Hammered Dulcimer design, construction, and unrelated stuff

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Watermelon rind preserves (not pickles)

This is a rare recipe that my family has been enjoying for many years, having learned it when we lived in the Ozarks.  It is for a real preserve that you eat on toast or put over ice cream or whatever.  They have a unique, warm, buttery flavor that is out of this world, and doesn't taste anything like watermelon.  

In all of our moves, we had somehow lost the original recipe, so for several years now, I have been recreating it from memory and refining it.  So this is my own recipe, and I consider it finished and wonderful.  

Eat a nice big melon, save the rind.
Peel the rind and chop up in small pieces, you don't have to remove the leftover red flesh.
Brine the rind overnight.  For every quart of water in your brine, use 2 Tablespoons of salt.
Next day, drain, rinse and drain again.
Measure the rind.  For every cup of rind, mix in 1/4 cup of sugar and let stand until some water is drawn out of the rind.
Simmer covered until the rind is translucent.
Uncover and boil gently to reduce until the preserves are as thick as you want.
Near the end of reducing, add 1 lemon, chopped and seeded. Canned lemon juice will also do. You want the brightness of the lemon for flavor, and also the acidity for canning.
I like to use a hand held blender to puree some of the preserves so the whole is thicker, but leave some larger chunks for texture.  Just stick the blender right in the pot.  This also helps the preserves thicken up faster. 
Put the hot preserves in hot pint or half pint jars, seal and process for 25 minutes in a hot water bath canner.

Processing in this case just means boiling.  If you are using half pint jars, then any large pot will do.  The jars need to be completely submerged with at least 2 inches of water over them.  So have your big pot of water just coming to a boil as you are filling the hot jars with hot preserves, then seal and drop the jars in the boiling water.  Keep the pot at a rolling boil for the full time.  When the time is up lift the jars from the water and let stand undisturbed until cool.  You'll hear them pop as they cool and the lids complete their seal.  After the jars are cool, you can remove the bands.  The vacuum created in the jars is enough to keep the lid securely sealed and on.  You'll need to wash the outside of the jars after they are cooled as some of the preserves will have leaked out into the boiling water.  Don't fill the jars to the top.  There needs to be 1/2" of head space for a half pint jar, more for a pint.  It is easy and fun, try it!

Saturday, August 19, 2017

How many ears of corn to buy for canning

Iowa.  August is canning season, and sweet corn is king.  Most folks around here like to blanch and freeze their corn, but we like to pressure can it.  After it cools, it doesn't matter how long you keep it, it will be the same then as it is now.  Stuff in the freezer seems to deteriorate over time, and ours is small and full of meat.

We always raised our own corn, but this year decided to buy it instead from some friends who do a wonderful job, and devote our limited garden space to green beans, potatoes and sweet potatoes.  When we canned our own corn that we grew, I never kept track of how much it took to fill up a jar, so didn't know how much to buy.  I couldn't find the answer anywhere, so here it is.  4 1/2 ears per quart.  I have 2 canners, so that is 14 quart jars, and 5 dozen filled them perfectly.  These were normal sized ears, if you have small ones you ought to buy a few extra.   If you wanted to eat about a quart of corn a week for 30 weeks, you should buy 12 dozen.

Canned sweet corn is a pretty big job, but SO worthwhile.  Corn doesn't get any better than this here in Iowa.  And it is local, we know the producers and how they manage the operation, and even what variety it is they are growing, so we know this is good for us.  We believe our gardening, buying from the farmers market and preserving our own food is one of the most important things we do.  We believe that everybody if they have some opportunity should be producing at least some of their own food.  If you have a kitchen, this is something you can do, there will be a farmers market somewhere nearby and canning and freezing your own food for winter is fun!

Monday, August 7, 2017

Excluding moisture exchange from wood

Wood is hygroscopic meaning it wants to absorb or release moisture based on the humidity of the environment.  Wood reaches an equilibrium moisture content based on whatever the conditions are.  In a humid Iowa summer any wood can get close to 12% moisture content (MC) in a non air conditioned home.  In winter the same wood will pretty quickly drop to close to 6% MC in a normally heated home.   When wood absorbs or loses moisture it shrinks or swells across the grain but not along the grain.  It continues to do this as long as it exists as a piece of wood.  Different species swell or shrink different amounts, but all move to some degree.  We have a coffee table that I built of 150 year old reclaimed walnut from central Illinois.  The top is 2 ft. wide, and it will swell 3/8" from winter to summer, then go back when winter comes again.  This is quite a lot, and if a wood worker doesn't plan how to construct something based on this knowledge, it can lead to trouble. 

Even plywood is affected to a degree, but since it is layers with the grain going alternating directions, it is less affected. 

