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Thursday, May 29, 2014

Grill Tool Rack Made From Scrap Materials


In case you missed the point in the post about my Weber Performer, I love grilling. There is something about fire and vegetables and meat and cooking that is peaceful and relaxing. The perfect burger sizzling away, corn on the cob roasting, slices of grilled pineapple warming over the flames... I'll have to finish this post later. I'm getting really hungry.


I'm back.


I have the inevitable problem with needing to flip or turn something on the grill and realizing that I need to hunt down my grill tools. You see, I have always had a problem with having more grill tools than space for storing them, which means that looking for the right grill tool takes time that may lessen the perfection of my food. As I have thought about a way to rectify this, I came up with a grill tool rack using nothing but scraps from my garage (an old board, some copper pipe scraps, and paint) and inexpensive shower hooks from the home improvement store.

Total cost - $10
Bent hook (left) to fit more snugly on the copper pipe

Time - 1 to 2 hours
Skill level - beginner



I started by cutting a six inch wide board to 36 inches, my desired length. I gave it a little character by cutting zigzags in the ends and sanded the board and edges. I drilled holes the size of the pipe (1/2") where the pipe would attach to the board, and then painted the board with watered down milk paint, a powdered paint that I really enjoy using to give wood a painted/stained look. I knew that I wanted to use copper pipe scraps to tie this in to the bird netting around my garden, so I next measured the length of pipe to use across the board. To secure the perpendicular pieces I cut the pipe into strips using metal snips, spread out the strips, flattened them with a hammer, and adhered the pieces with a couple of drops of glue.
Copper bent and glued on the back of the board


Before gluing the cross piece on, I ran the shower hooks across the pipe. I used some pliers to make the hooks smaller around the copper pipe. I then ran them across the horizontal pipe and glued the elbows to both pieces (glue is preferred for this project over sweating the pipes so that the seams are clean looking, just like I am after my weekly shower...).


Finally, to finish the project, I rubbed two coats of tung oil over the board, sealing it up. I then anchored and screwed it to the wall within arms reach of my grill. Now, when I'm grilling like a hurricane, I can quickly grab whatever implements I need to keep that food from being overcooked.


If anybody tells you that you don't need this many grill tools, tell them that they're not the boss of you.


Happy grilling!

Friday, May 23, 2014

Patriot Electric Wood Chipper: A Renaissance Dad Review



Patriot 1.5 hp Electric Chipper
I love doing yard work, but I hate throwing large quantities of green waste into the dumpster. I have always wanted a way to grind up the waste to use in my compost and as mulch. Years ago I borrowed a chipper from my friends Roger and Mary. It was a heavy duty, gas powered chipper. It did the job, but it was loud, smelly, and the wood chips smelled like gas and exhaust, so I was hesitant to use them in my garden. Over the years I have done research into a quality electric chipper, but it seems that the reviews all state that moving to an electric chipper means sacrificing power and efficiency.

Enter from stage left: the Patriot Electric Chipper. I have read reviews and looked into the company, and I was excited about the quality of the chipper. I contacted the company and was able to get a discount on the chipper in order to try it out and write a review. So here, my faithful Renaissance Dad readers, is what I have discovered.

Getting help assembling the chipper
Starting with the heavy boxes that were delivered, I knew that this was a beefy machine. My kids helped me put it together. (Please note – the chipping cone of this machine may be used for spontaneous singing of Frozen songs before it is assembled.) Everything about this machine demonstrates that it is made to last, from the heavy duty pneumatic tires and steel bolts, to the thick deflector over the shredding chute. This chipper also has a bag that attaches to the deflector shield to collect the chipped and shredded material. Magical! While this machine is heavy, I have loaded and unloaded it from my truck by myself. I would recommend using a buddy to load and unload, but it can be done in a pinch by yourself. And then there is the instruction manual…

If you are anything like me, you typically ignore the instruction manuals and begin operating everything on a trial and error basis. Let me quote for a moment from the front of the instruction manual for this chipper. “A note to the happy, excited, to-heck-with-the-manual kind of customer… We’ve put this information on this page because it has come to our attention that some people don’t read these manuals. (Can you believe IT!)” Boy, do they have me pegged. But an instruction manual like this shows me that humor can be included, and it caused me to read the majority of the manual before operating this chipper. Okay, maybe not “majority”, but I did read some of it.
"Let It Go", as sung through a chipping cone

