Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tuscan Sausage and Potato Soup

You know what one of my favorite things to do is?  

Rip off recipes from restaurants.

Okay, perhaps I should say, recreate our favorite restaurant dishes at home.  That sounds so much nicer, eh?

I do love it, though.  Not only does it entail one of my favorite pastimes: kitchen experimentation, but it also means that I can schedule in that favorite dish when we really don't want to (or can't) spend the money at a restaurant.

When we go to Olive Garden, I would rather have the soup, salad and breadsticks than anything else on the menu.  I'm picky about pasta and pasta sauces.  And I refuse to spend upwards of $10 on something that I could make just as well, if not better, at home.  But the salad....well, who doesn't like Olive Garden's salad?  It's not fancy.  It's not gourmet.  It just tastes good.  The breadsticks?  They seem to be hit or miss. Even on bad days, though, they are just fine when dipped in the only soup that I ever request:  Zuppa Toscana.

You know what I love about soup?  The best ones are uncomplicated.  Just a few ingredients that compliment each other.  This soup is no exception.  And there are few dishes more comforting than soup on a cold winter evening. 
Let's get started.

I am trying to prepare mise en place this year.  There is nothing worse than watching something scorching as you are trying desperately to chop/wash/slice the next ingredient.  There are some meals that this becomes more important than others.  Whenever you find that you keep moving around the pot or pan until all the ingredients are in, that's a time when mise en place will help you not to lose your mind.  It's well worth washing a few extra dishes.  Here, I've chopped an onion, minced 6 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced some potatoes, washed and torn some kale, and measured out some white wine.  It's all in its own container, and ready when I need it.  Now it's time to start cooking.

If you can find bulk hot Italian sausage, by all means, use it and skip this first step.  I usually just grab some at Meijer, and they rarely have the bulk stuff.  It's always in casings.  You need to get it out.  So use the tip of a sharp knife and make a slit down the length of the sausage. Peel the casing away.  It should come right off.  

Then drop the sausages into a cold Dutch oven.  Turn the heat on medium and begin breaking them up with the edge of a spatula or spoon.

If you start with a cold pan and cook over medium or lower heat, it will tend to draw the fat away from the meat more effectively.  Just like you can keep the juices in meat by searing over high heat, you can also draw them out over lower heat.  This way, there is no need for additional oil to cook the meat.  If you find that your sausages are particularly lean, go ahead and add just enough olive oil to keep the meat from sticking.

Turn the heat down the lowest setting. Have a paper towel-covered plate ready, and scoop the browned meat out to drain with a slotted spoon. With additional paper towels, carefully blot the grease that is left in the pan.  Don't scrape, though.  You want all the browned bits to remain in the pan, since they will flavor the soup. 

Now you can turn the heat back up to medium high and add a bit of olive oil to the pan.  It's time to saute the aromatics.

Remember this?  You now get to very calmly grab your bowl of chopped onion and drop it into the shimmering (not smoking) olive oil. Sprinkle a little Kosher salt over the onions and stir them around to coat in the oil.  It's okay to scrape the browned bits a little now, but they won't come up completely until you add the liquids.  Cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they turn from white and crunchy like this...... soft and brown, like this.  That should take just a few minutes.  Now turn the heat up to high, add the garlic and stir it around for about 30 seconds, or until you can just smell it.  

Now you can deglaze the pan with the wine.  Just toss it in there and start scraping the bottom of the pot.  I prefer to use a wooden spoon for this, since it is tough enough not to bend like a silicone spatula, but it won't damage the pot's surface the way metal could.  Once the pan is deglazed and the wine is somewhat evaporated, add the sausage back to the pan, and toss in the potatoes, as well.  Stir them around to combine.

Go ahead and add the kale now.  It will look like way too much, but it's not.  It will soften and cook down.  I probably use more kale than Olive Garden does, but I probably also use more potatoes and sausage than Olive Garden does.  I'm not serving it as a brothy first course.  This is dinner.  So I like to make it hearty.  Oh, and don't be afraid of the kale.  Cooked, it really has a mild flavor.  It wilts a bit, but not so much that it loses it structure completely, as spinach would.  It really stands up for itself.  I love adding it to soups. 

