Busy, busy!

So….because we didn’t have enough on our plate at the beginning of the year already, we decided to move the long-awaited Phase II Ranch Style 50’s Recovery Remodel to the top of the list.   And because that wasn’t enough, I decided to take on some part time consulting work to ease our pocketbooks AND get started on finally finishing my thesis (sigh).  Which, not surprisingly, is why its been almost 3 weeks since my last post – I have no creative energy to spare.  That and I’m working on making myself a less crazy, worried and neurotic person, which is ALOT of work, as anyone who spends enough time with me can attest.  In any event, I digress…back to Phase II of our remodel.

Our first home came to us from the late 50’s and early 60’s virtually untouched..like stepping into a gentler time full of pastels, ruffles and pine.  The former owners had lived in the home for over 50 years and had changed very little…except perhaps for some quirky additions here and there, consisting mainly of carpet and storage. LOTS of storage.  You need to store something? You should have bought our house.  Need storage above the shower? Why build a giant cabinet there!  Need storage in the hallway that connects the living room to the bedrooms? Build a closet there!  Need storage in your entrance room? Build an 8×8 foot walk-in closet there!  Need more storage in your master bedroom? knock down the wall and add a 3rd closet in there! Need more storage in the dining room? Build an ENTIRE wall of faux pine storage cabinets there! Need closet in the living room? Add a small wall of faux pine cubbies to match the cabinets in the dining room!  Perhaps after 50-60 years, I too will require that much storage.  However, M. and I are just starting out and I’m a purger with what amounts to a pathological fear of clutter and accumulation, so perhaps not.  Nothing personal against the really lovely folks who agreed to sell us their home and its 5 decades of happy memory energy – we just have different needs and aesthetics.

So out came the storage, along with a great deal of of pine paneling and most of everything else in the house (more on that later).  After 3 months of total destruction and chaos (think early 20th century slum), we had a home.  Not everything on our “to do” list was checked, but after months of working on and project managing an almost complete remodel (full of time consuming and expensive surprises), we were done.  Little things like the back patio, landscaping, kitchen cabinets and bathrooms would have to wait.  Since then, we have slowly been chipping away at that list. But the real work…the real game changer, second only to kitchen cabinets, is the bathroom remodel (bathrooms, actually).   Cut to present day, Part 1 of Phase II remodel – the master bath.  The first picture is our master bathroom in all of its late 50’s glory.  At the time of this photo, we hadn’t even bought the house yet.  However, its the only photo I have of it prior to the remodel.

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Below are pics of our bathroom in transition – like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly…or a dowdy fading human turning into a sleek monochromatic vampire…So Excited.

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This is the part where I mention that we haven’t technically completed the remodel yet 🙂

Stay tuned for pics of our glorious new bathroom in the coming days.  As a parting shot, I’ve included a pic of Rue below…because chickens are awesome creatures that prove you don’t always need a good reason to do something…sometimes you can perch on top of a door just because it looks fun and because you can.

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Hello Michelle, this is Close calling….

I like to think that 2013 is off to a bitchin start.  We are embarking on a whole new phase in our lives and have a solid plan on how to achieve our little homesteading dream.  I’m feeling engaged by all of my extracurriculars and am cautiously optimistic about finding a sustainable way to generate income that won’t compromise my values.  My friends and family are all happy, healthy and doing well and my chickens are fat, happy and laying.  Shoot, we even splurged and bought cookies for desert this evening – which we never do because we are sugar addicts and enablers.   Life is good.

But, as in all things, there is a balance.  Equilibrium, apparently, must be maintained in all things.  Good needs bad.  Dark needs light, and so on.    In my case, this “balance” has been achieved by robbing me of mine.  Entirely.  Totally.  Utterly.  I swear I have busted more ass in the first month of 2013 than in the last 5 years.  And not just in the little ways.  Not just tripping over hiking boots by my front door or getting my feet tangled in the viney remains of our St. Augustine and almost crushing the chickens.  I’m talking full-blown face plants and 4 points of contact straight to the ground at velocity.

Take,  for example, our 2nd ever Souf Side progressive potluck.   A progressive potluck is when you and select friends (the ones you happen to live closest to) eat a 5 course meal with one meal at each house, punctuated by frosty adult beverages and short but eventful bike rides to each domicile.  On the way to our house, I slipped (due in large part to the flip-flops I never wear when riding) and landed on my left toes, left knee, left hand and left elbow all at once, with my elbow and knee bearing the brunt of the fall.  It was brutal.  The kind of fall that leaves you queasy for 15 minutes after and makes you have to sleep on your right side all week, because you can’t comfortably lay on your left.  It was a sight to behold.  Yet….Somehow…..Nothing compared to the magnum opus face plant I experienced just a week prior.  Words do not adequately convey the annoying and unnecessary stupidity of that fall.  Luckily for you…Michel got it on video.  Of course.

