Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Now THAT is a Saw Blade!

I don't think that's going to fit the saw...

Actually, the man is helping to position the blade for sharpening. It's a picture from Gary Katz's article about the Hull-Oaks Sawmill in Oregon. It's the last steam-powered commercial sawmill in the country.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Qabili Palau

Sameem has AWESOME food... at least that's what I've heard. I can tell you that they have AWESOME Qabili Palau, because that's the only thing I ever get there. I've never moved past it. It's too good. So that I can get my fill of it, and move on to other dishes at Sameem's, I've decided to bring the dish into my own repertoire.

For starters, Sameem makes theirs with a leg of lamb. It's totally amazing, but in order to make it a more affordable dish, as well as one that can be cooked in a large skillet, since I don't own a casserole, I'm going with 2 defrosted, boneless, skinless chicken breasts.

This recipe requires parallel processing. Be prepared. To minimize pipeline stalls, go ahead and prepare your carrots in advance, because that is the most time consuming part of it. Julienne two carrots into 2" strips, and set aside.

Start by browning the two chicken breasts in about 3 tablespoons of vegetable oil with about 1/2 tablespoon of unsalted butter. Grind some fresh pepper over them, and a bit of kosher salt. It should take about 3-5 minutes per side.

Oh, by the way, I just came across this website is like Youtube for cooking. There are some SERIOUSLY good looking recipes to be had here...

Anyway, while the chicken is browning, bring 3 cups of water to a boil in another pot, and add 1/2 tablespoon of unsalted butter. Then cut up 1 large sweet onion, or two small ones. The water should come to a boil about the same time the second side of the breasts are done browning.

Put the breasts in the boiling water, and reduce to a simmer. Put the chopped onion in the oil the chicken just came from, and cook until the onions are golden brown.

Once the chicken has simmered in the water enough to make a fine broth, remove the chicken, and set aside. Add 1 tsp of saffron to the water, and let simmer or lightly boil.

To the oil and onions, add about 1-2 tsp of cumin, 1 cinnamon stick, 1/2 tsp of ground cloves, or a few whole cloves, a few cardamom pods, if you have them (I actually did not), a bit of nutmeg, 1 tsp of sugar (I used turbinado), 1 tsp of kosher salt, 1 tsp of ground coriander. You can jack up these values if you think there's not enough spice in there.

Now add two handfuls of raisins to the onions and spices. I used the Sun-maid Jumbo Mixed Raisins, as always.... they're sooo good! Cook that until the raisins are plump, then add the carrots, and let it all cook until it looks and smells too good to be true.

Meanwhile, you'll need to rinse off about 1 1/2 cups of basmati rice, and bring the broth to a boil, if it's not already. Once the onion, raisin, and carrot mix is ready, drop the rice in here, and turn it in until well coated. Then pour the boiling broth in there, and cover it up, and let simmer for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the chicken breasts into cubes. I guess you could've put them in with the rice, or not. I didn't.

That's all there is to it! Serve with a tall glass of lightly sweetened Darjeeling iced tea. Dishes like this prove that God does love us, and wants us to be happy. Sorry for the out-of-focus pictures. I'll try to put better ones up there next time I make it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Homemade Spalted Maple Boards

I bought a Powermatic 14" band saw a few weeks ago. It took a while for the 6" riser block to come from Amazon, and then I had to get a 3/4 inch Timberwolf blade, and then get it replaced because the weld was slightly off (more than acceptable), and finally, last night, I got to do some meaningful work with the saw. I ripped a log that I had salvaged from a neighbor's dying red maple (Acer rubrum) into 1 1/4" boards. I managed to get some really sweet boards out of it. They're now in the basement drying.

It wasn't all good times though. It took me a while just to get up the nerve to even rip the log, because it had rather large holes from some kind of wood boring insect, and I did not want to be the idiot that let loose a termite infestation into his own house. But I could see by the end grain that there was some stunning spalting to be had, and after some careful consideration, and preparation of the work area with a clean canvas to catch any falling insects, and a large can of Raid, and a respirator, I started into it.

I started by cutting it in half lengthwise as well as I could - it was a very irregular log - so I could quarter saw half of it, and flat saw the other half. I anxiously parted the freshly halved log, and to my great relief, I didn't see any signs of termites, or any insect. So, I started flat sawing one of the halves. . .

After the first cut of the half, I parted the cut to reveal something black wiggling in the wood. My stomach sank, and I got a sick nervousness that can only be brought on by seeing something totally foul, ugly, crawly, and disgusting in front of you. Luckily, I had that can of Raid on hand just in case, and I happened to saw into the hole at an angle, so whatever it was, it was not able to get out. I had control of the situation. I got a pair of needle nose pliers, and started slowly widening the hole, so I could get a better look at the wriggling mass. . .

