of the sunrise every day. Quickly followed by a list of reasons it wouldn't work: the peeps would need to cooperate, I'd need my tri-pod, etc.

A few times I'd take pictures while I waited for the boys to be done with soccer practice.



Or I'd have someone else in the car take a picture with my phone.


Now, soccer season is over and the days are getting shorter; if I want any more good sunrises and sunsets it's going to take a little more effort on my part. I've been missing Lake Superior on fall mornings - the field down the road isn't as majestic, but it's what I've got.

Sublime Superior
(photo by Ryan Sommers -rpsommers - on flickr)

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shoo Fly Cake

Last Thursday Bowen and I made an apple pie for Ag Day at Orange High. He, unfortunately, didn't get to have any and I said I would make one this week. Well, here it is Wednesday and there's been no sign of a pie in this house. Today I decided I would do a super quick, easy, and delicious replacement cake. I'm sure the peeps won't mind! This is a recipe from my mom, which I've modified slightly. No, I didn't get rid of the fat, I just made it yummier!

Shoo Fly Cake

4 c. flour
1 c. butter (2 sticks)
1 box brown sugar
Pinch of salt
Mix above ingredients.
Measure two cups and set aside.

Add to the remaining mixture:
2 c. boiling water
1c. molasses (unsulphured)
2 tsp. baking soda

Pour into a 9" x 13" baking pan, sprinkle two cups reserved flour and butter mixture on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 35-45 minutes. Check at 35 minutes!

For super deliciousness, top with pure whipped cream or vanilla ice cream. Enjoy!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Is fall staying?

Not sure if Autumn is here to stay, but I am so happy it's cool enough to sit outside and spin and there are no mosquitos! Now the only danger is neighbors burning trash (and plastic) while I'm trying to enjoy myself. Four hours of trash/plastic burning yesterday - right behind my house! I had to close all the windows (aaarrrhh!). Seriously, I don't get it. All right, the leaf burning I don't really get either, but at least they're leaves! We have a dump site five miles away if you're too cheap to pay for a service to come pick up your trash (and I am too cheap for that! I go to the dump once every 2-3 weeks). Saving garbage to burn, especially when the noxious fumes and black smoke are filling the air is bizarre to me.

All right, on to fiber! Chicky's super cute gauntlets are finished

chicky gauntlets

and now I'm back to spinning. The two skeins of blue three ply are done!


This is another roving that's been waiting for attention (for years!) and finally got it.


That roving is also two skeins of three ply and they are drying. Next up, another blue roving, this time with some greens. This is so much fun I'm tempted to either dye some more fiber to spin or pull the rest from my Etsy shop!

Wait till you see what knitting I finish this weekend.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rainy day

Today is a "bursting" day in exercise land. I'm up from 30 seconds of running full tilt and then walking for a minute to 45 seconds or running. Feels pretty good! It might be difficult to stay motivated today with the rain. I used to chronically suffer from shin splints (even fast walking) and I haven't for the past six weeks. This week? Shin splints. Do I think it's running for 15 seconds longer each burst? Nope. I've been at the spinning wheel quite a bit this past week. I used to have a single treadle wheel which seemed worse to me, because only one shin hurt like blazes. Now I have a double treadle and both shins hurt evenly. You could argue I must be doing it wrong somehow, and I might be inclined to agree with you. I just don't know how else to make the pedals go up and down other than by pushing them with my feet!

All the spinning is for a good reason: 2011 Autumn Yarn Crawl is fast approaching! I'm going to be pedaling my fiber wares at Cozy in Durham on October 9. A bag of lovelies will be raffled (the tickets are free) and what could be better than being surrounded by fiber and other people who appreciate it as much as you do?

I'll give you a sneak peek at what I'm taking along. Everything in the Etsy shop will be going as well as some freshly dyed merino/silk fingering, worsted, and DK weight yarn. This is more of a yarn event than a roving, but I'll be taking a little, just in case.

Here's a peek at some of the new stuff!

cozy presale peek

Who knows what else I can get done until Oct. 9? Hopefully, a lot!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011


FUNDRAISING TIME! All parents love this time of year. Your child arrives home from school (it's one of the few times you are willingly handed something out of a backpack) and gives you "the packet" with either the ridiculous rewards sheet or the words, "I want...". The next sentence at my house is: it's due tomorrow. Really?

Me: When did you get the packet?
Peep: Today.
Me: And they said, "This is due tomorrow."
Peep: Yea, and we need to give them seven address or orders. I want these two magazines. It's for a good cause - a weight room so kids can exercise.

(I'm all about kids exercising, but they need to build time into the day for them to do it. And did you know kids only take PE in middle school for half the year? When did gym everyday disappear?)

