Pittsburgh apartment updates

I’ve been without a microwave for a few weeks and it’s been difficult! I like making a lot of food and eating leftovers for a few days afterwards, but not many things heat up well in a pot or skillet. I am of course loathe to buy anything so I was lucky to find a free microwave beside a dorm dumpster. It works! It was even pretty clean inside.

I found the university’s free pile, where you can leave stuff and take stuff as you please. It’s pretty small considering the number of students. Maybe people don’t know about it. I’ve already gotten some good stuff! Handmade doilies, sunscreen, earbuds (they need a little glue, but still).

Currently being washed. I even found a matching pair, several weeks apart.

The apartment is a little less neat now. I got started on a craft project, so knitting supplies are (sparsely) strewn around the room. I’m making a pair of socks for sibling C! It’s my first pair of socks and I have to say they’re not as difficult as people make them out to be. Socks are certainly fast to make. The main difficulty is getting the two socks to be the exact same size.

See? The bottom sock is slightly larger (although not so large as it appears in this picture; some of that is from perspective). Usually your gauge relaxes as you knit more, so it’s to be expected. Hopefully the difference in size isn’t noticeable when wearing them. They look like they might also be too big for C’s feet, although they’re too small for mine. The yarn was a freebie from friend S.
The heel flap construction.

Sibling C wanted the socks to be around 11″ tall, but I wasn’t sure I would have enough yarn so I knit the socks toe up using these instructions, with some modifications due to differences in gauge (see sock calculations). I used the Middle Eastern cast-on, gusset-heel flap for the heel, and bound off in pattern using 1×1 ribbing. If the cuff isn’t stretchy enough, I’ll have to use a different bind off.

My goal this year living alone is to produce as little trash (meaning stuff that isn’t recyclable or compostable) as possible. I’m doing well so far. I scouted out a few compost bins in the area, so I don’t need to pay for the local compost service, Shadyside Worms. It costs $20/month which, while reasonable, provides much more service than I need. They pick up 5 gallons of compost every week; I produce maybe a half gallon on a cooking-heavy week.

There are a number of bulk stores in the area, so I’m all set on that front.

My first bulk haul. From left to right, bread flour, soy sauce, olive oil (Mediterranean, unfortunately), tahini, almond butter, castile soap, kipper snacks (bad! don’t buy that brand), local cheese (also bad, it was really bitter, like it was going bad even when it was fresh), and local butter (in compostable paper).

I picked up a few more kitchen items from Goodwill: a non-aluminum pot for tomato sauce (I only brought an aluminum one with me), a wooden cutting board, glass jars for food storage, and a mesh strainer. Goodwill has 25% Tuesdays for students 😀

Since J and I only have one chef’s knife, I was planning on buying a new-to-me knife for using here. J wanted a cleaver to make processing meat easier, so it seemed like a good idea to get a cleaver to use as my everyday knife. Before committing to a purchase on eBay, I “shopped” my parents’ house for knives. I turned up a couple of really dull, low-quality cleavers that didn’t seem worth salvaging. I sharpened one anyway and it’s been pretty good! A bit uncomfortable to hold, but good enough for a year.

Hat repairs

Sibling C got a holey cashmere hat from a friend who didn’t like it enough to want to repair it.

The hat in question. The crock on the counter in the background contains recently made miso! Now it just has to age for a year before it’s ready to eat 🙂

C wanted to repair it, but didn’t have darning yarn in the right color. So… I spun some for her!

The finished yarn, my drop spindle, camel hair, and white/light gray Shetland wool. The yarn is worsted-spun so that the fibers are aligned. This makes the yarn stronger, shinier, and less prone to pilling. I combed together camel hair and wool to make a lighter tan color.
Two tiny skeins of yarn! It’s about 18 ft in all.

SF and Cookin’

The day after the park walk, C and I went to San Francisco via the Caltrain, of course.

First we went to Rainbow Grocery to check out the bulk selection. We were actually too starved to shop, so first we ate our picnic lunch on the bench in front of the store.

