Friday, December 30, 2011

Mold-A-Rama—a plea for respect


We are misunderstood.

Wikipedia's entry on us is a measly 130 words. It begins like this:

"Mold-A-Rama is a brand name for a type of vending machine that makes blow-molded plastic figurines."

And the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) defines us this way:

Mold-A-Rama beings are created when colorful polyethylene pellets are heated to over 200 degrees and injected into a mold. Air is then blown in, which forces plastic into every crevice of the mold, as well as hollowing out the figure. A coolant hardens the individual and then it is released from the mold.

Hardened and released? Sounds like we're criminals!

Even the Urban League—the Urban League!—refers to us (in their 2010 report on underserved populations) as "plastic injected souvenirs".


We are a great nation, one of Buddhas and butterflies, bats and bears. We are light bulbs and fairy castles. We are Kennedy busts, large and small. We are lions in ten different colors for Gods' sakes! And all of us—from wombats to Weinermobiles—are deserving of respect. In fact, many believe we are the indigenous population of zoos, museums, and theme parks! And if that's true, it means that we are the real Native Americans!

Acceptance of this fact will take time. But consider this: we don't refer to ourselves as Mold-A-Rama figures. We call ourselves, "Those who are Forged by Heat." That tells you something, doesn't it?

We may look like simple Stegasauri and Space Robots but we are more, much more. So next time you're at some cultural institution, pass on the expensive souvenir shop schlock. Find the Mold-A-Rama. Stick a couple bucks in and watch a miracle (or at least some really cool hydraulics).

Then, as you pull out your new treasure (don't burn yourself!), think of a good name. That's all we ask for, a really good name. Well, that and that you pick the waste bumps off our bottoms. Undying love is good too. Or at least the sense (if you ever grow tired of us) to sell us on ebay. Thanks.

Pinky and friends
Pinky (and friends)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Convert a half apron to a full apron!

Pancakes fell on my head this morning.

A whole plate of them.

They were sitting on top of the toaster oven. And I was squatting down, trying to shove a pan in the cabinet below.

It kinda hurt. Not to mention the pancakes: beautiful buckwheat flaxseed blackberry pancakes. I would show you a picture of them but I had to eat them up quickly throw them away after they fell on the floor.

I suppose it's further evidence I have no business wearing a half apron. True, things usually hit me smack dab in the middle of my shirt, not my head. But still.

Half aprons are for hostesses, not people who embrace their time as enthusiastically in the kitchen as I do.

But what to do with this cute little holiday half apron?
Christmas Half Apron

I noticed some really cute aprons on the Anthropologie website. So I used this one as inspriation:
Cuisine Couture Apron from Anthropologie

Modifying mine wasn't too hard. I used the waistband for neck ties, which helped bring the two halves of the apron together visually. It also let me convert my apron's simple ruffles to knife pleats like in the Anthro apron.
Full Christmas Apron
Perhaps I made the top a bit too wide; it wouldn't lie flat. But I solved that by making the ties cross in the back and button, rather than tie at the neck.
So I'm quite pleased. Now my new apron will protect my clothes from all that Christmas cookie dough! (Even if it doesn't help with the raining pancakes!)

Wren in Christmas Apron

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Gurley Santa Candles

The three Santatiers

Dirty, a little smelly, can't really stand up straight...yea, Kris and I are quite a sight. (That's him on the right; I'm in the back.) But Nick, oh excuse me, St. Nick (In the front, as usual!) is still lookin' great for his age. Hey, don't get me wrong. We're really good friends. It's just that Nick's spent a lot of years living a sheltered life, being all wrapped up and protected from everything. Meanwhile, Kris and I have gotten out and seen the world. Geez, Kris even spent some time on a kibbutz! (I think that's where he got lit though.)

OK, maybe you think you've seen a lot of guys like me: shaped by some corporation or other (in my case Gurley Novelty Company) and sent out into the world to make people's lives brighter, only to end up forgotten and discarded.

Well it's not like that. Maybe I'm not as rosy-cheeked as I once was but I'm still hanging out with my buddies and really enjoying life, especially the holidays.

And I wouldn't change anything. Maybe I'm not in mint condition but being old does give me value. And the grit in my beard is what makes me who I am.

So my wish for you this holiday season is that you live your life and you love yourself. As the artist Evelyn Dunbar said, "We are each gifted in a unique and important way. It is our privilege and our adventure to discover our own special light."