Last week one of the bigger peeps brought me a flyer for mums for an FFA fundraiser. Also due the next day. I'm wondering what else will come home in the next few weeks.

Rather than giving these outside companies money, I'd like to write donation cheque to the school so they get all the money they collect. The peeps, products of consumerism, are big fans of the cheap, crappy incentives. They love to hear me on my soapbox about it at dinner too. The eye rolls and groans mean they're listening, right?

Currently the peep below is hitting up her father for magazines. More power to him!

erin tree

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Black Ethel Cash's Stash is back!

After a long spinning and dyeing of wool hiatus I'm re-opening the Etsy wool shop! Below you can see the basket of yarns of listed already. Roving will be going up soon - after a photo shoot. Check it out!

Got wool

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Summer is almost over

Not really, but for peep purposes.  They've been at school for a whole week now and seem to have adjusted well.  I'm still adjusting to late game nights - they boys got back from a game at 9:30 on Wednesday and then Morgan had quite a bit of homework to do.  I like to be in bed around 9 pm and read for a while.  If I stay up too late, I still get up early and feel like I have a hangover.

The boys won the JV game on Wednesday.  There had been some talk of Bowen playing Varsity, which we were excited they wanted him, but weren't into the idea of him spending so much time on the bench. I'm glad he's staying where he's at, he plays the whole game (some time of defense and some on offense) and Morgan is a steady defender the whole game.

This week, I branched out from my return to knitting and ended up getting my rigid heddle loom off my beloved wardrobe (it was the only place big enough to hold the loom) and started back weaving the thing that made me put it away in the first place!  It was hideous looking.  I decided to use up the ugly yarn on the stick just so I could work on my edges.  When I ran out I looked in The Most Beautiful Yarn Storage and found some Fiesta Boomerang yarn that I'd tried on a couple other projects and hadn't liked.  Sometimes a variegated yarn doesn't work for me at all. In this application - it was perfect! The colors worked well with the black and red warp, the squishiness of the  yarn has also been lovely once off the loom.

Now I'm planning on starting some holiday gifts in the next few days.  With cooler temperatures it is perfect fiber weather!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rock the Shot Challenge

I've been entering some photography challenges and there are some amazing photographers out there!   Rock the Shot's August challenge is silhouettes and I happen to have one from my "killing time" session with Erin the other day.

We're in the Orange High football stadium.  Without the tripod it was impossible to get her "touching" the light. The sky makes up for it!

Back to school

The peeps headed back to school yesterday.  Everyone said they had a good day; it was good to see their friends. And this morning they had a hard time getting out of bed.  There you go, one day of school excitement and getting out of bed easily.

Here, in high school, the students take four classes a semester. Each class is 1.5 hours long. Do bureaucrats really wonder why drop-out rates are so high?  Even if you like a class and have an interesting teacher it's going to be difficult to stay focused for that amount of time. That seems like asking for trouble to me.  I'm sure doodling (and pocket texting) is rampant. Boys need to move a lot, I can imagine the leg wiggling, fidgeting, sighing, and sleeping that happens by the afternoon.

Erin is enjoying seventh grade, so far.  Today they had a Team Building day where they named their team, came up with a chant, and they need a motto.  This is the kind of thing I'm also very glad they didn't do when I was in school because any group game activities bummed me out.  I don't care for games - I appreciate that other people do (rock on, other people) but just allow me to watch quietly from the sidelines.  Erin is also trying out for volleyball this year.  Right now she's at the first dance of the year (day two and there's a dance already?).  I think she likes having middle school to herself without the boys there to cramp her style.  Ditto for them in high school, of course.

I just edited this picture today of Erin and her friend Becca on the zip line at Becca's house.  When there's not a drought, it goes over the edge of their pond and ends in a pine straw bale at the other end.  The two of them will do this for stretches of time.  

Irene is headed our way (North Carolina, not us in particular) but many local events have already been cancelled for the weekend.  It seems the Outer Banks are going to get slammed this time.  I was talking to a guy picking up his grand-daughter from school and he said, "I don't know why people live down there - you've got water on both sides of you, of course it's going to do damage!"  We were interrupted but I wanted to ask if he goes to the beach.  He probably does, most of us do.  We wouldn't  go to the beach if there weren't people who lived there, ran restaurants, hotels, fish, etc. so that we could go to the beach and enjoy ourselves occasionally.  I agree that it's a big risk, but it must be worth it or no one would do it, right?

Here's to the people willing to take the risk!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Where did my muscles go?