At Rainbow Grocery, we bought 00 flour (Wikipedia on flour type numbers) for making pasta. C also bought some Rancho Gordo cassoulet beans (would not recommend) and some heirloom Carolina gold rice from Anson Mills (here’s a Serious Eats article on it’s history). C was duly impressed!

Then we went to Cookin’, a mid-century-European-cookware thrift store.

(stand for food mill, wok spatula)

Cookin’ was very impressive! They have a large selection of very niche items – not just one canning food mill, but 5! – and a large selection of vintage and non-electric cookware (e.g. hand-crank egg beater). The store is organized by type, so that all the wooden cooking spoons are together within the larger implement section, the copper pots are together within the larger pots and pans section, etc. Not everything is displayed, so ask if you’re looking for something specific.

I bought a canning food mill stand, which I haven’t even been able to find on eBay. C bought a wok spatula, which she’s been looking for at thrift stores for ages.

The triangle legged thing is the stand. Source.

Cookin’ is kind of expensive, but the prices are worth it for those hard-to-find items. The prices for popular items (vintage Le Creuset) are on-par with eBay, but the low demand items seem too expensive (worn plastic spatulas for $0.75). The store specializes in European cookware, so you won’t find a lot of specialty Asian items, e.g. (although C did get to choose between 3 different wok spatulas).

Darning eggs are used to stretch knit fabrics to make them easier to repair.

Oddly, they were selling darning eggs as pestles. They do look a bit like wooden pestles (see canning food mill picture above), but the owner obviously doesn’t do crafts. At least I know where to find darning eggs now 🙂

As some reviewers note on Yelp, the shop is like a display of the owner’s personal collection of cookware. The inside is an organized hoard – leave large bags and hats at home to avoid accidents! Enjoy!

A visitor! and patching

My older sibling C visited a few weeks ago. We did tons of cool things, starting with… the public library! It was sewing night, so I worked on the never-ending supply of holey clothing. Here are some of my recent patches!

Pocket was tearing off.
Back of patch.
Highly sophisticated machine darns where the corners of my wallet have started to wear through my jeans. I discovered that setting the stitch length to be the same length as the carries in the weave makes the patch blend in a lot better.
That linen shirt (homemade!) that continues to fall apart. I patched a huge worn spot where my backpack rubs.
Inside of the shirt. I’m trying to use up scraps of cloth first.

While I was patching, C looked at books, getting cool ones like:

Edible and Useful Plants of California by Charlotte Bringle Clarke, written in the ’70s for the back-to-nature movement, and

Handmade Pasta Workshop & Cookbook by Nicole Karr, which shows you how to make a dazzling array of pasta shapes, many of them machine-free!

Making olives

Last fall, I made olives from fruit gathered from a neighbor’s tree. As it turns out, this neighbor had been interested in making olives for a while, but never looked into it. He was very excited about the project and readily let me pick his olives.

I hadn’t cured olives before, but I’ve did some research on it (and have a lot of experience with other niche food projects!). As it turns out, it’s pretty easy and makes an item that is relatively expensive to purchase, so definitely worth it.

There are four basic ways to cure olives: in water, in salt brine, in lye brine, and in salt (dry). The lye method is the fastest- it can take less than a day, but lye is rather dangerous, of course. Curing in water is also supposed to be relatively fast (a month), although it seems of questionable veracity to me. Dry-curing takes 1-2 months. This method is also called oil-curing, since these types of olives are often marinated in oil after being cured. The low water content makes them taste richer and oilier. The slowest, but one of the easiest and most common, methods is brining. It takes 6-12 months and produces a “normal” olive.

The salt-based methods rely on lacto-fermentation for flavor and additional preservation. The salt prevents the wrong types of bacteria from growing (which is why it’s important to use enough salt and why I’m dubious about the water-only method!); the fermentation adds flavor and acidity.

All methods can be used on all types and ripeness of olives, but there are combinations that are more common. For example, dry-curing is more common with ripe olives. Brining is more common with green (unripe) or half-green olives. Unripe olives tend to have a stronger taste, since they start off more bitter.