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Recycled freezer bags

Recycled freezer bag
Tomatoes have started coming in the CSA box. My own tomato plants are producing whoppers, especially my yellow low-acid tomatoes, which you see here. (I've also picked a couple of Brandywines that were size of softballs too, though.) All this combined with the bumper crop of blackberries means I'm freezing a lot. And that means that today I ran out of freezer bags AGAIN!

But it occurred to me that some food, like Trader Joe's sugar, comes in really nice ziplock bags. Why not just rinse them out and use those? Not only are they free, they're actually thicker than the bags you buy, which means you don't have to double them to avoid freezer burn.

No, they're not quite as big as the gallon bags I've been buying but that's OK. This is Smalltropolis after all.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

What to do with Pluots.

Pluot Crisp
Pluots are a hybrid fruit that are part plum and part apricot. Sounds interesting. But what do you do with three pounds of them that come in your CSA box?

Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has a recipe for plum crisp so I tried it with my pluots. (I reduced the sugar a little and upped the oatmeal.) Wow! With cloves, orange peel, cinnamon, and nutmeg, this is an amazing mix of flavors. Maybe I'll explore freezing some pluots so I can make this for Christmas...


Friday, July 29, 2011

Perfect pickle weights

Making pickles requires keeping the vegetables submerged in the brine so they don't get yucky. But what to use as weights?

Hmm. This may be traditional but I have a hard time believing I could get them clean enough.

Plastic baggies filled with pickling juice?
This is what is usually recommended but it just doesn't appeal to me. (Does the plastic leach anything out during the fermenting period?)

Hand-made ceramic discs?
They're lovely but they're $22 (plus shipping) for three, and each jar needs a couple so that would get pretty expensive to do the multiple jars of pickles I've got going on.

No, the perfect solution are these little glass candle holders from IKEA.
Pickle weights

They're called Glimma and at $1.99 for a six-pack, they're safe, sanitary, and cheap.
And they fit perfectly inside wide-mouthed Ball jars.
So, fill the jar with vegetables (leaving a bit of headspace) and top off with brine, allowing the liquid to flow into the glass dish, so it is full and submerged too. Wipe up any spills, screw the lid on, and let the fermentation begin!
Ready to pickle

Wren and pickles

(P.S. Glimma also comes in a smaller size. Maybe they could work for narrow-mouth canning jars??)

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Dex picks a blackberry

It's blackberry time! So far here at Smalltropolis, we've made a cobbler and a pie, each of which took 6 cups of blackberries. We've got a jar of berries covered with sugar and sitting in a sunny window—slowly transforming into thick, sweet blackberry syrup. Of course, quite a few berries just got munched on or plopped into cereal. And we just froze another 10 cups! (For winter cobblers...oooooh...)

And it's far from over; there are still scores more on the bushes. Quite a season, eh? (Guess this unbearable hot weather is good for something.)


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Melvin gets interviewed

While at the Four Week Film workshop at Maine Media, Melvin was interviewed by fellow video student Keith Feher. (Filmed by J. Scott Crist.)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A new dress

Florette in a new dress

Everybody here at Smalltropolis has been so busy lately we haven't had time to post! (You know, Easter, Mother's Day, spring projects like sewing a new dress...)

Cute dress pattern

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Urban Chicken Keeping

Mr. Treat and the chicken

Mr. Reginald Treat, Fox Esquire here.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend the Green Metropolis Fair in Chicago and they had a discussion on urban chicken keeping. What a wonderful idea! Chickens for every backyard, balcony, and rooftop deck I say!

Now, while you might think you need to read up on the subject, here are all the main points:

* First, why keep just a few chickens? Go for lots of them! (Meaty ones are better.)

* Make sure they're really, truly free range by doing away with chicken wire, cages, latches, etc.

* Always keep a box of napkins near your chickens as well as several sauces. (Feel free to get creative here. Maybe an apricot-balsamic reduction, or a tangerine gastrique? Of course, if thick, spicy BBQ sauce is your real forte, by all means do that!) These items are there just to, uh, help the chickens get Omega 3s into their eggs. Yeah.

* Finally, make sure all your hard work doesn't go unnoticed. Certainly don't hide your chickens away behind fences; maybe even post a small sign or two. Your chickens will be stars as your neighbors lavash praise on them and you. Soon, everybody in town will keep chickens and we'll all be soooooo happy!

Friday, April 15, 2011


Wren transplants seedling

My grandmother grew African violets. They dotted window ledges and side tables throughout our house. They always seemed to be in bloom, their velvety leaves offset by tiny jewel-colored flowers. I never paid much attention to them, perhaps they were too small or too precious, or they just couldn't compete with my dolls. But from time to time my grandma would divide and transplant her treasures and on those days, for me, everything else stopped.