In order to build a hammered dulcimer that is completely tuning stable, we learned that moisture exchange has to be excluded from the wood.  It is the shrinking and swelling that throws a dulcimer out of tune, and it can happen fast if a dulcimer that is used to one environment is taken to another that is much different.  So we did a lot of research and experiments to find an appropriate coating.  Shellac doesn't work, nor does lacquer or varnish or polyurethane.  Surprisingly, according to the Forest Products Lab the most effective coating is melted parrafin wax!  It does work, but is quite a mess!  Boat builders epoxy also works, but needs to be at least 3 coats to be effective.  Other than that epoxy paint also works, but again needs to be at least 3 coats.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Organic Japanese Beetle Control That Works

The Japanese Beetles are horrible this year in Eastern Iowa probably due to a mild winter.  I have been using an organic recipe to control them for several years, and this year it has proven its worth.  It really works.

1/4 bar Fels Naphtha Soap shaved or grated in a large bowl.
Add 1 1/2 quart boiling water and stir until well dissolved.
Add 1/4 cup any dish washing liquid.  I use Dawn.
Stir again and let cool.
When cool put in a spray bottle and gleefully go kill beetles.

It doesn't take much, just get them wet and in a couple minutes they will be dropping off.  The soap blocks up their breathing apparatus.  Fels Naphtha Soap is in most grocery stores and farm centers, usually in the laundry section.  You have to go spray beetles every day as more come out of the ground each night.  They like grapes, fruit trees, roses, rhubarb, raspberries best, but if they are hungry will eat tomatoes, potatoes, beans, corn and lots of non garden plants like Linden trees, Virginia Creeper and Stinging Nettles.  They also emit pheromones when they find something to their liking to call in their friends.  Best time to go spray is the early morning when they are least active.

We have a big grape arbor on the front of our outbuilding, and this year the beetles were trying to clean it off.  I was right on them, though, but there were several days where there were so many they were falling like rain out of our grapes when I sprayed.  Yesterday there were probably only 100 or so, and today maybe 20.  Our grapes are a little tattered, but they aren't denuded like other folks'.  So I think we are past the big hatch and my soap spray has definitely worked.  I believe it is the only good remedy for Japanese Beetles.  Other than that you would have to spray something nasty on your garden, and you'd have to go back and do it again every day for at least a couple weeks since new beetles come out of the ground every day.  You'd have a pretty good pesticide load which would get into your food from the garden.  You'd also be killing a lot of other insects that would probably be beneficial.  But the soap you target and only get it on the beetles.  It will kill other insects, but not all.

I adapted this recipe from one in Jerry Baker's great book Old Time Garden Wisdom, and he got it from his grandmother. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015


If you've never had Kimchi, it is sort of a spicy Korean version of sauerkraut, and is a fantastic way to get your probiotics and vitamins without pills.  Oh, and the flavor is out of this world.  I crave it!

Kimchi is fermented and eaten raw.  I have never seen it for sale, and since it is eaten raw, I doubt if proper Kimchi is for sale anywhere, so I make it myself, and keep a couple jars in the fridge most of the time.  It is very easy, just a matter of planning ahead.

Both kraut and Kimchi are fermented using the natural yeasts that are on the cabbage.  No heat is applied, so the yeasts aren't killed.  What regulates the kind of organisms that are allowed to grow is salt in proper proportions.  In making kraut, you shred the cabbage then mix in the right amount of salt which draws liquid out of the cabbage.  But Kimchi is brined overnight in a solution of salt and water, so it is a little different, and produces a different result.  Also, Kimchi has other vegetables added for flavor.

2 pounds cabbage chopped into 2 inch squares.
6 cups water (I use distilled)
3 Tablespoons noniodized salt

Soak the cabbage overnight in the brine.  Drain well, reserve the brine, then mix 1 teaspoon more of salt in with the cabbage.

6 scallions slivered
1/2 tablespoon minced fresh garlic
1/2 tablespoon finely shredded fresh ginger
1 cup Daikon radish shredded
3 tablespoons shrimp sauce or anchovy fish sauce
1/4 cup mild dried pepper ground or flaked.

Mix in all these ingredients, then put the mixture in a glass or crock container.  cover with the reserved brine, and allow to ferment on the counter top for 5- 10 days until it stops producing bubbles.  The probiotics in Kimchi are very powerful, and will attack plastic or metals, so only glass or crockery containers should be used.  Also, after it starts fermenting, only handle it with wooden utensils.  The best containers I have found for it are the 1/2 gallon glass canning jars, but a gallon pickle jar would be great.  Don't fill the jars all the way to the top as the kimchi will bubble up while fermenting.  You will need to push a wooden spoon down into it every day to release the bubbles so the Kimchi doesn't overflow onto the countertop.  Since I use the canning jars, I do use the metal lids, just being careful not to let the fermenting Kimchi get so high as to touch the lid.  Screw the lids on loosely so the gas can escape, but tight enough that fruit flies don't discover it.  When fermentation is finished, put the jars in the fridge and enjoy!  The Kimchi will keep indefinitely, and though edible right away, like kraut, the older it gets, the better it is.

