Monday, May 4, 2015

Against Bottled Water

I don't drink bottled water, because

  1. making plastic bottles uses a lot of fuel and water: it takes several times more water to make the bottle than to fill it!, and
  2. most bottled water is municipal water, but with less regulation for safety.

There are a few times when bottled water is appropriate (such as when local water is known to be unsafe), but generally it can be avoided for a more ecological choice. Consider a reusable water bottle and a water filter instead.


Flowers for Teacher Appreciation Week

It's Teacher Appreciation Week!

My children's school organizes themes for each day of the Teacher Appreciation work-Week, and today's suggestion was to bring fresh flowers to your teachers. Although cut flowers are lovely, they are also short-lived; I wanted a gift with more staying power. I also like DIY, crafts done with my kids, recycling, and gardening. (You can probably see where I'm going.) This year, like last year (I just didn't have a better idea for this year, but we did improve our technique), we put marigold starts in a self-irrigating planter; the planter was a recycled craft we made together.

These marigolds are a dwarf marigold (Tagetes patula), in French Gold. Marigolds are self-seeding annuals, which means they will come back year after year, but from seeds not roots (like perennials). The best way to prepare the seeds, according to my mother, is to let the seeds dry on the plant over winter. I recommend pulling up the plants on a dry day to gather the seed pods (where the blossoms were) once the entire plant is gray and has thoroughly dried out. Take care to gather all the seed pods that have fallen off during the drying process so you're not over-run the next year.

The first year, I planted the six seeds from a 10¢ pack on a drizzly February 12, 2012; just casually scattered under the mailbox before I escaped back to the warm dry. All of the seeds germinated, and the one closest to the road with the most space grew particularly tall; almost two feet tall and nearly as wide! (Dwarf? Ha!) The next two years, I gathered the seeds (and passed them on), and let the ones that fell and germinated on their own grow with minimal thinning; those that grew outside the rock border around my mailbox were mowed without compunction. With lateral competition, the plants did not grow as tall, but I still had an amazing number of blooms all summer until the first hard frost. This year, I plan to thin the mailbox marigolds much more to see if they grow like the first year. I carefully pulled up the largest starts for this year's teacher appreciation marigolds; marigolds are fairly sturdy so they should survive this transplanting. I have more marigold seeds now than I know what to do with! In 2012, I thought 6 seeds for 10¢ was a bit steep, but in one year I had a hundred-fold increase and I think that dime has gone a long way now.

The Parts List:

  • empty water or soda bottles, with their caps, to recycle; you need as many bottles as you want to make planters
  • cotton twine, or any cord made of uncoated natural material that will wick water (including strips of cotton tee shirts)
  • duct tape
  • aluminum foil, or any opaque flexible material to cover the roots for root health

The Tools List:

  • drill and two bits, maybe 1/16" and 1/8" (size isn't critical, just "small" and "about the size of the cord bundle"; careful adults only)
  • utility knife (careful adults only)
  • scissors
  • a towel that can get gardening-dirty

The Resources List:

Based on what I learned last year, here is how we made the self-irrigating planters from recycled water bottles this year:

  1. I drilled several small holes around the shoulder of the water bottles that were empty and to be recycled.
  2. I drilled a larger hole in the bottle cap.
  3. For the last "careful adult" step, I used a utility knife to cut the bottle roughly in half (a bit more on the top, a bit shorter on the bottom; see how one looks, and adjust the others).
  4. The remaining steps were done by my eager children. First we cut two sections of twine, and put a big knot in the middle. Then we threaded the twine through the bottle cap; holding the bottle cap like a cup, it should have octopus-style legs of twine and the knot should be large enough to keep the cord from pulling through the hole. We sealed the cap back on the top of the water bottle.
  5. We lined the inside top of the water bottle with aluminum foil to protect the plant's roots from light. You could instead wrap the entire planter at the end to do that, and to minimize algae growth. I chose to leave the bottom section visible so it's obvious when to add water, but that does allow algae growth.
  6. If the cut edge of the water bottle top is sharper than you'd like, use duct tape folded over that edge to hold the aluminum foil in place, and to cover the sharp edge itself.
  7. We carefully scooped potting mix inside the foil inside the top of the water bottle, shaping as we went.
  8. We placed the water bottle tops inside the water bottle bottoms, and watered. The goal is for the potting soil to be thoroughly moistened, so we ended up pouring out some water from the bottoms.
  9. We dried the bottles as needed before wrapping them with duct tape to hold the upside-down top to the bottom.
  10. Add a few seeds or one small plant, and you are ready to gift or tend this!

