Category Archives: Learn New Skills

#61 Upgrade Christmas Crackers

January again.

That month after Christmas when it’s too hot to move out of your own shadow, so the country takes its month-long siesta. Which means it’s the perfect time to

#61 Upgrade Christmas Crackers

You may be thinking that the weeks following December 25th aren’t the most logical time to do this, but there are several reasons why January is, in fact, the perfect month to begin:

  1. The memory of how disappointing Christmas crackers really are is fresh in your mind.
    Pretty as a picture with a cracking start they plunge downhill after that.
    Paper hats that make the beautiful look plain, and the not-so-beautiful look plain and silly, and jokes that would cause any self respecting dad to weep. [‘Q: WHAT DO YOU CALL A HORSE IN PYJAMAS?  A. A ZEBRA’   Really? After two hundred thousand years of evolution, this is the best we can do?]
    The final blow, of course, is the useless, tacky, plastic toy that’s destined for landfill.
    Sigh.
  2. In January, the big department stores offload their unsold Christmas crackers for peanuts. I found a box of six very elegant ones, normally priced at $75 for half that price. However, $37.50 still seemed a bit steep for higher quality paper, a louder cracker bang and a slightly better class of rubbish inside.
    In the end, I lashed out on this box of ten crackers for – wait for it – 50 cents. For the entire box.
  3. By starting this project now, you have a whole year to discover more flattering festive attire than a flimsy paper hat, find jokes that are truly rib-tickling, and source tiny thoughtfully chosen items that can be tucked into existing crackers. Hand-picked treasures to match the interests of family and friends.

The first task is to gently disembowel the crackers of their contents, taking care not to damage the cracker strip.

Enter the toaster prongs – perfect for the job

Not confined to the kitchen any more

After removing the small bow and straightening out one end, it’s an easy job…

…performed with surgical precision

While the contents may have delighted a child in the 1950s, they don’t quite cut it any more:

Although at 50¢ for the lot, it seems churlish to complain

Now comes the fun bit: thinking up ideas for better gifts that are small enough to fit into a cracker and will give the recipient a lovely surprise.  And you have a whole year to find them! Twelve months to keep an eye out at stationer’s supplies and hardware stores, garden centres and kitchen shops, and every retail establishment you might enter between now and December.

A quick scout around home has turned up a few ideas already:

  1. Brightly coloured handkerchief – large or small
  2. Mobile phone hook – it attaches to back of the phone, rotates 360º and lets you hang it in the car, slip it on your finger or rest it on an angle for photo taking or viewing
  3. Strawberry huller (yes, really)
  4. Garden seeds – for the green thumbed
  5. Ear buds – for the podcast devotee. Handy to have more than one set…
  6. A wee nip – for comfort
  7. A USB stick
  8. A mini book-reading light
  9. Lipstick
  10. Book of stamps – remember them? Still needed on the rare occasion.
  11. Hair bands
  12. + 13 + …    = Your imagination.

Finding a glamorous alternative for paper hats has proved much more difficult. Does anyone look good in one?

So what about including larger colourful handkerchiefs for folk to tie rakishly around their necks during the festivities instead? At least there’d be a use for them after Christmas. A few colourful paper hats for the littlies mightn’t go astray, though.


Finally, write down the best jokes or the pithiest tweets or the funniest comments you hear throughout the year. They’ll be perfect to include in the cracker when December rolls around.

Or better still, ask a relative to come up with some bespoke cartoons. You never know your luck:

#60 Learn New Tricks

Working out if there are better ways to manage all the small domestic activities that make up a life isn’t something that’s consumes a lot of time for many people. This is a pity, because without reflection, one never knows if removable barriers exist on the pathway to an easier life.

Recently, I had a chance to view my domestic habits through fresh eyes.

OMG! Was there ever room for improvement…

#60 Learn New Tricks

It all came about when long-standing friends whose home renovations were progressing more slowly than planned and who were temporarily without a functioning home, came to stay for several weeks.

Not only did I have the pleasure of sharing my space and time with two good friends, but the changes that I’ve made courtesy of their insights have resulted in stunning improvements to my life.

[I hate to disappoint anyone reading this who thinks they may learn new or exciting tips, but this journey began from a pretty low base. My domestic blindness, it would appear, knows no bounds.]


Hot Water System
I have gas hot water. It’s very efficient. Too efficient. When you turn on the hot tap, it’s dangerously hot. For aeons, anyone having a shower at my place has risked second degree burns if the cold water tap isn’t turned on immediately.

