Monday, March 28, 2011

Onions, already?!?

Yesterday was a wonderful day.

We spent the better part of the afternoon outside; both boys, Chris, and I, and did so prepping the garden beds for planting. Planting! Can you believe it? For anyone living inside zone 4 as we do, they will agree that that is a pretty impressive accomplishment. At this time of the year, the ground in most places is still frozen solid.

What is even more remarkable is the fact that we also planted our first crop of the year: onions! We planted them in one of the covered raised beds, and the difference inside was astounding. The air is much warmer within the covering, and is so moist that the inside walls have beads of condensation on them. When we started tilling the earth we got another surprise: it was so warm much warmer than even the air inside that it released steam every time we turned the earth over, and is full of worms! I don't remember there being that many worms in the beds even in the summer, so they must have been drawn to the heat.

In other exciting news, we received our other vegetable seeds too! We ordered them from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, a company that works with smaller organic seed farmers, and even tests their seeds against GMO's. Now I am not sure how I feel about the GMO seed and food debate, and I am sure I will cover that in another post in the future. However, I do like the fact that the seeds are grown in a pesticide-free environment and that they are heirloom-variety (assuming we can figure out how to harvest our own seeds in the Fall). As an added bonus I appreciate that the seeds are collected in partnership with smaller community-based farms throughout the U.S. and developing countries, and are therefore helping to support the local farms and their inhabitants. It's just a shame none of them are Canadian! (Though I think I may need to start researching more local seed producers, or start learning how to harvesting the seeds ourselves!)

I also finally took some video, and will share it with everyone below. Unfortunately the "free" software I was using was only a 30-day trial version (though nowhere was that stated when I downloaded it!), so we're on the hunt for some new software that is decent enough yet will not cost us a small fortune. In the meantime you'll have to bear with us as we share our unedited version with you!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Signs of Spring

The snow is almost completely gone now.

The air is warmer, the sun stronger, and the bare earth has finally revealed itself in an array of browns, yellows, and if one looks close enough, faint greens.

Just in time for my least favourite chore ever: cleaning up the offerings our pooches have left us in the backyard. Hidden from sight for months under the pristine white banks, only to be revealed as the ground is left muddy, yucky, and brown. Hooray.

On a happier (and decidedly less-disguesting note), I've noticed some shoots coming up in the front flower beds and along the path of bamboo in the back yard! Even peeking up through the last remnants of snow are my crocuses, daffodils, and tulips. And just in time for some photos of the new additions to our nature table!

The new spring outfit I made for our Mother Nature doll.

Embroidery detail on the petticoat. Though it's difficult to see, the flowers are snowdrops and forget-me-nots.

Easter eggs and basket. The eggs were knit in the round and then embroidered, while the nest was made using a variation on the basketweave stitch.

Finally, some little rabbits will complete the nature table! As per a request from my eldest I even made little i-cord carrots for them; though they are currently lost in the realm of toys so I could not take a picture (as was the fourth little bunny!).

Monday, March 21, 2011

Bake of the Week: St. Patrick's Day Brisket

This past week was very busy in the kitchen. Friday was Chris' birthday so there were birthday cupcakes, fresh bread, and a big birthday dinner to make. And the day before, Thursday, was St. Patricks Day!

We always did something special on St. Patricks day in the past, but this was given greater meaning a few years ago when we discovered that Chris had an Irish lineage only a couple generations ago. So now, we do our best to honour Ireland's patron saint in style!

This year, I did my best to produce a truly Irish-inspired meal. I have never cooked a brisket before, so when I saw corned beef brisket on sale last week, I knew I had to give it a try. The recipe originally called to cook this on the stove though I used the slow cooker. And I have to say, it worked brilliantly!

Irish Beef Brisket

1 medium-sized beef brisket, corned or otherwise
1 large onion, diced
3 cloves of garlic, diced
1 tbsp olive oil
half a head of cabbage, cut into eigths
4 medium potatoes, cubed
4 small turnips (or 1 large), cubed
3 large carrots, cut into 1cm long pieces
1 bottle/can of Kilkenny ale
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
enough water to cover

In a frying pan, fry the onions and garlic in the olive oil under the onions begin to go transluscent. Remove from heat.

In a crock pot/slow cooker, place the brisket and arrange the vegetables around and on top of the meat. Add the fried onions and bay leaves, and the salt and pepper. Pour over the ale, and then enough water to completely cover.