That's a joke because I've never had much muscle! Being in my 40's now, I've been noticing that my upper arms are rather flabby and wobble when I raise them.  This is not cool!  It's too hot in the South to stay covered up in the summer.  Added to that, I've never worn a bikini either, but after twins and the lovely "seersucker" stomach I got in the process, I don't wear one piece bathing suits.  Now I wear  a complicated, double fabric Miracle Suit tankini (it's last season's so I can't show it to you - unless I take a picture of me in it and that ain't happenin'!).  These two things in combination have me back on the exercise wagon.

The only time I ever followed a real Diet Plan was after all the kids were born and I weighed around 180 lbs. I don't own a scale, so I don't know for sure but it was definitely the biggest I've been when not pregnant (I was wearing sizes 14 and 16). I purchased a Suzanne Somers book, it was one of those high protein, no carb diets and it totally kick started my metabolism and I lost a lot of weight quickly.  That kind of diet is not for long term use, in my opinion, and I ate reasonably after a couple weeks and got to a size 10 and was pleased.  She also reinforced by belief that chemicals in food you cannot pronounce are not good for you.  The more "diet" the food the more chemicals they add to make it taste better.

After that I had personal food revolutions. I went vegan for about three years and was quite healthy (good cholesterol was high, bad cholesterol was very low).  Vegan for me didn't mean just not eating animals though and it's really complicated when you start to think about which is more important, not eating animals or not eating chemicals?  I remember going to a restaurant with a vegan friend and she was so excited because they had "vegan" ice cream.  I asked what was in it and she said, "Who cares? It's vegan!"  Well, I care.  A lot. No chemicals in my food please. Also at that time there were more soy proteins available by some major brands (e.g., Morningstar Farm) that I was buying. Come to find out they're made with genetically modified soy beans.  Geeze, this eating thing was getting complicated!  Plus,  I'm not into defining myself by labels anyway so I stopped being vegan.

Now, I eat non CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) meat - I don't eat out much, either - organic fruits and vegetables, limit the many ways corn products invade my food systems by eating grass fed pork and beef, and buy directly from farmers whenever I can.  The fluids available in our house are water and local milk (and the milk is just for breakfast). The junk food in the house consists or tortilla chips and bagel chips. I know, it's not good and I'm trying to figure out an acceptable alternative for the peeps, but they already feel like aliens in the food world at school and their dad's house. (And I have a Crazy Lady reputation - you should see the reusables I use to pack their lunch - poor peeps.)

All that sounds pretty good, right? Where on earth am I headed with all this? You can't be svelt without working at it. Damn. Ok, there are a few people out there and I know them, but by and large if you want muscles you need to work for them.  I've decided it's worth it and I'm willing to do it from here on out.  I signed up to receive newsletters from after I heard Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum on The People's Pharmacy talking about sugar addiction.  One of the newsletters had a link to a woman who is a fitness guru but is on the same food and health page I am (rare!) so I checked out her website, bought a book, and am starting week number three of interval training and weights.  I'm seeing some muscles in my arms, my abs are tighter,  my clothes are fitting better, I have more energy, and it feels great!  The only downside is she's a celebrity fitness trainer, but since I don't have cable or tv reception at my house, I didn't know that. The woman is JJ Virgin, the book is Six Weeks to Sleeveless and Sexy (I'm a little embarrassed about the title, but I didn't write it), and it's working for me! The best part is my 45 minute walks are over.  With interval training there's a lot more bang for your training buck, which I appreciate.  The weight routine is manageable and you don't need lots of equipment.

When I get really brave I'll post a picture of me before and after.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


Food is near and dear to my heart. I like all kinds of food and when I'm not trying to figure out what to feed the picky peeps I enjoy making grown-up dishes with spices.  We all have beliefs about food, for whatever reason: political, moral, ethical, healthful, etc.  The interesting thing about food and where we are now, is that we are killing the planet by creating food.  How bizarre is that?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have no faith in the USDA, FDA, and the EPA for that matter.  Almost all of the people involved making sure our food is "safe" and "healthful" work directly or indirectly with giant agribusiness corporations. They've changed the food pyramid (again) and now when you go to the USDA  website it customizes the food pyramid depending on your age, but it still tells each of us to eat too many of the wrong carbs, not enough vegetables, and that all meat and vegetables (as long as they're cooked well enough) are safe for us to eat. According the the USDA meat from cows fed a steady diet of corn (not their natural food choice),  antibiotics, and sometimes other animals is healthy.  Despite recalls due to various meat processing related diseases. (Food Inc. does a thorough and enlightening job of showing this without beating you over the head on the issues.)

Our government doesn't  do any better with vegetables or oils.  Did you know that almost all oils (other than organic) use hexane (a biproduct of gasoline production) as an extraction method? It is not listed on the ingredients because the hexane "evaporates at low temperatures".  Ditto for soy processing (including tofu).  Is this really safe?  I'm sure studies have been done, but are they done by an independent company or one that's payed by the corporation itself (kind of like drug trials).

