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2/2/2015
"A job worth doing is worth doing well." – Old Wives' Saying

monkey

Anna with her friend the monkey.

Renee-Lucie BenoitThere's a woman I know who is a neighbor of ours. She lives across the creek from us and her name is Anna. She is in her 80s and is not in good health. In spite of that, she is still full of pep especially if you mention her favorite topics, which are crocheting rag rugs and quilting. I met her at the local craft fair when we had booths next to each other. She was selling her rag rugs and I was selling my pastel paintings. I didn't make much money that weekend but I came away with a gorgeous rag rug and a new friend.

Anna is right out of the pages of a Foxfire book. Those are the wonderful books edited by Eliot Wigginton from the 1960s and 70s that were all about preserving the knowledge of a generation of folks whose knowledge and experience with old timey ways might otherwise be lost. By the way, Anna is a Gabrielino-Tongva Native American. Her mother taught her how to make these useful and beautiful rugs from scraps of left over fabric and worn out things. Nothing was wasted.

sample

A beautiful rug that Anna made.

I am so lucky that Anna is such a wonderful person who loves to share her knowledge. I asked her to teach me and she happily agreed. I really didn't know what I was getting into when I asked her though. I just knew that I wanted to learn and that I was very motivated. I decided to share what she has taught me with you. I think this will give you an idea of how to do it. If you can't figure out how to do it from our instructions, I would counsel you to find a local crafts person like Anna and see if she is willing to show you first hand. It might seem complicated so I'll try to simplify the instructions without leaving anything out.

Part One: The Basic Prep

What you need:

Enough 100-percent cotton or cotton blend fabric equivalent to a least 10 yards or more. Fabric can be purchased but you can also scour your closet or local second-hand stores for used bed sheets. I did both. I found fabric on sale that I thought was attractive and I also went to a couple second-hand stores and found more. I also had an old flannel sheet. However, now that I have tried to crochet flannel I would not counsel a beginner to use it. I went ahead and ripped up the sheet and started crocheting with it but found that there's too much "tooth" on flannel. Flannel kind of sticks to itself and that makes it a bit harder to work with.

So smooth cotton is best. Colored fabric is also best. Darker colored fabric is better and patterns are fine. (See Anna's example above.) We think a rug made in all light colors and especially white is not practical. This is our prejudice. It's undoubtedly because we live in the country and dirt reigns supreme. So unless you have unlimited water and like to do laundry we would counsel you to limit the white and light colors that you use.

Speaking of water, it's always best to wash and dry your fabric before you start.

Scissors to cut with.

A ruler or your fingers so you can measure 1 1/2 inches wide. (I find that two of my fingers are about 1 1/2 inches wide.)

A large crochet hook. Anna likes steel the best. She says steel won't break like plastic might. I couldn't find a steel one of the correct size so my plastic one is fine for now. My crochet hooks aren't labeled as to size so I can't tell you a size. Mine and Anna's are about an inch and a half in circumference. Here's a photo that might help.

hook

Method:

In Part One: The Basics we're going to prep the materials. Once you're good at crocheting, the prep work takes the longest of all the process. Or so I'm told! The first step is to make strips about 1 1/2 inches wide. The longer the better.

Making the Strips

cut

Rip strips of fabric 1 1/2-inches wide and as long as possible.

strips

Pappardelle!

Making a Hobo Knot

This is one way to connect your strips together without the necessity of a sewing machine. Once you start crocheting you will be surprised how fast you use up a strip so you want to have at least a yard, maybe two of strip ready to go.

hobo1 

Lay two strips together, right over left. Overlap about 2 inches.

hobo2

Fold the strips in the middle.

hobo3

Cut a small notch all the way through.

hobo4

Poke your finger in to see if your notch is big enough.

hobo5

Take the other end of the strip and push it through the notch from underneath.

hobo6

Start pulling the end through.

hobo7

Keep pulling while holding the two pieces of fabric together.

hobo8

You might have to pull firmly at the end. I used two colors of fabric so you could see how it's supposed to look.

