Thursday, October 29, 2009

Just a little leak

I woke up on my day off this week to an unpleasant surprise in the kitchen. The floor and countertop were wet, and the ceiling fan was leaking. That's right, the ceiling fan! It didn't take me long to figure out that there must be a leaky pipe in the kitchen ceiling, right underneath the bathroom floor. The water was dripping through the ceiling fan.

Since my husband was still at work, all I could do was put a bowl under the drip. And it dripped, dripped, dripped all day.
When Josh came home, he immediately checked all the plumbing in the upstairs bathroom. We've had problems with the bathroom plumbing before. It's to be expected when we live in a 100-plus-year-old house.

After tearing apart the shower and kitchen sink, my husband concluded that there must be a leak in a pipe running under the floor -- which meant he had to tear up the kitchen ceiling.

He took the next day off of work. He removed all the 1960s-era ceiling tiles, which were stapled onto the plaster ceiling. He wasn't sure what else he would find when he removed the tiles.

Turns out there were already several holes in the plaster, likely from earlier repair projects. At first, he thought the leaky pipe would be a simple patch job. But then he realized that the pipe was leaking because it was rusted through. So he'd have to replace the entire pipe.

It's too dark to get a good picture of the old cast-iron pipe, but here's another view of the ceiling and the old wood underneath. My husband said he found a bunch of mouse nests in the ceiling. As if the house wasn't creepy enough...

One unusual discovery was a patch of patterned wallpaper underneath the wood trim. Could it be original to the house?

I can still hear the drip, drip, drip from the ceiling as I type this. My husband is determined to fix the plumbing -- himself -- over the weekend. We'll see how it turns out.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Perfect pumpkin

A few weeks back before the early season frost, I visited a local farm to get my hands on a few pie pumpkins. It's so much fun to bake with fresh pumpkin. Pies, breads and muffins turn out moist and a vivid orange color that you can't get from canned pumpkin.

It's so easy to roast a pumpkin; the hard part is actually finding a quality pumpkin. I've bought pie pumpkins at the grocery store that were moldy on the inside. And I've tried to grow pumpkins myself, but been unsuccessful. I just can't keep the squash bugs and vine borers off the pumpkins.

Besides, you can't help but feel good when you buy from a local farmer. It's a great sign of support for both the local economy and for Iowa agriculture in general.

It took a little elbow grease, but I sliced the pumpkin in half, then scraped out the seeds and the stringly pulp. Then I baked the pumpkin halves upside down on a foil-covered baking sheet at 375 degrees for over an hour. The roasted pumpkin came out perfectly tender.

I gave the pumpkin a spin in the food processor until it was smooth.

This pumpkin was so sweet, it tasted great without any sugar. I saved some to eat for lunch the next day.

I measured out 1 cup of pumpkin into freezer bags, dated the bags, then stacked them in the freezer for future use. It's such a great treat to make pumpkin bars in the middle of winter.

Of course, I didn't let those wonderful pumpkin seeds go to waste. I coated them in brown sugar and cinnamon and roasted them in a 250-degree oven for 50 minutes. They turned out sticky, but delicious. I've been snacking on them all day.

Can't wait to make homemade pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Martha Monday: Chili

This week's Martha Mondays pick by Megan at MegansCookin is a great one: Martha's chili in the October issue of Martha Stewart Living.
As much as I loved the article, however, I just couldn't bring myself to make the recipe. My Midwest taste buds can't handle all the chilies, onions and garlic in the recipe. Plus, I absolutely adore my husband's chili. There are certain recipes I just don't try, because he's pretty much perfected them to our liking.
So I asked my husband to make his chili in honor of Martha Mondays. He even wrote the recipe down (without me asking him to do it), so he could share his "secret" with the world.
If you can't read his handwriting, here's our favorite chili recipe:
  • - 1 lb. ground beef
  • - 1 c. coarsely chopped onion
Brown the ground beef and onion together, then partially drain off the fat. Then add:
  • - Two 28-ounce cans of whole tomatoes
  • - 1 tomato can full of water
  • - 1/1-2 Tbls. chili powder
  • - 1 Tbl. beef bouillon
  • - 3 Tbls. brown sugar
  • - One-half 16-ounce can of kidney beans
  • - 1 Tbl. Worcestershire sauce
Let simmer over stove until ready to eat.

