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A chicken question. January 31, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, gardening, homesteading.
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No, our friend Ben does not want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Hint: It was the egg.) What I would like to know is this: Backyard chicken keepers everywhere, what are your setups like? How many chickens do you have, and what breed(s) are they? Do you also keep a rooster? Do your chickens have an enclosed yard, or do you let them run free? What sort of coop do you have? And how well do you (and your chickens) like your setup?

Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are quite happy with our kennel-fence enclosed chicken yard and coop, and our six heritage-breed chickens enjoy it, too. But over the years, I’ve read about many an interesting and ingenious setup, and last night, it occurred to me that I’d never really heard about them firsthand. Our friends Delilah and Chaz keep a tiny flock of three chickens in a churchlike coop with a heated floor (!), and a gardener I know keeps his fancy bantam flock in a one-of-a-kind designer coop, but they’re the only other backyard chicken keepers I know.

So how about it? Please tell all! Who knows, you may inspire other readers to get their own little backyard flock. (If they could just taste our flock’s rich, apricot-yolked eggs, I know they’d all get a few hens of their own. Chickens are easy-care, personable, and fun, a perfect complement to a backyard food garden.) Let us hear from you!

Ben Picks Ten: Veggies I’d Like to Grow January 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, homesteading.
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8 comments

Every winter, when the seed and nursery catalogues start to arrive, our friend Ben’s eyes get way bigger than my stomach. Here at Hawk’s Haven, the cottage home Silence Dogood and I share in the precise middle of nowhere, Pennsylvania, there just isn’t all that much room left for planting. We have three vegetable beds, one of which is given over to perennial veggies like asparagus, rhubarb, and horseradish, plus the greenhouse bed. The rest of the property is heavily planted with various fruits and ornamentals. With the best will in the world, there’s only so much I can plant. But mercy, everything looks so appealing!

What to do? Our friend Ben relies on Silence to apply the commonsense brakes to the actual seed and plant orders. But I allow myself to make up an additional list of things I’d like to plant, choosing whatever strikes my fancy. This is great, since limiting factors like climate, space, budget, and amount of sunlight no longer matter. Anything goes! Here are ten favorites from this year’s fantasy vegetable order, plus, of course, some bonuses:

1. ‘Roblin’ hard red spring wheat. Silence and our friend Ben fantasize about growing our own wheat patch and making artisanal bread from our fresh-harvested organic wheat, so I enjoyed reading about this variety in the Wood Prairie Farm catalogue (www.woodprairie.com).

2. ‘Lion’s Mane’ mushrooms. Another dream that we hope to make a someday reality is growing our own mushrooms. The Abundant Life Seeds catalogue (www.abundantlifeseeds.com) offers a wonderful assortment of mushrooms as kits or plugs. Our friend Ben was much struck by the ‘Lion’s Mane’ (Hericium erinaceus) after reading the description: “Some say that the flavor is similar to lobster. A great variety to fry up with some garlic or shallots.” Yum!!!

3. ‘Hopi Blue’ corn. Our friend Ben and Silence would love to grow enough corn to grind our own cornmeal, since homemade cornbread, cornpone, corncakes, and corn muffins are much-loved around here. This one’s never gonna happen—we simply don’t have the space. But reading about the revered, even legendary, ‘Hopi Blue’ flour corn in the Seeds of Change catalogue (www.seedsofchange.com) made our friend Ben long to get some: “Widely adaptable and drought-tolerant, this venerable and beloved flour corn has been raised by the Hopi people for over 800 years. Makes a deliciously sweet cornmeal.” Sigh.

4. ‘Jester Hybrid’ millet. Our friend Ben loves the idea of growing a garden for the birds, but in reality, setting aside space for ornamental millet is not high on my list of gardening priorities. Nonetheless, the glorious photo and description of ‘Jester’ millet in the venerable Burpee catalogue (www.burpee.com) really caught my eye: “A ‘chameleon’ in sun or shade, Jester’s foliage color magically changes as the plant grows; young leaves are bright chartreuse with an overlay of burgundy. As the season progresses, the dramatic, harlequin-like coloring slowly gives way to burgundy until, by summer’s end, it turns a bronze wine color. Adding to its interest, 12″ corn-like tassels burst from the tops of the plants in summer, lasting well into fall.” Sounds like a great plant to add drama to a container!

5. ‘Golden Giant’ amaranth. Maybe you’re getting the idea that grain plants are high on our friend Ben’s fantasy list. The massive, gorgeous golden heads of this grain amaranth, discovered in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds catalogue (www.rareseeds.com), made our friend Ben positively drool. I would simply love to grow a mixed plot of many-colored amaranths, corn, broom corn, sunflowers, and millet. What a glorious sight, and what an amazing treat for the birds!

6. ‘Lambkin Hybrid’ melon. It’s hard for our friend Ben to justify taking the enormous amount of space required to grow melon vines in our limited raised beds, even for our beloved heirloom ‘Moon and Stars’ watermelon, so for now, ‘Lambkin’ must remain on the fantasy list. But seeing the gorgeous green-mottled, bright yellow melons with their “sweet and aromatic” white flesh in the Park Seed catalogue (www.parkseed.com) almost made me lose my resolve. This one may be even more beautiful than ‘Moon and Stars’!