The hobo knot is easy to make. However, once I started crocheting, I experienced difficulty pulling the knots through the crochet loops so when I complained to Anna she told me how to make a continuous strip.

Making a continuous strip

Cut a little notch into the edge of your fabric so the strip will be about 1 1/2-inches wide. Rip the fabric all the way across but stop short of the edge by about an inch. Move over on that side and cut another notch so it is about 1 1/2 inches away from the ripped pieces edge. Rip that in the same way. Stop short. Notch. Rip. Continue doing this – back and forth – until all your fabric is one very, very, very long 1 1/2-inch-wide piece.

ripping

Ripping the fabric.

Don't make a huge ball of fabric strips unless you want to make your rug all one color. You want to have a bunch of medium-size balls so you can change out the color every row or two. Here's an example.

winding

Winding the ball.

Now we're ready for the next step, which is starting to crochet in Part Two. Prep your materials this week and shout out any questions you have. I will do my best to answer them and if I can't answer, I have Anna The Expert to consult with! I will get back to you!



1/26/2015

Renee-Lucie BenoitI visited my daughter in Santa Cruz around Christmas time. Santa Cruz is such a fun place. It's noisy and crowded but they have good wholesome food everywhere and, of course, they have the Pacific Ocean. So even though there's all that hubbub of all those people, there's still a way to escape at the water's edge. We saw dolphins in the waves and pelicans in formation gliding gracefully on the off shore flow.

We always eat at a vegetarian restaurant in Capitola called Dharma's. It's all vegetarian and they give you huge portions. Out here on the ranch, it's impossible to find creative vegetarian food unless you make it yourself so it's fun to go to a restaurant that specializes in it. The last time we went, they had a salad that had a huge pile of sunflower sprouts plopped on top. That gave me an idea for fresh veggies to supplement the standard red leaf lettuce we've had to get from the grocery store for my salads. Did I mention my husband only eats "man food" that doesn't include anything that isn't white or brown? That's another story.

Sunflower sprouts are easy as pie just like all sprouts. Just plan ahead a little and you'll have as many of these delectable little units as you care to have.

What you need:
Potting soil
Perlite
Food grade black oil sunflower seeds
Water
Leftover cinnamon roll tray with clear lid from the bakery, or any container and plastic wrap

Method:

Mix equal parts perlite and potting soil.

ingredients

Spread about 2 inches deep of this mix in your tray.

mix

Spread a single layer of the seeds on the soil.

seeds

Sprinkle another 1/2 inch deep of the mix over the seeds. Moisten with water.

water

Cover with the tray top or plastic wrap and put in a safe place where the kiddies or the cats who haven't been counter trained can't reach it.

plastic

Check every day for a week and moisten as necessary. Nature will do her job and in a couple days you'll start to see sprouts.

sprouting

In a week you'll have sprouts to clip off above soil level to put on your salad. If there are any seeds hulls clinging to the sprouts, you can wait until they drop off naturally or you can very gingerly pull them off the leaves. Be careful not to break the leaf or pull the sprout out of the ground. If the hull won't budge leave it be.

sprouts

The sprouts won't grow after you clip them off. Just clean the soil of the roots and you can start all over again with the same soil. The sprouts are sweetest when they are new. You don't need to wash them as you know exactly what went on to them as they grew. Which is ... nothing!

Bon appetit!



1/19/2015

Renee-Lucie BenoitMarty and I are proud to introduce to you our long awaited and much ballyhooed extension to our chicken pen. It's been months in the making but that's not because we're such lazy folks and it takes us forever to complete a project. Well, not too much anyway! No, it took us so long because other things kept taking priority over the project. Finally things started to slow down and then it started to rain and the rain never let up for what seems a couple months. It seemed so biblical but really it wasn't. It just seemed that way. The good thing about the rain was that it softened the ground so it made it that much easier to dig the post holes. So in a way the delay really helped us out. As you may remember we live in the cement-for-ground region of the country.

chickenpen 

The extension is the part right behind me. A covered standing room only section. Love it!