Fun Iowa fact: Tone's spices are made in nearby Ankeny, Iowa. When we travel to Ankeny for shopping, we can smell what spices Tone's is working on that day (oregano is one of the strongest scents).

I like to add a little cheddar cheese and Frito "croutons" to the chili. My husbands recipe is a nice balance of spicy, hot and sweet. And I love the whole crushed tomatoes.

Please visit the Martha and Me blog to see how the other members prepared their chili.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Leaving fall

I walked out my front door on my way to work earlier this week and was greeted by this breathtaking site...
The trees in our neighborhood reached their fall color peak this week.

I'm fortunate to live in a very old neighborhood (our house is 100-plus years old) with some big, gorgeous trees.

Unfortunately, it has been raining non-stop this week. Most of the leaves have already fallen off the trees and are piled up on our sidewalk.

Notice that our next-door neighbors had already cleaned up the leaves off their sidewalk. You can tell my husband and I are former farm kids; no farmer has time to rake leaves during harvest!
By the way, farmers here in Iowa are struggling to get their crops out of the fields. It's been wet, really wet, so they've been stuck in the house when they are itching to get their combines rolling. I read today that the harvest this fall is the slowest on record since the 1940s. And there is more rain the forecast. Let's hope farmers can get the crops out before the snow flies.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Feel like chicken tonight

Let me be upfront. When I claim to be a beginner cooker, I truly mean that I have very little cooking experience. I had never cooked anything, outside spaghetti noodles, before I graduated from college. I'm very lucky that I married a man who is truly gifted in the kitchen. When I come home from work, he's already got supper started, which is such a relief. I'm happy to do the dishes. When I do settle down to cook, it seems like the simpliest things take me hours, and the recipes always seem to turn out bland. My husband tells me the secret is to improvise, but that's not my style. I'm so much more comfortable with the precision of baking.

But I love spending time in the kitchen, and I'd rather eat at home than sit in a noisy restaurant. So I'm the one who does the cooking experimentation in the house. My husband told me he's always wanted me to learn how to cook chicken and dumplings. His mom used to make the dish. Her version was essentially chicken soup with refrigerated biscuits from a tube thrown into the broth.

I found a from-scratch recipes from one of my favorite sources, Taste of Home magazine. I love that the magazine features so many recipes from Midwestern cooks, including several from Iowa. It was also one of my grandmother's favorite recipe sources, so I'm kind of partial to it.

Anyhow, for the recipe, you simmer bone-in chicken in a Dutch oven with carrots, celery and onion. When the chicken is cooked through, you add the dumpling batter, a mix of flour, baking powder, water and salt. I let the chicken simmer for way longer than called for in the recipe, so the chicken was falling off the bone when I was finished. The dumplings looked fairly good, and it was fun to see them puff up when they hit the batter.
Overall, I wouldn't say this was the greatest recipe. The dumplings were bland, although the homemade gravy helped add some flavor.

I let my husband make the gravy, since he's so good at seasoning it.

So I'm still looking for the perfect homemade chicken and dumpling recipe. Didn't think it would be so hard to compete with refrigerated bisquits in a tube :)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Martha Mondays: Potstickers

For this week's Martha Mondays challenge, I made the potstickers from the October issue of Everyday Food. This recipe reminded me of my quick trip to Beijing, China, a few years back for work. My first night in Beijing, the server prepared duck dumplings at our table. The dumplings were by far one of the best things I ate during the trip.

So I was looking forward to experimenting with won-ton wrappers. I made a special trip to a big-city grocery store to find the won-ton wrappers and fresh ginger for this recipe. Basically, I filled the won-tons with a mini ground-pork meatball, seasoned with soy sauce, ginger and chives. The assembly was so easy, and the potstickers looked great after a quick dip in boiling water. Yet disaster loomed...

