Holiday DIY: Gold Leaf Pine Cones

So, I got this idea off of pinterest. I was looking at holiday craft projects and realized that I had been limiting my universe to glitter in the past, and that GOLD LEAF is amazing and I should put it on everything.  I mean, how could you not?gold leaf pine cone centerpieceTechnically, when you’re using gold or silver leaf, you’re supposed to use a special adhesive that is made by the same brand as the gold leaf, but I didn’t have any so I just used Mod Podge.  I bet you could use Elmer’s glue if you wanted and it wouldn’t matter.

Materials:

  • a few pine cones
  • gold leaf (FYI: not real gold leaf, that would cost a million dollars. Fake gold leaf is made of other metals and is much cheaper, about $10 for a big pack. You only need a few sheets for this project, depending on how many pine cones you do)
  • craft glue or gold leaf sizing
  • spray varnish or gold leaf sealer spray

The method is simple:

Paint the outer tips of the pine cones with a thin layer of glue.  Gently place the sheet of gold leaf over the pine cone and it will stick to the glue.  You may have to use a dry paint brush to gently ease the gold leaf onto all of the glued spots.  pine cones step 1Now, wait for the paint to dry.  Use the dry paint brush to brush away all of the excess gold leaf. Take the pine cones outside and spray them with varnish or gold leaf sealer.  You’re supposed to use the gold leaf sealer, but I already had a can of spray varnish for oil paintings which worked just fine. pine cones step 2Once they’re dry, bring them inside and use them for whatever decorating needs you might have.  I originally saw them used as garlands, but I decided that we needed a centerpiece instead, so I put them in a pottery bowl with some fir branches.  gold leaf pine cones DIYI think the finished product looks cute and festive, right? (But really just an excuse to bring more metallics into your life.)

Happy Holidays!

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Before You Get Your Baby Chicks, You Should Read This

During this past week, I’ve been chatting with several people who are interested in raising chickens.  It’s that time of year – fruit trees are blooming, the weather has been beautiful, and if you dare to walk into a feed store, you’re sure to be tempted by the sweet chirp of baby chicks.  The day old birds are, without a doubt, one of the cutest things in the known universe, which is reason enough to get a few for pets.  I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how delicious real eggs taste, though, which is an even better reason to start a flock.

eggs

The logic sounds simple so far, right?

The next step gets really complicated.  Before you even purchase chicks, you need to decide whether or not to raise them following strict organic standards.  When you buy chicks from a hatchery, you’ll have the option to get them vaccinated before they’re shipped to you.  The chicks from the feed stores in our area are usually not vaccinated because the stores need to give customers the option to raise them organically.  (We live in Northern California; this may not hold true in other areas of the country).

If you don’t get vaccinated chicks, you have the option of giving them medicated starter feed.  Chicks that have already been vaccinated shouldn’t have medicated feed because it will counteract the vaccinations.  The medicated feed only helps prevent certain illnesses and does nothing to prevent others that the vaccination will cover.
chicken saladI’m 99.9% sure that anyone reading this blog will gravitate towards following the organic route. When we first got chickens, that was certainly what we did.  It seems obvious: antibiotics and vaccines seem like disgusting ingredients for an omelet.  A few years ago, we had an absolute disaster that made me realize that it’s not nearly as simple as you’d think…. It’s probably an important story to read for anyone thinking about getting a flock.

It was the first time that we’d decided to try getting a larger flock so we could sell eggs at the farmers market. Since we’re off the grid and don’t have a 24 hour power source, running a heat lamp for first six weeks of the chicks lives was virtually impossible. We found two different people on craigslist that sold pullets that we ready to be outside without the heat lamp.  We went to both farms and both seemed perfectly lovely.  The pullets were all healthy and happy.  We fed them organic feed and raised them up to egg laying age, and then………… they started dying. It wasn’t all at once, but we were having one or two hens die every week. They would look slow and lethargic for several days, then have trouble walking and standing up, and no matter how much tlc we gave them, they died.  Our coop was very clean, they had plenty of food and water and plenty of space to run around, and we were completely baffled why we were having so many problems.