Ok, so our food production is hurting our personal health, but it's also hurting the planet.  30% of the earth's surface is devoted to raising animals for consumption. And that number is expected to increase over the next 40 years.  18% of the planet's greenhouse gasses come from meat production. I am not advocating a meat free diet (I would have in the past and that is a whole different discussion) but we eat, in general, five times the amount of meat we need to a week.  Does it makes us stronger and healthier?  No. For all the talk about health and wellness in this country, we are some of the most unhealthy people on the planet.

I am a huge fan of TED.  The TED talks can be a rabbit hole for me, but educational, so I rationalize it as being ok.  Here's one of Mark Bittman from 2007 on food.

It's worth the twenty minutes out of your day and life - trust me.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

What's for dinner?

That is the number one question at my house every day. I enjoy cooking but there are times when my mind draws a complete blank. Since the beginning of August the boys have been having soccer try-outs and practice from 6-8 pm because it's so *^#&-ing HOT. On the days I drop them off for practice and pick them up I have plenty of time to figure out the dinner plan. Yesterday was the first game day, boys need to be there at 4, JV game starts at 5, varsity at 6:45. We didn't get home until 8:15 and it was a home game. There are 20 more regular season games and "away" is very away - Roxboro, Oxford, Graham, Eastern Alamance to name a few.

The good news is that Bowen and Morgan made the team! Bowen made varsity as a rising ninth grader - very exciting! He's been an attack man his whole life and is now doing a fine job defending (three very nice saves yesterday). Morgan loves defense and will be continuing on jv in that position. That boy has the ability to move like the wind (he saves it for the field, btw).

The downside, for me only, is that there are now two games to watch a night and I'll have to have my dinner plan figured out. Soon. There are games on Wed. and Thurs. (one in northern Durham and the other at home). Add to the mix my idea what constitutes a healthy meal and this is complicated. Our most recent quick meal is a buying a roasted whole chicken (which is cheaper at Weaver Street than buying an uncooked whole chicken - go figure) adding pasta, pesto, cut up peppers, zucchini, peas, and roasted mushrooms. I can usually get two meals out of one chicken so it's thrifty as well. Egg production is up to 3-4 eggs a day! Suddenly frittatas, quiche, and tarts seem like an option. I'm sure I'll only be able to get away with an egg meal one night a week, though. Maybe the slow cooker will come out from hibernation to help out. I have a Thai pork and rice with peanut sauce that is amazing and super easy.

Maybe dinner will be ok after all!

Monday, August 8, 2011

It's Black & White

I like black and white photography, but seldom play with it much. I've been practicing my editing skills and having some fun with favorite photos (new and old).

One of Erin with a frog in Mel and Angela's pool a few years ago.

erin frog bw

Morgan with the same frog in the same pool.

I convinced Bowen to squish himself into this fallen over hollowed out tree stump for a picture. Due to flooding the stump is no longer at the Eno.

bowen tree stump bw

A different Eno trip, this one was in February and the peeps will pretty much get in the water no matter what temperature it is. As you can tell, it wasn't too cold no one's limbs are purple and falling off!

bw bridge

This is Tiger-Cato checking out one of the chickens. I didn't let them around each other until the chickens got big. Tiger went to investigate them one day and got pecked on the nose. He's learned from that experience and now sits on top of the ark (or run) and watches from a distance. (I wish he would be such a quick learner from his tree experiences!)

tiger and chicken

And, the peeps all time favorite picture. We saw this puppy at Wrightsville Beach and they loved it. Nothing makes the peeps melt like a puppy.

puppy on beach

That's all I've got for now, back to editing fun!

Monday, August 1, 2011

It's all about Bob

Things have been a little crazy for the past few days. On Friday, what was supposed to be a regular gateway to the weekend kind of day did not go the way my mind thought it should. Usually, when I get up and let Eowyn out for her morning digestive ritual Tiger-Cato comes running up and wants to come inside for breakfast. No Cato. Button and Mac were here and I saw Button running around the corner of the house. I thought maybe he was going after a bird so I followed. Nope, he was standing under a tree and looking up at my very untalented cat! For the second time that week he was stuck up a tree. It's gotten so bad that Richard has just left his giant extending ladder with us. How embarrassing. I spent a few minutes calling him and he mewed back sorrowfully but would make no attempt to try and climb down. (In the back of my mind thoughts ran to leaving him up there until he came down on his own. After all, "you never see cat bones in a tree.")