When I fried up the potstickers in oil, they stuck to the bottom of the pan. Thought I had the oil hot enough to keep them from sticking, but I guess not. My husband and I still tried to eat them, and the ginger-pork combination was very good. I'm still a beginning cook, so I don't blame the recipe. I'm curious to see how this turned out for the other Martha Monday members. Thanks to Martha and Me for the unique project!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

River rat

I've been so busy traveling for work and to visit family that I haven't spent much time on my homemaking projects this past week. But it did give me the rare opportunity to see both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers in one week. Unfortunately, it was rainy and snowy on both of my trips, so I didn't get a good chance to enjoy the scenery. The photo above is from the shore of the Mississippi River, overlooking a bridge leading to Wisconsin. Yes, it was rainy and very cold when I took this photo.

Lansing has many beautiful old sandstone buildings dating back to the mid-to-late 1800s.

The trees are just starting to turn color on the bluffs (if you can see through the drizzle).

A must-do on any trip to Lansing is a stop at the Horsfall's general store on Main Street. The store advertises itself as having over 1 million items, and when you walk inside, you'll see exactly why. It's a combination hardware/grocery/homeware/gift/toy store. The owner goes to consignment sales all over the Midwest to find unique, inexpensive items to carry in his store. The aisles are super narrow, and I had to walk like a stealth ninja to avoid knocking over anything with my giant purse.
I snapped a few pictures as discreetly as I could inside the store.

There were aisles upon aisles of useful and useless items.

I actually saw an employee trip over one of the boxes on the floor.

I'd love to go back sometime to buy some quirky tableware for my kitchen.

Forgot to mention, Lansing is in the far northeast corner of Iowa. It took me 4-1/2 hours, in the rain, to drive up there. But I always love an opportunity to go up to northeast Iowa. It's truly the most beautiful region in the state.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Martha Stewart Cupcake Club: Pumpkin Patch Cupcakes

Whew! I barely made the deadline, but I finally finished my first Martha Stewart Cupcake Club project, pumpkin patch cupcakes. I just found out late last week that I was accepted into the online club, which I found out about through the Martha and Me Web site. I was thrilled to become a member. But I had less than a week to meet the first deadline, and I've been traveling a lot this past week - three 8-hour-plus drives across the state in the past five days. I barely had time to go grocery shopping, let alone bake. I was baking until 10 p.m. last night, and then finished the frosting tonight when I got back home tonight at 9 p.m. So I apologize for the typos and bad pictures.

Anyhow, here are my results for the pumpkin patch cupcakes from the Martha Stewart Cupcake book.
When I came home tonight, I found that my husband had already dug into the cupcakes, before I had a chance to frost them. He ate three more after I put the frosting on. I had a couple bites, too. But for me, these cupcakes are just OK. I wish they tasted a little more like pumpkin pie, instead of a gingerbread with some pumpkin added in. I thought they were a little dry, too, but that might be because I overbaked them.
Didn't make the marzipan pumpkins (I'm not even sure where to find marzipan), so I used candy pumpkins instead.
I'm excited to have reason to bake more of the beautiful cupcakes in Martha's new book. Next time, I'll try to be more prepared!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Martha Mondays: Sticky Toffee Pudding

I was so excited to learn about this week's Martha Mondays challenge, Sticky Toffee Pudding, chosen by Lorraine at Sweet Lorraine Bakeshop. I had heard about this English dessert on a Food Network TV show and thought it sounded divine. What's not to love about a warm cake soaked in a sticky-sweet syrup?

In honor of Martha, I actually took the time to lay out all my ingredients ahead of time, rather than just grabbing from my messy kitchen cupboard as needed. I also took a useful tip from the latest Better Homes & Gardens Holiday Baking magazine: Lay out all your ingredients on a baking sheet, then put them back in the cupboard after using them. That way, you can tell what ingredients you have already added to the mix just by process of elimination, instead of wondering, "Did I remember to add the salt?" Such a great idea!