Initially, none of our research really yielded any good answers, and most vets that we spoke with only worked with larger farm animals.  One morning, when I found another hen that was clearly suffering, who could barely stand and looked like she was having trouble breathing, I got fed up. I packed her into a box with some blankets and took her to the vet we use for our dogs because I had to do something.  When the vet saw her, he told me that she was far too sick to help, and we had to put her to sleep.  The vet office sent her body to UC Davis for testing to figure out what was going wrong.  (At this point in the story, I start losing any kind of farmer street cred that I may have had.  Who pays money to get a chicken put to sleep? Just wring their neck and it’s done.  It was a weird morning, what can I say…)

Holding a frail, sick hen in my arms while she died was about the most awful thing ever. I left the vet office in tears, drove across the street and parked under some trees near the hardware store, where I sat and cried for an embarrassingly long time.  I felt sick to my stomach that all of these animals in my care were dying.

When we got the test results back from UC Davis, my suspicions were confirmed: the hen had Marek’s Disease.  Marek’s is something can a hen can carry for a long time and seem completely healthy, but then will flare up during a stressful period.  For our flock, the trigger was the transition into egg-laying.  If one hen had it, the whole flock was definitely carrying it.  There’s no treatment and it has a 90% fatality rate. Once Marek’s flares up, it’s a slow and painful way for a hen to die.  They become more and more lethargic, and then experience asymmetrical paralysis, meaning the hen will lose use of half of her body.  A hen that’s dying of Marek’s will often have one droopy wing and one leg that’s limp and outstretched. Eventually the hen won’t be able to breathe and dies.  UC Davis told us that the only way to get rid of it in our coop was to “depopulate” the flock, clean the coop, and leave it empty for several months.

The crazy thing in all of this? When you order day old chicks from the hatchery, there’s a little box you can click on the order form, and for a couple extra bucks you can get all of them vaccinated for Marek’s (along with several other diseases) when they’re a day old.  It’s not organic at all, but it would have prevented the whole nightmare we went through with our hens.  We’re still not sure how we ended up with Marek’s in our flock, but it was almost certainly because one of the farms I got our birds from had it in their flock.  This was the point where we decided: we will always raise our own chicks, even if it’s a total pain in the butt doing it off the grid, and we will always get them vaccinated from the hatchery.  After that we feed them organic grains, and I just figure that by the time the six months have passed for them to start laying eggs there can’t be much medication left in their system.

If you’re wondering about our doomed flock, we didn’t have the heart to kill all of them the way UC Davis recommended.  The chickens that hadn’t gotten sick yet were still happy and healthy, so we let them hang out with us until the disease flared up, when we would take matters into our own hands and put them out of their misery.  It was really depressing, but it seemed like the nice thing to do.

I’m sure other people have had different experiences raising chickens.  Most people don’t end up with the mess that we had. This was the single most important lesson we’ve ever learned about chicken farming, though, and I hope that sharing it helps other people make conscious decisions about their farming methods.  Things are not always as black and white as they seem, unfortunately, and animal husbandry can be a lot more intense than growing some tomatoes in your backyard garden.

 

P.S. I still would rather raise them organically, so if you have a good solution…. please tell me!

How To Pull Off Your Own DIY Wedding, Pt 2: The Food!