Finally, add the broth to the pot.  Sprinkle in the salt and pepper, and give it a good stir.  Cover the pot and bring the soup just to a boil.  Then turn the heat down and simmer for about 30 minutes.  If you want to make it a little earlier, you can let the soup simmer, covered, for a couple of hours.  Just don't add the potatoes or kale until about 45 minutes before you are ready to eat, or they will be overcooked and mushy. 

Now, you could just serve it this way.  It's perfectly delicious and hearty.  However, if you want the real deal, go ahead and pour in some cream and let it heat through.  

And this steaming pot of delicious is what you end up with.  Serve it with a green salad and breadsticks, if you like.  

 I served it with Caprese panini, but I have to say, it was total overkill and we ended up having the soup the next night.  It was my first time making the panini, and I didn't anticipate that it would be so filling.

Try it some time!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Mudroom Lockers

Well, we've reached a momentous point in our mudroom project.  The lockers are usable.  That may seem like a small thing, but for a family who have had no good place to store coats or backpacks for several weeks now, it is a wonderful thing to see a dining room chair with nothing hanging on it.  The one moment when I cleared all the coats off of the dining room chairs and the backpacks off of the dining room floor and hung everything up in its own dedicated space made me realize that I would never regret undertaking this project.  To a disorganized mom like myself, mudroom lockers are as a soothing balm to sun ravaged flesh.

Okay, maybe a little dramatic, but I can say that I really, really like having a mudroom!

Now, I said that they are usable, but they aren't finished.  Let me show you where we started, and how we got where we are so far.

This is the former entry room, taken from our kitchen.  The passage to the dining room is on the far right side of the picture, and the door to the side porch is on the other side of the entry, out of view on the left.

This is a closer look at the wall inside of the entry.  There used to be floor to ceiling cupboards here, but they were not well-designed or well-constructed, and they were covered in lead paint.  We had them removed during a lead abatement a few years ago.

The first thing that we did was to remove most of the wall that separated the entry from the kitchen.  This opened the area up a bit, and gave us about a foot more length of wall to work with.  Since space is at a premium here, that extra foot was desperately needed.

When we realized that there was no way that we would finish the lockers before school started, we hung up a two by four on the wall as a temporary measure to contain backpacks.  That vertical beige line is some very old wallpaper that was behind the wall that we removed.

Here's a side by side.

Now, there wasn't a lot of space to work with.  From left to right, there is 79 inches, and from the wall to the edge of the trap door is only 15 inches.  We would have to work within that footprint, which didn't leave room for any wasted space or luxurious elbowroom.

I did what I always do when I come up with an idea but am not sure how to make it work.  I pulled out my graph paper.

It may seem like a waste of time, but I need to know that something is going to work before I go tearing out walls or buying building supplies. Sketching out a basic layout reassured me that there would be enough space for four fairly comfortable lockers, at a reasonable height.  I also wanted to make use of the space above the lockers for some much needed dinnerware storage, so I sketched that out, as well, making sure that the cupboards would look good, be at a reasonable height (I don't want to climb a ladder every time the table is set), and be a useful size. This isn't a complete plan.  There have been a few changes along the way.  But the important thing is that we had a basic plan that we knew would work, before we even got started.

Jeff decided that it would be best to get the first set of cupboards up first.  They kind of defined the wall, and the rest of the unit could be built to fit around them.  We hung them a while ago, but we are waiting on the shelves and doors until the rest of the framework is in place.

Then we needed to finish the floor.

Finally, we were ready to tackle the lockers.  While we used the graph paper layout as a guide, we also have let the details change as inspiration comes.  I never liked the boxy look of straight dividers between lockers, and since each locker has only about a 19" width and 15"depth, I thought that the straight dividers would make it uncomfortable to sit and change from boots to slippers.  We could have done an open bench with a straight line of hooks on the wall, not unlike the picture above.  However, I liked the idea of individual lockers, because then everyone has (and is responsible for) their own space.  Plus, dividers would give us more hook space.  Then I thought, why not have partial wall dividers?  They could define each space, give adequate area to hang hooks toward the top, and yet open up around the elbows, giving more freedom of movement.  Plus, I had a feeling they would look better.