7. ‘Rainbow’ hybrid carrot. Our friend Ben and Silence love carrots, shredded or sliced into salads, cut for dips, as a simple side dish or enlivening a curry or stew—let us count the ways. But carrots require deep, loose, stone-free soil and even moisture to grow well, neither of which is likely to be found in our Hawk’s Haven gardens, so they remain on the fantasy list. Our friend Ben loves colorful carrots like ‘Purple Dragon’ and ‘Yellowstone’, but was amazed to read the description of ‘Rainbow’ in the Nichols Garden Nursery catalogue (www.nicholsgardennursery.com): “Unique, this single variety produces yellow, light orange, dark orange, coral, and white 7″ to 8″ roots. Each of these extra sweet colors has a slightly different flavor, all good.  Makes a beautiful shredded carrot salad or relish tray. This is an actual variety not a blend of different colors.” Bring it on!

8. Jerusalem artichokes. Also called “sunchokes,” the nutty-flavored tubers of this sunflower relative are good peeled and sliced raw in salads or added to Chinese-style stir-fries, but in our friend Ben’s opinion, are simply irresistible when pickled Pennsylvania Dutch style. Our friend Ben loves perennial veggies that only need to be planted once, require no further care, and yield abundant harvests year after year thereafter. In the case of Jerusalem artichokes, you get abundant yellow mini-sunflowers as a bonus. I was admiring them yet again in the Jung Seeds & Plants catalogue (www.jungseed.com) when Silence stopped me dead in my tracks. That’s because Jerusalem artichokes spread vigorously, which is a nicely euphemistic way of saying they’re kudzu-like weeds that you’ll never get rid of once you plant them, much like another of my favorite plants, burdock. So for now, they remain on the fantasy list. But who knows, one of these growing seasons I may sneak a tuber or two into our Cultivated Wild Meadow in front of the Pullet Palace…      

9. Colorful eggplants. Our friend Ben has had no luck at all growing eggplant, though I’ve tried for many years. I believe it has to do with the dreaded watering issue (faithful readers may recall that we have to haul water out to our gardens in gallon plastic milk jugs, meaning that our enthusiasm for watering is minimal at best). Whatever the case, eggplants simply don’t like us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t like them: baba ghannouj, eggplant Parmesan, eggplant in garlic sauce, and eggplant rollatini are some of our all-time favorite foods. So our friend Ben was immediately captivated by two seed collections from Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com), “Asian Trio” and “Italian Trio.” The Asian Trio features long, slender dark purple ‘Little Fingers’, magenta ‘Farmer’s Long’, and lavender-white ‘Asian Bride’. The Italian Trio features fat, teardrop-shaped purple-black ‘Nadia’, magenta ‘Beatrice’, and the aptly named rose-and-white ‘Rosa Bianca’.

10. Colorful cauliflower. Aaarrgghhh, here’s another one. Our friend ben and Silence simply adore broccoli, but we love broccoflower, the lime-green, cauliflower-like broccoli relative, even more. And we’re captivated by the bright orange and purple cauliflowers as well. But we simply can’t justify using our limited raised-bed space to grow veggies that require as much pampering as cauliflower (read: even soil moisture throughout the growing season and cool growing conditions), not to mention justifying the space for the amount of harvest. So our friend Ben has added the Rainbow Cauliflower Mixture from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds catalogue (www.kitchengardenseeds.com) to my fantasy list. Here’s why: “We know that not everyone has a garden large enough to grow scads of each colorful variety, so we created this special mixture of purple, orange-yellow, lime-green and white cauliflower seeds.” Just reading that is enough to make me want to rush to the farmers’ market and buy a head of each!

And the bonuses:

11. ‘Deco Mix’ ornamental cucumber. Our friend Ben and Silence buy adorable ornamental gourds for our fall Harvest Home display every year, and we’ve seen some fascinating ornamental eggplants like ‘Plum Granny’. (In these cases, “ornamental” means inedible and decorative, not decorative and edible like so many vegetables.) But I’d never come across “ornamental” cukes before this year. Unlike edible cukes, the ornamental kinds are as long-lasting as gourds. And our friend Ben can guarantee that you’ll astound not just your family and friends but pretty much everybody if you grow them! I happened upon the ‘Deco Mix’ in the Territorial Seed Company catalogue (www.territorialseed.com), but I know I found a mix of decorative cukes in another catalogue, too. So keep your eyes open!

12. Sweet potatoes. This is another of Silence’s and our friend Ben’s all-time favorite veggies, whether we’re eating them baked to perfection with butter and salt, in sweet potato souffle, or chunked and roasted with other root veggies. (We confess to a positive addiction to sweet potato fries, as well, though even Silence wouldn’t try to cook them at home.) Given our climate and growing season, we’re not likely to try anything more ambitious than the fabled sweet potato vine in the jar of water. But we were excited to see that the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalogue (www.johnnyseeds.com) carried ‘Beauregard’, an orange-fleshed sweet potato that apparently matures fast and is a winner in both North and South. Maybe someday, we’ll get brave enough to try white-, red-, and yellow-fleshed sweet potatoes, but for now, we’ll stick to the deep orange kinds and bake them ’til the flesh shreds away from the skin and caramelizes. Just add butter and salt! 