I woke the boys for a regular mowing job. Before we left we set the ladder up against the tree in case Tiger-Cato wanted to have a go by himself. It was supposed to be super hot (again), I reasoned if we got to the job by 8:30 it wouldn't be so bad and we'd be done by 10. We started out and things were fine until we realized we needed to lower the mower. Even with some lubricating oil, those levers can be sticky. As I was trying to do the left front lever my arm bumped against the hot exhaust and I felt my skin sizzle. Within half an hour it looked like this

Lawn mower burn on wrist

Brilliant, eh? Then, with about a third of the yard to go the mower conked out. No amount of fiddling would start it. I checked the oil and it was very low. Now I know a lack of oil won't make an engine not start, but it certainly will kill one that runs for a while. I left the boys and went to our local hardware store Dual Supply to get some. I had no idea how much oil to put in a mower and put in too much. The mower still wasn't starting. Luckily, the woman we were mowing for said we could use her mower. Good deal! Mowing commenced until four or five passes from the end and it quit as well. Things were not going well and it was unbearably hot. I apologized and told her we'd get our mower running again and come back and do it Monday at the latest.

We get home and see our cat is still in the tree (it is a different tree each time he gets stuck, in case you were wondering). The peeps are getting picked up by their dad for the weekend any minute, so the boys head off to the showers. Their dad pulls up and he, Erin, and I look at Tiger-Cato in the tree, look at the lawnmower (which has a very clogged air filter from us tipping it up and cleaning out the grass clumps), and check out the chickens. The boys are ready so we say good-bye and they're gone. I head off to a box store to get an air filter for my lawnmower.

When I get back I change the air filter (which is very nasty), check for eggs in the nesting boxes, and notice Button sitting under Tiger-Cato's tree again. Some part of me hopes that since it's like 105 with the heat index, my kitty-cat will just get thirsty enough and come down. I talk to him a bit and he meows back pitifully and I notice his eyes looking over my head and tracking something. When I turn around and look there's a baby Blue Jay sitting in the grass not even ten feet from Button! This not being an ideal situation for a baby bird I pick him up and take him to the back yard. We have a dog pen, that dogs do not like to use so I set the baby bird in there. He peeped for a few seconds and then hunkered down like he was going to take a nap. You would also think a baby bird on the ground might entice my cat out of a tree. Apparently not.

A couple hours later Richard came back from a trip and I showed him the cat in the tree (and his ladder still waiting). He climbed up and wrenched Tiger-Cato off the branch and brought the pokey-clawed creature down. For someone that doesn't want to be up in a tree long term, he sure clings to the branches when you try and help him! Then I took Richard around back to see the baby bird, sleeping in the dog pen. I had Button inside (and Cato had been up a tree) so he was safe. I was hoping the little guy would be in one piece in the next morning.

On Saturday morning when I went out to let the chicken ramp down, I looked in the dog pen and the baby blue jay was still in there. (There has been no sign of the parents through all of this.) The chickens like to get out of the ark and range around the yard for a bit everyday so I let them out. The chickens will go in the dog pen because there's a bunch of plantain in there to munch. Two chickens headed in and the baby Blue Jay popped it's little head up and started to peep at them. He looked like he was saying, "Another bird! Hey, I'm over here and I could use some food!" The chickens looked at him briefly and went on to other weeds. The baby blue jay kept peeping and looking around for them and hopping! After herding the chickens back in the ark and watering the garden I went inside to keep cool for a bit.

Fast forward a couple hours, I look out the kitchen window and the baby blue jay is sitting beside the chicken ark! I went outside to check it out and once I talked to him and the chickens noticed they all came to the edge of the run and tried to peck him! Good grief, the poor little guy just wanted some feathered companionship. I moved him back to the pen and hoped his parents would find him.

An hour later I look out the window and don't see anything, so I go outside to check on him. Yep, right by the pen again. I picked him up and he peeped at me and flapped his little wings. He was definitely hungry. Dried mealworms are a favorite chicken treat so I went in and got some while Richard held him.

Baby blue jay

As you can see, there are some real feathers, so he wasn't so small and helpless, but he was very clumsy. I was breaking the mealworms in half and giving them to him. He ate a few but it wasn't going so well. Richard did some research on the interwebs and it said to get a box and put some grass in it and hook it to the side of the tree where the bird was found and it's parents' will find it and feed it. We did see a blue jay flutter around for a minute, but no landing and feeding. We got a box, filled it with grass, and brought it inside. The bird was still hungry so I moistened some meal worms and he ate about four and then his eyes started to close and he was out like a light. Food coma happens to birds too! Richard found the Animal Rescue number and I called. They asked if I could text them a picture of him (of course) and then they would get back to me. I sent them the picture above and they called back to say "put him back outside, in two days he'll be able to take care of himself. He's a fledgling and he has a good chance." I mentioned the two dogs and two cats in the house and the woman said to try and keep them indoors as much as possible. Really?

