Wednesday, August 31, 2005

If You're Gonna Smoke, Ya Gotta Soak

We have a honker smoker in addition to a small herd of charcoal and electric cookers. We keep eyeballing propane, but wonder why in the world? If we want convenience over flavor, we’ll just use the oven.

Labor Day is a good time to fire up this big black dog and throw on some meat and poultry. Any day is good for smokin’ but you really need some time and should feel rested going into a good smoking session so you can do some babysitting throughout the wee hours.

So, we plan ahead. Toward the end of the week prior to a smokin’ weekend we’ll raid the freezer and bring out the victims: babybacks, a hen or two, a brisket, a pork loin, and all sorts of sundry things that look like they might taste better with a little hickory or oak flavor.

The official moment of a holiday smoking binge begins way before the fire is lit. It starts when you place a few sticks of wood in a bucket and fill it with water. That’s what prolongs the fire and makes up some really wet, delicious smoke. It wafts through the cooking chamber and out the smokestack – it makes the neighbors jealous and fills our clothes and hair with flavor.

So, how about smelling up your neighborhood? If you haven’t already, get right out there and pick up a grill or smoker – if you can’t make up your mind between the two, read this.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Pig on Plastic: Microwave Bacon Trays

We finally broke down and started nuking our bacon. Have to admit, it’s a lot less greasy this way. That makes it a real keeper. Not that we pig out on bacon every day. Just an occasional breakfast or to make crumblies for salads and such.

Why did we hold out for so long? First, the ready-to-microwave bacon was way overpriced. Second, we were used to the splatters and burning pops that come with the joys of cooking pig/fat products.

Our next step was to purchase a microwave-approved tray for cooking bacon. It works great – even better than a paper plate and a bunch of paper towels.

Only two drawbacks: 1) the tray gets a little warm to the touch, and 2) if you’re cooking up an entire package, you’re left with a really nasty, baked-on residue.

We can’t fix the heat problem, but we finally figured out that we could pour vinegar in the tray, nuke it for about 5 minutes and most of the gunk would lift off. (That’s the Imp’s little tip for the day.)

We have looked around at other types of microwave cooking trays: here’s what we found and our untested assumptions of each.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Clay Pots Pose Porosity Challenge

Clay pots are attractive in some settings and add a wonderful rustic or southwest feel to a home. Be aware that clay pots have a few drawbacks.

When placing a new plant inside a clay pot, soak the pottery in water for a few hours. Clay is porous; with a good soaking it will not suck all the moisture from around the newly-planted root system.

A matching drip saucer will have visual appeal, but may not be practical if you plan to set the plant directly on the floor or carpet. Water will end up on the bottom – for potential staining - if the saucer is unglazed. Even a glazed saucer will sweat, causing water to form on the underside.

Your best option is to create an unobtrusive base on which the plant can sit and allow air to circulate. If the planter is on the light side, you can also purchase a plant stand, which would solve the problem.

Check here for other plant and potting points.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Give the Gift of Growing Things

Green growing things make thoughtful gifts for any occasion. You can purchase them already potted and decorated or make your own. To make sure the plant will fit into its new home and that it won’t inconvenience the giftee, remember these things:

-Be sure the person you’re gifting has a proper setting to match the plant’s needs.
-Include instructions on how to care for the plant
-Purchase a hardy plant that can withstand a certain amount of neglect or that can adapt to other-than-ideal conditions.

Friends and family will truly appreciate your efforts if you create your own planting. Here are a few ideas and tips on making your own green masterpiece.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

You Can Have Your Wine and Grill It Too

Outdoor cooking conjures up six-packs and margaritas, but don’t be afraid to bring a robust wine to the party. When the char is on the hamburger or steak, try a great big cabernet that will take the meat by the horns and turn the tastebuds on to a rip-roarin’ good time. Smoked brisket, ribs, and chicken will gladly share the palate with a bold chardonnay.

The cooking process itself may require ice-cold beer by law, but you’ll find when you’re chomping into that hamburger, or cutting into a nice slab of tender brisket, that a perfectly paired glass of wine may just add a new dimension to your outdoor space.