You knew it was one of these special days when my grandma would cover the kitchen table with newspapers and start dumping out mounds of potting soil. And there would be my sister and me, hovering off to the side, waiting until she was done.

Our playing in the dirt probably involved small cars or toys. I don't know. I only remember the soil—its richness of color, its smell, its texture. I remember pushing it around, mounding it, scooping it, molding it. I don't think my grandma ever hurried us or scolded about the mess we must have made.

Now, as a gardner, I know what she knew then. Something as absolutely basic as dirt can bring the simplest joy. And yes, I still play in it.


Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Paper Pot Maker

Seedling in paper pot
I've tried lots of methods for growing seedlings but my fav involves The Paper Pot Maker—a little wooden mold for forming paper pots. These pots are easy to make and can be transplanted directly into the ground. No more plastic pots to store or wash! It's also incredibly green. Not only are you recycling paper, you don't have to use water to wash out the pots or bleach to sterilize them.

Some tips for using the Paper Pot Maker:

1. Just use one thickness of paper. Using several layers or really heavy paper prevents it from going fully into the mold and forming a nice secure shape. It's the ridge at the bottom that really holds the pot together so you want that tightly formed. And newspaper works great but I also like to use recycled (medium weight) brown bags.

2. Use the suggested size (3½ x 10") strip of paper, or close to it. I used to not pay attention and completely wing it. Some pots were great, some fell apart. So I made a cardboard template. (It's a bit longer, 3½ by 11.) Now, without being too precise, I can cut the paper fast and still get a good size to work with.

3. If the pots are coming out a little wobbly, press the paper harder into the mold. You can salvage an imperfect one by pinching or folding the paper a bit more to stabilize it. Really, the only pots that just don't work are the ones with too big or too small strips of paper.

4. Don't worry how they look because, after several weeks, they'll look terrible. In fact, they'll disintegrate. And that's the point! Rest assured, even if the bottoms pretty much rot out, there's enough paper and, at that point, root mass, to hold it together for planting.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

DIY tins

DIY tins
Little tins are so useful! You can put your dried citrus peel in them, or tea, or many things! And there are lots of ways to come by them without spending a lot of money. Here are a few ideas:

Make your own:
"Make" a tin
Reuse empty packages, like this baking powder tin. All you have to do is glue some cute paper to the outside of the tin. (Hint: Lots of packages have very shiny or coated paper on them and glue won't stick well to it. So use a medium to light sandpaper and rough the surface up a bit first. Then use a very thin layer of white glue, spread it out with your finger or a clean paint brush and stick the paper down!)

Reuse a tin
Clean up a tin
Tea and other products sometimes come in really nice tins. Reuse them! Unfortunately, they often have yucky, ugly glue even after you tear the label off. With a little elbow grease, you can usually get if off though. Rubbing alcohol or fingernail polish remover can help. (Be careful though, it sometimes takes paint or color off too, like the red on this tin's lid.) Heat tools too can help. I used mine on the side of this tin to melt away those big globs of glue.

Buy empty ones
Tin from Specialty Bottle
It's possible to find nice tins at very good prices, like this one I bought from Specialty Bottle for $1.08. This is a great solution if you need a lot, say for gifts.

No matter where they come from, put a cute label on them and you've got great, personalized storage!

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Wondermill Junior Deluxe Hand Grain Mill

Wren and her new grain mill
I've been wanting a grain mill for a while and this week my husband Jay bought me one: the Wondermill Junior Deluxe Hand Grain Mill. I love it! I've already set it up and, quite literally, given it a whirl.

Some specifics: It's very sturdy, with all metal working parts. It's got a heavy duty clamp to attach it temporarily to a table, or you can screw it down permanently. It comes with stone wheels, or burrs as they're called, for grinding grains, as well as stainless steel burrs, for grinding oilier things, like nuts. (Make you own peanut butter!)

After the easy set up, you pour grain in the hopper and set the tension for a course or fine grind. And you're off!

You're off, yes indeed. Some would say off your rocker. I mean I'll be honest, it's work. I had to take off my sweater after a minute. I had to switch arms several times. Just think about the size of windmill or a watermill. That's the kind of force people have harnessed throughout history to grind grain. And home grain mills do come in electric varieties. Why would Jay buy me this one?

He knows me, that's why.