Richard and I talked about it, it didn't seem likely he would last for two days without food and being dog/cat bait. As I was pondering Richard said, "Whatever you do, don't name it." And I replied, "Bob is going to be fine." Richard rolled his eyes.

Bob would wake up and chirp (really quietly for a blue jay, in my opinion) and I'd give him some meal worms. He'd literally try and swallow part of my finger to help the food get down. Two days and he's not going to need to eat like this? Surrogate bird mothering is intense, but not like kids. They chirp, you give them a few worms, and they're asleep. There was a lot more rigamorole with children as I recall.

We decided to stay at Richard's house that night, so he took Bob with him and I took the dogs and his cat. Tiger-Cato and Button are BFF but after a couple lack luster traveling experiences, he stays behind and is much happier. Richard reported Bob flapped his wings and chirped most of the way. We wanted to go hit some golf balls, but that would mean Bob would miss a few feedings. I figured he'd had quite a few mealworms and he should be fine for an hour or so. When we got back he was cheeping up a storm! Mac was whimpering and I didn't know if it was because he wanted us to do something to make Bob stop, or because he wanted us to put Bob down so he could eat him. Mac, as a Westie, is a hunter by nature (small animal only - he gave up on deer shortly after his arrival to the country). This is an example of Mac hunting (his nickname is BuddhaMac because he'll sit under trees and stare upwards for hours) or waiting for a squirrel to fall. It's open to interpretation.


The great thing about baby birds is they want food every fifteen minutes while it's light, but they'll sleep the whole night! Absolutely brilliant. I decided that being cooped up in a box isn't the best thing for a bird that is supposed to be self-sufficient in the next 24 hours and I took Bob outside. I'd notice while moving him around his box at feedings (as with all babies when food goes in one end, something comes out the other) that his right foot didn't seem to have any grabbing coordination at all. I wanted to see if there was something wrong or he was just getting the hang of it and I found a twig to perch him on.


He seemed pretty excited. There was a lot of cheeping and wing flapping. Every time he cheeped his wings would go out and up a little bit. He seemed to fit right in at my house - there's quite a bit of talking with hands here. I was sitting on the ground, talking to Bob, watching him practice when all of a sudden this black fur came flying up and swatted at Bob! Luckily Button got my hand and I hopped up and put him in the house. Bob seemed unaware that anything was amiss. Now that Button was onto the bird things were going to be trickier. I put Bob down and let him figure out how to get off the branch and hop about for a bit.


He looks kind of cranky in that picture, but it's just his affect. His disposition was sunny enough. Anyway, the new deal was when Bob is in the house the cat is out; when Button is in the house, Bob is on the deck. Worked quite well and Bob slept through the night again.

Monday morning and it was time for Eowyn, Bob, and I to head back to our house. For some strange reason, Eowyn decided she was not getting out of the car. Maybe she was hoping our destination was somewhere more exciting for dogs or maybe since it was cooler outside that morning she thought that was the place to be. Whatever her reason she wouldn't get out and I left the door open in case she changed her mind. At one point I noticed a flash of blue out of the corner of my eye and looked over at the tree where I found Bob. There was another baby blue jay! And it was being fed by it's parents! I went and got Bob from inside and told him the news. I placed him down by his sibling (it's right eye was white and glassy). It's peeped wasn't as strong as Bob's and I was hoping it had been ousted from the nest on purpose.

Bob and sibling

I walked away and sat at a distance so I could see if the parents came back. No concerned bird parents were appearing and Bob was cheeping for a snack. I moistened some meal worms and headed over. I gave him one and heard concerned cheeping from the tree - not angry, but definitely concerned - it was Bob's parents! I backed up and apologized and she kept looking at Bob and I think she was telling him not to take worms from strangers. She came down and gave him a bug! He was back with his family! It was very sweet. His dad came down and checked on him too. There wasn't a big to-do, more like, "we're glad you're back let's move forward. One more day and you're on your own " and all that.

The peeps came back and got to see Bob and Bobbette (as we affectionately referred to them) and we kept Tiger-Cato indoors most of the time, but he does like to go out now and again. One of the times he was out I didn't see him, but I could hear the blue jays screeching like crazy so I went out and called for him. He came creeping sheepishly out of the shrubbery a good twenty feet from the birds. He had to come inside then. A little later that day I was impressed when I saw Bob about 18" off the ground on the side of the tree.

Bob on tree trunk

Maybe he really would be ready to be on his own! For the rest of the day and part of Tuesday we kept seeing the family in the wee bit of woods by our house. Late Tuesday afternoon they were all gone. Morgan, Bowen, and I searched the woods and found no scattered feathers so we're assuming the family is fine and Bob and Bobbette are now on their own.