Check here for more information on selecting wines.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Secure the Perimeter

Are you seeing an extra amount of bugs in your home? Spiders, ants, and other crawly-critters are not always hiding away in crooks and crannies and suddenly coming center stage for your viewing enjoyment. Most likely, they’re seeking protection from all the big bad things found outdoors, such as too much heat, too much cold, or too much water.

Purchase insect spray (read the label carefully and get the right kind) and spray around the perimeter of your home at least once a week. You’ll find an immediate population decrease inside and – we predict – a large pile of brown carcasses on your doorstep or other entry point; and those are just the ones you can see.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Hang-Ups

Do you pull a lot of shirts out of the dryer with each load? Then, do you take each separate shirt, pick up a hanger, put the shirt on the hanger, and place it in the closet?

Here’s an easy and quick way to eliminate the time-wasting process of repetitive movement.

Lay all the shirts out flat on the bed. Collect a bunch of hangers. Now, start at the bottom of the shirt pile (fold the others in one group over and toward you – only about halfway) and insert a hanger. Straighten out the top of the next shirt and add the hanger. When you’re done, you’ll have a neat stack of shirts on the bed all ready to lift by the hangers to be tucked away in the closet.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Slimy Scum and Other Shower Nasties

Let’s face reality and admit we’re not going to scrub down our showers each and every day. We are all in a hurry to get dressed and get out the door, right? While it’s great to go buy a squeegee and – with the greatest intentions – keep it in a handy spot, it’s not likely to be used after the first day.

Here are a few tips that will work after the fact; after the soap scum has already built up and after a bit of mildew may be starting to form.

Soap Scum:
-Mix vineger/water in a 1:4 solution and spray or wipe on. Rinse and then rub dry with a towel.
-Stir one or two tablespoons of dishwashing powder into a bowl of warm water. Use a washcloth to wipe down shower doors and then rinse.
-Use a wet sponge to rub in baking soda on fiberglass units. Then rinse.

Mildew:
-Make sure the surface is already damp. Spray on a 1:4 bleach/water solution and let it sit. Then scrub with an old toothbrush.
-Worst case, make sure the surface is thoroughly dry and re-caulk or re-grout.

Hard water/mineral deposits:
-Try a paste of baking soda and vinegar. Cover with damp paper towels and let sit for at least half an hour.
-Shower heads should be removed and soaked overnight in straight vinegar. Do it often or you will probably end up replacing the head.

Shower curtain liners may survive the laundry if included with several towels. It’s worth a try. Throw in a half-cup of baking soda along with laundry detergent and the scum should part from the plastic. For regular liners and shower curtains, follow the manufacturer’s instructions, of course.

Preventive measures are best, but sometimes it’s easier to attack these things on a weekly basis rather than trying to be perfect every day – save perfection for something else.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Hot Tips For Your Fireplace

Yes, I know it’s too early to discuss this. I’m doing this little piece now so that when you really do need the information, the search engines will have found it, indexed it, and it will be readily available for your viewing pleasure.

-Think about a fireplace cleaning before you light up in the fall. Annually is recommended if you use soft woods; you can probably skip a year or two if you use hardwoods.
-Avoid softwoods if possible. They leave more residue (creosote) in the chimney; hence the above recommendation.
-The wood of choice is seasoned hardwood. Never burn “mystery” wood – it might contain harmful chemicals.
-Don’t burn anything but wood in the fireplace. That includes newspaper and wrapping paper.
-Always have a fire extinguisher at hand...just in case.
-Place coals in a metal bucket with a lid and take it outside to a secure place.

The spark arrester is absolutely the most important part of keeping a safe fire and a cleaner chimney. It’s the metal thing that fits on the top of your chimney and keeps out debris, animals, and rain. It also helps prevent downdrafts.

One last thing. Inspect the inside of your fireplace before lighting the first fire. If you see missing chunks of backing or cracks, purchase special filler at the local home improvement store and get those fixed immediately.