After explaining what I wanted to do to Jeff, he felt like we would have better luck using birch veneer plywood than the MDF that we had used up until now.  He got some advice and borrowed some tools, and asked me to make up a template.  Again, I went to my graph paper.

First, I figured out the total height from the floor to the bottom of the cupboards.  I determined the height of the bench by measuring the height of a chair seat, and subtracting an inch.  I didn't feel like it would be uncomfortable to sit a little lower than a dining chair, and I wanted as much room as possible for the locker space.  So I subtracted 17.5" from the total height.  Then I had to decide how much room to save for the cubbies that would go above the lockers.  I wanted it to be big enough to hold a 9.5"x11" notebook, or a few other things, none of which needed much space in height.  So I decided to make the cubbies about 6" high.  Then I subtracted the 6", as well as 1 3/4" to account for the thickness of the  top of the locker (3/4") and the top and bottom of the cubbies (1/2" each).  That left me with 36.5" of space between the "ceiling" of the locker and the top of the bench.

So, using the graph paper with each section=1", I started drawing my design.   A straight line representing the 36.5" tall back of the divider gave me a place to start.  I decided that I would like to have a little variation in depth between the different components of the unit, so I inset the locker space 2 inches from the total depth available.  That would allow me to do some fun stuff with crown-type trim.  So I drew a line out 13 squares at the top of the other line.  From there, I needed to figure out how low the widest part of the divider would need to be in order to hang hooks.  I thought that the hooks would work well about 4" from the top, and so I added another 3" below that, and drew down 7 spaces.  From there, going downward was really a matter of choice.  Now I needed to start from the bottom.  Along the bench, I wanted the dividers to give the impression that they are providing some support to the rest of the unit.  They don't, as everything is well secured to the studs, but I wanted it to look that way.  Therefore, I wanted the dividers to rest on the bench, and I decided that 6" would look about right.  From there, I decided to go up about 7.5".  Now I had a basic size and shape that would serve the purpose that it needed to serve.  The rest was just freehand shaping to connect the top section to the bottom section.  I'm no artist, but I gave it a whirl, made a few minor adjustments, and realized that I was lucky enough to have a shape that I liked.

Now, transferring that onto a large piece of wood was a different story.

However, because of the handy graph paper, it was pretty easy.  I marked all the dimensions of the shape.  When the line curved, I marked how many inches I needed to go to the left or right, and how many inches I needed to go up or down.  So when I took the paper to the wood, I was able to just use a ruler, mark a dot where the next stop in the line needed to be, and draw an easy curve from point a to point b.  It wasn't unlike completing a dot to dot puzzle, except that I had to map out where the next dot should be before I connected them.  Let me tell you, while it was a bit fussy to go through all those steps, it was so much easier than trying to freehand it all on a big piece of cardboard or wood.  If you're not visually artistic (as I am not), I can tell you that this method is helpful.

This is actually a piece that we didn't end up using.  I tried cutting it out with the borrowed jigsaw, but I didn't hold it straight up, so the cut edge was slanted.  Jeff would have let me try again, but I didn't want to waste the wood!  Instead, I held it down while Jeff cut them out.  After that, they just needed a few spots of wood filler and a good sanding to get the edge smooth.

Next, we needed to get the sides and top attached to the back, and then get the dividers attached.  We laid the back on the floor and marked out exactly where each divider would go, so that they would be evenly spaced.  Ugh.  There is so much math involved in building! Don't get me wrong;  it's very basic math.  But still!  I had to remember to subtract the thickness of the sides, and include the thickness of the dividers when determining how to center them.  My brain isn't used to considering all of those details. Dividing 32 7/8 by 2 and then marking the center, then marking half of the 3/4" thickness on either side of the center so that we could line the 3/4" thick dividers exactly where they needed to go.....Bah!  Oh well, I guess my 40 year old brain needs a tiny little workout now and then.

Finally, we were ready to put the pieces together.  This became a family affair.  Jacob helped me hold the top flush with the edge of the back while Jeff drilled holes and then screwed the pieces together.  Then came the sides, where Nora and Max stepped in to hold one side up while Jacob and I held the other side flush with both the back and top.  Then we switched.  Finally, the kids held the whole thing up while I held each divider in place while Jeff attached it.  Somewhere along the way, Jeff thought to try using the borrowed nail gun to hold each piece steady while he drilled the holes and attached the screws.  It worked like a charm.  It was far easier for us to hold everything flush while he popped a few nails in than against the force of the drill.  That's a lesson we won't forget.