All parts came from the recycling bin or the dollar store, so this is a low-cost project. I raided the recycling bin at work because I'm opposed to bottled water.

If you leave out the aluminum foil, the plant will not be as healthy in the long term, but your children can observe the later stages of root growth.

Most plants need as much room for roots underground as they occupy aboveground, so clearly this self-irrigating water bottle planter should not be the final home for most plants. However, a group should be sufficient for a small (windowsill?) herb garden. You can also adapt this technique to larger recycled containers.

There you go! It's surprisingly easy!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Chocolate Peanut Butter and Hot Chocolate

Last weekend I made chocolate peanut butter first, and then wondered what I was going to do with it. (Tip: it's a tasty replacement filling for Nutter Butter cookies!)

The answer has been a bite here and a bite there, as a tasty snack. So far I haven't needed a plan to make quite a dent in it. It's tastier stored on the kitchen counter (where it reminds to have a sample as I pass by) than solid cold from the refrigerator.

Now that I know just how remarkably easy it is, I think I might start making my own peanut butter too, and I'm really tempted by the idea of using honey-roasted peanuts instead of regular roasted peanuts. Protip: wear hearing protection while the food processor is grinding your (chocolate) peanut butter.


After my kids went sledding this morning, I decided we should thaw out with hot chocolate, and I had a recipe to test. I made the "master recipe" with Ghirardelli chocolate chips and Ghirardelli cocoa. We added mini marshmallows (but none of the other suggestions - too far from the desired classic), and everyone enjoyed!

Ah, tasty times!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mint Chocolate

In honor of Mint Chocolate Day, we tried a few confections. Here's what I thought:

  • Russell Stover French Chocolate Mints: so smoooooooth and enjoyable, although they didn't actually hit my "mmm, good chocolate" button. I enjoy one after dinner when I want a little something chocolate and smooth. This is its own category, a chocolate infused with some mint.
  • York peppermint patties - the classic, VERY minty (just like the ad says)
  • Pearson's mint patties - fine on their own, but they just don't compare to York
  • Landmark Confections peppermint patties - more chocolate on the chocolate-to-mint filling ratio, but they hold their own when you want more chocolate than York
  • Hershey's mint truffle kisses - tasty, not heavy on the mint but very noticeable; another reasonable after-dinner choice
  • 3 Musketeers mint - "where's the mint?" no really, I thought I would love the fluffy with mint (I know I have before on its own) but in this taste test comparison, it didn't distinguish itself
  • Andes creme de menthe baking bits - decent pop of mint, and I'd try again with the actual bars, but not as spectacular as I expected
  • Junior Mints - more like mini York peppermint patties than I expected, maybe slightly less "I AM MINT!" but remarkably similar

The overall winner was York peppermint patties. It ended up as the yardstick against which I compared everything else. York is strong on the mint flavor. For more chocolate to balance the mint, reach for Landmark Confections instead. After dinner (when I want mild), Hershey's mint truffle kisses or Russell Stover. I will still want Junior Mints when I watch movies. Sorry that doesn't really narrow the field ... OK, York is the top but there are times when I want a smaller treat with more chocolate than mint.

So can you guess what I want to try next? Making my own York Peppermint Patties! I've made Almond Joy and Mounds before (this recipe looks familiar), and I particularly enjoyed bing able to tweak the chocolate, almond, and coconut ratios; since that was easier than I expected, peppermint patties should be similarly easy.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Rustic Bread

I had wanted to make Bread in the Crockpot for a while, so I finally tried it yesterday. Short version: DON'T!