Now, when “tis the season,” you’ll be ready to light that puppy and enjoy the warmth, ambience, or whatever it is you enjoy in a fireplace.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Cabbage: Your Faux Noodle

If you’re on a low-carb diet, cabbage can become a great friend. It’s low in carbohydrates and can acquire the flavors of neighboring ingredients; thus, eliminating some of the “earthy” flavor.

While cabbage experts might cringe at the process, I recommend overcooking it to some extent. Yes, that encourages a stronger “cabbag-ey” smell, but you also want to achieve a limp noodle effect. That’s the idea, after all, so you can pretend.

It’s also better shredded and sauteed with onion, bell pepper, and ground black pepper. At this point, I turn it in an Alfredo dish. After the “over-cooking” part, I add cooked ground hamburger and a low-carb alfredo sauce. (Check your grocery store – there is a popular jarred brand that is not loaded with carbs.)

Here’s another low-carb recipe that is one of my favorites.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Steam Warning

Most of us know that steamed foods are healthy and tasty. However, sometimes we forget that steam is dangerous or we simply become careless when lifting that lid.

I will never forget my first – and last - experience with from-scratch cranberry sauce. Followed the recipe and – oops – lifted the lid of the pot in the wrong direction. Burned my lips and nose. A quick dash of Solarcaine offered some relief, but the entire incident spoiled my Thanksgiving. But that wasn’t all – my nose peeled for a week after the healing began and that was not a pretty sight.

So, now I’m warning you:
-Always lift the lid away from you.
-Let the steam settle before sticking your hand in there (with a spoon or any utensil).
-Don’t look inside until you are sure the steam has settled down.

Now that you’ve been blasted by my warning, don’t be afraid to get out there and steam some stuff for dinner.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Wait! Did you forget to sign that check?

Bill-paying is done and the envelopes are sealed. Did you really remember to sign that check? Was there something else you missed?

OR, you are busy gabbing at the counter and at the same time filling out a check. Neither the clerk nor you are paying much attention as she slaps your hard-earned paper in the cash drawer. You leave the store and drive away. Did you forget something?

Here’s an easy way to remember if you filled in those empty spaces so that your cash can be quickly transferred to someone else’s account.

Start in the upper right-hand corner and work your way around the clock; that is, go clockwise from the date and you’ll never panic over something that might have been missed.

Fill out the date followed by the amount in the little square box. Sign your name. If you need to add something to the memo line, that’s next. Move on to the line where you’ll spell out that dollar amount and finally add the name in the “who-to” line.

There. Now go make it a habit.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Shave and a Haircut for Your Carpet

Carpets are going to attract stains; it’s a matter of gravity, really. After all, you don’t see too many food stains on the ceiling unless you’ve overboiled a batch of eggs in which case the explosion defies the magnetic pull of the earth.

Here’s one thing you can do to repair small carpet stains that simply won’t come out with even the toughest cleaner. Bear in mind that this will not work in an area with heavy foot-traffic.

Use scissors to cut away the fibers that are discolored. If you have a scrap piece of the same carpet tucked away somewhere, that’s great. If not, find a dark spot in a closet and “borrow” a few fresh strands. Use household glue to coat the base of the carpet where you trimmed away the fiber. Push the new strands into the glue and nudge them to a “standing” position. Let the glue set for at least a day. Trim the top of the new fibers to match the surrounding area.

Now, where was that carpet stain?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Do you have plants that could use a little deep watering, but all you get is runoff when the sprinkler is on? Here’s a quick and cheap trick to get those parched roots on the wet track.

Pick up some plastic pipe at the local home improvement store. Two-inch diameter is good. Cut two-foot lengths or thereabouts. If you want, drill a few holes in the bottom half of the pipe so that water can reach different levels in the dirt. Dig a hole near the base of the plant (yes, you’ll probably disturb a few roots). If the hole is large enough, you can rearrange the roots. Set the pipe in the ground and re-fill with the excavated dirt.

Now, just add water. You don’t have to wait for a good soaking rain or an underground well to spring up.

Check here for some edging ideas.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Ants - put them to work outside, not in

Believe it or not, most ants do good things. They eat eggs and larvae of roaches, flies, and fleas. They even snag termite babies. There are good ants and bad ants. “Little black ants” and “legionary ants” wear the white hats; “carpenter ants” are in the black hat crowd because they compete with termites for the wood in your home.