When I saw all the boring menus offered on most wedding catering websites, we immediately decided just to cater the whole thing ourselves.  Other blogs talk about self-catering your wedding like it’s an insanely difficult task, along the lines of building a rocket ship or performing open-heart surgery, but it’s really not hard at all if you plan it right.  For anyone that enjoys cooking and is having a smallish wedding, I think it’s perfectly feasible. The key to doing this successfully is that you don’t want to actually cook anything on your wedding day.  I made virtually everything in advance and then just had my mom keep an eye on the oven while it all reheated. (We were outside trying to see if the dogs would sit still for wedding portraits.  They wouldn’t). wedding dog portraitIf you decide to go the self-catering route, there are a few things that you need to think about while you’re menu planning:

1. Does the dish hold well in the refrigerator for a day or two?

It’s perfectly fine to cook things several days in advance from a food safety standpoint, but will you be sacrificing texture or flavor? Steamed rice will dry out in the fridge, spaghetti is basically impossible to reheat without a microwave, mashed potatoes turn into one solid lump.  It’s better to think more along the lines of casseroles, braises, stews, curries and the like.  You can always do a test batch in the months leading up to the wedding and then see how it lasts in the fridge. Since we were cooking for such a large range of diets for our wedding day, we decided to go italian with everything. It tends to be a good common ground that will make everyone happy, from carnivores to vegans.

2. Do you have enough fridge space?

We were cooking for 25 people. We have a pretty average sized fridge and it was totally full of saran wrapped casserole dishes.  We couldn’t have fit one more thing if we tried.  Beverages were out in the garage and in coolers to stay cold. By this logic, I would estimate 1 refrigerator per 25 people. (You definitely don’t want to make a bunch of food and then realize you don’t have anywhere to store it…)

3. Remember food safety.

Remember to properly refrigerate the food you cook in advance. Make sure to reheat it thoroughly on the day of the event. When you’re cooking in the days leading up to the event, make sure you arrange your fridge properly and put vegetables and cooked food higher up than raw meats, which should be at the bottom of the fridge (so you don’t end up getting chicken juice getting on your raw vegan appetizers).

4. Menu Planning:

As with all local cooking, it’s not a good idea to get too set on a specific thing.  I knew what I had in the pantry and the garden, so I had some ideas, but I also shopped at the farmers market the week before the cooking.

With all that in mind, here’s the menu we figured out, doing our best to highlight the local foods we have available in February:

Friday Dinner:

We didn’t bother with a rehearsal or a rehearsal dinner, but for Friday night, when we had some friends over to help set up the space for the ceremony the next day, we had big pots of vegan curries that are simple to make and can hold on low for hours and hours.

 

and for Saturday, the wedding day:

Breakfast, self-serve for all of the guests that stayed with us:

Appetizers:

  • Vegan Summer Rolls stuffed with local greens, served with Peanut Sauce
  • Crab Rangoon, made with local dungennes crab and spring onions
  • Local Cheese Plate

Dinner:

  • Lasagna with beef & pork ragu, made with our home canned tomato sauce
  • Stuffed shells with local chard, ricotta custard and black pepper chevre from my friends at Shamrock Artisan Cheese, topped with our tomato sauce.
  • Vegan Polenta Casserole with Mushroom Ragu (The link takes to to a similar recipe with a different filling. Same idea though).
  • Garden Salad with greens from Floodgate Farms and Lovin’ Mama Farms

Dessert:

  • Vegan Chocolate Cake with Vegan Buttercream Frosting

 

Since I can’t write a post this long and not share a recipe, I should probably tell you about my summer rolls and peanut sauce…. summer rolls with peanut sauceThis is such a great appetizer; they always make people super happy and taste great.  Plus, since it’s really mostly salad, your guests don’t end up eating a bunch of rich food right off the bad (….. because that means food comas and food comas don’t really make for a fun party).  Summer rolls are super labor intensive, but they can be made a day in advance as long as you cover each layer thoroughly with saran wrap.   My new sister-in-law and I rolled about 100 of them while we hung out together the day before the wedding and it really went pretty quick.

The Kitchn has an excellent post about wrapping summer rolls, so I’m not going to bother re-photographing everything they already did….

For the peanut sauce, I use an approximation of the following recipe. (I wanted to tell you an exact version, but I burned out the motor in my blender, so now I just have to estimate.  I’ve made it so many times that this should be really close, though.)