So at the beginning of this month, we really started in earnest and now it's done except for some paint touch up and adding some interior chicken wire to make it 100-percent predator proof. Oh, did I mention squirrel proof? We have some of the fattest and healthiest ground squirrels on the planet. They've been regularly gorging their fat little faces on chicken feed and scratch. Oh, many's the time I went to the chicken pen only to see Mr. or Mrs. Squirrel vacating the premises like greased lightning. They know they're bad, but they can't help themselves!

Now that we've concocted a fool proof method for keeping them out, I plan to see less and less of the crafty little beggars around my precious chicken pen. Our method is laying 15 inches of chicken wire attached to the bottom of the pen boards and extending out at ground level buried under walk-on bark. This also serves as a deterrent to coyotes and raccoons. All our neighbors have had their chicken populations wiped out by these predators, but we've suffered nary a loss. We have a chicken Fort Knox, and it's worth it!

Now we're soliciting advice on dual purpose (meat and eggs) chicken breeds that do well in both cold weather (lows 15-dgrees to mid-30s in winter) but mostly heat (over 100 degrees for days at a time in summer). I've been researching Lakenvelders and Dominiques. What do you all think?



1/12/2015

Renee-Lucie BenoitI love aprons. They’re something my grammy wore every day (except to church, of course!). Aprons helped keep her dresses clean. She didn’t have many dresses because she didn’t have a lot of extra money for new ones. She had to keep the ones she had as clean as she could. She usually made her own dresses and that was relatively time consuming. Aprons, on the other hand, are easy to make, use little fabric and are easy to wash.

I’m going to show you how to make a simple apron. You don’t even need a pattern. All you need is a sewing machine, thread, scissors like pinking shears, an iron and ironing board, and something to measure with. The beauty of this apron is that it doesn’t have to fit perfectly so if you make a mistake it will still work.

I think the best fabric to use is 100-percent cotton because it is absorbent. I think patterned fabric is better than solid or white because it shows less dirt. You are going to get it dirty. That’s the point! You need about 1 3/4 yards of fabric that is 44 inches wide. I was lucky to find fabric on sale for $2 a yard.

Wash and dry the fabric before you start. This is so the fabric will be pre-shrunk and you get no nasty sizing surprises later. Iron your washed and dried fabric and lay it out flat WRONG SIDE OUT on your table. Decide what length you want it and add 6 inches for the hem. I marked it on the wrong side with chalk. Cut away the excess. We're going to use it for the waist band and apron strings later.

mark hem  side hem

Next hem both vertical side edges. Make the hem at least 1/4 inch wide. Iron your seam flat.

Note: When I sew a line of stitches I always do something they taught me in Home Ec class. To keep the ends from raveling, I sew in about a half inch and then I stop my machine, switch the lever to reverse and I sew back over what I just sewed. Then I switch back to forward and continue. I do this at the end of my stitch, too.

sewside

My sewing machine is an old Singer table top model. My mom gave it to me when I was 20 years old. It was 35 years old then. Now I’m 64 years old. This machine is the energizer bunny. I’ve only had it serviced once. It doesn’t do anything except sew backwards and forwards and wind a bobbin. But that’s all I need and I love it!

first hem foldOK, now, let’s hem the bottom. Like you did on the vertical side edges start by turning over the edge about a 1/4 of an inch. Iron it flat.

You can sew your hem or blind stitch it by hand. But because we’re doing it the easy way I just sewed the hem. Before you sew, turn the hem up and pin baste it in place. Pin against the stitch direction. Then you can sew right over the pins. The needle will miss them but if it hits a little it will slide off.

 

 

 

pinbastehem

sewhem

Now take the top and sew the largest stitches you can in three rows closely spaced together. These are called basting stitches.