Problems arise, however, on two occasions: when it’s super-wet outside, ants come inside to dry off; when it’s really dry outdoors, ants come in looking for water. With these parameters, many people find ants inside all the time.

To keep ants out of your home, look for their point of entry and seal it off. Not always possible, I might add.

A few non-toxic remedies may keep them at bay:
-household spray cleaners
-window cleaner
-water/liquid dish detergent (1 teaspoon in a spray bottle filled with water)
-red pepper (cayenne)
-lemon juice
-citrus oil
-coffee grounds spread around the perimeter of your home, especially at ant entrances and door/window frames

If you want to kill them, fine; but now that you know some really bad bugs are on their menu, wouldn’t it be better just to let them do their thing?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Wok is Not of Italian Descent

No, we’re not confused. Just experimenting. We had quite a bit of leftover spaghetti and thought that frying it up in the wok and adding our favorite Szechwan recipe on top would be a new twist and a small coup for us, since we’re always adding new recipes to our web site.

Well, no. The spaghetti turned out pretty darn good as a re-fry, but in the process it stuck horribly. Our treasured wok had to be completely re-seasoned immediately following our cross-cultural efforts. We think that adding a little more oil will cure the problem, but haven’t tried that, yet.

If, perchance, you don’t own a wok, here’s what to look for when making that purchase.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Add a Spark to Spaghetti

When you’re cooking up a batch of spaghetti, you probably throw in a little salt, a touch of oil – all in the interest of making non-stick noodles. Here’s a handy little hint to add a whole new fiery dimension to pasta.

For those of us who rehydrate dried peppers, don’t you think it’s a shame to toss the liquid? When we make our “muy mucho hot sauce,” we incorporate a small amount of liquid into the processing and freeze the remainder to add to spaghetti water. It certainly turns the heat factor up from zero to a “nice” burn.

Of course, you could just settle for flavor – go ahead, if you’re a wuss – and add a bouillon cube or the stock of your choice. But take our word for it – the heat from chili de arbol is addictive – once you’ve “suffered” the burn of a nice rehydrated hot chili – you’ll never go back to Anaheims.

You can find the recipe for Muy Mucho Hot Sauce here.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Clogged Brew is Grounds for Cleaning

We all know how to clean a coffee pot with vinegar. If you don’t, then you probably buy your coffee by the cup, anyway. For those who still make coffee at home – and after the vinegar trick (you do it every month, right?) - there’s one more thing you can do to keep that caffeine flowing into your veins.

Unplug the pot and turn it upside down. You’ll see a plate with holes in it. This is where the water comes through and spreads out over the coffee in the basket. Check to see if this spreader plate has clogged holes. If so, use a toothpick to poke through and clear the openings. You may be able to either unscrew the plate or snap it out and clean it. If it looks beyond repair, you may be able to replace it, but it could be cheaper to replace the unit.

While we’re here, let’s cover a few safety issues. If your carafe is chipped or damaged in any way – be it ever so minor – just get a new one. Once the glass is heated, even unobtrusive cracks and chips can become a full-blown explosion of glass.

-If you’re cleaning up around the pot or the warming plate, always unplug first. (Yeah, you have to reset the clock.)
-Never rinse out a hot or even warm carafe – let it cool completely.
-Coffee grounds can cause burns. Let them sit before tossing in the trash. (Don’t but them down the disposal.)
-Don’t try to work on a coffee pot yourself. In most cases, by the time something goes wrong with it – it’s time to start looking for a new model.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Toilet Meltdown

We’re going to throw in a quick reminder here about mixing household chemicals. Don’t. Everyone knows that, right?

Yeah, me, too. Yet, last Saturday, when I cleaned one of the toilets, I created a mini-nuclear experiment in the bowl by accident.

My typical toilet-cleaning style involves giving all outer surfaces a heavy spray with Lysol, then wiping it all down (or off) with a sponge. Next, I add cleaner to the bowl – the recommended kinds, of course. They do state “bowl cleaner” on the outside.

