Sunday, December 29, 2013

Snow Ho Ho Ho

A little something to keep the snow covered 
smiling this winter day.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Shopping Hardy

We found the wood ornament in the walls of this house
when we were remodeling.
For my winter hardy readers, here’s a tutorial on cutting your own Christmas tree.

Illinois Christmas tree farms by county on

Neighbors trying to make a living off the land run these farms.  They don’t destroy the land; they’re good stewards of a natural resource. 

I’m not suggesting you don’t use an artificial tree or you don’t buy a tree from a local retail store.  What I am saying is don’t buy into the guilt about cutting and using a live tree some folks dribble out this time of the year. 

Because it’s such a seasonal business, many tree farms offer additional attractions for family fun.  For instance, Webers Christmas Forest in Geneseo has hayrack rides, petting zoo, draft horse rides and a food booth.  In addition to trees, many have wreaths, roping, swags, and food.  

To answer your question, “Why would anyone want to go out in the cold and cut their own tree?”  My answer is because it builds a family memory for children.  With the right attitude (and warm clothing), tramping through acres of fields looking for just the right tree is family fun.  Arguing over the long needle vs. short needle vs. blue vs. green is part of the day.  Realizing the tree that looked so reasonably sized is actually two feet too tall for the living room and so wide you have to remove two chairs is the stuff that makes family lore.

Nature's decorations.
Who hasn’t seen a Christmas movie where a tree was strapped to the top of an old station wagon and thought, “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about”?  And no one has sawed down a tree and tried to fit it into a base that will hold water without feeling pride when the project is completed. 

Then there’s the whole process of turning a real tree this way and that, placing ornaments to fill in the natural gaps and using fingernail polish remover to get the sap off little fingers sticky from “helping”. 

Is using a real tree easier than an artificial?  Absolutely not.  Is it more fun?  Absolutely!  The trick to making it a “GOOD” family memory is keeping your sense of humor, not resenting the effort, letting little hands help and did I mention keeping a sense of humor?

Yes, real trees fall over, must be manipulated, are never perfectly shaped, take constant watering and require more clean up when done.  On the flip side, they make a good story year-after-year.  Seriously, who doesn’t have at least one story of tying a tree to the woodwork because it fell over?  Or, the year you found a bird’s nest nestled in the branches?  Or, the tree that lost all the needles within the first week? Or, the wonder of little kids involved during the whole process and their eyes when it’s all done and “they helped”?

A few hints from your friendly neighborhood tree farmers:

Best Christmas trees are decorated by kids.
Grasp a branch between your thumb and forefinger and pull it towards you.  Very few needles should come off in your hand if the tree is fresh.
·      Loss of brown needles is normal but you should not see an excessive amount of green needles fall to the ground.
·      Make sure the tree is straight. 
·      Make sure the base will fit in your tree stand.
·      Cut off a couple of inches and put in the stand and add plain warm water.
·      I always put a felt backed plastic tablecloth down first (plastic side to the floor.)  This protects the floor and lets you slide the tree if necessary.
·      If the tree has been wrapped, let it stand in the warm house until it has released it branches back to their original shape.
·      Keep away from fireplaces, radiators, television sets, and other heat sources.
·      Check the water level EVERY day.  Typically it will take several quarts of plain water every day, perhaps more in the beginning. 
·      Don’t use sugar or other solutions in the water.  It only makes a mess and doesn’t actually do the tree any good.
·      Best trees for fragrance, needle retention and needle softness:, Concolor Fir and Fraser Fir.

All right hardy souls:  go out and make a good Christmas tree memory.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Who Sat on My Wreath?

Have you ever seen or do you have artificial wreaths, roping or swags that look like a 200 pound elephant sat on them?  It's the result of packing them away all year in cramped boxes, dirty garages, damp basements or hot attics.

Often these decorations are used year-after-year without ever bringing them back to pristine condition.  It's a mighty sad wreath that is all scrunched up, with faded ribbons and smelling faintly of mildew.

There's some inexpensive answers to restoring your artificial greenery to look like real live greenery and it isn't all that difficult.

