Back Porch (A Preview)

This was such an eyesore to me when we were first looking at the house, that I swear I must have said this a hundred times: “When we get the place, we’re tearing that off, first thing!”

But you know there were some factors I hadn’t thought of, mainly — where do we store stuff?  The garage was (is) a mess (with a leaky roof!), our attic space isn’t easily accessible or ready for any organized storage, and we have few closets and… a lot of stuff.

This shed off the back porch became a godsend last winter, as it was the only dry place to keep all those unpacked boxes, scooters, strollers, high chairs, tools, lumber, and on an on.  But we’re ready to clean-up and beautify the back for summer.

Behold:

The shed off the back porch, before any improvements.

Years ago, this was probably a nice place for the previous owners to pot plants in an insulated area. Great-grandma and great-grandpa were avid gardeners.  But this isn’t a nice area anymore.  Let me point out some features.

  1. If you look through the shed, you’ll see our living room window.
  2. That’s a fiberglass/greenhouse sheeting roof. There are a few layers, and it blocks a lot of light from our living room.
  3. The gutter is attached with bits of wire.
  4. Yes, that’s a gate. Presumably to block the previous owners’ dogs from jumping through the broken window.
  5. Yes, that’s a window. Many panes of glass were missing.

This is the only picture I took of the area when we moved in.

Now, we have plans.  Stay tuned.

Pruning Roses

It wasn’t until a few weeks after we moved in that I realized the task before me in regards to cleaning up the yard.  Sure, I saw the trash and weeds and old junk piles and mouldering lawn clippings.  But that stuff was easy to see. What hid from my eyes were the established plants in the yard.

There aren’t any substantial trees, there are no monstrous holly bushes, and very little blackberry brambles.  There’s no comfrey or bamboo or even many dandelions.  Even though the yard was neglected recently, it seemed to be fairly low-maintenance.  I was quite thankful.

But then I saw them — more than 25 overgrown and diseased rose bushes.  Shit. Where do I start? I know nothing about roses.

Some were more than six feet tall.

Sure, I have bought a couple here and there, planted them in the yards of rental houses.  Never got much from them.  I’ve tried pruning, but it was always more out of necessity than maintenance (i.e., the branches were going to slice open my children’s eyes if I didn’t cut them back).

Have you ever seen the Max and Ruby episode — “Max’s Dragon Shirt” — where Max and Ruby take the bus to the department store to buy Max some new overalls? But when they get there, Ruby is distracted by the dresses? She gets carried away and tries on a few different dresses while Max goes off to find a dragon shirt, which is what he really wants. At one point, Ruby tries on a dress, looks in the mirror, and says, “Ugly.” She draws out the word, in her special (upstate New York?) accent. That’s the word that comes to mind when I see this “before” picture of the roses. Ugggllly.  (Eventually Max is offered some free ice cream and soils the dragon shirt he was playfully wearing. They have to use their only $5 to pay for it, and then they can’t buy new overalls. The moral of the story is — when you’re taking care of a distractable 3-year-old, do not get distracted.)

After desperately searching the internet, and even contacting my local rose society for a (hopeful, but never to occur) lesson, there were few hard-and-fast rules that I learned.  I had to just dive in.  This is what I learned:

  1. Prune after Jan. 1 and try to complete before February (ha!).  Since most roses are very hardy in this area, and we have little winter weather to worry about, the goal was to get the pruning complete before too much new growth began.
  2. If a bush is taking more than 15 minutes, I’m spending too much time on it.
  3. Even though I used wood glue on the cuts for the first three bushes (to prevent disease), the process was going to drastically affect my productivity. If these overgrown and neglected bushes couldn’t make it through my first pruning, then I didn’t want to keep them anyway.
  4. I have over 20 bushes. Are there some that are not in an ideal location?  Dig them out.  Seriously.  I don’t care what kind of flowers those inconvenient bushes have.

I managed to prune 18 of the 21 bushes in the front yard, and we pruned down completely (but haven’t yet dug) three bushes that were in the back yard. We did leave a couple on the far fence, but I wanted to de-thorn the back yard as much as possible for the kids’ safety and comfort (and mine!).

Two months after pruning. This is the 6+ foot bush in the top photo above.

This ancient one is probably my favorite. New growth showing two months after pruning.