Note: Make sure your bobbin has a lot of thread before you start. You are going to make one continuous line of stitches all the way across. You can’t have a gap. It makes it really difficult to pull the gathers in the next step if the stitches aren’t all one continuous line. If your bobbin runs out of thread mid-line you’ve made yourself a problem. Now is a good time to check and make sure you’re not almost out of thread.

sewgathers

Once you’ve done that, take the fabric and start pulling the threads to gather them. Grab hold of the three top threads and pull lightly. See how hard you have to pull without breaking the threads. The three lines make it harder for the threads to break when you’re pulling. The three lines also make for a better gather in my humble opinion.

gather

As you gather do a little section at a time and then space the gathers as evenly as you can. Gather until the top of the apron is the width you want it to fit at your waist. Set it aside.

finishedgathers

Next we have to make the waist band and apron strings. They're all one piece. Decide how wide you want your waist band and apron strings. I’m going to make them about 2 inches when finished. Cut strips of fabric 4 inches wide and enough length to make the waistband and apron strings a total of 96 inches long.

waistbandstrips

You want a generous length so you can tie the strings in a nice big bow. Sew your strips together at each end with RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER

sewstrips 

Iron your seams flat.

ironseams 

Then lay your strips on the ironing board and fold them in half lengthwise inside out. Turn one of the edges over about 1/4 inch and iron it flat. Next WITH RIGHT SIDES TOGETHER position the edge of the waist band in the middle of the gathers.

centerwaistband

Pin baste it in place.

pinbastewaistband

Turn it over and sew along the gathers all the way through.

sewwaistband

Then turn the waist band over. Iron a little 1/4-inch hem in the long side.

tophemwaistband 

Fold the waistband/apron strings in half over the top of the apron. Pin baste it in place.

bastewaistband

Now sew up the long sides all the way to the end and then across the end. Iron everything again and voila! You have your simple apron!

finished

Sara LovelandHow many things can you do with an apron? Aprons can be used as a potholder to remove hot things from the oven. The edge of one will dry a child’s tears and sometimes will clean out dirty ears. You can carry almost anything in the folds of an apron: eggs, chicks, apples, peaches, carrots and kittens. Every shy child knows where to go when company comes – the folds of Mother’s apron. They’re good for wiping away perspiration in the heat of summer canning. Wood chips and kindling come to the kitchen in the folds of an apron. When unexpected company drives up the road, it’s surprising how much furniture an apron can dust in a matter of minutes. When dinner is ready, walk out onto the porch, wave your apron, and everybody knows it’s time to come in to dinner.

I didn't have a picture of Grammy in her apron, so here's Aunt Sara Loveland.



1/5/2015

Renee-Lucie BenoitI was spoiled as a child. I grew up in the middle of the most glorious soil region of practically anywhere on this planet. After the great ice sheets receded during the last ice age, they left the amazing Midwestern soil that is still mostly there. It was in danger of going south with the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico before it was mostly saved by changed practices of contour plowing, waterways and cover crops. I suppose people from Iowa get a bit of a swelled head about their soil. I just took it for granted. When I moved to California, I got a rude awakening. I wasn’t prepared for it in the least little bit. In the neighborhood I moved into, the builders had bulldozed off what little topsoil there was to make way for housing foundations. What was left was hard pan clay.

For the next 22 years, and even to this day, I am on a continuous quest to understand that which lies beneath our feet and from which our food grows. It’s been an interesting journey. It hasn’t always been easy. A lot of trial. And more than a modicum of error. Now I am a soil connoisseur. I love dirt. Just not on my floors. But make no mistake. I am not a card carrying expert. I’ve just paid attention to what was presented me and I learned a few things.

If you happen to be blessed with fertile soil, you’re lucky. When I was a kid practically all you had to do was throw seeds in the ground, wait for the rains to come and things grew like gangbusters. I remember only once was I outgunned by the beetles that overran my Brussels sprouts.