Finally the basic structure was together.  And I was happy.

Next came the bench.  Jeff wanted it to be good and sturdy, so he decided to build a 2x4 frame that would rest on the floor and be bolted to the studs.  This is what he built.

Since the legs of the bench would be visible, we used 1/4" oak veneer plywood to "skin" the legs.  Why oak?  Because we had some left over from the piece that we covered the trap door with.  It was painful to paint it, but it needed to be done.

After adding some baseboard moulding (which I'll detail in a later post), adding some extra support for the hooks, and a bit of caulk here and there, everything got a coat of primer and two coats of paint.  Finally, we were able to attach the hooks and lay the first part of the bench down.  Until the rest of the bench is ready, I can't finish trimming it out, so I can't call it done yet.  But it is supremely usable, and to steal a phrase from that maven of home organization, that is a very good thing.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Homemade Yogurt

I'm not a yogurt lover.  I suppose
that's an odd way to start a post about how I love to spend all day making homemade yogurt.  But it's true.  It always seemed like fake dessert to me.  Like you're supposed to open the little carton and take a bite of the stuff that's overly sweetened (probably to cover up the overly tangy flavor of the yogurt itself), and feel like you're eating something naughty, all the while knowing full well that this is the stuff of the beans and granola set.  I just didn't like it.

I used to be a cashier at a grocery store, and there was this one lady who used to come in every Friday after work.  She worked at Brandywine, the now defunct fancy schmancy restaurant across the street from Polly's Supermarket.  She would pull out her enormous wad of $1 bills from tips, and pay for a mountain of yogurt cups. That was all she ever bought.  I can't even imagine.

The only yogurt I ever remember liking was Yoplait breakfast yogurt.  It was so good.  I guess it might be because I wasn't expecting it to taste like Boston cream or Key lime pie.  It just was what it was.  And there was stuff in it.  I like chewy stuff.  And this yogurt had softened wheat berries and partially rehydrated dried apples, and it was lightly sweetened and flavored with cinnamon.

Of course, they discontinued it years ago.

Oh well.  I have tried a couple of times to recreate it, but no luck so far.  I'll let you know when I get there.

The only other reasons, in my mind, to buy yogurt were for baking (it's the best for muffins!) and tzatziki, the yummy cucumber sauce that comes on your gyro.  Of course, for tzatziki, you need the thicker Greek yogurt.  I first made it several years ago, when the only place you could get Greek yogurt was at Mediterranean Island, the fantastic import grocery store in Kentwood.  The last few years, though, it's become all the rage.  And wow, has the price gone up!

Well, a couple of years ago, a friend from college posted on Facebook that she was making yogurt.  I was intrigued.  Not because I wanted yogurt, but because making stuff that you didn't really think you could make at home is fun.  It's like speaking truth to power.  "Hey hey!  Ho ho!  5 Buck per cup yogurt has got to go!"

But then she posted about how good it tasted.  I scoffed inwardly.  This was yogurt she was writing about, after all.  But she persisted in describing her late night snack of yogurt and peaches....or something like that....and I finally relented.

Actually, I was already in the process of figuring out how to make homemade mozzarella cheese, but this looked way easier, so I jumped in.  I still haven't made the cheese.

I was still a little nervous, and watched lots of youtube videos and read lots of tutorials.  I sanitized everything that would come within 5 inches of the yogurt at any time within the entire day long process.  I tread very, very carefully.  Somehow, leaving milk out of the fridge all day wasn't naturally followed by, "Hey, let's dig in!"

Never the less, I plunged ahead.

Turns out, making yogurt is very uncomplicated!  And good grief, it is good.  Yes, it's tangy, but in a good way.  And I don't even sweeten it until I am ready to eat it.  That makes it more versatile and suitable for many moods and uses.  I prefer the thicker Greek-style yogurt for snacks, but we use regular yogurt for smoothies and baking.  For the kids, I can mix in a little jelly or jell-o powder, which add sweetness, flavor, and color.