Pretty new growth. Two months after pruning. Some of my cuts were too angled, or not angled enough. The bush doesn’t seem to mind.

Three months after pruning.

Each bush has a lot of buds. Very exciting.

Three months after pruning. This one goes for the height again.

Homemaking: Birthdays

There was Ben’s birthday in December, and we had a date, but I think that was it. It was a good date, if I remember correctly, with dinner and a hot tub and then we came home to put Sam to bed.  A 3-hour date and home by 9? That’s good enough for us, and we still got enough sleep to handle the next day.

My birthday in February involved me chopping lots of chocolate during my lunch break to make this chocolate torte. I skipped the red currant jelly and raspberries, but I’ll be sure to do that next time raspberries are in season.  I forgot my rule about only using a designated pan to melt the chocolate, and ended up infusing the taste of onions into the torte because I used our big cast iron pan.  Stupid. I knew better, and I certainly know better now.

Lots of chopping. (My step-dad gave me that knife 14 years ago. It’s my favorite. Oh, he gave me the cutting board too. The blue and white butter dish is also my favorite; I bought it for myself! It deserves a Beautiful Things post all to itself.)

At least the mousse was perfect and perfectly edible.  I made chocolate mousse again for our friend Mat’s birthday a few days later, but then my pregnant self was too paranoid to eat it due to the raw egg factor, but I cooked up my portions into a moussey sort of pudding. It was equally delicious.

My birthday night ended with Matthew doing some antics (of which I have photos but out of respect for The Age of Twelve, I will not post them), and his little brothers looking on.  Man, I love my boys.

Sam’s birthday came in April. We didn’t have a party, because we’re lazy and tired but really because we’re smart parents who know it would overwhelm the poor anxious child.  Max surprised him that morning with snowflakes that we hung around Sam’s bed while he slept.  Max also meticulously drew and colored Clifford the Big Red Dog (with some penciling help from me).

Yes, that’s a photo with no focus. I’m not sure what was happening, but I do recall a newly-minted 3-year-old being quite upset that I was taking photos in his room. The snowflakes have since been torn down in rage (hello, The Age of Three), but Clifford remains.  By the way, Max’s snowflakes were amazing. Mine were… eh.

We went to Bouncapalooza to celebrate with Sam and Matthew and Max. Sam got a full portion of candy from the candy machine, and Max won an Easter basket full of (cheap) chocolate and a ball and stuffed animal (both of which he gave to Sam), and then we went to Petco (we were at the mall, after all), and Max got a new hamster to replace the one he lost months ago.  The cashier at Petco ended up giving us a full bag of dog treats that Sam had self-served and brought to the cashier after we had paid.  What a lifesaver she was.  After hours at the mall with three boys, we wanted to Go Home, preferably without The Tantrum.

We arrived home exhausted and no, we didn’t have a cake. I’ll stick 3 extra candles in Max’s cake in June, and he and Sam can blow them out together.

Homemaking: Kale Soup, for Mom

Each time I made this soup, I thought, “Mom would love this.”  But since we’re too far away to deliver soup, I decided to document the process.

It’s incredibly simple, and absolutely customizable.  I craved this soup about three times a week for a month during the first trimester. (I’ve since moved on to salads with feta and avocado. Oh! Do you know that feta and avocado together taste like bacon? I would eat it all day if I could. And lettuce too. If we had a garden, I would have devoured it already.)

Most of the time, we didn’t have mushrooms. Sometimes I didn’t add carrots and/or onion. Sometimes I skipped the cabbage. Basically, I would have been happy with  chicken broth, soy sauce and kale, but (surprisingly) the process of cooking at the stove helped with my nausea.

Mom has been concerned about my eating — I’ve admitted to the chocolate and ice cream and ballpark nachos and maybe an excess of dairy — but most of my big meals are homemade goodness,with fresh organic fruits and vegetables, good grains, hormone-free meat.  I eat my chocolate (dark dark chocolate!).  But I eat my kale too.

This soup — I am a quick chopper, so I start cooking as soon as I have the onions chopped. If you’re slower with a knife, chop everything ahead.  This version made a super big pot, but for just a couple bowls, divide by four.

  1. Finely chop 1/2 onion. Throw in soup pot with olive oil and a sprinkle of kosher salt. Stir to coat. Cook at medium heat for a couple minutes.

    Saute onions in olive oil with a sprinkle of salt.