FINALLY, I got to plug it in and see what happened. I started with some bags of leaves that I rescued from the alley last fall. I poured the leaves in, slowly at first. Then I wanted to see how it handled a higher rate, so I dumped a large quantity in and promptly tripped the breaker. Lesson learned. This machine has a very specific feed rate, and listening to the motor will tell you if you are feeding it too quickly. The result was completely pulverized leaves. Four massive bags of leaves were reduced to a little more than half of a trash can, which will be used over the next several months to cover my kitchen scraps until they are ready for my tumbling compost bin. For leaves, the Patriot Electric Chipper receives a 9 out of 10 thumbs up (my three-year-old, who recently asked me to start calling her "Big A", will hold up all of her fingers if something is outstanding and say, "This is 10 thumbs up." Hence the Renaissance Dad scale). 

Please note, while I started off with eye and ear protection, I quickly learned that the dust from 6-month-old leaves is abundant and decided that a dust mask was necessary.

Bags of leaves pre-pulverization
Make sure you have adequate protection for all your helpers
The next trial was with some finished compost. I typically have large chunks left in my compost (avocado peels, coffee filters, not-quite-composted banana peels, etc.). I have always wanted a way to grind the compost up to end up with a finished product similar to what one would buy at the store. So I figured I would run a batch of compost through the shredding hopper to see what the end result was. WOW! This is the compost that I have always dreamed of. The finished compost was so beautiful that I brought it in and set it on the fireplace mantel for all to see. Not really, but I wanted to. The Patriot Electric Chipper finished the compost in a way that I have always dreamed of. For finishing compost, the Patriot Electric Chipper receives a score of 11 out of 10 thumbs up. That’s right… This one goes to 11!

Now it is time to try some wood. And this Renaissance Dad does not start of with anything easy. I recently trimmed some dead mesquite branches from my parents’ house. Knowing that this chipper was on its way, I prepped the branches for the chipper. If you’re not familiar with mesquite, it is a thorny desert wood which, according to Wood Database, ranks fairly high on the Janka hardness scale in comparison to the majority of North American woods (I can almost hear most of you coughing “nerd” into your hands. That’s okay. I accept it). The short version is that I knew this would be a challenge but I wanted to see if this electric chipper could handle it. Once I got the feed rate down, and again listened to the motor as an indicator, I was making wood chips like a mad man. The end result was a trash can of beautifully chipped wood that will be added to compost and used as mulch. For chipping branches, this machine receives a score of 8 out of 10 thumbs up, although I know that with freshly cut branches and other less diabolical species of wood this score will improve.
Shredded leaves

Here is what this machine is not. This is not a gas powered chipper. While it is extremely high quality and built to last, this 1.5 hp chipper is not a 10 hp gas powered chipper. I can only imagine what kind of damage I could do with a 10 hp chipper. As I stated above and have stated previously, I want to avoid gas powered yard equipment and know that I will not be able to shove whole tree trunks into an electric chipper (although, if Patriot ever figures out a way to create 10 hp from a 110 electric outlet, I would be the first to jump on that and try it out). That being said, this electric chipper is user friendly, efficient, and most importantly, clean.

And now the downside. Quality and power like this does come with a price tag. This is not an inexpensive machine, and while Patriot sometimes has deals like free shipping, this chipper still has a price tag that will leave some people wondering if it is worth it. But I have a solution.

Shredded compost
Many people who are avid gardeners know other avid gardeners. There are community groups, neighbors, friends, people from church, and relatives who enjoy gardening in their yards. It made me think about community, and how we have somehow developed this need to have something for ourselves instead of sharing it with a community. Some things that are used on a regular basis are much more convenient to own individually, and some things are too bulky or cumbersome to load up and haul off to a friend’s. But what about a chipper? I use my chipper about once per month, which means that it is available 29 days out of every 30 or so. What if a group of four or five people in a fairly close geographical area got together and purchased this? What if something like a chipper brought gardeners into community together, giving them a reason to interact and share their passion with each other? How much yard debris would be diverted back into gardens instead of to landfills?

Overall impressions? This is a yard machine that is definitely worth the money. It's easy to operate, does a great job chipping and shredding, and is great for utilizing yard waste in effective ways around the garden. The communal purchase is a way around the price tag, but aside from that, this is a machine that any avid gardener would benefit from. 
Shredded compost added to a watermelon bed

Please remember to be safe out there. Happy chipping!









Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Garden Update - Spring is in the Air




Several months ago, I wrote about the hope that gardens bring. For many of us, we are starting to experience the benefits of that hope. For my friends in the southern hemisphere, your hope is quickly dying with the coming winter months. I'm sorry, but now you get to begin hoping for spring in the next six months. Such is the circle of life...

I figured I would share an update with everybody on the state of the garden. My family and I have been hard at work, and we have experienced many successes as well as some failures. Here is what we currently have growing in our yard:

Trees - orange, lemon, pomegranate, apricot, blood orange, Pink Lady apple, Einsheimer apple, Clementine tangerine, and peach.

Fruits, vegetables, and herbs - grapes (two varieties), carrots, tomatoes (five varieties of grape/cherry tomatoes), cucumbers, sweet peppers, hot peppers, artichokes, watermelon (three varieties), strawberries (two varieties), rosemary, cilantro, basil, lavender, sage, peppermint, spearmint, oregano, and some sort of volunteer squash (uncomposted seeds that sprouted in the compost).

This seems like quite a bit, and it is. Like I've said numerous times, I love being outside gardening. I love watching my kids get dirty. I love the look of joy when they find a ripe tomato and eat it. I even somewhat like it when they get impatient and pick a tomato to eat before it is quite ripe. That childlike excitement is something that keeps me somewhat normal and balanced. Somewhat...

Here's the deal. This list of what we have growing in our garden is what continues to give me hope. We have started harvesting tomatoes, but several of our fruit trees won't bear fruit this year. This is the year to help their roots develop, to keep them healthy and growing, and to sow into the future harvests that I'm looking forward to. Perhaps this is a metaphor for providing my children with a quality upbringing so they can take care of me in the future?

To those of you who are beginning to enjoy the harvest from your gardens, congratulations! Your hard work is starting to pay off. Enjoy what you grow and let it be an encouragement for future plantings.

To those of you who are just getting out from under the snow and cold weather, be encouraged! Start enjoying the warmer weather and get excited every time you see a bloom, blossom, sprout or bud.

To those of you who are getting ready to experience winter, I hope it was a happy planting season. Hopefully you learned a little more about your garden, your climate, and the things that you grew.

And finally, to those of you who have never experienced gardening, give it a try! I wasn't much of a gardener until I saw that 12-year-olds could grow things at school, and that encouraged me to see what I could do. That experience proved to be life changing (for the better), and I have thoroughly enjoyed my time outside ever since then. Find a little patch of ground, put some seeds into it, and see what happens. Gardening is one big experiment. Sometimes you get what you're looking for, and sometimes you end up with a garden full of squash. But as with most endeavors, the joy comes in the journey and not solely the outcome.

Happy gardening, friends. And may the soil conditions be ever in your favor!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Italian Feast: The Best Meal You Will Ever Have

Warning: The pictures in this article will invoke hunger pangs, salivation, and a possible sudden urge to go to Italy. This is normal, but if you do not want to experience any of these sensations, you may want to go back to the gardening section.

Everybody has memorable moments in life - those events or experiences that stay with us, that define us, that change the way that we look at the world. My wife and I had one of those experiences when she was pregnant with our oldest daughter. We took a pasta making class in Italy. Yeah, I said in Italy. After I took my first bite of freshly made pasta, I looked at my wife and said, "Just think, for the rest of our lives, everything that we eat will be worse than this meal." It was that good. However, that statement was not entirely accurate, as we continue to make homemade pasta. And now I am going to share that experience with you.

Our Tuscan guide, Enzo, was extremely knowledgeable and opinionated about all things Italy, food, and wine. As we prepared to make pasta in the cellar of a 15th century Tuscan villa, Enzo said, "Before we do anything, we need two things. Wine, and Italian opera." There is something about a good Chianti and Pavarotti that can make even a Red Baron pizza taste like authentic Italian cuisine (my wife hotly refutes this statement). And the one- two- punch only further enhances actual Italian fare.

This is a complete Italian Feast!
There are a couple of items that you will need. First, you will need a pasta cutter. This is the machine that rolls out the pasta and cuts it. It is essential. We used an Atlas cutter in Italy. Since Enzo said it's the best, we bought the same one when we got home. It has been making pasta for the past six years and is still going strong. You will also need a pasta drying rack (see picture below). You can get by with some creativity with this (coat hangers, your kids' fingers, string zig zagging in your kitchen). However, after a few months of hanging our pasta on a clothes drying rack, we broke down and bought the real thing, and we've never regretted it.