Monday, July 25, 2011


I found two eggs this morning in the chicken ark (one up in a nest box and one down on the ground). They're very small "beginner" eggs, but it's very exciting! This adds some fun to the morning ramp lowering.

First eggs!

For the very first time ever my potato planting worked. I planted one batch in what was going to be a water feature in the yard last summer. The mini pond idea never came to fruition, but it worked very nicely for potatoes! I had to put wire mesh over the top to keep Tiger-Cato out, but I think that kept some of the weeds confused too.

first potatoes

The other batch is in a Grow Bag. That batch still has green leaves, so we're still waiting on those. The bag is reusable and if it works well, I'll definitely use it again.

We've had lots of cherry tomatoes, but the German Johnson's are slow going (I picked the first few before they ripened for fried green tomatoes) and with all the heat they look wilty. I can't say as I blame them, I'm pretty wilty myself these days!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

New things are happening all the time...

One of the things I like about my life is that I get curious about things and have to learn about them. I've learned a lot this way. I continue to learn about horticulture; the season gives natural pauses to read and activity periods to do. Permaculture is something I've been interested in for a while and the more I read about it, the more I think I'm ready for that lifestyle (and maybe have been for longer than I've realized). One of the principles of permaculture is: every function should be supported by many elements. To quote Graham Burnett author of Permaculture: A Beginners Guide:

"Nothing should be indispensable as it’s loss or failure can then be disastrous. If, on the other hand, every system has a back up, it can continue to function. Similarly in our day to day lives it makes sense to learn as wide a range of skills as possible- a person who has had only one well paid but specialised job throughout their working life would be far less able to cope with being made redundant than somebody who has several smaller incomes earned from a variety of sources."

This is what I've been wanting to do for a while now! It was a revelation that having many interests and skills is beneficial to myself, my family, and my community. One of the things I found out about myself, after teaching children for 22 years (and directing a child care program for 16 of those same years) is that I don't want to do any one thing all the time. While I feel strongly about it as a personal choice, it's hard for me to verbalize it to others with confidence. After all, the way I've spent the previous 22 years doesn't impress society much. Yes, it's wonderful you teach young children, but what else can you do? The fact that I've been working and learning other skills at the same time doesn't count for much because I didn't make my living at it and I haven't a degree/certificate/award for any of it.


Still, I can make my own bread, cheese, mustard, kombucha, yogurt, gather my own eggs (soon), honey (the bees are making new comb - more on that later), weave baskets, make jewelry, process wool, knit sweaters, weave fabric, pick flowers from the garden, cook some home grown veg, and buy things I don't produce from local farmers instead of at stores. It doesn't mean much to the consumerism culture at large, but helps me feel less dependent on The Man. (Beer is next on my list of things to make, in case you were wondering.)

In my perfect world, the kids and I are working together in The Collins Crew, I'm doing landscaping with a friend, there are a couple photography gigs a month, and The Fresh Tart is revived and taking orders and selling at a farmers market. My yard will be set up in zones and the plants will be co-mingling in very groovy, bountiful ways. There will be moments of space in life to appreciate and contemplate, not rush from one job or activity to the next in order to survive (financially). It will be bigger and more meaningful than that. We might just be on to something big...

Somewhere down that long and winding road I'd like a goat or two for milk and weed control, perhaps a couple ducks for the gardens, and maybe a turkey for Thanksgiving.


Thursday, June 30, 2011


Even though it's been cooler the past couple of days and we had some much needed rain; it's still as hot as egg on a cast iron skillet outside. We've been going over to our friends' (Mel and Angela) for some quality pool time. Their house is for sale and we'll be so sad when it finally goes! A year or so ago, they bought this amazing hard plastic ball that bounces ferociously on the ground, and if you throw it in the pool it will bounce and float. The Ultimate Game of Keep Away was invented. It's exhausting for the people in the deep end treading water (which is where at least one adult seems to get stranded for most of the game - mostly Mel, but she's tough). In games like these, it's usually the boys and Mel against everyone else. Ok, that sounds really unfair, but it's not. The boys are sporty, almost Super Sporty. Those two equal four regular people at most games (and they're only 14, just imagine how bad it's going to get!). It is very irritating. Mel is sporty herself and she adores them, so I don't complain (even though it totally tips the scale because I am equal to minus 1.5 sporty people if I'm on your team). Anyway, it's hot and we're in a pool battling for our very lives!

Richard and Mollie joined us and they were on the same team as Erin and I. The boys mostly stayed in the shallow end and bob and weave a lot (and pass very well - also very irritating) so really it's all about defense for the rest of us. Oh,and they use intimidation whenever they can. Erin resorted to hanging on their backs and trying to push them under. She's pretty light but occasionally, it worked. Mostly, we get creamed in this game. Here's Mollie with the ball and since she's not related they're not pouncing on her - definite advantage!.

