Friday, November 27, 2009

Light-Up Night

Tonight was Light-Up Night in Beaver, Pennsyl-vania.

The display is nothing like what you see on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri. But the fun here is inversely greater. On the Plaza, the lights come on in a formal ceremony featuring area celebrities, then everybody jumps in their cars and heads home; in Beaver, the lights come on when nobody in particular is paying attention and afterwards people hang around and enjoy the town and the cold weather and the start of the Christmas season.

I went with my friends Hannah* and Steve* and their kids Stevie* and Letty.* The line to see Santa in the park gazebo stretched all the way to the corner, so we fortified ourselves with the free hot chocolate and doughnuts with chocolate icing and red, green, and white jimmies and headed for the shops.

Light-Up Night is open house for the merchants in Beaver. Most of the stores on Third Street (the main thorough-fare), their windows and interiors decorated to the hilt, stay open for business and offer cookies and cider and other goodies. Christmas music, live and canned, sings out into the night air, and horse-drawn carriages, wheeled sleighs, and charabancs ply up and down the broad avenue, offering rides for free. People of all ages meander up and down and in and out, and I think it's extremely sporting for the proprietors of establishments crowded with pretty things to throw their doors open the festive crowd-- many of whom are not carrying money.

Having two elementary-school-aged kids along both enlivened and complicated things. They wanted to do everything at once and we adults didn't always know where or when or how. So we did the logical thing and threaded our way down one side of the street then back up the other.

Stopped into the new Japanese restaurant to pick up a menu; visited a shop full of decorative objects, including a lamp made out of a bottle adorned with a shirtless photo of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu (lol); met up with friends on the street; got a bag of fresh hot popcorn in front of the Municipal Building; finally got to see the inside of the new kitchen store and was treated to a demo of a food mill of the sort I'll need next time I make quince butter; and back to the two-story toy store where we hung out with the kids warming up and playing with things till time for the fireworks.

For me, the high point of this perambu-lation was found up a narrow, oriental-carpeted stairway to a second-floor suite over one of the storefronts. It was a brand-new accountant's office, just opened today, and the decor was smashing. It looked like the sort of place they'd feature in one of those glossy decorating magazines that give everyone a bad case of the covets. Bare brick and Venetian plaster walls, antique furniture, graceful draperies and appointments; unless you were a houseblogger you'd never believe that when they first saw the space it had looked, in the words of someone in the know, "like a pigsty." The accountant and her friends had laid out a spread of pastries, dry sausage, and cheese, with an urn of hot cider, and more attractive to me than that, the project carpenter was there. And I got his card (I may need help remounting my trim!). And the accountant gave me the name of her plasterer! Not a bad night's work!

At 8:00 o'clock we stood in the street and watched the fireworks, then headed back to the park. Earlier we'd seen a little carriage drawn by a pair of Shetland ponies over there, and Hannah thought it'd be fun for the children to ride. But by then, the ponies were nowhere to be seen. Oh, well! The line to see Santa was quite short; in fact, Stevie and Letty were the last ones in.

We ended the evening with a ride in one of the charabancs, behind a fine pair of golden brown draft horses (Morgans?). This took us down the main street then round the long block into one of the narrow residential streets behind. Seeing the brick pavement and the historic houses with candles in the windows, I could almost visualize how it might have been over a hundred years ago, riding in a horse-drawn vehicle along that way as a matter of course.

Monday, I'll have to call that plasterer. Good chance he's way too expensive for me, but maybe he'll be nice enough to tell me where he gets his supplies.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving Thanks

As I do most years, I had Thanksgiving dinner at my friend Frieda's* house, sharing the meal with her and her extended family. Late this afternoon, after the rest of the family had departed and all the food was put away, Frieda and her husband followed me back to my house. In their extended cab truck. With a big, long, iron chain.

Where they hitched up said chain and pulled out the stumps of my arborvitaes from the side yard. You know, the one that fell clean over and its mate that started leaning after a windstorm last February.