Luckily for me, the ambient temperature was well below freezing and zero.  In other words, no need to hold a frozen pork chop to your face when its colder outside than frozen meat.

Nuclear compost…

Its been a really busy week so I’m going to wallow in my own laziness and just post random pics from our backyard ecosystem….

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This is what I rescued from the chichens the other day…they were having a happy tug of war in the compost bin.  Either we have really amazing compost or we haven’t quite cleared the 50’s era chemicals the previous owners used to keep “the yard under control”.

Below…our friendly neighborhood albino squirrel pilfering chicken feed from the chicken coop.

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Below…Rue in the midst of vociferous objection to my attempts to retrieve her fave new nesting materials…aka, my blue jeans.

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Below…Pepper is such a handsome chicken…I love…

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Wholly Cow!

Upon arriving home from a week long trip to balmy Wisconsin (more on that later) we, not surprisingly, were faced with an empty fridge and a serious case of the lazies.   So after a day of scrounging for desperate leftover meals a la stoned wheat crackers, butter and Tabasco (this was M’s idea, btw and he loved it), we decided to just eat out for dinner.   Luckily for us, it was Flauta night at one of our favorite local dives, Wholly Cow Burgers.  To my knowledge, they serve the only reasonably priced pasture-raised, grass-fed and finished local beef burgers in town.  Best of all, they taste amazing compared to any other burgers in Austin, not just happy beef burgers.

WC has two locations, one of which is located just down the street from us in the Zen Food Mart on South Lamar.  This means we don’t have to drive far and I can go there in my pajamas if I want to.  A note about atmosphere…this place is inside of a food mart and it’s about what you would expect.  If you are looking for mood lighting and ambiance perhaps the Congress location can provide the shi shi you are looking for (i.e. this is not a 3rd date destination).  However, the food and general laid back bad assedness more than make up for the overhead lighting and food mart atmosphere.  BONUS…every Tuesday is flauta night and for $6.50 you get 3 handmade beef or chicken flautas, beans and rice.  And if you think the burgers are good…then I’m just going to go ahead and say it.  The flautas ARE the best in town.  If you find a flauta you like better, let me know.  But these are the real deal.  Also…if you still aren’t convinced, I have a few words for you: Grass-Fed Beef Frito Pie.  I haven’t tried it yet.  But I’m really excited about it.

Below…because I missed my chickens…is a picture of Rue pretending to be a songbird or “percher”.  Chickens are not supposed to be able to do this…but she does. And yes, that is my clean laundry. Sigh.

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Chicken Fried Duck

If anyone out there needs any free range, completely organic, chemical/hormone free eggs…I have what you need and I can deliver it to your door, depending on what neighborhood you live in.  Half a dozen is $2 plus $1 dollar for delivery and a dozen is $4 plus $1 for delivery.  I can throw in $1 for delivery and still make it worthwhile because I ride a scooter full-time and usually only fill up my 3/4 gallon tank once a week – which amounts to approximately $3 per week.  So far, with zero accidents, a hefty tolerance for sweat and amazing cold weather gear, it has been quite a payoff,  the scooting.  The proceeds go to breaking even on the chicken feed for our 7 ladies, so that we can all enjoy amazing natural eggs at no cost.  A note: we only get 35-50 eggs a week, so supplies are limited.

In any event, one of the cooler things about my egg delivery is that you never know what you are going to get when you knock at the door.  In this case, it happened to be my very best friend’s gun totin, duck hunting neighbor freshly arrived from a crisp and clear day of huntin quacker.  In no time at all he generously offers me two of his red-headed quarry and I call it even on the eggs, resulting in a very good deal indeed for both of us.  He would have been out hunting anyway because he loves it and he can only eat so much duck….I would own chickens regardless of feed costs, so why not part with my eggs in exchange?

The red-headed duck dinner goes like this…(prep is based on Ruth Reichl’s fried chicken recipe in her book Tender at the Bone, but with some changes – thanks to M.’s mom for forwarding me the recipe!).

Take your poor plucked duck carcass and debone.  You can YouTube how to debone fowl or just wing it like me (pun!).