Needless to say, our friend Ben compiles lists of fruits, flowers, shrubs, trees, vines, grasses, and more every year, too. I’ll cover some of this year’s fantasy selections in future posts. For now, please share some of your fantasy veggies (or favorite veggie catalogues we’ve missed) with us!

Frugal dip tip. January 29, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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3 comments

Silence Dogood here. If you cook from scratch like I do, you don’t want to waste a drop of the good food it took you an hour or so to prepare. I like to make enough of foods that keep well for our friend Ben and myself to be able to eat them for two meals (stretched several days apart and with varied side dishes). That tends to be easier in cold weather.

Just this week, OFB and I had pasta casserole on Friday and the following Thursday (I made two); we had chili and rice on Monday and chili and hot-from-the-oven cornbread on Wednesday (Ben wanted to have it again on Tuesday—it’s that good—but I made him skip a day). I like this system because it lets me focus on making the main dish one night, with fairly simple sides, and focus on more interesting sides the next time I serve it, since the main dish just needs to be heated.

However, even with the best will in the world, sometimes there’s a little bit left. Even our friend Ben can’t eat more than two big bowls of chili or black bean soup at a sitting. Sure enough, there was 2/3 of a cup of chili left in the pot. Last night, much as both of us love cooked spinach, there was about 3/4 cup left in the pan. We often end up with less than a cup of refried beans or thick black bean soup or dal when I make those, too. It’s less than you could make a meal with, even for lunch. But I hate to throw it out. So I make these leftovers into delicious dips.

Refrigerated, the thick black bean soup, refried beans, chili, and dal become quite thick. They’re the perfect consistency for a luscious dip. Topped with your choice of shredded cheese, sour cream, and/or salsa, those dabs of black bean soup, refried beans, or chili make just enough dip for tortilla chips for two (or for one starving Ben while waiting for supper to get ready). The dal makes a fabulous dip for hot pita wedges or naan all by itself or topped with a dab of chutney.

And the cooked spinach? Reheat, add a couple of minced artichoke hearts, cream cheese, and some shredded Swiss or white Cheddar, stir over low heat until thoroughly blended, sprinkle with salt or Trocamare and paprika, and you have the wildly popular spinach and artichoke dip served in many restaurants. (If you really want to duplicate the restaurant style, run it under the broiler for a few minutes so the top browns before serving.)

Because you’ve spent a lot of time seasoning your various bean dishes or dal, you’ll end up with an out-of-this-world dip that beats any storebought version hands down. And how wonderful to put that spinach into a dip everyone loves rather than throwing it into the compost pile. Waste not, want not, eh? Needless to say, if you have a little leftover diced bell pepper and/or scallion (green onion), you can add them to the bean dips to make them even better. Yum!

That’s it for me. If you have any dip tips to share, I’d love to hear them!

            ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

Ben Picks Ten: Tips for Collectors January 28, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben was just reading an article on what collectors should do if they needed to or decided to sell their collections in these tough economic times. It immediately made me think about the things collectors shouldn’t do. As a lifelong collector whose passions run the gamut from Pueblo pottery and numismatics to fossils and marbles, I have seen collectors make a lot of mistakes over the years—and have made plenty of them myself. Follow these tips, and you can indulge your interests without coming to grief (or financial ruin):

1. Start small. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get excited about a new hobby and start spending big bucks before you know what you’re doing. Instead, when you’re just getting into a hobby, spend a little on the stuff you want to collect and earmark most of your early money for books. Yes, every expert and book will tell you to buy the best example of something you can afford rather than a bunch of lesser stuff. But (see #11, below) maybe the bunch of stuff will make you happier than just one thing. And maybe you don’t yet know enough to buy something expensive. And maybe you just want to buy stuff you like. Buy that $8 jar of buttons or marbles, and wait to buy an $80 button or marble until you’re sure you want to and you know what you’re getting.

2. Book up. Say what? If you’re not a book collector, spending money on books when you could be buying stamps, vintage hubcaps, Colonial stoneware crocks or whatever may seem like a waste. But it would be far more of a waste to spend bazillion dollars on a “priceless” addition to your collection, only to find out when it was time to sell that it was worth a pittance. There are books for collectors on most hobbies—look for them on Amazon, at sites that sell the stuff you’re collecting, in bookstores, and at flea markets and antiques malls. Don’t overlook your local library as a source of books, though they may be older; used book stores are also a good source of older books at discount. Some hobbies, such as numismatics (coin collecting), have magazines and newsletters devoted to them, too. Buy some of the latest issues at a Borders or Barnes & Noble (or, if your passion is John Deere memorabilia, at a Tractor Supply), and read up. I feel that learning about your hobby is as interesting and exciting as collecting the things that interest you. And of course it will save you money.

3. Look up. Remember that sales sites can be considered sources of education. For absolutely no outlay of cash on your part, you can explore eBay and sites that sell the stuff you want to collect, noting what people are identifying as what and how they’re valuing it. When our friend Ben began collecting marbles, I found several sites that simply showcased people’s private collections or identified a given marble company’s marbles by name and type. Often, the photos were better than the ones in my marble books, and there were lots more examples to check out. I also check marble and Pueblo pottery sales sites regularly, even if I’m not buying, just to learn from the identifications.