There are lots of methods for making yogurt.  You can google others if you like.  You can use a little plain, store-bought yogurt as your starter, or, as I do, use freeze dried culture.  To incubate the yogurt, you can use a thermos, a heating pad, or an appliance made just for this purpose.  Or, as I do, use a warm water bath.  Let me show you what works for me.

First, gather all of your tools.  I keep a list in Evernote, because I would always forget something if I didn't.  While this process is very simple, and for the most part easy-going, there are moments when you have to be ready to move to the next step, so it's best to prepare beforehand. Here is my list:

Digital thermometer
Large metal spoon
Large ladle
1 cup measuring cup
Clean kitchen towel and a paper towel
Pot that is large enough to hold the amount of yogurt you intend to make (I use a 5 qt pot to hold a gallon of milk, which makes a gallon of yogurt, but you can easily make smaller batches)
2 half gallon canning jars or 4 quart-size jars, with lids (smaller or fewer if you make a smaller batch)
2 trays of ice or some reusable ice packs (leave in freezer until needed, but make sure they are ready)
Pot that is large enough to hold your jars with the lid on (stockpot or hot water canner work well)

To prepare your tools, first run the spoon, ladle, measuring cup, funnel, smaller pot and jars through the dishwasher hot rinse cycle.  If you don't have a dishwasher, boil water in the smaller pot and just dip the other tools into the water to sanitize.  Once you are done sanitizing the tools, pour the hot water into the larger pot and use the now-empty pot to warm your milk in.  

Place your kitchen towel on the counter next to your stove, covered by a paper towel, and lay your sanitized utensils on it.

If that sounded complicated, I promise it's not.  It's just a matter of gathering stuff and making sure it's clean.

Now, it's time to start making yogurt.

Pour your milk into the smaller pot.  Again, I make a gallon at a time.  But you can just make a quart if you want.  But however much yogurt you want, you just use the equal amount of milk.
You can use anything from skim milk to whole milk, but don't use the ultra-pasteurized milk.  Most milk that you get at the supermarket is just fine.  If it is ultra-pasteurized, it will say so on the label.
Turn the heat on about medium high until the chill is off the milk.  If you start on low, I swear it will take half your day just to get the milk warm.  So start a little higher, and occasionally stir it, scraping the bottom to make sure that nothing is scorching.  Test the temperature often. Any accurate thermometer will work.  Once you hit about 120 degrees, turn the heat down to medium low and stir more often.  Once you hit about 160 degrees, be ready to stay by the stove, stirring gently and constantly, and monitoring the temperature very often.  You want the milk to come to between 180 and 185 degrees.  Again, scrape the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching.  However, I will add that, if you walked away for just a little too long, and you feel that some scorching has taken place, don't scrape.  It only means that you will have to clean the pan a little more later on.  You don't want those solids to end up in your yogurt, so just turn the heat down and try to keep the rest of the milk moving.

Once the milk reaches 180 degrees, it's time to cool it back down.  You can just leave it to cool, stirring occasionally to help prevent a skin from forming.  However, at this point, I have been waiting long enough, and I like to speed up the process.

Put the stopper in your kitchen sink and fill it a little way with water.  Lower the pot of hot milk into the sink, making sure that the water level stays below the level of the milk.  If the water level is above the level of the pot's contents, the pot will float and become unstable, which will make you sad.  If you overfilled the sink, just hold the pot steady with one hand, and pull the stopper with the other, until the water level is where it needs to be.  Once the pot is stable in the sink, get your ice cubes or ice packs out of the freezer and drop them gently into the water.  Surrounded by the ice bath, the milk will cool more quickly, and even more so if you continue to gently stir.

At this point, you want to get your starter ready.  Like I said, you can use a couple of tablespoons of plain store-bought yogurt.  I like to use freeze-dried culture.  The reason for this is because I like the bacteria that is in Activia, but Activia doesn't sell a plain yogurt.  I found the right bacteria in the New England Cheesemaking Supply Co.'s Sweet Yogurt (Y5) starter.

It's the bifido bacteria that I am looking for.  But if you don't care about that, feel free to pick up a small carton of Dannon.