I cooked the brisket for about 5 1/2 hours on high, but you just want to cook it until the topmost vegetables are tender.

Once cooked, transfer the vegetables to a glass baking dish, the meat to another. Bake for 20-30 minutes at 350 F to just crisp the edges of the meat and get rid of some of the moisture in the vegetables. I then used the remaining liquid from the pot to create a gravy, simply by adding a bit of cornstarch to the broth! Enjoy with a cold glass of Guiness!

Cleaning without chemicals - Part Two: Essential Oil Properties

Though I'll admit I do not like the work involved in cleaning, one thing I do love is the way the house smells after I've just spend the day washing the floors, wiping the counters and polishing the wood. A fresh mix of orange and lavender, with just some underlying hints of tea-tree please the senses.

Yet using essential oils for cleaning is fairly new to me. And as I become more comfortable with making my own cleaners, I want to become more adventurous with the scents combinations I use.

Though for scent alone essential oils are wonderful, they also have many tested benefits for health as well as cleaning. I promised last post that I would cover some of the ingredients that I use in my cleaners, but on second thought was afraid I would insult my reader's intelligence if I started listing what common household items like vinegar and baking soda were good for. So instead, I'll focus on the essential oils and their properties.

I am not going to list all the available oils or even perhaps the most popular, but the ones that I personally like the scents of and that I have used before (or the ones I would like to try!).

Lavender - In lab tests this oil has proven to have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. It is important to remember though that the lab tests were most likely performed un-diluted, so when making your cleaners do not expect them to be 100% disinfecting. Lavender has also been thought to have many health benefits; from relieving pain and depression, to helping with headaches. I have also read that putting a small sachet of dried lavender under your pillow helps aid sleep, though I've never tried it. I use this oil in all my bathroom and kitchen cleaners, particularly near the kitchen garbage. I also use it in my air-freshening spray/soft surface deodorizer. Though this has a very pleasant scent, I find it can become overpowering, and usually use half the amount as I do the other oils. This oil blends very well with clary sage, orange, and patchouli.

Orange - This is by far my favourite scent, though I must warn you to only ever use sweet orange, as opposed to orange blossom or other orange variations. Sweet orange has the true "orange" scent, while orange blossom comes off as "perfume-y" if that makes any sense. I find the scent of orange so bright and fresh without the unpleasant after-scent that citruses like lemon can have once they start to fade. Like other citruses orange is great as a de-greaser, and I use it to boost my dish washing liquid and to clean my kitchen counters. And because we have so much wood and laminate in the house, I also use this as a floor cleaner: it brightens and polishes the wood beautifully. Yet even if this had no cleaning properties whatsoever, I would still use it as I just love the smell! Blends well with lavender, clary sage, patchouli, and sandalwood.

Tea Tree - This oil is one of the strongest antiseptics, and also has the benefit of being non-allergenic. I remember as a child whenever there was a note sent home from school that there had been a case of head lice, my mother would put small dabs of tea tree oil along my scalp to act as a deterrent. It certainly seemed to work! This also works to kill mould and mildew if diluted with water and then sprayed on the source, though I have not yet tried it. Apparently it will permanently take away the mildew smell too. From everything I've read, the recommended type to use for cleaning is the Australian tea tree oil. This blends well with lavender and clary sage.

Patchouli - Before I had any other essential oils, this was what I used to boost all my commercial cleaning products. I purchased it originally as a personal fragrance, yet I like the smell enough to use in cleaning, too. Use this sparingly though as it is quite strong and if used in too great a dose, I find can cause a headache. This is commonly used as an antiseptic and anti-fungal cleaner, and when used in small amounts, is known to boost your mood. This works well with orange and sandalwood.

Peppermint - Peppermint has been used to repel pests such as rodents (mice and rats), but also for bathroom cleaners because of it's disinfecting properties. I used to purchase a "natural'' cleaner that's main base was peppermint but I did find that when used in large quantities the scent became a little overpowering. So when making my own mixes, I would dilute it with some complimentary oils. Such oils would be lemon, lime, thyme, or bergamot. Lemon or lime I am not too crazy about, and I have not tried the others. Thyme I do know is also supposed to be a great bathroom cleaner and I am curious as to what the two scents would be like blended. Perhaps that will be the next combination I try.