But had it occurred to me that I could rectify this?

No, it hadn’t, until more intelligent people living in the house brought a solution to my attention.

Simply move the dial on the outside gas hot water tank down from ‘5’ to ‘3’ and – presto – cheaper gas bills and no more scary showers. D’oh!


Extension Table with Solid Chairs

I upgraded my kitchen table about three years ago, and for some obscure reason, bought one that could be enlarged with an extension to accommodate 8 to 10 people. It also had solid chairs that even Hercules would have had trouble shifting.

Nice enough, but …

I live alone. I don’t need a table that can accommodate 8 to 10 people. In fact, the thought of entertaining so many in that space gives me palpitations. Nor am I a weight lifter.

But it wasn’t until I was complaining about the table-setting to my new house mates that it struck me I didn’t have to put up with it. I could pass it on to someone who’d love it in a way I never could, and buy a more suitable arrangement.

 so…oo much better!


The Laundry

When you only have to wash and dry for one, it’s easy to overlook the fact that you’re bending to put the washing in the machine, bending to pull it out, lifting and carrying a loaded basket outside and bending repeatedly to peg it on the line.

But people who are getting a little older shouldn’t have to do all this bending. So imagine my delight when my house mates affixed a metal stand they no longer needed to lift the front loading machine a foot off the ground. No more bending.

But wait. There’s more.

I didn’t know you could still get those clever laundry trolleys like my mum had in the 60s, but it appeared one day and has remained here. I feel quite spoilt.

And with its new, improved functionality the laundry space cried out for a mini makeover. No more baskets crammed higgledy-piggledy everywhere. Now they’re strung in a faux French-Provincial style from the roof and much more accessible. Très bon!


Kitchen Tips

Where to start?

*Roasted hazel nuts make everything better:

breakfast muesli,
salads,
stir fry,
chicken and avocado sandwiches,
for munching while walking the dog
with any form of chocolate
ground up for cake-making flour…

Simply Fabulous.

*Filo pastry triangles can be reheated in a sandwich press. Crisper than a microwave, faster than the oven. 

*If trays and large plates are stored vertically rather than horizontally, your heart won’t sink each time you have to extract them. Simplicity itself.


The Garden

Then there was an old fire pit bought in a fit of madness one day.  The one that consumed massive amounts of wood and briquettes, and sent immeasurable quantities of CO2 into the air such that I couldn’t justify using it any more.

Rather than offload it at the local Waste Management Facility, I was inspired by my house guests after hearing of their plans to make wicking beds for their new vegetable garden.

So the pit’s now lined with black plastic – with a small window cut out to release the water overflow – has some AGI-pipe and stones in the bottom then geofabric under the soil.

It’s a bit amateurish, but so far the basil is thriving, the coriander and parsley seeds are emerging and it only needs watering once a week.


There have been lots of other little improvements too, like finally working out how to pre-program the heater so the kitchen’s warmed before I get up in the morning, or how something called graphite will make a lock that a key’s always jammed in work much more smoothly.

But my friends have moved into their sparkling, renovated home now and I’m bereft of company and ideas.

Will there ever be the opportunity to gain such insights again?

Naturally, I asked them if they’ve changed anything about their lives as a result of sharing with me.

I’m pleased to report that just a few streets away there are now ziplock bags in a freezer containing peeled, whole ginger waiting to be grated into something delicious for dinner any time they need it.

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist

Australia’s in the middle of the great 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote.

Apparently, the Ibis is leading the polls, which is annoying many people who deride them as ‘Bin Chickens’ due to their scavenging habits. But it’s not their fault they’ve been squeezed out of the Sydney wetlands market.

As I tell everyone who complains about the cost of living in the big cities: ‘Move to the country. Life’s so much better here. Just take a look at the accommodation we provide for our ibis…’

So realising what an abundance of bird life we have here, I took the opportunity in late October to

#59 Become a Citizen Scientist 

when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count was held. This allows anyone the chance to play at being a great naturalist for a week: 

It’s as easy as downloading the free Aussie Bird Count app from the App store and noting all the birds you see in your location over a 20 minute period at any time of the day for one week. And thanks to GPS, it knows where you’re looking. Simple, I thought.

Oh dear. The arrogance of ignorance.

I quickly realised that having superb eyesight is the first requirement for all budding twitchers.

Strike One.

I was known as Mr Magoo at primary school, even when wearing my brand new, dorky spectacles.