The ingredients list for Kimchi is flexible.  Oriental folks usually use Napa cabbage, but any cabbage will work.  Instead of the scallions, I use regular onions.  Shredded carrots work fine instead of the Daikon radish which is rather expensive, but if you aren't using organic carrots, be sure to peel them before shredding.  The fish sauce is optional, but nice, and not expensive.  It also wouldn't be right without some hot pepper flakes or powder.  The critical parts of this recipe are the amount of salt in the brine, and the presence of garlic and ginger in about these amounts.  If you want to make a larger batch, just scale this recipe up.  Korean folks make large batches in earthenware pots called Onggi and keep it outside all winter.

Eat Kimchi as a condiment, maybe 1/2 cup for a serving.  It goes well with many foods; meats,  fish, vegetables, etc., but my favorite way to eat it is with fried eggs and beans for breakfast.


How to make the best home cooked beans from scratch.

I really like beans, I could eat them 3 times a day and not get tired of them.  But how to cook them and get them soft and creamy is something that took me 40 years to learn, so I thought I'd pass it along.

First of all, they must be soaked at least overnight.  Of course you can short circuit this by blanching them, then changing the water, then cooking, but the overnight soak is necessary to eliminate the antinutrients that are in the skin of the beans.  The antinutrients are there to keep the seed from sprouting while it is dry and in storage.  If you eat too many of them, they will interfere with the absorption and utilization of minerals in your body.  All seeds have these, and it is the reason our ancestors knew enough to mill the hull off seeds before grinding them.  It is why we eat white rice and white flour, it is better for us.

Second, you must use soft water.  Beans will never completely soften if they are cooked in hard water.  There must be no minerals in the soak or cook water, this means don't add salt until the cooking is finished.  Since the water here is very hard, I just buy distilled water in gallons at the grocery store.  You can add any flavoring you want to the bean pot like ham hocks, etc., but don't add salt until the cooking is finished.

Third, can them up.  It is why beans are always better out of a can or jar.  The beans are good right out of the pot, but since I don't want a big pot of them in the fridge that needs to be eaten up, I can them.  I cook up 3 pounds at a time which makes 5- 6 quarts of cooked beans.  I only use water since I want to flavor the beans in different ways when we use them.  There is nothing in my jars except beans and distilled water.  Beans need to be pressure canned at 10 pounds for 90 minutes.  That is a lot, but the processing really sets the flavor, and makes the beans creamy and delicious.  We bought our pressure canner for using in the summer with garden produce, but it gets used all year long now, and is one of the best tools we have ever bought.

My favorite kind of beans.  We like hummus, so I make a lot of chick peas.  They are very good, and won't cook down to mush.  The flavor after canning is wonderful.  I also like pintos, but my favorite is called Mayo Coba, and is from Peru.  They are available in many grocery stores and are a white bean, but unlike Great Northerns or Navy Beans retail their shape and texture.  The flavor is out of this world.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

On How to Properly Sand, and do a Hand Rubbed Finish

I really like Minwax Wipe On Poly.  I have been using it for years now as a sealer under shellac, but have recently discovered how to do a really nice hand rubbed finish with it.

The secret is in the sanding.  The finer the grit the surface is sanded to, the less poly it will absorb, and the quicker a gloss will develop.  So I currently sand starting at 100#, then 150# over the whole dulcimer.  The edges are sanded on a big edge sander, and the top and back are sanded with a stroke sander.  After that, I sand 150# with an air powered  random orbit sander followed by 180# on a different sander, and 220# on a third.  By this time the surface is feeling silky smooth.  Then I go over the whole dulcimer lengthwise to the grain by hand with 400# on a sanding block.

Then blow off the dust followed by wiping down with a tack cloth, then apply the first coat of Wipe On Poly as thinly as possible, but making sure the whole surface is covered.  I don't wipe off the excess, just make sure there isn't so much on as to drip or drool, then hang the dulcimer up to dry in the clean room.  After a couple hours the poly is cured enough to scuff sand with 220#, just enough to remove any dust motes, and make the surface smooth again, then blow off and wipe down with the tack cloth again.  The sparingly apply a second coat of Wipe On Poly and hang up to dry.

Next day I go over the whole surface very lightly with a worn out piece of 400# paper, just enough to get off any dust motes.  Then wax, and the finish is silky smooth!  I've been using the satin Poly, and it has a beautiful glow done this way.  I think if I wanted a higher gloss, after the 400#, finish sanding the wood with a quick once over with 600#, and in between coats of poly, scuff with 400# instead of the 220#.  The gloss Poly would also help.