4. Hook up. No, not like that, unless what you’re collecting is notches in your belt, in which case keep it to yourself, please. What you should be doing is talking to real live collectors who know a lot more about your hobby than you do. Not only is it informative and educational, it’s fun to talk to fellow fanatics, especially when everyone you know thinks you’re bizarre to collect baseball cards or Betty Boop cartoons or Elvis memorabilia. Most hobbies have both national and local organizations; if you’re a joiner, seek and ye shall find. If, like our friend Ben, you’re not a joiner, you can hook up with other collectors and experts in other ways. Go to shows and sales, venture into antiques shops, look for forums and chat boards. Sellers who are passionate about what they’re selling are often willing to share their hard-won knowledge with you, especially when they see that you really love what they’re selling and have taken the time to learn something about it. Forums can be very welcoming, but if you don’t want to create an identity and get involved, you can still learn tons from seeing what others are posting. Whether you’re speaking to someone in person or on a forum, however, please for mercy’s sake be respectful! Whatever you think you know, there’s no law saying that you have to share it and contradict the person who’s trying to help you. Unless someone specifically and genuinely asks for your opinion, our friend Ben thinks the wisest course of action in these cases is this: “The alternative to the truth is silence.” And FYI, this is true in life as well as in collecting.

5. Bring the salt along. Having said all this, don’t believe everything you read, see, or hear. Our friend Ben has seen contemporary marbles passed off as priceless antiques, newly made arrowheads sold as genuine artifacts, mass-produced pottery pawned off as handmade, worthless or even fake coins sold as investments, and on and on and on. Marbles can be buffed or polished to remove flaws, coins can be treated to remove wear and even acidfied to produce the marvelous rainbow colors known as “toning,” a gorgeous side effect of age in an unaltered coin. The same is true of every hobby. Caveat emptor: Let the buyer beware. Wherever you go, be it a website, a show, or a store, take that grain of salt along with you. Maybe the vendors believe what they’re telling you, and maybe they don’t. But in either case, it’s up to you to sort the grain from the chaff, the sheep from the goats. And the only way to do that is to learn as much about your hobby as you can.

6. Learn what other collectors value. Sometimes, rarity doesn’t equate to increased value. If an item’s so rare that collectors don’t recognize it, it may be worth much less than a comparatively common item that’s hot. Almost always, perfect condition is a value and price booster. Our friend Ben doesn’t mind signs of wear, as long as they don’t detract from the overall aesthetics of a piece, since to me wear places a collectible squarely in its place in history. As a result, I’ll sometimes buy something most collectors wouldn’t, at a bargain price. But I don’t ever delude myself into thinking I can trade up on whatever it is or even sell it at all. It’s something I love and want, and that’s the end of it. 

7. Remember the “guide” part of price guides. Many hobbies produce price guides that supposedly show you what various collectibles are worth. But when it’s time to sell off your stuff, just try to get book value for it. Price guides are educational in terms of valuing one item in a collection against others, but they’re anything but a guarantee of absolute as opposed to comparative value. When you’re buying, a price guide can help you evaluate different objects. When you’re selling, expect to get about 50% less for your collectibles than the guides say. And please, use common sense here! A guide that’s a decade or even a year old will not show current values. Keep up with what’s current by checking eBay, auctions, online sale sites, hobby magazines, and the latest version of the price guides.

8. Don’t buy what you don’t like. I don’t care if somebody tells you that that hideous vase is worth $50,000, or that sulphide marble is worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. You’re all too likely to be stuck with it. Instead, put your money where your heart is. Then, even if your “priceless” collectible turns out to be mass-produced, you’ll still have it and love it. And obviously, again, the more you know about something before you buy, the happier you’ll be with the results. Better to buy a “sleeper” you love and think might increase in value than a top-of-the-line item you loathe, as long as you know not to overpay for the sleeper. 

9. Don’t get carried away. Like any addiction, a hobby you love passionately, be it toy trains or Da Vinci originals, can spell your financial ruin. No matter how scarce they may seem, it’s likely that collectibles will always be available to you. Use the good sense God gave you and budget accordingly. Can’t afford that Jaguar XKE this year? Trust me, there will be another one. Put your purchase in perspective before you put your family and financial well-being at risk. There is bound to be something less ruinous that you can buy to keep your collecting habit alive until you can afford the ultimate.

10. Rotate your collection. If you can see everything you have at a glance, be it Audubon prints or antique chess pieces, you’ll stop seeing your collection at all and long for new things. Keep a few Tibetan “singing bowls” or shells or vintage guitars on display, then swap them off every few months for others in your collection. This will not only keep your enjoyment fresh, it will also keep you in touch with what you actually have, so you don’t waste money duplicating other stuff already in your hoard.

And finally, the bonuses:

11. Don’t catch a fire. Let’s say you’re bidding on eBay. You’re in the lead, and are looking forward to becoming the proud owner of whatever it is. Then, near the end of the auction, someone else puts in a bigger bid. You bid up, but they’re still ahead. Hey, you wanted that! You can’t let it get away! Before you know it, you’ve bid twice what you originally set as your limit (you did set a limit before bidding, didn’t you?!), and now you’ve won the item. You feel that sickening sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as you realize that you were so caught up in the moment that you’ve ended up paying not just more than the item was worth, but more than you could comfortably afford. Before you ever place a bid, decide your maximum price, and don’t go over it by more than a dollar or two no matter what. Walk away; put that fire out. Unless the item is the capstone to your collection, the one must-have piece, you can do without it. It may not seem like it in the heat of bidding, but there are more, and you will eventually find them at a price you like. Practice walking away and see how quickly you forget whatever it was. If you need to, and you’re in a local store, tell yourself that you can always come back (or call and buy the item). If a day or a week later, you’ve forgotten all about it, that’s money well saved. 