To make a long story short, I pulled the thing out, dropped it on the canvas, and doused it heavily with Raid. It promptly died. There were many more, and it turned out that about half of the log was infested with what I later identified as Pigeon Horntail Wasps (Tremex Columba), and their larva and pupae. That's a type of wood wasp that infests dead or dying wood. Nothing to be afraid of. They do not harm humans, or finished wood, but it was definitely disturbing for a person with an aversion to unidentified creepy crawlies.

I can only hope that the boards I have drying in the basement now are free of the horntails, but if not, they are harmless to finished wood and humans, so it's OK.

Here are some pictures of the harvested boards. Note the incredible color variation, and almost pixelated effect of the spalting on the one board I have in my hand. Here are also some pictures of one of the hibernating wasps I extracted. Many more were either sawed in half, or left in wood and taken to the dumpster. I can't wait for this wood to dry so I can plane it, sand it, and make something with it!

All in all, I have to say, the Timberwolf blade lives up to the billing. I am very pleased with it, however I'm not quite as pleased with my saw, because it took some serious manipulation to get the blade guides properly aligned to take the 3/4" blade, which eventually resulted in manually machining the trunnion bracket with a file, even though it's supposed to be able to handle 3/4" blades out of the box. I've read forum posts by other people complaining of the same thing. I guess quality control in consumer-model band saws is just not what you might think it should be. It's definitely a tool you have to be willing to get in and make serious adjustments to, in order to get it to do what you want.

Now that I have it set up, I could really not be much happier, because I can rip my own small logs from fallen trees. It's a good feeling, both in terms of self-sufficiency, and environmentalism. Plus, I know there will be an unending supply of logs, since I live a couple blocks away from a large park, and terrible storms blow through St. Louis every summer, like the derecho that tore through here last summer, peeling half my roof back, and leaving most of the city w/out power for several days. It got up to 102 degrees the day after the power went out. It sucked, but I was lucky. It could've been much worse, and my insurance paid for the roof. Anyway, Tower Grove Park was in terrible shape. There were fallen trees everywhere. It took them weeks to get it cleaned up.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Andrew Bird

For anyone who hasn't seen Andrew Bird in concert, but is interested in new and exciting music, it's a must-see. Seriously, it's one of the most interesting and exciting concerts I've ever been to. My friend Rich and I got to see him play with Martin Dosh at the Pageant on my brother's recommendation. I had never seen or heard of either of them before...

The opening act was kind of like Mazzy Star, but with a voice like a cross between Bjork and Nico. It sounded good, don't get me wrong, but we didn't come to the show to get a good night's sleep. So as you can imagine, Rich and I were getting ready to curse my brother's name.

The stage went dark, and 15 minutes later a single light shined down on Martin Dosh, who, in his short sleeved button down shirt with a tie, looking rather like your local IT guy, slowly, over the next 5-10 minutes built up a series of loops, using different instrument sounds, until he sounded like a small ensemble himself. Then, out came Andrew and the bassist (Jeremy Ylvisaker), and he played a couple notes on his violin, then took his shoes off, and started building up his own loops using pedals on the floor. They kept building layer on layer, until finally, after several minutes, Andrew stepped on something that started two enormous horns spinning in the back of the stage. As they were spinning, flashing rhythmically in the lights, it was positively hypnotic, but exciting too, and growing cacophonous, until finally they stopped everything, and fell to silence... then started right into playing Imitosis.

You can find videos of them on Youtube, but they're completely inadequate representations of the show. In person, you can actually see, very clearly, how Andrew was using his pedals to create a new loop, and then release it to repeat, and then make another, and another. His whistling is so loud and clear, exactly like the whistling on spaghetti westerns like the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and he switches from guitar to violin constantly (just pushes the guitar around his back, out of his way, and picks up the violin). He also had a small glockenspiel mounted next to his mic stand that he would play along with his whistling sometimes, in perfect pitch. Really, he'd strike a key on the glockenspiel, and whistle the same note at the same time in perfect pitch. It was truly remarkable. This is an extremely talented musician.

We had a perfect vantage point for watching Martin as well, as he used his keyboards to create loops of his own, with his drums, cymbals, and other percussion instruments, as well as the keyboards themselves, to a lesser extent.

After the concert, I went over to the media stand to buy a CD. I asked the guy working the stand "which CD has that solo Andrew did right after the break?" "I don't know, you'll have to ask him yourself." At that moment, Andrew came out from behind the stage. "Andrew, which CD has that solo you did right after the break?" "Oh... Who?" ("Who" is apparently the name of the tune...) "That's on this one: Fingerlings." "Excellent. Thanks! Andrew, it was an absolute pleasure. Great show." "Thanks!"