Peanut Sauce

Cook Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 c. freshly ground peanut butter, usually found in the bulk-food section of the grocery store
  • 1 red onion, roughly chopped
  • 1/2″ of peeled ginger root, roughly chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves
  • 2 or 3 hot peppers, depending on your heat preference (dried or fresh will both work)
  • 1/4 c. roughly chopped fresh cilantro
  • 1  c. orange juice
  • 2 tbs. soy sauce

Combine everything but the peanut butter in a blender.  Blend until smooth.  Add the peanut butter and blend again.* If the sauce is too thick for dipping, add some orange juice.  If it’s too thin and watery, add some more peanut butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste.  If it tastes too spicy, add some honey or sugar.  You can serve this immediately but it will hold in the fridge for several days.

*If you put in the peanut butter first, you’ll burn out motor in the blender.

Note: Next time I make peanut sauce, I’ll check the amounts on this recipe, but if someone else makes it first, please let me know how it goes.

 

How to Pull Off Your Own DIY Wedding, Pt. 1: Flowers

I just got married on Saturday. I’m pretty excited about it. first dance

Jason and I had been engaged for so many years that I can’t actually remember how long it’s been.  We’ve been together for ten years in May, and we had finally decided to set a date this last December.*  Neither of us was interested in a traditional big wedding, and we’ll all about DIY over here, so we pretty much did everything ourselves instead of hiring other people.

Over the next few weeks (meaning, when I have time to write everything), I’m going to share a series of posts about the various elements of the wedding, what we did, and how to plan it all in advance so that you don’t actually have to work on your wedding day.  The only thing I should really mention, though, is that we had such a tiny wedding that I know this information won’t really apply to a lot of couples who are having hundred(s) of people show up for their wedding.

For this post, I want to tell you about what we did for the flowers, with more to follow about the rest of the decor, our sweet little vegan wedding cake, how to self-cater everything in advance for a small group.  bridal bouquetWe got almost all of the food from local farms, but unfortunately there aren’t many local flowers to be had in Mendocino County during February.  Our farm just has a few random calendula blooms, nothing that you could turn into a bridal bouquet.  If it were the summertime, I would have absolutely just grown my own.  True, if I had planned in advance, I could have forced some bulbs in the greenhouse or something. I got my wedding dress four days before the wedding, though, so obviously growing my own flowers was just not in the cards for this.  The next best thing? The San Francisco Flower Mart. It’s a huge wholesale market for flowers that’s open to florists in the early morning hours, but then opens to the public at 10:00 a.m. The flowers are incredibly fresh, as local as I think is reasonable to expect in February, and the selection is fantastic.  Oh, and it’s dirt cheap. And there’s a parking lot right at the building. (You have to pay, but it’s only a couple bucks). bridal bouquetI live two hours away from San Francisco, out in the sticks, and I think it was totally worth the drive to go down and get a couple hundred bucks worth of flowers for bouquets and to decorate the house.   If you’re getting married, live nearish to SF, and want to arrange your own flowers, this is absolutely the route to take. During the summers, I would also suggest local farmers markets, but you probably knew I would say that.

Remember, if you’re shopping for flowers at a market like this, it helps to bring a couple big buckets with water in them so that you can keep the flowers fresh while you drive them back home.  If you get really fresh flowers, they’ll probably last about a week if you keep them in plenty of water and in a cool space.