12. Don’t let the ones that matter get away. Our friend Ben is not suggesting that you grossly overpay to get something you want. But if you really fall in love with something, don’t leave the store or website without asking yourself if you’ll remember it as “the one that got away.” There are three things our friend Ben did not buy when I saw them and loved them, all because I felt they were somewhat extravagant. I have never stopped regretting them, even decades later. In retrospect, the money spent would have been worth it in terms of my happiness. Don’t let this happen to you.

13. Trade up. Tastes change. Don’t ever feel like you’re stuck with your collection. As you learn more and your tastes mature, you may want to trade in some of the earlier things you bought for something better. Just do it! Now that you have a better idea of what you have, you may even feel embarrassed to take your “junk” to an antiques dealer, flea market, or eBay store. Just remember that everybody has to start at the beginning. Maybe you’ll lose some money, but you’ll free up space and money for new collectibles. Go for it!

14. Never, ever consider a collection as an investment. This is the absolute ultimate very best advice our friend Ben could ever give you. I have friends who justify additions to their collections on the grounds that “they’re investments.” It’s all our friend Ben can do at these moments to refrain from screaming. Collectibles are not investments, unless they’re investments in your enjoyment of life. They’re pleasures. Like orchid growing or trying to find and own every scented geranium known to humankind, your particular stuff is just that, something that gives you joy. Buy what you can afford. Enjoy what you buy. But never, ever assume that you’ll profit from your collection. Maybe you will, and maybe you won’t. Make sure it makes you happy either way.

Word play: frisee. January 27, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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1 comment so far

Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are not only avid readers, we make our living as freelance writers and editors. All of which is to say that we love words and think about them a lot. So it’s not often that a word sneaks up on us and takes us by surprise, but it happened to me last night.

I was making a colorful salad to go with the creamy pasta, baked sweet potatoes, and broccoli our friend Ben and I were planning to have for supper. In winter, especially, I like to use some of the fuller-bodied greens in salads, and one of my favorites is frisee (which actually has an accent over the first e and is pronounced “free-ZAY”), aka curly endive (which you can pronounce “EN-dive” or “ahn-DEEV,” depending on how French you’re feeling). So here I am, enjoying the delicate color and tightly frilled leaves as I separate them and mix them into the salad and share them with our parrot Plutarch and the parakeets, and it suddenly hits me: frizzy. Frizzy is an English mispronunciation of frisee!

I don’t know why this had never dawned on me before. Our language is rich in mangled mispronunciations of French and other languages, and frizzy/frisee would seem like an obvious example. (One of my other favorites is a little less obvious: bedlam, for Bethlehem. Our Lady of Bethlehem was a famous hospital for the insane in London, which is why “bedlam” is now a synonym for chaotic, unpredictable behavior.)

From homely items like buckles, buttons, bracelets, and even biscuits to beef, pork, mutton, and trout, experts estimate that we’ve gotten between one-third and two-thirds of our language from the French, starting back in 1066 when William the Conqueror made Norman French the official tongue of the English nobility. (Tongue, language, experts, estimate, official, conqueror, and nobility among them.)

And the farther back it entered the language, the more mangled it’s likely to have become over time. Thus, comparatively modern imports like beau, bon mot, bonbon, canape, adieu, au revoir, ballet, buffet, cloche, cabaret, cafe, chauffeur, and bon vivant, as well as cooking techniques like saute and flambe (pardon the Luddite-induced lack of accents) and dishes like ratatouille, quiche, mousse, and souffle, have retained their spellings and close enough pronunciations to be far more recognizable to the French than older imports like boil, bacon, bullet, catholic, theater, chef, salad, lettuce, tea, and coffee. There are even French words that differ wildly in their British and American pronunciations, both of which would be unrecognizable to the French: lieutenant comes to mind (loo-TEN-ant to us Americans, LEF-tenant to our British cousins, lee-eww-teh-NAHNT in the original).

But frizzy and frisee? Sheesh. Why didn’t I see that right away? Maybe it’s because my own experience of frizzy is so far removed from the gentle curls of the salad green. On a hot, humid day, my hair transforms itself into something worthy of Louis XIV’s finest wigmaker. Louis, wherever you are, eat your heart out. Or maybe have a lovely frisee salad instead.

          ‘Til next time,

                       Silence

Weird, wonderful chili. January 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
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5 comments

Silence Dogood here (again). I know I posted a version of this recipe a couple of months ago, but it’s so cold outside, and this is so delicious and warming, that I’m posting it again. I made this version last night and loved it even more than the first version.

Like all chilis, there are endless possible variations, which leaves a lot of room for you to experiment, substituting things you know your family will love for things you don’t especially like. For example, I could easily have added oregano or pinto beans to the mix, or even dumped in some leftover coffee to deepen the flavor. Sometimes I like to use four kinds of kidney beans for a confetti-style chili: dark red, red, pink, and white (aka cannelini beans). But taking the classic kitchen-sink approach, I just tossed in the first four cans that came to hand. The result? Incredible!