Finally, they're gone!

Actually, only the one nearest the street came out with the chain. The other one, the dead one, Dave* broke out himself, because it was on the other side of the air conditioning unit and he was afraid of what the chain might do to the equipment.

And they're not exactly gone-gone, since I still have to take a chainsaw to the stumps and haul the pieces to the yard waste dump.

But those brown-fronded, shedding, bug-ridden arborvitaes are finally out of the ground and now I can plant the hollies I've been wanting since 2004!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Long Island Cheese Pie

I've been considering whether it's fitting to post articles about my culinary exploits here, or whether they belong over on the miscellan-eous blog. I've decided that general cooking and baking stories go there, but if the kitchen adventures involve food I've grown in my garden, they go here.

That said, I had one (count 'em, 1) pumpkin out of my garden this year. Beautiful vines everywhere, but only one gourd. Variety, "Long Island Cheese." Heirloom, kind of pinky-yellowy-white, said to be good for pies.

So I offered my one-and-only up to the cause of the annual Thanksgiving feast at my friend Frieda's*.

Sunday, I cut the pumpkin in halves, put it on a greased cookie sheet, and baked it. It's really easier to scoop out the flesh that way. Peeling and boiling is just too much like work.

Then the flesh went into the blender to pureé. No, Kate, a full blender bowl will not process, especially on a machine that dates to the mid-1960s (the blender's an heirloom, too). OK, divide it in two batches and pureé each separately.

This yielded me nearly two quarts of pumpkin pureé. It tasted good and rather sweet, even with no sugar added. It was a little runny, though, with clear liquid around the edges . . . Probably not good. I could see me on the night before Thanksgiving with a pie still sloshing in the middle. So, doing the sensible thing, I-- no, I didn't read a cookbook or check the Internet!-- I called my 79-year-old mother.

"Fresh pumpkin always does that. You have to let it drain for a few hours to get the extra liquid out."

So I did. At least, I did it with the quart I hadn't put in the freezer. And by the time it was drained, I was left with 1-3/4 cups of pureé for a 2 cup recipe. (Next time, I'm draining it before it's pureéd.)

OK, get the other quart out of the freezer and thaw and drain it, too.

That gave me a cup and a half. Enough and some to spare.

Made the pie crust last night, formed it into a couple of discs, and put it in the fridge to rest. I'm pretty good with pie crust (one of the few advantages of having perpetually cold hands), but the part I dread is getting the rolled-out dough off the marble board and onto the pie plate. Epic fail my first attempt this evening, and I had to roll it out again. If anyone's listening, I would really like a pastry cloth for Christmas!

I was extravagant and used heavy cream instead of evaporated milk. I have a can of the latter in the cupboard, but I think it's something the dinosaurs left behind when they became extinct. Actually, I used the recipe out of Joy of Cooking precisely because it reassured me I could use heavy cream instead of evaporated milk.

Brown sugar as well as white, and lots of spices-- I like spices-- with nutmeg freshly grated in. Then the eggs, and all beaten with my new Cuisinart mixer. I meant to take a photo of the filling in the bowl before I poured it in the case, it looked so suave and silky, but I actually had my mind on the job and forgot. From the lickings I'd say this Long Island Cheese variety does give a different taste than the bog-standard pumpkin that goes into the Libby's can. I like it; will my friends be able to tell the difference?

The pie came out of the oven just fine-- until I knocked off a bit of the crust carrying it to the cooling rack. Excuse to eat some . . . hmm. Maybe it could have used a bit of sugar?

Never mind. I'm sure I got enough into the filling.

The pie lost a bit more crust a little later as I contrived to put it up to finish cooling out of the reach of my greedy, energetic, and enterprising dog. I'd moved it from the counter to a rack in the microwave over the stove (with the door open) and usually that's safe enough. But I saw him jumping for it just as I was leaving the kitchen and I'm taking no chances.