I have a 5 quart crockpot, and a one-and-a-half pound batch filled it about halfway. After one hour of cooking on HIGH, there was a superficial crust but it was almost all wet and uncooked. After three hours of cooking on HIGH, I had significant crust, it had fallen quite a bit in the middle, but the bread was still wet and gooey in the middle; mostly uncooked but now with a thick crust. It took quite bit of cleaning to remove the failure. The crust was very hard, and the rest was still raw.

I took another swing at it today. I used my bread machine's BAKE cycle, and I got rustic bread. The crumb is large, the bread is soft, and the crust is thick. (My mom adores rustic bread, so this isn't a problem per se, but you should know what to expect.) High moisture leads to thick crust, and it's much easier to let a bread maker handle very moist dough. I essentially halved this Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day recipe. The longer you store the bread, the more complex flavor develops.

1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1/2 Tbs yeast (1 1/2 tsp)
1/2 tsp salt
3 cups King Arthur bread flour

I mixed it in a bowl all at once. I let it sit in the bowl about 40 minutes (and it was rising nicely!). I oiled my bread maker's pan, and then used a flexible spatula to transfer the wet dough to it from the bowl. I let it rise in the pan for another hour and a half. The BAKE cycle on my bread maker is one hour, and I selected that. At the end of the time, it smelled like fresh bread, and a quick peek in the middle verified that the loaf was cooked all the way through. It's a bit rustic compared to my preferences, but fresh bread is tasty with butter!

This recipe made one loaf that weighed 1 pound, 9.6 ounces before I sampled a slice. Or two.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Remembering My Grandfather

My grandfather's funeral was one week ago. Some obituaries were published online (Herald-Sun and MRketplace; see also my uncle Shan's page about him). The weather was mild enough to be outside for the service comfortably.

Around 75 people were there; I wasn't in the center of the circle. I am thankful that my grandfather's nurses were invited to attend (that's tasteful), and honored that at least two showed up. I am especially touched that Anna told me he was such a sweetheart and she would miss him. Thank you for helping him age gracefully!

Many stories about him were told. I knew that he and my grandmother had a great love. My grandfather had remarked how much he enjoyed the article, interview, and photos by Valerie Schwartz about their love, so I'd say their love was known. I had not heard many of the other stories before, though.

One year, Lincoln High School called local car dealerships to borrow a convertible for their Homecoming parade. None agreed. My grandfather didn't like that, so their blue Skylark convertible was in the parade. Nice problem solving skills! Several reminiscences had that theme of someone with a problem, and my grandfather saying, "How are we going to make this better?" He didn't walk away from problems; he believed in community and contributing to his community. (Awesome!)

One conclusion, about my grandmother changing the flat tire on family vacation, that especially made me smile was that my grandmother had the gifted touch with tools, while my grandfather had a double dose of the social gift. I hadn't heard that story, but of course I knew their respective strengths.

I had not heard many stories about my grandfather's childhood. The way he told it, there was a lot of hard work. He didn't mention the poverty of the Jewish ghetto in Massachusetts, though. He and his father sold produce as well as odds and ends. His roots in hard work to move out of poverty, in retail and social connections, and in close-knit community go all the way. I agree with my oldest uncle that his success was The American Dream.

My mother said his last words to her were, "Make sure that order of 14 Regular comes in!" Yes, he was always thinking about selling clothing. He loved it, and it made him happy. Talk about a good career choice!

I don't want to forget his good points, especially his optimism! He went far with his smile and good attitude.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Nano Drivers

Today's Arduino lesson is that not all Arduino Nano v3 boards are the same (and this is probably true for other Arduino models when purchased from different sources). Let's skip over how long it took me to discover that, m'kay? I discovered this by looking in System Information, going to System Report, and looking at what was connected to USB. Get drivers for that, whatever it is.

My first Nano required PL2303 serial drivers. My second Nano needs the more standard FTDI libraries instead. Sparkfun has FTDI installation directions, and those drivers can also be downloaded directly from FTDI.

And just like that, sprinkling a little driver magic over it, this Arduino is now happy to talk to its IDE.