This is a photo from the Distinctive Gardens (Dixon IL) Facebook page.  This live wreath was created by Bud LeFevre.  This is what a wreath (live or artificial) should look like - full, loose and natural.

To turn old artificial greenery back into a display piece, try these hints:

Remove all decorations (ribbons, bulbs, lights and etc.) until it's just the greenery and frame.  Throw away any damaged, stained, or non functioning decorations.  

Determine if the greenery is made of plastic or paper.
If plastic:  Fill the tub with warm water containing a mild dish washing detergent and about a cup of white vinegar.  Swish the greenery around in the mixture until dirt and mildew are released.  Don't let it sit or the metal frame may rust.  Rinse and let totally dry.
If paper:  Take outside and gently bang it on the side of a fence or pole.  This is only to shake the dirt loose.  If the paper has mildew, throw it away because there's no way to bring it back and it's not healthy to have in the house.  Using a soft dry cloth, gently wipe over the branches.  Shake again.  Let hang outside (out of the elements) for a few hours to freshen.   Paper greenery may never look new again but if you enjoy the vintage look, they're perfect.

Once the pieces are clean and dry, it's time to shape.  This is the process often neglected.

Start working your way from one point.  Gently take each branch and straighten it out from the frame.  Do this for the entire piece.  If the piece hangs against a flat surface, bring all branches out to the front and sides with none in the back.   If the greenery has pine cones or twig branches, make sure they are also pulled out even and not crunched up against the piece.  

Step back to observe if any branches need to be moved to make the piece even with no bare spots.

This is when you may add decorative pieces.  The sky is the limit and these decorations (or none if you choose) are all about your taste and whimsy.  Some of the things I've used and how:

I use ribbon with wire edges if I want a certain design.  I use without the wire edges if I want a more elegant drape.  Ribbon should be removed at the end of the season and smoothed so it will be in decent shape next year.

Pine cones may be used (either natural or painted) by wrapping wire around the stem end.  Wire these cones to the frame.  I take these off at the end of the season and put in a zip lock bag to keep from attracting insects or having sap stick to other things.

I pack my artificial greenery away in plastic tubs but they'll require straightening each year.  There is other storage made for wreaths or they can be covered in a plastic bag and hung on the wall.  I wouldn't store where they get too hot and never where they could get damp.

Does it take effort to have artificial greenery look like an interior designer's creation in your favorite magazine?  Yes it does, but, unless you want "the elephant sat on my greenery" look, it's worth the effort.  For those of you with an economical side, you can take most any artificial greenery from your neighborhood thrift store and bring it back to beauty.  Yes, it's worth the effort.


Friday, November 29, 2013


I tried a variety of Chinese Cabbage that doesn't form a head.  All the large leaves come off the stalk.  It's green, doesn't grow extremely fast and doesn't bolt.  

It did really well in our drought conditions this year.  It was bothered by cabbage moths because I didn't use an insecticide.   A few holes in the leaves didn't hurt it enough that they weren't usable.  

I didn't particularly like the taste of it raw.  It was more bitter than I enjoy.  So, the plants pretty much grew and grew until after the first few frosts.

I'm too cheap to let it go totally to waste so one cold morning I ventured out with heavy knife in hand to harvest some big cabbage leaves.  

After washing and taking off the large middle vein, I dropped them into a pot of boiling water.  This cabbage is sturdy enough to not go to mush when boiled.  And it's then I found it tastes wonderful after it's been cooked.

It keeps it's shape but isn't tough.  It looses the bitter taste and become mildly peppery.  It doesn't have the familiar cabbage taste or smell.  Rather like cooking mustard, kale or other hardy greens.  It freezes well, retaining the color and flavors.  

Sometimes procrastination serves me well!   

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Side of Vanilla

Vanilla vine growing on tree
on Reunion Island
Although none of us in the Midwest grow vanilla, I thought you might like some vanilla talk as we begin to spiral into the Christmas baking frenzy. 

Cooks, especially bakers, have high standards for the quality, origin and where to buy their vanilla.  And don’t even hint you use anything vaguely called “vanilla substitute” because it’s like saying you drink Kool-Aid and call it Champagne.