So the pie from my one precious Long Island Cheese pumpkin is now reposing on top of the pots in the cupboard above the microwave. I'm glad my goggeh likes the smell of my baking, but I'm not prepared to accept the compliment of his scarfing down the whole jolly thing when my back is turned.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Trimming the Sow

When I first saw the notice for the latest True Value ( DIY contest, "My First DIY," I thought I was supposed to write about my first do-it-yourself project ever.

Ah, yes. That would be the time I demounted and stripped all the Victorian hardware in the first floor apartment I shared with two other girls one summer at college, to the genuine joy of the landlord.

But I looked closer at the notice, and it actually says "After I got the keys to my house, the first thing I changed was..." So this is definitely a Sow's Ear question. My first and so far only bought-and-owned-by-me house.

Then it reads, "We want to hear all about that very first DIY project you completed, once you had the keys in your hand."

Oh. Do you really want to hear about that? It was really simple and boring, if very effective. I scraped and cleaned the basement bathroom and laundry room floors and gave them a coat of porch floor paint. It went from flakey gray and burgundy red, pockmarked in places with spots of bare concrete, to a nice light green. Brightened the spaces up amazingly and six years later, even after two supplementary applications in the john, the fresh color makes that part of the basement a pleasure to work in. The only thing I would have done differently is to paint the laundry floor before I had the new washer and dryer installed. Oops.

But how exciting can that be? That ranks right up there with, well, watching paint dry. So if I may submit a more involved project for the community's amusement, may I present the Grand Woodwork Stripping and Refinishing Campaign-- even if even now it's not yet done.

Truly, spiritually, the woodwork is the first thing I began to change after I got the keys.

From the moment I first walked through the door with the real estate agent in June 2003, I knew the mushroom beige paint on that trim was doomed. It was already trying to shrug it off, helped a lot by my previous owners' dogs. I could see the deep shellacked red-brown peeking out from cracks and chips in the loose paint, whispering the promise of solid oak natural-finish woodwork just like I knew back in Missouri. Turned out it was yellow pine, but never mind that. As soon as I had the keys and had retrieved my toolbox from the storage locker, I took my razor blade scraper (with a dull blade) and began flaking away.

And flaking away and flaking away. But I'd just started a 60+ hour a week job as a church pastor and I had to get my study painted and in order so I could find my books and write my sermons, and then there was no way I was going to put my dishes away until the kitchen was relieved of its nice-try-but-too-busy-and-dark wallpaper, was repainted, and had the new backsplash border up and the cabinets remounted. Which didn't get accomplished till January 2005.

Meanwhile, I kept chipping. I chipped when I was on the phone. I chipped when I was bored. I chipped when I came home from a meeting and wanted to feel I'd gotten something useful done that evening. I was awash in dark-beige and cream paint flakes, flakes under the furniture, flakes down the heat registers, flakes tracked around by the dog, flakes being sampled by the cat ("No, Wennie! There might be lead in that!!"). But I swept and vacuumed up the mess and kept on going.

Seeing how easily the paint came away, I concluded that the POs who'd applied it in the first place (this turned out to be my PO-2) had neglected to prime the wood first. Worked well for me, since the only places the paint stuck was where the original finish was worn. The question then was, what to do about them? Once the paint was off most of a piece, the finish was beautiful. So why mess it up? Why not just use the Western Wood Doctor refinisher and use it for both the stubborn paint and to blend in the rest of the finish? And I'd do all the trim while it was still up. So much less hassle that way.

In late February 2004 I got serious about this project, starting with the doorway between the front hall and the kitchen hall. But problems immediately reared their heads. The inner casing, I discovered, once was mortised for hinges and a latchset and the patches screamingly didn't match. These pieces were in bad shape, too, so gouged and pitted the palm sander wouldn't even it out. Bugger. I'd have to take it down after all. But the adjacent face trim was stuck behind the lip of the hall bench and I couldn't work out how to remove it. The casing wouldn't come off till the trim did.