Mind you, it doesn’t sound incredible. In fact, it sounds pretty darned disgusting. That’s why I’m urging you to try it and see for yourselves. You really won’t believe how good it is! And vegetarians, there’s nary a piece of meat, but vegans will need to modify the recipe to leave out the half-and-half. (Yes, you read that right, half-and-half in chili, and that’s not the, pardon the pun, half of it!) This is fantastic with hot-from-the-oven cornbread and a big, bold salad, or with a side of rice (my preference) or over rice (our friend Ben’s preference), too, or maybe some luscious grilled polenta.

I couldn’t help but notice the evidence this morning (hmmm, an unwashed bowl that wasn’t there last night… ) that some people who shall remain nameless couldn’t resist getting up in the dead of night to help themselves to even more. So try it, don’t tell anybody what’s in it, and watch how fast it disappears!

         Pumpkin Chili

1 small or 1/2 large can pumpkin puree (not pie filling, 100% pumpkin) 

2 cans kidney beans

1 can black beans

1 can butter beans

4 medium to large onions (can combine pungent and sweet if desired)

4 large cloves garlic

1 large red, yellow or orange bell pepper

1 small (6-ounce) can tomato paste

1/2 to 2/3 cup half-and-half

vegetable stock (all boxed brands are good)

extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon black mustardseeds

2 tablespoons whole cumin seeds

2-4 tablespoons chili powder, to taste

2 tablespoons Trocamare, Herbamare, Real Salt, or salt

2 tablespoons Pickapeppa or Tabasco Chipotle hot sauce, or your favorite

1 tablespoon garam masala (if you don’t have any, try substituting curry powder)

In a large, heavy Dutch oven (I love my LeCreuset), heavy pan, or stock pot, heat a generous amount of olive oil. Add all spices and seasonings, stirring constantly until well mixed. Peel and chop onions, peel and mince garlic, core and dice pepper, and add all to olive oil.  Add veggie stock as needed to keep everything from sticking. When onions have clarified, add beans, tomato paste, and pumpkin puree. Stir well to blend, then stir in half-and-half, again stirring well to blend. Cook on low heat while making rice or cornbread to give flavors a chance to ripen, at least 20 minutes. Add more veggie stock as needed to maintain a rich, thick consistency—not soupy, please!—without burning or sticking. Serve with grated cheese and/or a dollop of sour cream on top if desired. 

Serves four amply, unless one of them is our friend Ben. If you’re lucky enough to have any, leftovers keep and reheat beautifully.

So come on, be brave and try it! I promise you’ll like it.

          ‘Til next time,

                      Silence

Frugal living tip #4. January 26, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,
4 comments

Silence Dogood here. It’s time to start the week with another frugal tip from Poor Richard’s Almanac, in the spirit of our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin.

This week, let’s talk about credit cards. We’ve all heard horror stories about credit-card debt, about college kids getting credit cards and running up $19,000 in charges in their very first semester away from home, then socking those bills to their parents, who are already paying the kids’ astronomical college expenses and are plunged into debt (and despair) themselves by this unexpected additional burden. We’ve also heard the advice to freeze your credit card in an ice cube so you won’t be tempted to use it. Surely common sense lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Our friend Ben and I learned a strong economic lesson from one of our favorite books, Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life. In it, Helen Nearing said that she and Scott never bought anything unless they could pay cash for it. They made do or did without until they had the cash in hand, and so they lived debt-free. Needless to say, they owned no credit cards.

These days, credit cards are pretty much an economic necessity, especially if you make purchases online, and they’re useful when someone demands “two valid forms of ID, such as a driver’s license and a credit card.” But that doesn’t give us a license to kill (in this case, our savings account and credit rating).

I own exactly one credit card. It’s a major bank card and—I hope you’re sitting down now—it’s the same credit card I’ve had all my adult life, the only credit card I’ve ever owned. Not only that, it charges a whopping 18% interest rate. By now, you’re probably thinking I must be crazy, but I view that 18% as a curb on credit-card spending. I charge no more than I can pay off in full every month. Mind you, I’m far from perfect, or even particularly together, and there have been months I’ve had to carry a balance, and, worse still, months I forgot to pay the bill on time and got slapped with late fees. Ouch!!! But those blows to the billfold have helped me stay on track. Like the daughter in our Frugal Living Tip #1 whose father made her flush her late fee down the toilet as an object lesson, I might just as well have been flushing (or burning) that hard-earned money.

If you have more credit-card debt than you can pay off every month, it obviously makes more sense to find a card that charges the lowest possible interest rate, and then pay as much as you can every month rather than just making minimum payments. It’s amazing how interest doubles, triples, or worse the perceived cost of something, especially if it’s a sizeable amount.

When our friend Ben and I bought our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, we put everything we could into the downpayment and took out a 15-year mortgage to pay the rest, even though the higher monthly payments over a 30-year mortgage meant that we had to cut back in other areas (such as cars and vacations). We had read that you could substantially reduce both the time it took to pay off your mortgage and the amount of interest you’d otherwise be charged if you put even a little extra money against the principal every month, and we did that as often as we could. In 12 years, we paid off our house and saved ourselves three additional years of interest payments. Not only that, but now that times are tough and money is tight, it’s an incredible feeling not to have to think about coming up with mortgage money every month. This also holds true for credit cards. Pay as much as you can, and pay them off as fast as you can.