Typically most quality vanilla is the Mexican species “Vaina planifolia”.   Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans cultivated the vine of the vanilla orchid “tilxochitl”.  The Melipona bee exclusively pollinated the flowers.

Cortes supposedly brought vanilla and chocolate to Europe in 1520.  Edmond Albius, a twelve year old slave on Reunion Island, figured out how to hand pollinate and global cultivation was started.

Today there are three other cultivars besides the original Mexican species.  V. fragrans grown in Madagascar, Reunion,  V. Tahitensis grown in the South Pacific and V. pompon in the West Indies, Central and South America.  Madagascar vanilla is the most widely sold and it’s called Bourbon vanilla (not as in whiskey but as in Bourbon is the former name of the Reunion Island.)  All vanilla is from the orchid family.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron because it’s so labor intensive.  Although it’s considered a spice, it’s actuality a fruit.  Prices are affected by weather, cartels similar to drug cartels, political instability, and demand.  The most influence has been the introduction of artificial vanilla that flavors 95% of packaged food products.

For gardeners:  Vanilla grows as a vine, climbing a support as high as the support goes (including tall trees.)  Left to grow very tall, it will produce few flowers.  Folding the plant down produces more flowers.  All plants outside Mexico must be hand pollinated.

The seed capsule is left on the plant to ripen and open at the end.  As it dries, it produces a diamond-dusted appearance that is the beginning of the vanilla smell.  For my chemist friends:  The compound vanillin (4-hydroxy-3-methoxybenzaldehyde) is the principal reason for the familiar smell.

Bean ready for picking.
Even in greenhouse conditions, it is impossible to grow vanilla outside a region within 10-20 degrees of the equator.  I will not give you the “how to” because you won’t be successful and it’s a waste of paper.

Artificial vanilla is a byproduct of the pulp used in papermaking and is broken down by using sulfites and sulfates.  The natural flavoring referred to in some food and beverages tasting of vanilla and raspberry is taken from the castor sacs of mature beavers.  These products are the reason some products have a faintly off vanilla smell – they aren’t really vanilla. 

Vanilla is graded by quality.  Each country has it’s own system.  The beans you buy should be long, free from blemishes and splits, have a moisture content that allows it to easily be bent. 
·      Grade A/Grade I:  15 cm or longer, 30-35% moisture content.  Called “Gourmet” or “Prime”
·      Grade B/Grade II:  10-15 cm, 15-25% moisture content.  Called “Extract fruits”.  – Vanilla extract comes from this grade:
Beans for sale.
Grace C/Grade III:  10 cm.

Vanilla is sold by:
1.     Whole pod.
2.     Powder (pure or blended with other ingredients.)
3.     Extract (contains at least 35% alcohol.)
4.     Vanilla Sugar (prepackaged.)

Bits and pieces of info: 
·      Store tightly wrapped in plastic, in an airtight jar and in the refrigerator up to six months.
·      1-teaspoon vanilla extract equals 1 inch of vanilla bean.
·      A little vanilla dabbed on the skin works as a mosquito repellent.
·      If your bean is getting dried bury in sugar for a few weeks; Use in coffee/tea, garnish sugar cookies, and etc.
·      Add a bean to 1-cup vodka, set aside for 6 weeks, and use as extract.

Good vanilla products may be purchased in a variety of stores including health food stores, Mexican groceries, and those specializing in baking supplies.  Keeping a variety of vanilla products allows you to use the grade most appropriate to your recipe.  The higher the cook temperature, the less premium vanilla counts.  This is the reason the best vanilla is almost exclusively used in ice cream.

If you’re a purist and enjoy the true wonderfully delicious taste of good vanilla, be prepared to pay more.  At the same time, be prepared to savior it’s flavor and fragrance as nothing remotely similar can stand up to the quality.  As with so many foods, real is better.
A little Vanilla humor.