You will also need your ladle and measuring cup soon, so have them ready.

Keep monitoring the temperature of the milk.  You want it to get below 120 degrees (anything higher would kill the bacteria), but not below 110 degrees.  I waited a little long here.  I prefer to get things going at 115 degrees.  Remove the pot from the ice water to slow the cooling.

Ladle out a little of the warm milk into the measuring cup, and add the starter, whether dry culture or plain yogurt.  Stir it around a little to dissolve, then pour the combination back into the pot of milk and stir to combine.  Now you can ladle the mixture into your jars.  Again, I use canning jars because they are a convenient shape, they seal well, and I have them.

Line the bottom of your larger pot with the kitchen towel, then fill it partway with water that is about 115 degrees.  Tap water is fine.  If you sanitized your tools with boiling water, you have a head start.  Just add water until the temperature is around 115.  Then lower the jars into the pot.  You want the water to almost cover the jars.  Place the lid on the pot.  Now you can walk away for a while.

For the rest of the day, the bacteria is going to be multiplying and turning your milk into yogurt.  It's that simple.  All you need to do is occasionally monitor the temperature of the water to make sure that it is staying above 100 degrees.  If it gets below 110, I turn the burner on under the pot, but at its lowest possible setting.  With the towel in the bottom, this will create a very slow and gentle heat that will warm the water back up.  I usually only have to do this 2-3 times in a 12 hour incubation.

With all the methods out there, why do I choose the warm water bath?  Well, I refuse to buy a Yogotherm, which is a unitasking kitchen tool. The only thermos that I have was used solely for coffee for many years, and it smells like it.  I don't have a pilot light in my oven, and my heating pad has an auto-off feature.  I find other methods that I have read about to just be cumbersome.  The hardest part of the water bath method is getting the water to the right temperature.  And that's not hard at all.

The water and the jars of yogurt are at approximately the same temperature, and they seem to keep each other that way, as long as the cover stays on the pot.  I've been amazed at how long the water stays warm enough.  In fact, if you want to be even less hands-on, you can place the pot into a turned-off oven with the light on.  I did that once, and I think I only had to warm the oven (again, at its lowest setting) once in 12 hours.  Being in the oven keeps drafts away, and the little bit of heat that the lightbulb produces really seems to help.

As far as incubation time goes, you will want to experiment a bit.  The longer the yogurt incubates, the thicker it will get.  I like it thick, so I keep the yogurt jars in the water bath for a full 12 hours.  I believe you can incubate for as little as 5 hours, but 7 seems to be a common number.  It's just a matter of preference.

When the 12 hours have passed, usually right before bedtime, this is how my yogurt looks:

Other than the skewer that stands straight up, it's hard to tell the difference between the milk and its new form.  But if you were here and I tipped the jar, you would see the difference.  Milk doesn't go "glop" like yogurt does.

However, I like my yogurt even thicker.  Yes, I like the Greek style of yogurt.  So my work is not yet done.    Now, I get a large bowl and set a colander, lined with cheesecloth, over the bowl.

Then I pour one of the jars of yogurt over the cheesecloth.

And I stick the whole thing in the fridge, along with the other jar of yogurt.  In the morning, I have a colander full of thick, rich Greek-style yogurt, and a bowl full of whey.

So here's the final product of my 24 hour project.  One half gallon of plain yogurt, one quart of Greek style yogurt, and one quart of whey.  Why keep the whey?  Because it is packed with protein and adds a really nice tartness to smoothies while it also thins them out a little bit.  It has all the same bacteria that is in the yogurt, too.  And if you are into grinding your own wheat, I understand that whey is great for soaking the grains.

The smaller container in the front there holds about 1/2 cup of the yogurt that I just made.  I put that in the freezer so that I can use it as my starter next time.  If you make smaller batches of yogurt more often, you can just use the last bit of yogurt from your fridge.  I prefer to make more, less often, but the bacteria do become inactive after a while (it seems to last at least a month), so to be on the safe side, I put some in the freezer.  The bacteria are like Hans Solo in carbonite.  Or something.  They will come back kicking once the yogurt is thawed.