Once we exhausted ourselves with that it was all about getting Abby to settle down. She spends the whole time running around the perimeter of the pool, worried we're drowning ourselves. She really has no life saving skills whatsoever, but she doesn't know that. Morgan was very sweet and shared some pool water after all her running around.

So far, summer seems pretty good for the peeps.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The cavies move out!

About three years ago my daughter wanted to get a guinea pig. As a teacher, I had them in my classroom on and off for years, had a "breeding program" because parents seemed to want them (in theory only, I later found out), and as pets for the kids. They are very sweet creatures.

Erin named the first guinea pig she bought (with her own holiday money) Cocoa.
cocoa in basket

For a while she held the title The Amazing Cocoalinni and Erin taught her to do tricks. Her main trick being, if all the doors in our hall (but Erin's bedroom) were closed and you set her down beside the left wall she would run down the hall and into Erin's room. That never seemed much like a trick to me, personally, but Erin thought she was brilliant and Cocoa had no end of praise and treats for it. Here is Cocoa in the middle of her famous acting career in the lead role of Little Red Riding Hood.

The Amazing Cocoalinni

Cocoa has retired from acting and circus life. A couple years ago she got a buddy (Stretchy) that one of the children I taught lost interest in (he was two) and the two have been sharing a domicile ever since. Stretchy doesn't have enough intelligence for tricks of any kind, but she is super fast when you try and catch her to hold. Oddly I only have one picture of her, in her new home (the old chicken hutch we used when they were peeps).

stretchy in new digs

The reason she looks so suspicions is because the girls were out of the ark and had wandered over and were looking at her, like this

are you a chicken too?

and then like this

chickens check out guineas

I thought it was very cute. The pigs seem happier outside, I sleep better since I don't hear them squawking all night (and rattling the water bottle every five seconds), and Erin's room doesn't smell like guinea pig anymore.

It's the little things!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Collins Crew for Hire

Now that everyone is older in the house, it seems like a good idea for the kids to work some during the summer. It teaches responsibility, gives them the opportunity to make and save some money (real money, which they don't see much these days in the land of plastic transactions), and lets them meet other people in their community. We've decided as a family to set ourselves up for hire and have a list of jobs we will do for people and our rates:
- Lawn mowing - $15- $20 per yard (depending on size)
- Hand weeding - depends on area to be tidied and amount of weeds
- Babysitting - $7-10 depending on age and number of children
- Dog walking - $5 for a 15 minute walk, $10 for 30 minutes (additional dogs $2.50 each)

Meet the Crew:

Erin is a rising seventh grader at CW Stanford and has an excellent rapport with both children and animals. Most of her experience with children is ages two and up. She likes reading to children, playing with them, and can make a nice batch of playdough or slime.

Erin is also a seasoned dog walker. She walks dogs on a regular basis around our neighborhood and knows how to clean up after them, keep a respectable distance from other dogs, and give them a fresh bowl of water when they get home.

Morgan and Bowen are rising ninth graders at Orange High School and are ready to mow some lawns! They are used to mowing rocky Hillsborough lawns and around garden and landscaped areas. Their favorite thing to do is play lacrosse, but since the season is over for now, they're willing to put some of their energy to other tasks.

I am the one that drives people where they need to be or provide answers to any questions.

Thanks for checking us out!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The chicken detective

When we first got out chicks they looked like this (and you can see how Dwight was rather pecked up by other chicks, her wing looks sticky because I put some homemade salve on it).


Right now, the girls are growing their feathers. There are lots of red-brown with white bits on them. It's kind of weird how the feathers grow in strips down their necks on the sides and the middle of their backs. They love being outside and practicing their chicken moves (pecking, scratching, dust baths). Chickens really like to play "keep away" it seems. Erin and I laughed hysterically when they were playing with a feather a week ago and today they were doing it with a piece of corn they found from the bird feeder. (Our pair of cardinals seem really confused by the chickens. The way they look at me they seem to be asking, "Why are they in an ark?") We let them play outside for over an hour - with constant supervision, not only human but canine and feline watchers were ever present as well.

This has to be Ruby with her brave self coming right up to the edge like that! Erin, who knew all the chickens on sight, is now also having a difficult time telling them apart. Maximus and Puff are still the smallest but which is which?


I like how some chicks have redder feathers than others (that may provide a much needed identity clue)!





According to the giant bin next to the chicks when we bought them, the sign said Red Sex-linked traits. There you go. After a little chicken research I now know exactly what that means. I'm thinking our pullets have a good chance of growing into this. Not bad!