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When you are done you should have three piles:

1) bones, bits and carcass

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2) wings with meat and bone attached and random pieces of meat that didn’t come off with the breast

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3) a large pile of breast meat (the breasts should come off of the bone in the form of two big chunks, one from each side).  Dice up each breast chunk into slightly larger than bite size pieces.

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Discard pile #1.  We like to bury any meat leftovers in the backyard to avoid it going to the landfill.  It sounds weird (it is) and the neighbors might give you the stinkeye for digging yet another small grave in your backyard, but its way less messy than meat composting.  Also, there’s nothing quite like trying to fend off 7 chickens who initially go nuts for the worms, but then abscond at light speed with parts of the carcass.  Do I need to tell you how CREEPY it is to watch a chicken run off gleefully with a still-feathered duck wing in its beak?

Take pile #2 and put it in your favorite White Mountain Bulgarian Yogurt (whole milk, don’t you dare get the fat-free kind) to soak until cook-time, preferably overnight.

Pile no. 3 can be drenched in salt and then let sit for 2 hours.  After 2 hours, wash off the salt and plop it in garlic-jalapeno infused buttermilk  overnight.  The infusion is made by blending the jalapeno and garlic with the buttermilk – you’ll know its ready when the milk is a neon green 🙂

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When you are ready to cook, take out both sets of meat and drain off the respective yogurt and buttermilk.  It doesn’t have to be totally dry, just drained as well as possible.  Then coat each pile  generously with Tony Chacheri’s Cajun Seasoning.  Let sit (I like to let the meat get as close to room temp as possible for even cooking).  Then dredge the breast meat (pile #3) in pure cornstarch and fry in peanut or canola oil until crispy and done. When the breast meat is done, repeat the process with the wings and bits (pile #2).

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Try each piece repeatedly and remorselessly under the guise of “making sure its done”.  We aren’t very queasy about raw meat here so cook to your comfort level.  Let drain on a wire rack and then something that will soak up the oil.

Then tuck in with horseradish mashed potatoes and broccoli from your garden.  Enjoy!!!

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Baby steps….

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So as many of you know, its our goal, one day, to move out to the country and set up a little homestead of our own.  The end goal would be to build a wee lil cabin of modern design with found materials, with electricity (eventually), a well for water and composting toilets.  The cabin would be a mini-house of sorts and would, ideally, be completely self-sufficient.  Solar panels for electric, a well for water and a myriad of composting options for waste in its many forms.   We would have a large hugelkultur garden (hopefully large enough to feed us both) and chickens and goats for eggs, cheese, milk and butter.  Also, we want a grove of fruit/nut trees that do well in arid climates with a little water because we will be irrigating by hand and don’t plan to do much of it.  However, as you can imagine, this is not as easy as it seems and although we intend to build/install every bit of infrastructure ourselves, there is a lot to learn and it will take time and IMMENSE amounts of effort.  Until then it will be like camping…permanently.  I’ve told M. (this has always been his dream), that I need 2 things to be psychologically balanced in this kind of environment:

1) A bath house where I can step onto a clean floor and be warm while I bathe and have hot water.  It doesn’t have to be a lot of hot water, just a pot of it and a rag to wash with, but I need to be warm and I cannot be stepping onto a grimy slimy floor with my bare feet – this is non negotiable.  And it’s not necessarily about being clean (well the floor thing is, UGH – slimy wet bathroom floors – can’t  handle!), because my standards have dropped considerably of late and I consider it a good thing.  People find all kinds of psychological comfort in all manner of things, alcohol, food, sleep, exercise (ok all of those are me too); but I HAVE to be warm sometimes.  It is a comfort threshold I’m not ready to cross yet and this damp-ass winter is not helping.

2) I need to keep some luxuries.  Though the goal may be complete self-sufficiency, it’s going to take time and there are some things we cannot provide for ourselves.  The climate precludes growing our own cacao for my 73.5% chocolate wafers or coffee beans for my Americano’s.  I will work on the grapes and we hope to have grain or potatoes, but in the interim, I want to be able to have a cocktail on the weekends.  And frankly, we will be living on a pittance and forsaking other luxuries, so on balance, I’m going to keep these little crutches and any judgment that may come my way from the purists.