Now, if you love yogurt (especially the Greek-style), you will love making your own.  I like to explain in detail for those who don't do a lot of cooking and wouldn't take any steps for granted.  But the truth is that there is about an hour of active time involved in making a gallon of yogurt, and the cost is a little more than the cost of a gallon of milk.  Around here, milk is about $3.49 per gallon.  That means that it costs about 15 cents for a 5.3 ounce serving of Greek yogurt that you make yourself.  I haven't seen those little 5.3 ounce cups at the store that cheap, even on sale, have you?  Plus, it tastes better and you get to keep the whey.  Definitely a better deal.

If you don't love yogurt, make it anyway.  I did.  And it feels great to stick it to the man.  Plus, it turns out that I really do like it, especially sprinkled with chopped pecans and drizzled with a little honey, right before bed.

Friday, February 22, 2013


Well, I mentioned last time that we had made some progress on our mudroom project.  It is true.  A while back (as in several months ago) we actually hung two of the five carcases.  For those who have never read the Time Life handyman series, specifically, the How-To-Build-Cupboards book, the carcase is the basic box that you put stuff into.  Without the shelves or doors.  I would say that they are quite a success.  And I would know, since I have had several months to look at them as they collect things with which we don't know what to do otherwise.  Perhaps I shouldn't be so hard on us.  One carcase is actually holding its intended occupants: our china, which came out of long-term storage in the basement recently.  Instead of packing it back up in newspaper, Jeff splurged for a whole set of storage bags for just this purpose.  I have been wanting some for quite a long time, but when I actually look at them in the store, I think, "There are lots of other things that I could spend this $20 on right now.  I'd better wait."  Silly, I know.  They come in handy!  I often pack up a set of dishes to take somewhere for a party or dinner held somewhere other than my house (which, we've established, is not party-ready, especially in the winter).  So it's nice to have a safe vessel in which to carry them.  However, the china is not meant to be stored in them, ultimately.  That would render worthless the glass doors that we will eventually attach to the carcases.  As I wait, though, I have been sufficiently assured that the cupboards are well supported and strong as can be.  My dishes will be safe when they reach their final resting place.

The cupboards are only a small part of the progress, though.  Our next step on this wall unit will be the "locker" space where the kids can hang up coats, backpacks and snowpants, with a space for wet boots and shoes under each locker, and cubby space above for storage of small items, like notebooks and umbrellas.  Since this part of the unit will stretch from the floor to the bottom of the cupboards, we needed to address the floor first.  We have always liked the look of slate, and we especially like that it is textured, thereby providing some protection from slipping.  Since we track lots of snow and rain into the entryway, we decided that slate was the way to go.

So in October, we bought the tiles.

*dead air*

And there they sat.  We had never laid tile before, see, so we were a bit lost as to what needed to be done.  Well, we knew the steps, but there's always this mental wall that keeps us from taking the next step.

Perhaps I am being too hard on us again.  This is no ordinary floor, and this would be no basic tile job.  Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of the floor the way it used to be.  I forgot to take the "before" picture.  But here's the thing:  there's a trap door in the middle of it.  It's the only access to the basement.  Up until we demo'd the room, there was an elaborate pulley system that spanned the wall, with old bleach jugs filled with sand acting as counterweights in the basement.  All we had to do was pull the rope down, and the door would lift up, allowing us entry.   Well, that brings up all kinds of issues.  We couldn't put tile on the door.  It would be far too heavy to lift, and the constant movement up and down probably wouldn't be good for the tile, anyway.  The whole floor used to be covered in linoleum.  Nice and lightweight.  But I hate linoleum.  And I wanted slate.  So we decided that we would just get a large rug and attach it to the door to cover up the fact that there is no tile there.  One problem solved.
However, there were a couple of other issues.  For one thing, the space between the exterior door and the basement trap door takes a rather steep dive.  It is highest by the exterior door, and I would say that it drops toward the basement door a good inch.  We were a little unsure about how to deal with that.  And finally, while we intend to continue the slate into the kitchen, we are unable to do the entire floor right now. The footprint of the kitchen will change when we get around to renovating it, so it would be silly to lay the floor now.  So what could be do to avoid having a big gap where slate meets linoleum?

So with all these weird little issues, we managed to find other things to keep us too busy to get to the floor job.