Phooey. I decided to strip it all in place after all. But somehow, I could never work up the nerve to make the commitment and the mess this would involve. Besides, I lost my job for awhile and couldn't afford the supplies, and then I got another job (as an architect) which hardly gave me time to turn around once I got home in the evenings.

So I kept chipping and sweeping, sweeping and chipping. Front room, 1st floor hall, living room, dining room, 2nd floor hall. The only reason the incompleteness of it didn't drive me mad long since was that even with the spots and splotches of stuck-on paint, the natural wood finish revealed on the trim made even the boring ugly beige wallpapers look good.

But in January 2008, in response to a call for New Year's DIY resolutions posts, I realized I needed to make a big push and get this project finished. Or refinished. Whatever. And I faced the fact that there was no way I could get it done without taking the trim pieces down. So I launched my big woodwork refinishing campaign . . . which as of now still isn't complete. I'm set to start reshellacking the woodwork and remounting it, but nothing has happened since the end of August. A girl has to deal with the garden and pursue her part time work and look for a fulltime job, you know.

But I've almost finished doing the things I swore I had to do before I could go back to the woodwork, and maybe-- maybe-- the stair balusters and 1st floor hall trim-- if nothing else-- will be shellacked and remounted in time to deck the halls for Christmas.

Or maybe not. It occurs to me I may have made a similar resolution before on this blog . . .
This post was written for as part of a sweepstakes sponsored by True Value.

Friday, November 20, 2009


From this morning and early afternoon:

11:23 AM

The furnace repair guy (different one from the other day) is downstairs working, even as I write.

I got a call from the dispatcher at 8:50 to tell me he was on his way over. Yes, yes, I was still in bed. Got up, figuring I had a half hour or so to get washed and dressed and take care of the animals. But no, the doorbell rang when I still had cleanser on my face. Seems he'd been trying to call for quite awhile but kept getting a message saying my number was out of service. Wonder what that was all about? It was the correct number, too.

Happily, he'd called his office and had the dispatcher call me. Would’ve been awkward if I had to take off from work again next week and didn’t get the furnace fixed today after all.

The heat exchanger turns out to be a humongous thing; the guts of the furnace, in fact. The crack was way at the back of one of the tall narrow cells, so no wonder my eyes couldn’t detect it on Monday. It was clear enough from the other side, once the unit was out and sitting on the floor. The split's about 3/4" long.

11:54 AM

Few minutes ago, Rufus* the repairman came to the foot of the 1st floor stairs to give me the news: He was about to fire up the furnace. There'd be a smell of smoke, he warned. The lubricating oil and so on burning off? Yeah.

He adjusted the hallway thermostat upwards, then I accompanied him back down the basement to witness the ceremony. Power back on at the mains, then a short wait for the gas to flow to the ignition.

But what’s this? Instead of a nice steady blue flame in the burners, we had yellow flares bursting out from under the new heat exchanger, so that Rufus had to move back lest he be hit.

Okay! Not what’s wanted, obviously. He’s down there now trying to figure out what the problem is. I’m going on the assumption it can be fixed, and fixed today. I have a replacement clause in my AHS policy, but I’d rather avoid the disruption and hassle.

12:22 PM

Up here in the study I smell something-- not exactly burning, more like a preheating frying pan-- so this could be good news.

12:50 PM

Victoire! Rufus tells me the flaring problem was just due to a dirty burner. Like when I get crud in the burners of my gas stove? Yep. It's all cleaned and safe now, the furnace is adjusted, and should now operate at 90% of its capability. Given that my TempStar dates from 1987, that's nothing to schmooze Al Gore with, but I'll take it. Better than it was.

After I paid the home warranty service fee and the repairman left, I-- well, what do you think I did? Turn up the thermostat and bask in all the nice clean heat?