Out here in California, I am outgunned on every single level. But I don’t give up. My husband says, “Where there’s a Renee there’s a way.” My first challenge was not being able to double dig for my life. It took about two seconds to figure out what was going on. The aforementioned clay. Then came the years of trying to amend on a budget. It’s slow going, folks, when you don’t have rototiller, tractor or the budget to buy compost or gypsum.

For those of you embarking on your first gardening efforts, let me tell you a bit about soil (forgive the pun) from the ground up.

What kind of soil do you have? Look into this before going out and spending a lot on seeds and sets.

clay

Do this: A few days after a rain, grab a handful of your soil and see how it feels in your hand. If it’s sticky, heavy, feels slippery or forms clods easily, it’s clay. Clay is good. It’s a rich mineralized soil. It’s just that the particles are so fine water tends to pool and not soak in, and plants' roots don’t have enough room to breathe and move. If you have the budget for a rototiller and some soil amendment. you can add gypsum and lots of organic matter when the clay is moist. Properly amended clay is a good soil to plant in.

sandy

If you grab a handful of soil and it feels gritty, loose and it dries out real fast after a rain, you have sandy soil. Again, the remedy is to add lots of organic matter. Sandy soil is the opposite end of the spectrum from clay. The particles are very large or coarse. Again, not a bad thing. Just better for your plants if you can add a lot of organic matter to hold moisture. Just think of all those marvelous Idaho potatoes grown in their sandy soils. Yes, properly amended sandy soil is a good thing.

loam

If your soil feels loose, moist and crumbly, you are lucky to have loam. It’s soft, neither gritty or sticky. This is the friendliest kind of soil and the kind of soil I was used to and took for granted as a child. It stays loose, it drains well, but it also holds moisture and plant roots are comfy. The loam you see here is the product of amending my soil for two years. First I made compost and then I incorporated it into the clay.

Of course, you could and are likely to have a combination soil. I have straight heavy clay soil. It’s so heavy you can dig a hole and three days later you’ll still have water in it and it will not have drained away. Maybe some native person saw this and it gave them the idea for clay pots. OK, so that’s all well and good but I didn’t have pottery in mind when I came here and I need to grow food anyway. So you deal with what you have.

Good soil helps keep plants strong and resistant to disease and predatory insects. When you want a big healthy garden this is the place to start. Once this is in place and you take care of your soil with sound principles and dedicated effort, you will be way ahead of the game and the rest will be a lot easier. The saying “well begun is half done” was never truer that when considering soil.



12/22/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitWinter has been interesting so far this year on the ranch. We went from a terrible drought to an overabundance of water.

 

 watson

The creek is more than full.

spillway 

The spillway coming out of the lake is a raging torrent.

lake 

The lake is high enough to overflow and fill the creek bed, which then fills the stock ponds. What a relief!

Of course, they’re telling us that we still need more rain to bring the water table up enough to return us to “normal.” This past summer, more wells were dug or dug deeper and deeper. So even though we’re more soggy than we’d ever care to admit, we’re grudgingly praying for more rain. Such is life on a ranch in a semi-arid land.

The Solstice

Another subject to note is that the Solstice has passed and we’re on our way back to lengthening days. The longest night of the year was last night. So even though we celebrate Christmas – that lustrous holiday of the new born child who brings light and love to the world – we also honor the ancient traditions of the longest night of the year. We had the house lit up with a big fire in the woodstove and candles on every table. We just sat together and talked about the past year and the year to come. We had good food that came from our land, and we drank to life and to ourselves. The wheel of work had ground to a stop. Now the wheel starts moving forward again.

Here on the ranch we are more in touch with nature than many people in the city. It’s just a fact and not meant as a condemnation of those in the city. Nature is our stock in trade and either our ally or our enemy. We have to know her and respect her because if we don’t, she can bankrupt us and ruin everything in a flash. At the Solstice, we recognize the return of the sun and that the difficulties that nature hands us in the form of winter are coming to an end. We look forward to things warming up. They will eventually and sooner rather than later. Then there will be that season’s unique preparations and responsibilities.