As I sprayed the rim with Lysol, some of it ended up in the water. I knew that. I didn’t think much of it, either. Next, I poured in the bowl cleaner. Within seconds, the water started smoking. It wafted up in white wisps. As some of it floated upward, more was forming like a tiny fog across the water. Yikes.

I held my breath and flushed. Left the room for a while.

Never combine any household cleaners; especially bleach and ammonia – that little combo will create deadly gases. Even if you are making your own household cleaners, don’t combine them. Leave those little experiments for the lab rats.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Dreaded Drain Flies (Disgusting Level: 4)

Most folks will never need to read this particular hint. They’re lucky enough to have never stepped into a tub or shower filled with tiny crawling black larvae. They have never wondered why tiny little moths are hanging around on the shower walls.

They are called sewer flies or drain flies – I prefer not to use the word “sewer.” The larvae tend to grow in plumbing that has not been in use for a long period. The flies lay their eggs in the gooey buildup lining the pipes. Once they are large enough, they crawl out of the gummy dredge and make it to the outside world: the bottom of your tub. Then one day soon, they complete their life cycle and become little moths – they only look like flies.

We lived recently in a rental house that had been closed up for a couple of years. Yes, the attack of the drain flies began soon after we took up residence. Our first reaction was to pour bleach down the drain. Seems that does not work. I began researching, not knowing exactly what to ask for: “little black worms in shower” turned up some answers.

We found that boiling hot water was the best solution. That was opposed to tearing out all the plumbing and replacing with new. Believe me, if you are in a house with just one bathroom, it’s not worth the risk that this job won’t get done in a timely manner.
We poured and poured. For a few days, we had a reprieve. On the weekend, when I cleaned out the tub, I sprayed hot water under the rim of the sliding glass doors. Guess what came out? Living, breathing little black worms. They had found a lovely wet channel along the door frame to thrive.

If you really want details on the lifestyle of drain flies, feel free to go to your favorite search engine – I’m just here to tell you how to get rid of them.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ticky-Tacky Front Door

You’ve just repainted your front door and it looks beautiful. You used the proper brush and the right exterior paint – or so you think. After it has dried, you close it with pride. Then you open it and – guest what? – it sticks!

You think letting it “cure” some more will help? Maybe not, especially if you used a latex enamel semi-gloss paint. This type is notorious for taking forever to dry and some folks have reported that it never dries.

“Blocking” is the term for long-lasting tackiness. Many factors can contribute, including the number of coats applied, how well you mixed the paint, and the temperature and humidity.

For a temporary fix, try putting a coat of auto wax along the base of the door. You’ll have to reapply fairly often.

Once you have determined that the tackiness will not magically reverse itself, you have one option:

Redo the job using the proper paint: oil-based exterior alkyd paint. You can do this one of two ways.

Remove all paint and start again. (Not an option we’d recommend – way too time-consuming.)
OR you can sand the door, prime it with a latex primer sealer (exterior grade), and apply the proper paint in thin coats.

This should do the trick. For other painting tips and hints, check out this page.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Your Air Conditioner Does Not Need a Fur Coat

If you live in a community filled with cottonwood trees, you’ll be dreading the fluffball season. That’s when the cottony stuff starts to fly.

However, it does not fly right by; it is drawn to your air conditioner unit like a magnet. Once the outside is coated, your unit will begin to struggle; it will heave and it will ho and eventually just give up the good fight. At least, that’s what our air conditioner maintenance person tells us every year.

Cottonwood is not the only fur coat-in-waiting. Other things seem to attach themselves with great ease to our units. When rains pass through, the debris then hardens and becomes a cloak that potentially can cause the unit to fail.

Usually, a thorough hosing will take care of the problem, but in tough times like these (i.e., cottonwood) give that air conditioning unit a good swabbing with a stiff brush.

On a side note: we believe that all cottonwood trees should be banned. They grow old and become brittle. So, not only do they share the wealth of cotton fluff across acres of land, they can also topple over and take out a home or two along the way. Beware!

You can find out more about simple air conditioner maintenance here.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What's Your Next Stain Emergency?