Clary Sage - Many of the recipes I have come across online have called for clary sage. Because of the warm relaxing, yet uplifting scent, it is highly recommended for women, and has been used to help relieve PMS symptoms and anxiety, as well as those for pre-menopause. Though I could not find much information on the cleaning properties of Clary Sage, I suppose because of the many health benefits (particularly for females) it is often used simply for it's scent in cleaning products. This is one oil I am very excited to try! In addition to using it on its own, it also blends well with lavender, orange, tea tree, and sandalwood.

Sandalwood - One of my earliest memories of this scent is of soap my mother used to buy in Chinatown. The soap had a wonderful warm, earthy smell, and I used to love using it to bathe. As an essential oil I have not tried it, but I plan to in the near future. Because the scent is an undertone, it lasts longer yet is not as powerful as the other scents I have written about. This makes it a great addition to recipes with blended essential oils, and one that I would love to try. This blends especially well with patchouli, though I plan on trying it with all the essential oils listed above in small quantities to make the scents last longer.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Yarn Store Logo

We now have a logo for the yarn store:

It was so much fun to design, and it really captures the feeling I wanted. I am quite happy with it if I do say so myself!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Cleaning without harsh chemicals - Part one

Over the past few weeks, we've had some beautiful weather. We got what I thought was our Spring thaw on Friday and Saturday, only to be unpleasantly surprised when Winter re-established his rule Saturday night. It was a great reminder that until the crocuses, snowdrops, and daffodils begin to sprout, Spring is still a ways away (and even then, we often get one more snowstorm just for good measure!). But it go me thinking.

The house is almost due for it's thorough Spring-cleaning, but there's something I've wanted to try for a few years now: to make my own cleaning products from scratch. There are several reasons for this. For starters, I hate the idea of using any harsh chemicals because of the impact they have on our health and the environment. And secondly, so many cleaners can be made out of common household items (such as salt, baking soda, and vinegar) which end up costing less than purchasing pre-made cleaners.

Now we already use cleaners such as vinegar for glass, and baking soda as an abrasive counter and surface cleaners, and make sure that those cleaners we do purchase are phosphate-free and are made with plant-derived surfactants, but I've wanted to try my hand at making more complex solutions.

This has also been coupled with the fact that I've wanted to introduce essential oils into our home as well, but for the longest time didn't know where to get them in our area. I've since established a couple suppliers: If you want smaller two-dram bottles to try out new scents, or if you will not be using large quantities, check out my friend Bonnie over at The Hocus Pocus room. If you require larger quantities, Poya Naturals is a great place to get bottles as large as 500ml (that's two cups!).

So after a little research, I've put together a few recipes for general household cleaning. Now, I will mention that I still have not found substitutes for a few store-bought cleaners. Though salt and baking soda are great abrasives (especially on items that you do not want to use harsh chemicals on such as food preparation surfaces), I find that they still do not work as well as Vim or Comet on tough surfaces such as bathroom tile and counters. I do my best to use them sparingly, but I'll be honest; sometimes they're the only thing that will get the bathroom clean again!)

But apart from that, most of your daily cleaning can be easily accomplished with just these common household items:

All-purpose spray cleaner
1/2 tsp borax
1/2 tsp vegetable oil-based soap
2 tbsp vinegar
10 ml essential oil (use whatever one you prefer, I'll go into the benefits and properties of some common ones in the next post)
2 cups hot water
Combine into a spray bottle, and shake vigorously until all the solids are combined. Simply spray and wipe clean with a damp cloth or sponge.

Air freshener/deodorizer
1/4 cup white vinegar
1/4 tsp tea tree essential oil
1/4 tsp lavender essential oil
2 cups warm water
Combine and place in a spray bottle, and lightly mist the air or soft surfaces (furniture etc.), shaking before each use. Some say the tea tree and lavender have disinfectant properties, though I am unsure of this in such diluted proportions. It certainly cannot hurt, at least!

Floor cleaner (especially hardwood/laminate)
2 cups white vinegar
10 ml sweet orange essential oil
5 ml lavender essential oil
4 litres hot water
Though this works especially well for hardwood floors (because of the orange oil), it is safe for all floors, and works remarkably well. It also leaves your house smelling wonderful!

Some of these recipes were variations of ones found in the green clean recipe book, a great little go-to for cleaning that I found on sale at our local Coles a few years ago. Most of it is pretty basic, though it does have some neat recipes, organized into the various rooms of your home.

Certainly give these a try, and I'll work on a post that covers the basic ingredients and their properties (including the most common essential oils) to take the thinking right out of environmentally (and human!)-friendly cleaning!
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