Here’s a review of the process, plus improvements:

  • Collect olives by shaking branches towards a tarp. Gather olives from the tarp (e.g. pour into a bucket). Picking by hand is laborious and bumping the tree as you pick causes nearby olives to fall off and be lost.
  • Many (~75%) of the olives I collected had been impacted by the olive fruit fly, which lays its eggs in the olive meats. Impacted olives are safe to eat, but may be more acidic and have a shorter shelf life. I didn’t use any of the impacted olives this time, but would in the future since I was left with so few olives!
  • I dry-cured the olives, leaving them in a jar of salt for ~3-4 months. Turns out this was too long, as the olives were overly salty and desiccated, so make sure to taste-test periodically. I rehydrated and de-salted by soaking in plain water for a few days, then put the olives in a brine (because they started getting moldy…).
  • Dry-curing works best on ripe olives. I cured some green and half-green olives that turned out kinda hard and bitter, so I would avoid those in the future.

I was impressed with how easy the process was and how olive-like the finished product was.

Leftover salt. I still have it. Maybe I can use it in the next batch of olives.
The finished olives! I eventually put them in a brine (sniped from some commercial olives) for storage. I intend to give some to the tree-owner.

Discussion of how to make liquid castile soap

The zero-waste dentist also has a very thorough article on replicating Dr. Bronner’s castile soap at home. Castile soap traditionally refers to soap made with only olive oil, so Dr. Bronner’s, which contains a large amount of coconut oil, doesn’t actually count. Apparently the coconut oil makes a big difference in texture, smell, and cleaning ability, too.

On the topic of Dr. Bronner’s, awhile ago I was reading an article reviewing the company and was super confused when the article said “she has a lot of nice scents.” Who the heck was this “she”? It turns out Dr. Bronner is a woman… :'(

Clothing repair

I regularly patch clothes – mostly the knees of J’s jeans, and recently some of J’s socks. I do boro-style patches (like this but less polished) and other forms of visible mending. They never look super awesome, but they are durable. (I’m going to look like a hobo one day, though.)

An earlier knee patch. More recent patches blend in better and have taken less time.
Maybe I should try other styles of patching. This one is particularly pretty 🙂
The height of my patching attempts! I used this pair of underwear to pad ceramics for shipping. Unfortunately, a dish broke and made lots of tiny holes and some medium-size holes all over the butt of the garment. I really like how these fit and they were in good shape besides the holes, so I decided to patch them! I turned them into an under-the-sea scene, with the small holes turned into bubbles and the larger holes turned into fish. I made two jellyfish, a sea urchin, a squid, some seaweed, and 5 other generic fish. The patches are holding up well!

If you aren’t sure how to repair an item, take a look at Make Do and Mend. It is a British WWII booklet on caring for and repairing clothing. It is super detailed! I’m sure everyone could learn a new technique from it.

Homemade yoghurt made easy, no special equipment needed!

My kefir culture (bought from a neighbor on Craigslist!) is no longer usable. The active culture went bitter somehow – probably contamination; the backup culture in the freezer died, apparently. I tried to make several batches of kefir with it, hoping for a revival, but nothing happened 🙁

Although kefir is easier to culture than yoghurt since it is mesophilic (grows optimally at room temperature), I prefer the flavor and texture of yoghurt. Unfortunately, yoghurt cultures are thermophilic (grow optimally around 110°F). It is difficult to maintain this temperature without special equipment (yoghurt maker or water bath) or lots of fiddling (e.g. with oven settings) for the 5-10 hours needed to make a batch of yoghurt. A recent read gave a good tip for getting around this: put the heated milk and starter culture into a thermos. Even bad thermoses are capable of keeping their contents hot for 5 hours, so it works out perfectly, no additional energy input necessary!

I tried the thermos approach with a squat, wide-mouth thermos from Goodwill ($2.19! Stainless steel! Thermos brand! Oddly, it is branded with images from some car movie). It worked really well! The yoghurt turned out thick (even thicker than the commercial variety I used as starter) and creamy. I will definitely do this again!