See…2 eensy weensy little requests.  Not much to ask in my opinion.  And, let’s be clear.  This may have always been M.’s dream, but it’s always been mine too.  For me, it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a blessing.  A chance to live the kind of life I knew and loved as a child on my grandmother’s ranch.  And now I get to try to have it, but not just for a summer.   Because ultimately, this is move is more than just a pipe dream.  I’m aware of the amount of work and time involved in building and maintaining this way of life.  It may be a simple life, but it’s SO much more “work” than that 9-5, I dreaded.  But I’m ok with that….shit, I’m excited about it.    This is about a lifestyle change. A chance to spend my waking hours in a way that finds me fulfilled at the end of the day; as opposed to staying up until midnight to feel like I “had a day” because it really only began when I got home from work.  It’s not for everyone and it shouldn’t have to be, but it’s for me.

Below are pics of our garden in all its bounty (I’m so proud!).  The bed of greens is our first hugelkultur bed experiment.  It’s exciting to have a garden that takes care of itself now.  We put the chicken poop in our compost for fertilizer and the chichens patrol the perimeter of the garden for bugs and weeds, so no chemicals here.  Which gives us awesome greens.  Which we eat, but the scraps go to the chickens.  Who in turn give us delicious eggs and more poop for our garden again.  Which gives us awesome greens again.  Now add more chickens, with more poop, and a much bigger garden with more water efficient beds…and we’re getting there.  Baby steps…

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Random Ad Hoc Dinner

We were starving.  Its been 40 degrees and raining for days now – not exactly scooter weather.  So if you think I was about to take my happy ass to the store in this weather then you’re crazy and you don’t know me or my comfort thresholds at all.  We are half a mile from Central Market, mind you, but no matter, cold is cold and rain is rain.  Also, M. has been busy, as has been his heated truck.  And M. won’t go to the store without prompting.  M. is like a camel.  He can go hours, days, weeks without food.   Example:  M. is about to leave  on a 3 day hiking/camping trip in the middle of the Texas Summer and I have to remind him to even bring water…repeatedly…as in running down the driveway with the canteen he left on the counter for the 3rd time.  Never mind food.  He will just figure it out as he goes.  Because he never gets hungry.  UNTIL….food presents itself.  If food is present, he will stop at nothing else to exhaust the resources at hand…like a locust.  Inarguably an evolutionary advantage 500,000 years ago.  Now, it is a plague upon my fridge.  Cut to Monday night.  We were starving.  So I broke down, as I always do.  In the showdown to see who can hold out on food the longest, M. always wins.  But, I must admit that these lean moments, followed by the flush of newly bought groceries, provoke inspiration.  And behold…Ad Hoc Desperation Enchiladas.

Supplies:

Structure:

1 package El Milagro Corn Tortillas (these have to be corn so they can decompose while you cook the dish – flour will end up chewy and will mess with the Wa of your dish)

1 can Amy’s Organic Refried Beans

1 container of 3 cheese blend

Sauce:

Olive oil

White Mountain Bulgarian Yogurt (Whole Milk – don’t you dare use the zero fat version)

Pickled jalapenos and juice (we used homemade and yes I’m lording my DIYness over you)

Almond Milk

Nutritional yeast

Your favorite salsa (right now mine is Jose T. Garcia’s Medium – simple and cheap)

Cumin

Chile Powder

Hungarian Smoked Paprika

Sage

Oregano

Salt

1 clove garlic

1 heaping spring pinch of cilantro

Bacon fat (you should always have a jar of this in your fridge from leftover brunches – if you don’t, you need to have more brunches – stat)

Method (Note: I NEVER measure – I do EVERYTHING to taste.  This is why I’m a shitty baker, but a great improviser.  Measurements below are vague memories of my experimentation.  Use your own best judgement (i.e. common sense), based on what you like, to make your sauce tasty and for god’s sake if you don’t like cilantro, then don’t use it.

Sauce

Combine in a bowl, the olive oil (3 glugs), yogurt (0.5 cup), 2-3 heaping tablespoons of the pickled jalapenos (along with 2-3  glugs of the juice), salsa (1 tablespoon), nutritional yeast (1 heaping tablespoon), cumin (1 teaspoon), chile powder (1.5 teaspoons), smoked paprika (0.5 teaspoon), sage (generous pinch), oregano (generous pinch), one clove garlic, cilantro and salt to taste.

Now blend that goodness up with your amazing Cuisinart Smart Stick Hand Blender (almost the best thing to ever happen to my kitchen).  If it seems too thick for your taste, then add almond milk.  The consistency you’re looking for is akin to a thick gravy.