  2. Chop 2 carrots into your favorite shapes (this was about 1 and 1/2 cups). Add to onions with a small sprinkle of salt. Continue to cook, and stir every minute or so.

    Add the carrots and a sprinkle of salt.

  3. Slice mushrooms to your liking (I added 2 cups).  Add to onions and carrots. Cook until the mushrooms start to soften.

    Mushrooms to the carrots and onions.

  4. If you’re going to add fresh garlic, do it now. 2 cloves would be delightful. I like pressed garlic because I’m lazy and would rather wash the press than chop garlic.  At the time of this soup-making, I had an aversion to fresh garlic, but was fine with garlic powder.  (A sprinkling was enough for me.)
  5. Slice cabbage (1 cup). Add to pot. Continue to stir.

    Sliced cabbage to the other vegetables.

  6. Tear up kale into smaller pieces, discarding woody stem (I like to strip the leaves off the stem in one smooth swipe, like pulling off the seeds of that weedy wheat-like grass as a kid).   This was 8 cups. Add to pot.  Stir and let heat for a moment.

    Add the kale and stir it around.

  7. Add 3 pints chicken or veggie broth (6 cups) and  2 and 1/2 pints (5 cups) water. (Yes, I am measuring in pints. Sorry. It’s just that we freeze chicken broth in pint jars, and then I use the jars to measure the water.)

    Add broth and water and bring to simmer.

    Bring to simmer while adding the following:

    • 7 Tablespoons of Soy Sauce (this is 3 and 1/2 ounces, or almost a half cup)
    • 1 Tablespoon Sesame Oil
    • 1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
    • 1/8 Teaspoon Red Pepper Flakes or more to taste (you could use chile oil instead)
    • Black pepper and salt to taste(if you happen to be me in the first trimester, add more salt)

    Finished soup with seasonings.

  8. Taste. Adjust seasoning. Eat.

    Eat!

Beautiful Things: Wedgewood Stove

Early 1940s (?) Wedgewood Stove. With oven and broiler (on the right) and storage (on the left). Four burners and a griddle. Clock, timer, and light (untested and unused).

I love this stove.

When we moved in, we had some things repaired — the oven door springs were broken and there was a small leak in the range. Luckily, we have a local stove repair shop that specializes in antique stoves.  I really wanted to figure it out myself, but the door springs were too tricky.  Also, the gas supply line was really old. I was going to replace that myself, but chickened-out when there was a slight discrepancy in bolt size connecting to the stove.  Better to call in the professionals.  (They also had spare knobs on hand!)

We spent as much on repairs as we would have buying something so-so.  About $400.

With the repairman here, he was able to show me how to take apart the range for cleaning (all exposed range parts are removable), and he told me more about the stove than I could possibly find on the vast internet.

This stove has:

  • Gas burners that light light up with force and power, much like I imagine an industrial range to have. We’re also able to get a nice low flame without it flickering-out.
  • Removable drip pans under the burners for cleaning.
  • A griddle between the pairs of burners which I’m in love with. Never has pancake-making been so effortless.
  • An oven, though small, which heats up quickly and steadily.   It’s sometimes a delicate operation working in a small oven; we have to rotate our goods if we bake more than one thing at a time.  And someday we’ll have the thermostat recalibrated, as the temperature is a little high.
  • A clock with timer, and a light. We haven’t plugged in the stove, so I don’t know if they work. I bet they do, but not interested in moving the stove out again to find the electrical outlet.  (The cord is in good shape, at least.)
  • A cupboard, which is pretty handy for storing all the cast iron. I wasn’t too taken by it at first — would rather have a larger oven — but it’s a good use of space after all.

Pancakes.

If you’re on the fence about buying or restoring an antique stove, it’s more than worth it.

The temperature gauge for the griddle. Not entirely useful, except when first heating up the griddle, as the food we’re cooking is normally a better gauge.  But I also know how hot the griddle will be by listening to the sound of the burners, and of course by the location of the knob.

You know what?  I broke the Wedgewood emblem when cleaning it (the knobby tabs that hold the emblem to the stove).  I’m going to MacGyver it though, don’t worry.

French toast. See the missing emblem? I haven’t been able to find a replacement, so I’m hoping I can fix it with some JB Weld and paperclips.  I am, after all, at least 25% grandpa.