Finally, after Christmas, we had had quite enough.  So we got to work.

These are actually pictures from a while back.  We removed the linoleum some time ago, and look what we found!  An old For Sale sign had been repurposed as a sub-floor.  This may be the time to pull out a Dutch joke (West Michigan has a very high Dutch population), but I feel a little funny, not being Dutch myself.

After we pulled up all the pieces of the For Sale subfloor, we were left with this.  Jeff had a heck of a time getting those hinges out.  

The lockers will go along this wall, and we debated whether to tile all the way under the bench, since it won't be seen unless you get on your hands and knees.  

Here is the first step after our long winter break from the project.  Jeff had already laid the new sub-floor, and then we put down the cement backer board.  We put twice as many screws in as it said to use, because of the wonkiness of the floor.  We didn't want it moving at all.  It doesn't get much more solid than this.

And finally, we got up the nerve to actually lay the tile.  Turns out, this was a worst case scenario tile job.  I'll be honest.  We got the cheap stuff.  We looked at the tile specialty stores, and the slate was beautiful.  And it was $5.99 per square foot.  Then we looked at the slate at Lowes.  It didn't look that much different.  And it was $1.48 per square foot.  Easy decision, right?

I knew, in the back of my head, that there was a very good reason that the Lowes tile was so much cheaper.  I just shut that voice down and pretended I had never heard it.  

These tiles, while beautiful, have a great tendency to flake.  I read somewhere online that slate is one of the hardest stones available for flooring, but there are differing degrees of hardness, and you have to blast through the "softer" stuff to get to the harder stuff.  They used to discard the softer slate.  Now they sell it to big box Lowes.  That would explain the flaking.

The other problem was that the thickness of each tile was significantly different.  They could vary by nearly 1/2 an inch.  While that came in handy when we needed to fish out the thinnest possible tiles to put under where the door would swing open, it did make for a difficult, and only partially successful installation.  I definitely made some mistakes here.  There is one tile that is literally surrounded on all sides by thicker, thus higher tiles.  And there are a couple of spots that simply have too great of a difference in height between two adjacent tiles.  But it's not enough to stub a toe on.  And since I have vowed to approach all house projects with the attitude that nothing is perfect in old houses, so I might as well make the new things fit in, I am okay with this.  I consider it to be a learning experience, and when we branch out to the rest of the kitchen, I will be more diligent to use a thicker coat of thinset under the thinner tiles, and try to make height differences more gradual, rather than putting two tiles that are vastly different thicknesses right next to each other.  I mostly placed the tiles by color, rather than thickness.  Next time I will try to find a balance between the two.

The good news is that, when we get around to renovating the bathroom, the ceramic tile that I put up will be a breeze!  Every tile is identical!

So anyway, it was slightly difficult as tile jobs go, but in the overall scheme of things, it was easy!  I am not afraid of laying tile at all now.  

Two weeks later, I finally got up the nerve to seal the tile.  I had been quite afraid of messing it all up.  Turns out, this job couldn't be much easier.  Think polishing a table--not applying polyurethane to it.  You just wipe the stuff on, and it dries, and you find out that your tile is even prettier than before!  

Buoyed by this victory, I moved right on to grouting.  Again, I was afraid of mixing it wrong, but it seems that even mixing isn't too hard.  I applied the grout, and Jeff came behind me to wipe up the excess.  Easy peasy.

Finally, we had to address the trap door.  I was never really pleased with the idea of the mat.  The only ones big enough to cover the door are those industrial black rubber or commercial black fuzzy things, like you see just inside of a school door.  Yuck.  I can't remember how I thought of it, but I suggested wood to Jeff.  I'm pretty sure I was just thinking about using a thick trim around the edges of the door to facilitate using a nicer rug.  But Jeff said that we could get 1/4" oak veneer plywood, which is not heavy at all.  So that's what we did!  I like it a lot. Would I prefer not having a door in the middle of the slate floor?  Yes.  But given what we had to work with, I think it turned out really well. The pictures don't even do it justice.  The colors are much deeper than they look here.  I absolutely love it.

The before and after is quite astonishing.  Too bad that the "before" is stored in our memories......

Up next:  the lockers!