Sooner or later, someone will spill something – and the most likely place will be the worst possible place.

First, you should keep an arsenal of spot-removal supplies handy. Here’s a good list for wool rugs – but they’ll work for just about everything else, too.

-If you’re going to keep nail polish as a stain remover, be sure it’s the non-oily kind.
-Avoid ammonia for removing spots from silks and wools.
-Don’t reach for that old rag when sopping up a spill on rugs; it will just help smear the stain in further. Terry cloth acts like a sponge and will wick the liquid away.
-Pet urine contains a strong ammonia agent. The only way to remove the odor (and the temptation for Spot to return to that spot) it is to soak with vinegar. Then you can clean it with a stain removal agent.

We all know that getting to a stain immediately is the best solution. However, that isn’t real life in all cases, is it? Just get to it as soon as you can. And don’t give up after the first attempt. Just keep trying.

If you’re using an unfamiliar product, do test in a hidden area first (you knew that already, right?). Never combine products; some of them can produce deadly fumes when mixed. Grease spots are a bear. Try dishwashing detergent or regular shampoo mixed with water to break apart the molecules. (This often works best on clothes, too.)

Monday, August 08, 2005

When a Good Board Goes Bad

Is your wooden cutting board beginning to show a little wear? Too many stains? A few nicks from your favorite knife?

First, we assume you have taken really, really good care of your board. You never soak it and – horrors – please say you have never put it in the dishwasher.

Have you oiled it lately? With the right kind of oil? (Never, never use vegetable oils – they’ll go rancid over time.)

First, it can probably use a good sanding with a lightweight paper. Be sure to go with the grain. For stains, try a little bleach, straight on, and a scrubbing brush. (Going forward, if you decide to cut up something colorful, purchase a plastic board.)

You can leave your wooden board on the countertop all the time; just make sure it dries out on the bottom side as well.

The flexible plastic boards are great for everyday jobs. Place them right on top of your cutting board.

You’ll find a few more details about caring for wooden cutting boards here.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Treat the Plumber's Friend Like Family

The plunger, or plumber's friend, is a cheap and uncomplicated contraption. Even in its simplicity, there's a wrong way and a right way to use it. We'll get to the toilet later; here, we're going to quickly review the steps to unclog a sink.

-Don't remove any standing water. It's better to have enough in there to cover the rubber part.
-Coat the rim with petroleum jelly to create a tighter seal.
-If it's a double kitchen sink, use the stopper to plug up the other hole. If it's a bathroom sink with an overflow hole, close that opening off with a rag.
-Position the plunger over the drain, press down, and then pull up. Do not break the seal. Repeat a few times and the problem should be cleared up.

There are other things you can do that are messier, such as removing the trap or getting into the pipes with an auger. If you want to know about that, just ask.

Are you ready for a plumbing emergency? Here's what everyone should have in their plumber's toolbox.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Does Your Fridge Have Multiple Personalities?

Here's one that is not in the books - at least not in ours. Our new fridge came with a host of goodies on the front panel: ice maker, ice crusher, and filtered water. We hooked it up ourselves. So pat us on the back.

After a power outage, the front panel did not work. No great-tasting water, no ice. Uh oh. Looked through the manual. Nothing. The fridge was still running and my husband - Mr. Patience - was ready to call a repairman.

Try turning off the circuit breaker, I suggested. Already did that, he said. Try it again, I pushed - this time leave it off for more than a second.

The solution: The front panel miraculously began working after flipping the juice and leaving it off for several seconds. Imagine that.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Yes, the devil's in the details...the beginning

Dictionaries state that imp means "small demon." Those troublesome little tasks around the home can be truly devilish, can't they? More important, if not tended to properly, then you will certainly find out the meaning behind the saying.

That's why we decided to introduce the Handy Imp. He's a little cocky sometimes, but don't get offended - he treats us the same way.

Just stand back. The Imp is jumping in to help!

P.S. The Imp has backup assistance from the folks at Our House and Garden

About us: We've gutted a house and remodeled one. We have built a new one acting as general contractors. Along the way, we have traveled and collected household and home improvement ideas from around the country and around the world (not to mention some great recipes!).