As far as making your arrangements look nice, it really is up to you. I like a combination of lots of shapes, sizes and colors, but sometimes a bunch of all one variety can look beautiful too. You have to just keep a really open mind when you’re shopping and pick out things that you think look pretty. _MG_2685The day before the wedding, my sisters and one of my girlfriends put together bouquets and decorated the house.  Obviously, they were all in mason jars, (which is potentially an overused trend, but when you make jam for a living and have shelves and shelves filled with jars, it certainly seems like an obvious choice).  As stereotypical as it was for a bunch of girls to sit around playing with flowers, I don’t care, because it was awesome. Of course, it might not be right for all brides, but I could never imagine paying someone else to sit and arrange flowers for me. wedding flowers

So, that was the simplest bit of information to tell you about…. I have a bunch of really great recipes that I can’t wait to share for all the delicious food we made.  I need to go sleep some more, though, since apparently I’m still hungover, two days later.

*If you have a long engagement and then randomly decide to get married, everyone is going to think you’re pregnant. True story. FYI: I’m not pregnant.

Lavender Sugar Scrub

I dunno about you, but my hands have been seriously ragged looking.  Dirt under my nails, calluses, scratches and scrapes…  It can be a wonderful thing to spend your life growing things, to stand in a giant patch of mammoth sunflowers and pumpkin vines and feel like you helped bring a magical little spot into existence.  But then you look down at your hands and it can be horrifying.  Sunflowers seem so pretty, but I wonder if they’re secretly some kind of vampire that sucks the life force out of youthful skin.

The solution: this lovely lavender-olive oil-sugar scrub.

This exfoliating, moisturizing skin treatment comes together so quickly and really does wonders for your skin.
Plus, fancy spas have exfoliating treaments like this that can be priced as high as, oh… $165.  Imagine you’re at a resort somewhere and you’re reading their spa menu and you see:

Body Polish

Nourish and exfoliate your skin with this soothing treatment.  Organic sugar exfoliates and resurfaces your skin while extra virgin olive oil replentishes moisture.  Fresh picked lavender blossoms calm tired nerves and transport you to a place of total tranquility.

or something like that. You know what I mean.  Then, there’s some sky-high price tag, and even though the ingredients cost next to nothing, before you know it you’re dialing to the Spa to make and appointment because that sounds so awesome.

Well, the good news is that the ingredients really do cost next to nothing. Feeling relaxed, refreshed, clean and beautiful doesn’t have to mean that you can’t also feel like a thrifty, penny-pinching rockstar.

Lavender-Olive Oil Sugar Scrub

Time: 5 minutes

Ingredients:

  • 2 c. sugar
  • 1 c. extra-virgin olive oil*
  • 1/2 c. lavender blossoms**

In a mixing bowl, combine the lavender, sugar and olive oil.  Transfer to a jar.  Store in the fridge to make sure the fresh flowers in the mixture stay nice (it will be at peak quality for about a week).  If you don’t want to keep it in the fridge and worry about shelf life, use lavender oil instead of fresh lavender flowers.

So, the great thing about this recipe is that you can get really creative and put all kinds of other things in here, including:

  • sea salt
  • epsom salt
  • other oils: our local health-food store has a whole line of skin-care related oils, like jojoba, apricot kernel and more. I used olive oil because it’s cheap and I already had some.
  • fresh or dried citrus peels
  • dried flowers like rose petals, jasmine blossoms or elderflowers
  • a few drops of essential oil (though, if you’re using fresh lavender like this, you really don’t need any more scent)
  • oats
  • honey
  • any other fresh herbs you might have in your garden
To use the scrub:
Apply it to skin that’s already wet.  Scoop up a big handful and rub it all over your hands/ feet/ whatever part needs some tlc.  Gently massage the scrub over your skin for 30 seconds to a couple minutes, and then rinse off.  It will leave behind some olive oil, which you can either let soak into your skin (which is good if your skin is really dry) or rinse off with some mild soap.

* I don’t use local olive oil for this. I use the huge jugs of cheap olive oil from the discount grocery store that are $6 and probably-almost-certainly-not extra virgin.

**Fresh smells more amazing, but dried is fine too. Make sure they haven’t been sprayed, because you don’t really want to be rubbing weird chemicals all over your skin.

Get Me Some Crackers: The Cheese Roundup

Another month done, can you believe it?