No, I'm still cheap. I turned the heat off. 57° downstairs means a tolerable 61° or so up in the study, and with a cat in my lap I can take after my parsimonious father awhile longer this waning year.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


We're having a wonderful Indian summer here in southwestern Pennsylvania, with outdoor temperatures hovering in the 50s and 60s during the day and going down into the 30s and 40s at night. This means I've been able to get outside and do some of the winter prep yard work I'd put off or plain wouldn't do if it were colder.

It's also meant that I could put off turning on the furnace full time. I can't claim any ecologically-founded virtue in this desire; it's just that I'm poor. Or cheap. Take your pick.

Actually, I deinstalled the thermostat had been deinstalled and shut off the HVAC main switch off last July when I started doing the faux finish on my 1st floor hall. My vow and resolution was not to reinstall it until the trim was refinished and put back in place and the new wallpaper hung. In September, this was supposed to be, a week or two after I finished with the Welsh-American convention I was involved in here in Pittsburgh and had bidden a fond adieu to the Kansas City friend who was my guest during it.

But work and life and Facebook intervened. So barring some work in the garden and giving the thermostat cover a "bronze" coat with model car paint (so it'll look less glaring over my new paper), I've accomplished pretty much nothing on the inside of the house since the end of August. Forget wallpapering; I haven't even finished stripping the 2nd floor hall floor.

And though the weather outside has been happily mild, my brick and plaster house can retain only so much heat. Inside daytime temps descended into the low 50s by a week ago last Friday, and reluctantly I gave in and reinstalled the thermostat over the primed plaster.

Ran the furnace three or four hours that evening, just to take the chill off. And a little the next morning. But that day, the weather got up into the high 60s, so I shut the furnace off again. More money saved!

Before I did, though, I removed the burner door and had a look at the burner itself. Um . . . yeah, look at all the smuts glowing in there. Needs cleaned, that's for sure. Actually, I am an inexperienced idiot with furnaces and I've never had it cleaned the entire six years I've been here. Can't hurt to get it done, and it'll probably help with energy efficiency, right?

So yesterday morning a serviceman comes from a local heating and cooling company to inspect, clean, and tune up my furnace. Down we go to the basement, I show him where everything is, and he gets to work.

Less than ten minutes later he's up at the top of the basement stairs, saying, "I have news for you, and it's not good."

"Oh?" say I, reserving judgment.

"Yes. Your heat exchanger unit is cracked. It's not very big now, but as you run the heat it'll widen and there'll be a danger from carbon monoxide."

"It'll need to be replaced?"

"Yes. And that's not good news."

Well, maybe not as bad as he thinks. "I have a home warranty," I pronounce. "It covers furnace repairs."

"Oh, which one?"

"American Home Shield."

"Oh! We're one of their repair agencies! In fact, we're their No. 1 furnace repair contractor in this area!"

Back downstairs, he tried to show me the crack, way back there behind the burner. But my eyesight isn't so good and I had to take his word for it. He stayed down to put things back together and I went up to call AHS.

Funny, but even though that H&C company is just across the river, they didn't have my zip code registered with them on the AHS contractor list. After a few phone calls the oversight was corrrected, AHS assigned them the work order, the order for a new heat exchanger was put in, and they're to call me in a day or two when it arrives and arrange a time to come put it in. Hopefully sooner than later; the thermostat reads 55° today and it'll likely go lower by tomorrow.

But I call this whole thing providential. If I hadn't run the furnace only minimally this fall, that crack would've been widening and the CO would've been gassing me and my critters out. If I hadn't got off my duff and called for a cleaning (finally!!), the problem wouldn't've been found. And how providential it was that the H&C cleaning company I called is an AHS contractor, so I could get the repair process working right away, instead of waiting a day or two longer for the assigned contractor to get back with me.

Who says being cheap doesn't pay off? Though I suppose, if I'd been so cheap as not to have gotten the furnace cleaned, I might've had a pay off I wouldn't like.