That obviously made my night.

Thank you, Sean, for telling me to go to that concert. I know it's killing you to read this. Sorry you couldn't be there too!

Andrew has a website here:, and a MySpace profile here:

His latest album, Armchair Apocrypha, is so infectious, I am actually a little surprised by how much it's taken over my listening lately. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Planing Board by Hand

A couple posts ago I wrote about how I am saving space in my basement workshop by using hand planes in place of a jointer to flatten boards. I also said it will take a little extra manual labor. I'd like to revise that initial assessment. It takes a LOT of manual labor.

Over the past few nights, I've put in about 3 hours flattening a 43" x 9" x 1" piece of canary wood. I'm using my 4 1/2 smoothing plane. Granted, it would probably go faster with a jack plane, and this is the first time I've ever tried to do this, so I'm very much in the early stages of refining my technique, but still. I'd say I have at least that much more to go.

To create a reference line, I jointed one side of the board, then placed my 48" level on the wide face of the board right above the newly jointed side, and used my Incra T-rule to slide on the level, scribing a straight line along the jointed edge. To make the scribed line more visible, I placed a flat rule along the scribed line, and colored in the short space (the part to be removed) with a black wax pencil (a glass marking pencil).

I've been slowly working my way down through the black line using diagonal strokes with the plane. Every so often, I'll cover the face of the board with loose chalk, and scrape it off with a straight edge to reveal the bumps and valleys. That keeps me on track for now until I get close enough to the goal to get out the true bar, and really be critical of the flatness.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Good Eating in Sunset Hills, MO

Well, I must admit, I've found two shining oases in the desperately bland suburban landscape I've been cast out to. Growler's Pub, and O'Leary's are both within a mile or two of my office, and they both have some unique culinary delights that should not be missed.

O'Leary's is the first place I learned about. On the outside, it's a completely uninspired strip mall occupant on Lindbergh Blvd, about 1000 yards south of the Comp USA that is shutting down. On the inside, it's a nicely decorated Irish-themed sports bar with good lighting. They have the best hamburgers in town! The beef is fresh and juicy, and the buns are thick, soft, chewy, and delicious. My favorite burger is the fried jalapeƱo burger. Glory be, it's absolutely brilliant! The fries are very good too, and are served with a tasty dip, like ranch dressing mixed with a hint of ketchup. I guess it's kind of an Americanized version of Mary Rose. It works. This is my kind of soul food.

Now on to Growlers... This place is one of the quirkiest little buildings you'll find. I think it's like a Tudor-style cottage, with multiple gabled roofs, dark exterior wood trim. And it's sitting on the side of a 4 lane highway. Inside, they've done some truly whimsical decorating, with what appears to be authentic old Victorian wood trim on the windows, probably salvaged from an old St. Louis mansion. It is not really installed correctly, and it's much too big for the windows it surrounds, but I can't tell if that was intended or not.

Anyway, it's interesting to look at, but the important thing is that they have a sandwich called the Banana Cured Pork Sandwich. It's a succulent, juicy pulled pork sandwich topped with swiss cheese, and this stuff called banana ketchup. I had never heard of the stuff, but there is actually a Wikipedia article for it. To me it tastes kind of like a strongly flavored, thick apple butter. The bun is just outstanding, and the much better than average sliced pickles and unlimited fries served with it combine to make this a memorable sandwich.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Red Flame Salsa

This may sound weird, but it's really really good, and you need to try it... Next time you're eating a tomato-based salsa with chips, mix in some Red Flame Raisins! I don't know what made me think of it, but I was eating some Tostitos Gold with Pace chunky salsa the other day, and I wondered what it would taste like if I threw in some raisins. I was hesitant to try, because it doesn't seem like a good combination at first, but I am so glad I did!

I mixed in a hefty portion of Sun-Maid Mixed Jumbo Raisins (a mix of Thompson, California Golden, and Red Flame raisins). At first I couldn't tell if I liked it or not, but slowly I realized that if you narrow it down to just the Red Flame raisins, it sings! Use lots of raisins, not just a few. It's difficult to overpower the intensity of the salsa with the mild sweetness of the Red Flames, and the chewy texture the raisins add to the salsa is really exciting.


Saturday, May 12, 2007

Getting Started in Woodworking

I've decided to make my own wood products because the ones that I like on the market are waaaaay too expensive for me. I want new kitchen cabinets, radiator covers, screen doors, bathroom cabinets and vanities, book cases, cabinets for the basement, teak planters, a nice desk, a couple of beds, some benches, etc. Of course, building this all myself will cost money in tools and wood.