All photos from the web.  Honestly, I do not know Vanilla Ice and I didn't take this picture.  Seriously! But, did you know he does a lot of philanthropic work with children? 
The real Robert M. VanWinkle is better!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Dreaming of a White Christmas

Because I'm a bit of a weather freak and because a really good snow storm is probably my favorite weather extraviganza and because I want to. . . 

Here's the Historical probability of a white Christmas in the U.S.  We're rather on the edge of the 25%-40% and 40%-50% which means I'm about half hopeful.  Or if I get up in the morning and it's windy, the sky has rolling dark clouds and its cold, I can push my optimism up to about 75%.  

It's why I annoy my neighbors with outside Christmas lights up early and burning into February.  I want to make sure I can enjoy twinkling lights every single time it snows.   I want picture postcards out my windows.  

I'm on my blue light kick these past few years having moved from the white twinkle lights phase which was after the multi colored big honkin' expensive to run lights.  Not to say I've matured past any of the phases because I can drive past someone else's highly decorated home and enjoy all their efforts just as well as my own current decor.

Contrary to speculation, I don't think over-the-top Christmas decorations take away one bit from the true meaning of Christmas.  I'm totally capable of keeping them in separate places in my brain - thank you very much.  Now, back to snow:

We "Christmas Snow" lovers can remember every white Christmas as if it was yesterday and manage to push the warm dull brown Christmases to the back of the memory chip.  

I remember one Christmas (yes you knew it was time for a I remember when story) when the kids were still at home but close to leaving.  They were at an age when anything but being home held appeal.  We always had my Indiana family drive out at Christmas every year and looked forward to their company.  That year, it snowed so much they couldn't get here and we couldn't get out.  This forced and unusual weather brought about an almost magical time where we were transported into a story book or a beautiful Christmas card.  

Since there was nothing pulling at any of us, we simply enjoyed the sweetness of Christmas.  That was the last year everyone lived under the same roof all the time and it's certainly a Christmas I cherish.  

Using the tractor to pull them up the hills
There were many other wonderful Christmases and many other snows.  And now we have grandchildren, there's a new layer of wonder added to our celebration.  We do always hope the big Christmas snow will be on the years there's been soybeans on the hills around our house.  It makes perfect sledding.  (In the years where there's corn, it would be like falling on a sword!)

Snow flurries predicted for tomorrow - it's beginning to look a lot like Christmas - I'm 50% sure!   

Saturday, November 16, 2013


My list of nice sounds:
2011 blizzard

Wind howling in a big snow.
A little kid’s laugh.
Thunder rumbling.
Skate blades on cold winter ice.
Rain as it moves across a corn field toward the house.
A kitten’s purr.
Slow steady rain.
Old men telling stories.
Sheets snapping in the breeze. 
The furnace coming on as soon as you shiver.
Train whistles.
Crackling bonfires.
Mack truck.
A song bringing a good memory.
Buzzing bees.
Turning book pages.
Porch swing creaking.
Screen door slamming.
Carousel music.
The hymn “It is Well With My Soul.”
Horses talking at night.
When you can hear a smile in someone’s voice.
Harley Hog.
Marching bands.
Big kids telling their family “I love you.”
Shovel slicing soil.
Bird conversations.
Delta Queen’s paddle wheel.
Imperfections on a vinyl record.
House full of family.
Cows calming their calves.
Indiana accent.
An owl.
A clock ticking.
Fog horns.
Message from a grandchild just to say “Hi.”

My list of not-so-nice sounds:

People in the path should immediately take cover.
Squish of cow pie.
A large limb breaking.
Dogs barking at the moon.
It’s cancer.
Tire blowout.
Police, ambulance and fire sirens at your house.
Snake rattles.
Screeching breaks from the car behind you.
Engine knock.
A lawn mower that won’t start.
Leaf blowers.
Something exploding in the microwave.
Mommy/Daddy, my tummy hurts.
The phone ringing at 3:00 am. 
Splattering grease.
Cicadas after the novilty wears off.
Hospital night sounds.
Rushing flood waters.
Fire and brimstone (Threw this one in to take it to another level of morose.)
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, 
or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.”   
Abraham Lincoln knew sounds.