Structure & Delivery

Now, find a small terrine (I use my glass pyrex tupperware containers) and smear the bottom and side of the terrine with bacon fat.  Pour a little of your newly blended sauce into the bottom – enough to cover it and the fat.  Then tear up corn tortillas and add your base layer (enough to cover the bottom).  Next smear your beans on top of the tortilla layer and add a layer of 3 cheese mix and more sauce.  Repeat until you reach the top.  You want your last layer to be cheese, so plan ahead for that.  Put your concoction in the toaster oven at about 400 degrees for about 15 minutes or until you can see stuff bubbling up from the bottom and your cheese on top is golden brown.

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For funsies, I like to add a little salsa and yogurt on top while serving.  I know this dish seems like alot of steps, but its supposed to be fun and it shouldn’t take you longer than 15 minutes (from start to the beginning of baking), if you have all of the ingredients.  I like to drink Real Ale’s Devil’s Backbone whilst cooking this dish, by the way.  Don’t succumb to the temptation to drink Mexican style beer because this is a Mexican inspired dish.  Its cold and rainy outside and its a rich, spicy and acidic dish.  Trust me on this one.

Hipster Chicken Lays an Egg

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Fanny laid our first family egg on Thanksgiving day.  Never mind that we (as you can see in my previous post) have provided the ladies with 5 roomy, well-nested, pristine, dark and secure laying boxes… they didn’t want those boxes.  After an insultingly brief inspection of said nesting boxes, punctuated by very vocal objections, they were deemed simply not good enough and no amount of coaxing, placing, cajoling or baiting could get Fanny to sit in one of those boxes.  And so began her search for the perfect nest.  I always wondered if I would know when the ladies were ready to lay and let me just say that if you have ever seen an almost laying chicken looking for an appropriate nest, you WILL know…god you will hear it that’s for sure. If Fanny’s behavior is any indication, it must be like having to go to the bathroom at work and finding all the stalls occupied; or worse yet, like when someone has been sitting in that middle stall for half an hour and all you want is some peaceful solitary toilet time, but dammit if it doesn’t turn in to a showdown of who is going to make the first embarrassing noise.  By the looks of her, it MUST be at least that desperate  because no corner, nook, cranny, roof, ledge, bush or wheelbarrow was overlooked in the search for the perfect nest.  All day this search lasted, accompanied by a great deal of very alarmed and very unsatisfied clucking.  But finally, FINALLY after the 14th inspection, Fanny had found her nest…in quite possibly the most ill-suited location in the entire yard…the only place worse would be the fire pit (not surprisingly a close second for Ms. Fanny). And from that location she would not be budged.  Not only would our Hipster Chicken not be budged, but all of the other chickens took note and nothing else would do for any of them.  Oh,  “just move the bike to the front yard” you say…oh really?

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Despite multiple rescue attempts by the ladies, our favorite vintage road bike was finally and permanently sequestered to one of the metal sheds out back.  Shortly thereafter the ladies did finally settle into the nesting boxes.  Or box rather…singular.  Only one…that one on the far left. That one box between seven chickens.  Of course.

Me loves my…..

Custom built chicken palace…a.k.a Coop De Grace

Dimensions: 6ft wide, 12ft long, 8ft tall at highest point, 6ft tall at lowest point

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Features:  Peekaboo single leaf – double pane barn door; elevated solid wood roosting box with round porthole and interior mini access door to coop, 6 nesting boxes and 2 roosting bars; 5 gallon double chicken nipple waterer; removable ramp; two extra large exterior access points to elevated roosting box and two interior access point for ingress/egress and easy cleaning.

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Why its the ultimate in backyard coopery:

  1. This thing is totally critter proof.  Racoons would need a chainsaw and tinsnips to break into the roosting box, as its made of .5 solid untreated ply wood.  The barn door has a latch on each pane, both of which would have to be triggered for access to the coop and even then, there is a mini door to the roosting box with yet another latch.  We trenched 12 inches of chicken wire into rock solid clay-kalichi – the coop is bombproof even after a deluge.
  2. No need to set foot in the coop to clean the roosting box.  The roosting box is as wide as a standard rake is long, enabling you to take a few swipes with a garden rake from the outside of the coop for cleaning.  At 6ft tall at the lowest point, no need to stoop to clean inside the coop – similarly the bottom of the elevated roosting box is waist high – no need to stoop or bend to clean the roosting box either.

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3. It looks amazing.  The picture speaks for itself.  Form and function combine to provide a safe, functional and downright architectural aesthetic to your backyard…

Photo by: Erik Moore

Photo by: Erik Moore

For more information on custom built coops, please contact me at:

mkphares@gmail.com