Developing a collection of tools to make all this happen requires no small investment in both time and floor space. Here I'll list some of the modern power tools you're expected to own, and then how I cut costs and floor space by using alternatives.

For starters, in order to make straight, square boards with parallel faces, which is absolutely essential, you need a jointer and a thickness planer. With the jointer you can get a flat face and side. The planer can then create a parallel and flat other side.

The jointer is part of the triumvirate of modern shop tools. Table saw, jointer, and router. Good jointers for under $1000 are only 6" jointers, which means you can only flatten boards that are 6" wide or less. They say you should buy the biggest jointer you can afford. Instead of buying a jointer, you can save space by investing in a good set of hand planes. This approach requires more manual labor, and time. The standard three are a smoothing plane, for smoothing surfaces and jointing or flattening small boards, a jack plane for flattening and jointing medium to large panels, and a jointer plane for jointing and flattening large or long surfaces.

You should NOT go cheap with hand planes. The cheapest you can go is antique Stanley Bedrock or Bailey planes (preferably Bedrock) found on eBay, Craigslist, or a yard sale or flea market. Expect to pay upwards of $100 for ones in good condition. You can be guaranteed quality steel by buying new planes. Lie-Nielsen and Veritas are your only choice for new ones, IMHO.

I'm going with the Veritas bevel-up jointer plane, and the Lie-Nielsen 4 1/2 smoother and low angle jack plane. Altogether that's more expensive than a decent 6" jointer, but you can joint and flatten boards much wider than 6", and you save floor space. ...and you have some really, really nice hand tools that, if properly cared for, will last you the rest of your life (and then some, which is why it's perfectly OK to buy high quality used ones off of eBay).

You also need a good table saw, and by good I mean one that you can count on for accurate, reliable cuts, and a table that is sufficiently flat and designed to handle after-market jigs and fences, and a zero-clearance throat plate. I bought an el-cheapo Ryobi $100 table saw last year, and immediately realized why it was the cheapest table saw in Home Depot: The blade is difficult to keep perpendicular to the table, and it's designed in such a way as to not take a zero-clearance throat plate, and the table is too cheap to work with after-market fences. It's crap! It did get me through the projects I bought it for though, and I only had $100 to spend at the time, and it fit in my car's trunk, so...

To save both space and money, you can sub in a modern guide system for a table saw. The Festool Rail Guide system is regarded as the best on the market. It comes with a high-quality, highly adjustable circular saw and lots of accessories, for about $500-$700, depending on how much you trick it out. Probably a worthwhile investment. I already have a good circular saw, so I went with the less expensive, but not as integrated, Eurekazone EZ Smart Guide system. It was $300 with the square attachment and shipping. It is not as good a system as the Festool, but hopefully it will suffice.

You'll also need a drill press. To cut both costs and floor space, you can limp along with a portable drill guide system, which turns your drill into a drill press. I've not tried one yet, but I've been told they are adequate for small projects, but after a while, you'll get sick of it.

You will also need a router, and there's really no way around that, but luckily routers do not take up floor space... just the router table. Routers are used to create decorative edging, dadoes, flushing up an edge with a template, rabbets, mortises, etc. You will use one in practically every project. There's two basic kinds of routers: fixed base and plunge. I won't tell you which one is the better buy. Just Google "fixed base vs. plunge router". There's plenty of debate on that topic.

Oh, by the way... You're also going to need a router table. And router bits, which aren't cheap.

And a band saw, to resaw your own lumber, cut book-matched panels, tenons, curves, and do a bunch of other nifty things. I think the band saw is a must-buy. There's really no simple way to do the things it can do with less expensive tools. A good way to save money on wood is to break down fallen trees from after a storm. If you're going that route, you'll want a riser block for the band saw, which adds an extra few inches (6 in the case of my band saw) so you can saw through 12" diameter logs.

You will need the thickness planer. I can't think of a way of getting a parallel face by hand without one. How did they do it in the olden days? Anyway, a bench planer is actually a relatively cheap piece of equipment (relatively), and will probably save you a lot of time you're going to want back after hand planing and jointing all your boards.

Now it's time to start organizing your work space. You're going to need to build a workbench. Follow the instruction Franz Klausz laid out in this article to build a classic cabinetmaker's bench. But first, Martin, you will need to make room in the basement to work. Raise the basement ceiling by tearing out the drywall ceiling, and lifting all the utility pipes up into the joists. Then reclaim some valuable floorspace by replacing the water heater and boiler with compact high-efficiency models. Or maybe it would be better in the long run to just build a two car garage, and make it the workshop...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Provincial Landscape

This article about a booming St. Louis suburb speaks for itself, but the photo by Karen Stockman is priceless. I might have to purchase a print and have it framed. Enjoy!

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