Ingredients (meal for two):

Pasta making necessities - Step 1
Pasta
- 2 cups semolina flour
- 3 eggs
- sea salt

Sauce
-1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 dried hot peppers
- 2 sprigs of basil
- olive oil
- salt

Prep time - about 2 hours

Pasta:

Step 2
1. Pour a glass of Chianti and turn on some Italian opera. I prefer Pavarotti.

2. Start by measuring out 1/2 cup semolina flour on the counter (or plate). Add a dash of salt, and make a well in the center with the egg.

3. Crack the egg into the center of the well. With a fork, begin beating the egg, gradually incorporating more and more semolina flour. If the egg begins to escape, scoop it back into the dough. Once the dough is somewhat doughy, you can begin working it with your hands. You want this to be only slightly sticky, yet not too hard or solid. Add a sprinkle of additional semolina if necessary.

Step 3
4. Wrap with plastic wrap, set aside, pour some more wine, and continue with the remaining eggs.

5. After the dough has rested for 10 minutes, take the first blob of dough and divide in two. Sprinkle the counter with semolina flour. Take the blob and run through the pasta cutter, beginning on the thickest setting (1). Run it through on 1, turn 90 degrees, and run it through on 1 again. Gradually work your way up to the thickness you desire. Enzo taught us to finish on 7, which makes a very delicate pasta. If you're brave enough, try going up to 9. I double dog dare you.

6. Once the pasta is the proper thickness, you have a giant lasagna noodle. Cut it in half to make two shorter noodles, sprinkle with semolina flour, and run through the fettuccine cutter.Unless, of course, you want to make lasagna.

Pasta cutter - 6 years and going strong
7. Spread the noodles out on the drying rack. It is extremely important to separate the noodles and keep them from touching. With a little supervision, this can be a good step for young ones to help with.

8. Continue rolling and cutting pasta. When the pasta on the drying rack is somewhat dry, you can nest it or lay it on a plate. The drying process is to prevent the pasta from sticking, which causes large clumps of pasta. Confession time - as a kid, I loved finding lumps of spaghetti. I didn't know what al dente meant, but I liked the somewhat crunchiness of the middle of a pasta clump. I never said that I was a normal kid. Or adult.

9. Homemade pasta cooks extremely quickly. Boil a pot of water, and add the pasta for 60 seconds (2 minutes if your pasta was frozen). Drain immediately and toss with olive oil.

Meanwhile, the Sauce:

Full pasta production - stop regularly for wine
1. Pour olive oil in the bottom of a cast iron skillet (enough to cover). Add the tomatoes, garlic, and hot red peppers. Simmer for one to two hours. Note: the longer the sauce simmers, the better the house smells, and the hungrier you get. I think that Italians have been known to eat their own arms while waiting for dinner.

2. Five minutes before you're ready to eat, remove the garlic cloves and peppers and add the basil. We have cooked the sauce for a long time with the basil, but the basil develops a bitter taste if it cooks for too long.

To Serve:
Pulling out the fettuccine before hanging it to dry

Add the pasta to a bowl (or plate the pasta), and put the sauce on top. This is not a traditional runny sauce, but rather olive-oil-with-tomatoes-and-basil-awesomeness. This meal should be served with a good Chianti and some wonderful artisan bread. Also, according to Enzo, our Italian pasta cooking guide, the meal needs to end with a little limoncello ("For the digestion").

Make sure the noodles are not touching
For anybody in the Phoenix area or visiting the Phoenix area, I offer an Italian Feast class which includes all ingredients, walking through the process, the meal at the end, and of course the Chianti, Pavarotti, and limoncello. If you are interested, I am offering a discount for all Renaissance Dad followers. Please use the "Contact Form" at the bottom for more information. I will also offer a traveling Italian Feast class to any of my international readers, but you have to pay for my airfare and lodging.

A special thanks to my friend Nam Ho, who took these photos. Nam and his wife Anna visited us recently and gave us an excuse to make this Italian feast. So that's another way to experience this - come for a visit!
Buon appetito!

Simmering sauce (aka salivation machine)