The April Resolution was to make fresh cheese, and it sure was delicious.  I still can’t believe how simple it was to throw together a batch of ricotta, and now that I’ve done that I’m definitely hoping to start tackling some slightly more complicated cheeses.  I suppose that holds true for all of the challenges we’ve been doing– during February, I managed to make a successful loaf of bread, but I’m still working on it and just got the Tartine Bread cookbook in the mail.  My kitchen is cluttered with big bags of beautiful local durum wheat, barley and whole wheat flour that I’ve been experimenting with for a fresh pasta blend.  I’m still trying to find that local source of milk for butter, and it still hasn’t happened, but I’ll keep up my search.

I hope you guys are all learning as much as I am, and having fun eating the projects too….

anyway, without further adieu, I give you: cheese!

Farmers Cheese Four Ways, from Homemade Trade: Aimee, that chive cheese sounds right up my alley…  and your second batch does look an awful lot like paneer. Do you think you could fry it up in cubes, or was it too creamy still?

Fresh Cheese from Grow and Resist: in which Meg faces her fear of cooking milk and successfully pulls off a batch of fresh cheese.  (also: I can’t wait to hear about those rhubarb cocktails… )

Homemade Ricotta and a Super Secret Family Recipe for New York Cheesecake: This cheesecake looks absolutely divine. Seriously.  Let’s all meet at Julianne’s house for dessert, I’ll go fuel up the jet and come get you guys.

(Have you started fermenting things yet for this month’s challenge? The topic is so broad, I’m curious to see what everyone comes up with.  Remember, posts are due by June 15th, and anyone that’s new to the party is free to join at anytime.  Just e-mail me a link to the url of your post by the due date.  My e-mail is thejamgirl@gmail.com.)

Paula Deen Would Be Proud Of Us

The time sure flies when you’re having fun…

So far, Cook it! 2012 has brought us all shapes and sizes of handmade pastas, a beautiful assortment of breads, and the most recent undertaking, fresh sweet butter.

Truly, nothing really says luxury like warm bread slathered with butter made from the best grass-fed cream.   I still haven’t found a local source for dairy other than the natural food store, but hopefully something will appear soon.

Or…

Maybe I need to get a cow?

Or a goat?

As usual, I loved reading the collection of everyone’s projects.  It is a constant inspiration to see the great things that other people are cooking.

Belated Bread and Butter, from Snowflake Kitchen: a touching post about making bread and butter as kitchen therapy during sad times.

Butter, and Buttermilk Mashed Potatoes with Garlic Shrimp, from Homemade Trade:  Aimee, you had me at mashed yukon gold potatoes with fresh buttermilk.  That should be a food group all to itself.

Buttermaking, from Oh Briggsy: green garlic compound butter sounds like something I could eat on pretty much everything.  More importantly, this post managed to find the theme song for the March challenge: C.R.E.A.M., from the Wu Tang Clan.  (In case you don’t have it on your iPod already, it stands for “Cash Rules Everything Around Me,” which is perfect since making good butter requires the best quality cream, which really does involve shelling out the big money.  Nice song choice, Briggsy…)

Calendula Butter, from Bunchberry Farm and Dogwood Designs:  Lots of nice ideas for using calendula in this post, including a charming calendula butter.   (Scones + calendula butter + jam =  sure sounds good to me)

Homemade Butter and Buttermilk Rum Pound Cake, from Adventures of the Kitchen Ninja: that pound cake looks divine, and that stoneware bundt pan that you scored for free at the dump? I’m jealous.

(On How Not To) Make Butter, from Grow and Resist: My favorite part of this post is that me and Meg’s four year old had the exact same thought process.  Shaking the cream in a jar = boring.  KitchenAid mixer = powerful superior technology.  You could have had the exact same shot of me dumping the jar of cream into the mixer….
And with that, we move on to the April project: cheese!

Happy cooking, everyone…