This recipe also gave me an opportunity to break out my new 8-inch cake pan, which I purchased at Des Moines restaurant-supply store Bolton & Hay. The store has a showroom with tons of cooking and baking supplies, most of which are well below retail prices. Plus, most cake recipes call for an 8-inch round pan, and all I've been able to find at the local discount stores are 9-inch pans. So my cakes turned out shallow and baked too quickly.

The cake was very simple to make, and I loved that I could find all the ingredients at my local grocery store. The batter was lighter-colored than I expected. But when I pulled the cake from the oven, it was a golden brown. Another surprise was that the center was sunken in. Not sure what caused that. Hope it wasn't my nifty new pan.

Next came the best part: toffee sauce! I have to admit, this sauce was a little scary for me. It calls for two whole sticks of butter! That's three sticks in total to make this cake. I feel terribly guilty about the decadence, but I couldn't resist trying it.

The toffee sauce was out-of-this-world delicious. My one complaint is with the color. It looked a little like I poured gravy on top the cake.

My husband is eating a slice of this dessert as we speak, and he gives it good reviews. He says it tasted like a moist spice cake. The toffee sauce is extremely rich, so it's impossible to eat a very big piece. But overall, we enjoyed this recipe, and I love that it was so quick, easy and impressive. Thanks again to Martha and Me for giving me another excuse to bake!

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Goodbye, my lovely garden

The forecast calls for temperatures to dip below freezing this weekend, with a little bit of snow to officially put an end to the 2009 growing season. I had high hopes for my garden this year. I spent all winter fantasizing about the bountiful harvests I would grow. And while I did have some early success thanks to the abundant rains, I didn't have the refrigerator-busting harvest that I was hoping for.

I'm new to the whole gardening thing, and this year really taught me what grows and what doesn't in my little backyard. I discovered that green beans grow exceptionally well (too bad I don't like them enough to eat every day), and I should pretty much give up on growing any type of pumpkin or squash. Just too many bugs and fungi out there.

It's fun to look back at the pictures and see how my garden has evolved over the last six months. I started out with some sad-looking marigolds I bought at the Des Moines FFA greenhouse last May. I didn't think they would survive the overwatering they received from the students...

But, boy, did they grow. I've never had such bushy marigolds in my backyard!

The perennial garden I planted when we first moved into our house five years ago always surprises me. It changes every year, with some plants going dormant for a year only to return the next. This is how the garden looked in March, after the snow had melted...

...and this is how the garden looked a few weeks ago. The yellow coneflowers are from a Martha Stewart wildflower seed packet I planted a long time ago. The flowers keep migrating to different areas of the garden each year.

The impatiens I planted attracted hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to my garden. Plus, they kept blooming when a lot of other flowers in the neighborhood had faded.

I only had space to plant one dahlia this year, and it was a biggie. It climbed to at least 7 feet tall! I'm going to hate to see this flower freeze tomorrow night.

And here's the last of my garden harvest. I didn't get as many vegetables as I had hoped for, but there were a few red tomatoes and jalapenos that made an appearance at the end of the season.

It's sad to say goodbye to my daily bouquet of fresh garden flowers. They really brighten my mood when I get home from work.

Of course, I'm already reflecting on what I learned this year and making plans for my 2010 garden. My goals for next year include the following:

  1. Learn more about composting and set up a composting bin in my backyard.
  2. Focus on a few vegetables I know will work: cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and lettuce.
  3. Add more color to my perennial garden.
  4. Tear up some of the lawn in the backyard to grow more vegetables and cut flowers. I would like to grow enough tomatoes and cucumbers for canning, without having to drive all over the countryside to find more.
  5. Plant hostas in the shady spots.
  6. Clean up my herb garden.
  7. Get over my fear of garden snakes. The little critters will always be there; I just need to get used to it!

With that, I bid a fond farewell to my lovely garden. Thanks for the joy you brought me this summer!

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