See, even though it's work grinding the flour, for me, there's something pleasant and rewarding about it too. There's the feeling that you're earning the Faux-Reos that you're going to bake with that whole wheat. But there's also the feeling that you're earning a greater understanding of food and of what goes in your body.

Here's an example: I tried grinding both hard winter wheat and spelt. Before this, all I knew about spelt is that it's a variety more tolerable to those with wheat allergies. But now I've felt it. (So much softer than the winter wheat!) I've smelled it. It's like someone who up till now had only read that a flower is the reproductive part of a plant. And then they stroke a petal and inhale the perfume. Ahhh.... OK.... Now I know what spelt is.

And speaking of perfume, freshly ground flour has a smell. Flour? A smell? Yea. It's amazing. It's fresh. It's nutty. It smells like something you definitely want to eat!

Having said all this, there will be adjustments. The waffles I made this morning with the hand-ground wheat were so soft they were impossible to get on the plate in one piece. (I think I now need to reduce the butter in the recipe.) But they were delicious. There was that nuttiness again.

Yes, that nuttiness again. I know in this day and age when most people barely bother to slice up frozen cookie dough, it's insane to hand grind your own flour. Oh well. It may be loony but it sure tastes good.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Reminders

The bird

There was a bird in the basement this morning.

It was a sparrow. It didn't seem hurt or sick; it was just a normal little sparrow. When I approached, it flitted from the floor to the sink to the top of a shelf.

"Why are you here, little bird? It's beautiful weather outside. Spring's coming!" I opened the door to garden and went back upstairs, closing the basement door behind me. When I went back down an hour later, it was gone.

I wondered how long it had been down there. How hungry was it? Or thirsty?

That made me think of my ceramic birdbath, which I store under the porch over the winter. I dragged it out, washed it and filled it with water.

As I turned around, there was another bird. Not the little sparrow, but a robin. It was in the bed where the garlic is just starting to peek up and it was eyeing me, curiously.

I wondered what it was thinking. "Why are you here, little lady? You've got a nice basement in there. And laundry's piling up!"

No, probably not. But I should throw a load in anyway.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My new, old house

My house
The envelope was addressed to "Occupant." It was from California. I know no one in California.

I was in a bad mood. I'd dealt with annoying, stupid things at work all day. And now this.

I opened it suspiciously but as the contents slipped out, my mood changed completely. There was a picture of my house. Well, it was my house, but not quite. There was no front door. No stoop. No neighbors. Not even a road. It was my house, when it was still being built, back in the 1940s.

There was a letter too. It was from the man who'd lived here as a boy. He'd been going through old photos and thought maybe whoever lived here would be interested.

Interested? Uh, just a little! Over the next weeks and months, I emailed the man repeatedly, begging for more photos, asking questions about the house. I love old houses in general and mine in particular. I think they have stories, secrets, souls. And here was my chance to discover a few.

That was several years ago. I recently got those photos out and looked at them. I love them beyond words. My house is so familiar to me. It's so much a part of me. And seeing this makes me feel that I'm seeing a part of my own history—a part of me that I was vaguely aware of but had no way of exploring. I feel that I'm really there. It's decades before I was born of course, but I'm there, in the beginning. And at the same time, I'm here now. Thanks to this incredibly generous stranger, the story of my house is so much clearer now. It had a happy beginning. And it has a happy present. And, if I have anything to say about it, it will have a happy future.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cookbook review

Wren with cake

These cold rainy days we've been having are perfect for baking and one of my favorite cookbooks is King Arthur Flour's Whole Grain Baking book. It's packed with tons of delicious recipes, like this Lemon Poppyseed Bread I just made. Other favorites include: Banana Crunch Cake, Parmesan-Pine Nut Biscuits, Cornmeal-Maple Biscuits, Lemon Barley Scones, Whole Wheat Pretzels, Chocolate Graham Crackers, Cranberry-Apricot Chocolate Chews, and Molasses-Rye Snaps. And I haven't even started on the sections about pastry, or yeast breads. There's a huge chapter on sour dough too.

The tone of the writing is friendly and ingredients are listed both by volume and by weight to help you get even better results. There's lots of information about flour and ingredients but never does it feel like an advertisement for King Arthur's products. I also appreciate what a wide range of grains are included and how they talk about substituting whole grains into other recipes you love.

Each recipe gives nutritional information and while there aren't many pictures, there are lots of drawings and side bars with information on techniques. The layout and typeface are clean and easy to read, with almost all of the recipes contained on one page spread. Overall, it's just a nice, well-thought out cookbook with delicious and easy recipes. What more could you ask for?