Another reason why it’s a great idea to cut back to a single credit card is that it means you’ll only have one credit-card bill every month. It’s a lot easier to keep track of one bill, and when it’s due, than bazillion, and it’s also easier to see what you paid for and what they’re charging you. I agree with the experts who tell you to pay off the smaller credit-card debts first, while making payments on the other cards, then closing each smaller account as you pay it off. Simplify, simplify. 

Speaking of seeing what you paid for, I’ll end with this wonderful home truth from Cheap Talk with the Frugal Friends (by Angie Zalewski and Deana Ricks, Starburst Publishers, 2001): “Face up to the debt you already have. Total up what you owe on store cards, gas cards, bank cards, and layaways. This can be difficult—and scary…. Calculate how much you owe, to whom, and at what interest rate. Write it down! Knowledge is power and once you know your financial standing you can begin to make positive changes.”

Your turn. Please share your debt-defying tactics with us!

           ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

The Audacity of Soap. January 25, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , ,
5 comments

Marketers. Where there’s a popular personality, there’s a way to turn it into a profitable product. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were talking about this yesterday when we were visiting a huge flea-and-farmers’ market not too far from our rural cottage home, Hawk’s Haven. From the inside of the building, you’d have thought we’d stumbled into the Barack Obama Mall by mistake. Everywhere we looked—walls, counters, racks—it seemed our 44th President was looking back. There were Obama posters, Obama T-shirts, Obama commemorative coins, even—as Silence pointed out to me—Obama perfume bottles. No doubt if we’d stepped into the PEZ booth, we’d have been confronted with a presidential PEZ dispenser.

But unfortunately, we didn’t see a pair of Obama-themed products that we’d read about in our favorite news digest, The Week. One enterprising marketer is apparently selling soaps with names that are puns on President Obama’s bestselling book The Audacity of Hope. According to The Week, you can buy bar soap, The Audacity of Soap, or soap-on-a-rope, Hope on a Rope, which, and I quote, “retails in packs of eight emblazoned with Obama’s observation, ‘This is our moment to clean up America.'”

Silence and I got a kick out of the punning and would have enjoyed seeing the soaps for ourselves. Not that we would have bought them. I don’t know about you, but we find the thought of showering with the President way too up close and personal. Or should we say, audacious.

The late, irate Henry VIII. January 24, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,
5 comments

Silence Dogood and our friend Ben have been having something of a Tudorfest here at our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, of late. It all started with the two movies on the life of Elizabeth I, starring one of our favorite actresses, Cate Blanchett. Then there was “The Other Boleyn Girl,” a movie we found rather dull. (Silence points out that the book on which the movie was based, also called The Other Boleyn Girl, was better than the movie. Silence also read Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford—the tale of the perfidious woman whose testimony condemned both Anne Boleyn and her own husband, Anne’s brother George Boleyn, to death—and we understand a movie based on this book is in the works as we write.)

Most recently, we’ve been watching the Lifetime series “The Tudors” (thank you, Netflix), and have worked our way through season two. Though the history is rather shaky, we’ve enjoyed the series itself and the performances in it (especially Jeremy Northam as St. Thomas More, Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Sam Neill as Cardinal Wolsey, and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Catherine of Aragon) very much.

While we wait for season three of “The Tudors” to make its way onto DVD, we decided to do a little time-travel to renowned depictions of Henry the Eighth from the past. We rented “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,” with Keith Michell playing the title role. Unfortunately, we found it unwatchable, and gave up after the first episode. This was no reflection on the actors, but rather on the early BBC’s inability to distinguish between a cheaply produced filmed play and a movie. As Silence pointed out, poor Henry the Eighth wore the exact same suit of clothes through ten years of action! If the King of England could afford just one outfit per decade, clearly his country was in desperate straits.

We’ve had better luck with “Anne of the Thousand Days.” It’s hard to beat Richard Burton as Henry, and the supporting cast is excellent. So far, the movie has been historically accurate (we’ve watched about half), and since it’s a period piece, it doesn’t seem dated, despite having come out in 1969. However, our favorite version remains “A Man for All Seasons,” that magnificent production with a delightful Robert Shaw as Henry, Paul Scofield’s majestic performance as St. Thomas More, a very young John Hurt in a marvelously sleazy performance as Sir Richard Rich, and a great supporting cast.

We invite you to enjoy your own Tudorfest and choose your favorites. (Warning: Most of these productions, especially the modern ones, are anything but family fare, so if you have young kids, wait to put them on ’til everybody else is in bed.) But meanwhile, we’ve asked our fellow blog contributor and resident historian, Richard Saunders of Poor Richard’s Almanac fame, to create a little quiz to test your knowledge of Henry VIII and his six wives. (The answers are at the end, but no cheating, now!) See how you fare:

1. How many wives did Henry VIII order executed?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4

e. 5

2. How many of Henry’s wives and mistresses were related?

a. 2

b. 3

c. 4

d. 5

e. all of them

3. Which of the following was not claimed of Anne Boleyn?

a. she was a witch

b. she had six fingers on one or both hands

c. she had an incestuous relationship with her brother George

d. she had affairs with over 100 men

e. she was a transvestite

4. Which of these famous people were not contemporaries of Henry VIII?

a. Leonardo da Vinci

b. the great painter Hans Holbein

c. the famous Humanist Erasmus

d. Michaelangelo

e. Beethoven

5. Why did Henry behave so violently towards those who were closest to him?

a. he was desperate for a male heir and would let nothing stand in his way to get one

b. he was an autocratic, indulged monster

c. he was terrified of any threat, including opposition and disease

d. he had syphilis, which eventually drove him insane and made him more and more erratic as time went on

e. he had type II diabetes, which slowly sickened and eventually killed him, creating episodes of instability

6. What was Henry’s greatest achievement?

a. marrying six wives

b. breaking with Rome and creating the Church of England

c. composing the famous ballad “Greensleeves” 

d. executing over 72,000 people during his reign

e. producing Elizabeth I      

Ready for some answers? Here you go:

 1. Henry ordered Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard (wives 2 and 5) executed. Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour (wives 1 and 3) died of natural causes, and Anne of Cleves and Katherine Parr (wives 4 and 6) survived Henry. 

2. At least three and possibly four. Anne Boleyn (wife 2) and Katherine Howard (wife 5) were cousins. Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary was an acknowledged mistress of the king before he took up with Anne; their relationship lasted for six years and resulted in two children. It is a not-ungrounded rumor that a much-younger Henry VIII also briefly took Anne and Mary Boleyn’s mother Elizabeth as a mistress, presumably before they were born; this has never been decisively proved or discounted.

3. The correct answer is e. Anne was never accused of being a transvestite, but was wrongly accused of every other of these charges. There is no doubt today of her innocence.

4. Henry was a contemporary of all these famous men except Beethoven, though the only one he actually met was Hans Holbein, who painted him and many famous members of his court.

5. All these answers may be true, though the theory of his having progressive syphilis has now been overshadowed by the view that he had type II diabetes. However, we think that, given his behavior, the answer is “all of the above.”

6. There is now some doubt cast on Henry’s composing “Greensleeves” for Anne Boleyn, as has long been thought, but there is no doubt that he was a prolific composer and quite accomplished musician and poet. All the other items in this list are (sadly, in the case of the executions) true. But in our view, one alone is relevant: the fathering of Elizabeth, England’s greatest monarch. Henry’s contribution to British history in this respect may have been unintentional, and certainly was unacknowledged by him (another useless female heir!), but history has proven its value beyond all dispute.

Macaroni casserole. January 23, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

Silence Dogood here. Sheesh. Sometimes even the simplest things become too complicated. Take today, for instance. I was trying to decide what to make for our Friday Night Supper Club. Something rich and warming for a frigid night, of course. My friend Delilah’s famous Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese? My own hearty and healthy Luverly Lentil Stew? Ah, decisions, decisions. Just when I’d decided to make a spicy chili with my favorite super-fast and creamy pasta as a side, one of the Friday Night Supper group e-mailed and begged for mac’n’cheese. Back to the drawing board!

Admittedly, I love Delilah’s Crock-Pot Mac’n’Cheese. It’s by far the best mac’n’cheese I’ve ever tasted (and you can find the recipe, as well as the recipe for Luverly Lentil Stew, by searching on this site). But some of the Friday Night Supper Club group would prefer something with a little more flavor. Hmmmm.

Suddenly, I had what a friend’s mother immortally called “a rush of brains to the head.” Deep in my recipe archives, I had a file card with one of the first recipes I ever invented, for Macaroni Casserole. It combines the satisfying comfort of macaroni and cheese with the oomph of tomato sauce, mushrooms, and onions. I think it’s time to make its debut at the Friday Night Supper Club! This is really an easy recipe, and it’s so perfect for cold weather. It calls for tomato paste, but I plan to use my home-canned spaghetti sauce to add a little complexity; suit yourself. And enjoy!

             Silence’s Macaroni Casserole

 large carton cottage cheese

2 cups sliced mushrooms

12 ounces tomato paste

1 1/3 cup dry macaroni, cooked

2 packages shredded mozzarella cheese

1 large sweet onion (Vidalia, WallaWalla, or Candy type)

4 cloves garlic

Trocamare, Herbamare, Real Salt, or your favorite, to taste

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce (we use Annie’s Vegetarian Worcestershire)

1 tablespoon each dried basil, oregano, and dry mustard (we like Colman’s)  

1 teaspoon each dried thyme and marjoram

1 generous splash hot sauce (we like Pickapeppa, but you could use Tabasco Chipotle or your favorite)

extra-virgin olive oil

Mince onion and garlic fine; saute them and the sliced mushrooms in olive oil ’til the onion clarifies. Add tomato paste, 1 cup hot water, and all herbs and seasonings. Cook ’til sauce thickens and flavors are blended. Heat oven to 325 degrees F. Grease large casserole dish with olive oil or butter. Layer macaroni, cottage cheese, tomato sauce, and mozzarella; repeat layers. Bake for 1/2 hour. Serve with deep green salad and hot, preferably homemade whole-wheat or multigrain bread. Serves 6-8.

See? There’s nothing to it, but I still enjoy it to this day, lo these many years after coming up with it in my first graduate apartment. I think you and yours will, too!

                    ‘Til next time,

                                  Silence

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