We wish you the Happiest of Holidays, a warm fire in the hearth, food on the table and good company all.

two



12/12/2014

Renee-Lucie BenoitI’ve been trying to post this favorite Christmas cookie recipe for about a week and a half. One thing after another has distracted me. This is the way things go on a ranch or farm. Ranch work always takes precedent. So, if you have a huge rain storm headed your way, as we recently had, you must prepare so you don’t find yourself, for example, taking the animals to higher ground in the middle of the night or some annoying thing.

spillway

Our lake spillway. From nothing to Niagara in 24 hours.

So the rainstorm happened in all its magnificence and we all survived including suffering the power outage. The predicted high winds never materialized. If we had had wind I’m sure we would still be out there putting tin back on the barn roof. We have an old barn. A big one. And it’s wonderful but old and the tin is prone to blowing off. We never know which piece will come off or where and we want to go up there as little as possible because it’s steep and dangerous. So we dodged that bullet which is why you find me now working on this wonderful recipe. Finally! It is authentic and it, too, comes by way of my friend Andrea Hjelskov, a Danish writer who lives in Sweden.

Danish Butter Cookies

This recipe comes in gram measurement. I am lucky enough to have digital scale that converts to grams so I was able to take Andrea’s recipe and use the measurements verbatim. Please note that all measurements are close but not exact. Isn’t cooking an art not a science? After cooking all my life I rarely find myself scrupulously measuring ingredients. I’ve included some observations to help you through.

250 grams butter
200 grams sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon baking powder (Andrea does not use this. I do.)
1 egg
100 grams pulverized almonds
250 to 300 grams all-purpose flour (the amount of flour is dependent on the size of your egg; next time I think I will add all 300 grams and have a stiffer dough to work with. My eggs are large. It’s up to you.)

Cut up the butter, cover it with sugar.

1buttrsugr

Then using a pastry blender or your hands blend it all together.

2mxbuttrsugr 

Blend until the butter and the sugar is integrated.

3cream

Now add one egg and the vanilla.

4egg

Blend this all with a spoon, spatula or hand mixer.

5mixegg

Then if you haven’t already, it’s time to pulverize the almonds. I use skinless slivered almonds. Pulverize them until they are as fine as you can get them without turning them into butter. (If you don't smash the almonds enough, pieces will clog the pastry tube hole. Also the texture will be chunky. A chunky texture is all right if you slice them and you like a chunky cookie. A traditional cookie has a fine texture.) Renee’s note: If you want, this can be a big grand experiment and there’s no major wrong or right. Just guidelines. Feel free to try things if you feel bold. If you don’t feel bold just go by the guidelines and you’ll be happy.)

So back to the guidelines…

Add the almonds to the butter/sugar/vanilla/egg mixture and stir thoroughly.

6almonds

Then add the flour…

7flour

and mix thoroughly. You’re looking for a really stiff paste or dough.

8dough

Now at this point you can bake the cookies or you can roll them in non-stick wrap and refrigerate.

9wrap

I refrigerate because I have to slice. I don’t have a pastry tube to make squeezed-out cookies. If you have a pastry tube you can squeeze them out in small, large-holed doughnut shapes. (The traditional shape is a wreath!) Another note: Before you bake them always do a test. Bake one cookie in the oven. If it flattens out too much, you need to add a little more flour before you go on and bake the rest.

The dough may be wrapped in foil and frozen for up to 2 months. If you do this let the dough soften slightly before you slice it or squeeze it out.

Baking

Preheat the oven to 375 F. I use parchment paper to line a baking sheet, but you can also use a lightly greased sheet. Slice the dough into 1/4-inch thick slices and arrange them about a half inch apart on your baking sheet. Same thing if you make wreaths. Bake your cookies in batches in the middle of the oven until they're golden around the edges, 10 to 12 minutes, and transfer them with a metal spatula to a rack to cool. Your cookies may be kept in an airtight container at room temperature for five days. This never happens in our house! We always polish them off right after they come out of the oven!

10bake





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