Glazed and ready to eat!
Mmmm. All glazed and ready to eat!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

A pretty picture

Noëlle in the snow

We got a dusting of snow last night. The garden looks lovely, and so does Noëlle in her nice wool cape.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What to do with sour milk.

Florette'ette enjoys some pancakes.

So you know that big chain of natural food grocery stores? You know, the one that is sometimes jokingly dubbed, "Whole Paycheck?" We here at Smalltropolis like those stores. They have lots of interesting items and nice produce...but they must not keep their refrigerators cold enough because this is the third time we've gotten a jug of milk there that was just a bit off. Grr...

We don't live very close to any of those stores, so it's a real pain to return the milk. But what to do with a half gallon (or gallon—yikes!) of slightly sour, expensive organic milk?

We started by making Rieska, a delicious Finnish flatbread. RieskaWe used the recipe from the King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking book. It calls for 3 cups of buttermilk. Of course we used our sour milk! ( has a recipe on-line that's similar, though it only uses 2 cups of buttermilk.

Then we made a double batch of our favorite Buckwheat-Flaxseed Blueberry Pancakes. Get the recipe here from Delicious Living. After that, our sour milk was almost gone and we were completely stuffed!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

See your footprint?

Bear on black snow

A few years ago I met a woman from the South who had never seen snow before she moved here. We talked about how beautiful and enchanting snow is and how we both loved it. Eventually, predictably, the conversation turned to how snow in a big city looks after a few weeks on the ground. "Why would anyone do that to snow?" she said.
Her comment seemed charming, almost funny. Of course no one does that to snow. It just happens.

That’s what I thought then.

It’s easy to not see a link between what we do and what happens in the world and to the world. The result of any one action seems inconsequential, and undetectable: even the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is invisible from satellites.

But that doesn’t mean that our choices don’t have consequences. And that, maybe is the real magic of snow. For once, something can show us, quite literally in black and white, how we are polluting our world.

What’s the answer? There are certainly no big, easy ones, just a lot of little, sometimes difficult ones. But I believe before the world can collectively solve this, we have to all individually acknowledge our role in it. And that’s not easy. It goes back to the question, “Who would do that to snow?” And it requires a painful, honest answer for all of us:
“I would do that to snow.”


Monday, February 14, 2011

How to dry citrus peel

Dry your own citrus peel

The next time you're eating an orange, instead of throwing away the peel, why not dry it and use it in recipes or potpourri? It's easy to do!
It's best to use organic citrus, or at least wash it well.
Cut the fruit into large sections, removing the flesh. Scrape as much of the white pith off as you can. (A serrated grapefruit spoon works well here.) Then slice the peel into long thin strips. Place the strips in a warm, dry spot for a few days. When they're crisp and breakable, they're ready! Store in a dark, dry tin.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Make your own vegetable wash

Melvin's lunch

I love organic produce! OK, not really. It looks disgusting. But I love what comes with it. Check out this delectable aphid Ellie found in the lettuce today. If you don't know me, I'm Melvin. I eat bugs. So of course I hate pesticides! My fruit- and veggie-eating friends don't like them either. They're bad for you in so many ways. In fact, I heard an interview on NPR with Suzanne Somers—she's got a new book know, she's pretty but not as pretty as Ellie and Nellie...anyway, she thinks that avoiding toxins such as pesticides can even help with weight loss.

Of course, just as ladybugs are so much better than slugs, certain fruits and vegetables are preferable over others, as far as their pesticide levels. For example, you should just always buy organic apples but "conventional" onions are probably OK. And to make it easier, the Environmental Working Group has published a great little guide to cut out and take shopping with you.

But for those times you can't find organic, or it's too expensive, try this easy vegetable wash. It should get off at least some of the toxins. (Though it won't bring back any aphids. Sigh.)

In a new, washed spray bottle, mix:

1 T lemon juice
2 T vinegar
1 C water

Spray on fruits and vegetables. Let sit about five minutes. Depending on the produce, scrub with a brush or rub lightly. Rinse produce thoroughly and store the unused wash in the fridge.

Signed, Melvin
Melvin Mel'vin

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Blizzard 2011

Nellie in the snow

For many people, last week's big snowstorm was mostly something to grumble about. It certainly did cause some problems. But, it was also a huge opportunity for fun! Here's my sister, Nellie, working her way up the huge drift in our backyard. She got all the way to the "tree line" it seems!

So, take a break from shoveling and enjoy the snow!

Nellie in the snow 2