…this is an easy mistake for the near-sighted 

As I spent the first seven years of my life seeing the world as one blurry blob, I missed out on essential early visual training that most people with normal vision take for granted. At least, that’s my excuse.

Using binoculars during the 20-minute spotting sessions helped but it didn’t fully solve the problem. Because there’s another difficulty: the subjects being studied.

Sloth spotting I could manage, but birds move really fast and flit around, darting here and there before you’ve had time to take a good look at them and then they fly away and they’re gone.

Strike Two.

There’s also the matter of bird identification.

The brightly coloured ones, like fairy wrens and rainbow lorikeets aren’t a problem,

…easy peasy (and in the next street)

but what about all the neutral-looking brownish-greyish nothing-to-see-here types? Who can spot in an instant whether their tails are up or down, what the shape of their beak is, what are the exact colourings on their undersurface or details of their neck markings to aid identification?

So, even if you’re lucky, and the bird stays still long enough to get a good look, you need to know the actual name of what you’re seeing. You need Knowledge.

Strike Three.

Sure, the app tries to help, but it only works for the cognoscenti. So I entered descriptive phrases like  ‘medium-sized bird, near water, looks a bit kookaburra-ish with a flat sort of head, and a greenish cap and a lovely cinnamon colour when it flew away,’ but Google was silent on the matter.

(A couple of weeks after the count had closed, I happened to show the photo to a friend who, unbeknown to me, is quite the bird identifier, and she immediately said ‘Oh, that’s a Nankeen Night Heron’. AND SHE WAS SPOT ON!

She wants me to call on her any time I have difficulty identifying birds. This is going to be invaluable next year.)

You can imagine what my earliest list looked like:

Embarrassing

The app presupposes way too much in-depth knowledge, too.

Like any talented pre-schooler, I know a duck when I see one, but that wasn’t good enough for this app. It wanted to know if it was a Wood Duck, a Grebe, a Shoveler, a Shelduck, a Mallard, a freckled duck… oh the list was endless. And when I chose one that looked a bit similar to the ‘duck’ I was seeing, it would flash up the message, ‘unlikely based on survey location,’ so I was back to square one.

By day 6, I knew I was in desperate need of professional help during spotting sessions, so I called on friends who live on the outskirts of town, in the hope that I’d see more interesting birds than house sparrows and spotted doves. I struck gold.

Not only were they brilliant at seeing them, but they knew their birds, had several bird books, and by the end, we had a list that helped bolster my reputation no end:

Elephant stamp for this lot. 

I’m now wondering if I should go on to join a citizen science group for frog listeners using an app that identifies the frog you’re hearing. At least poor vision wouldn’t be a handicap, just the leech-ridden, mosquito infested swamps I’d have to frequent.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to participate in the 2017 Australian Bird of the Year vote, polls are open until December 9th and you can vote here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

Many a home gardener will tell you that producing a normal-looking carrot in the back yard patch is not as easy as those bags of soldier-straight, perfectly symmetrical, evenly sized, deeply oranged carrots readily available in every supermarket would have you believe.

In fact, even the odd looking “Crazy bunch’ carrots they promote in stores in an attempt to wean us off perfection are pretty impressive with their depth of colour and generous girth.

So I’ve come to believe that the perfect carrot you see everywhere is about as natural as a Stepford wife or a Venezuelan beauty queen.

Quite a challenge then to

#56 Try and Grow a Dead-Straight Carrot

I’ve attempted carrot farming a few times over the years, but the bitter disappointment of waiting months, only to harvest yellowing, mangled, bifid runts has meant that the allure of planting them every year has now waned into oblivion.

Of course, I thought I was following all the rules:

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted
  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery
  • Feed: Regularly, with a high quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser
  • Water: Frequently and generously

Then I watched a gardening show on television about growing carrots and realised every single rule I’d followed was, literally, WRONG, WRONG, WRONG & WRONG.

So, um, starting again…

  • Soil: Rich, dense and well composted?

Ha! Don’t be silly.

Collect sand from the beach and mix it with so-so soil you have that’s a bit deficient in nutrients. Especially deficient in nitrogen.

Just make sure it’s light and fluffy and sort of trickly between your fingers.


  • Seedlings: Healthy looking ones in punnets from a reputable nursery?

Why do they even sell them?

Nope. Never grow carrots from seedlings. Doomed to fail apparently.

 Planting from seeds is the only way to go…


  • Feed:  Regularly with a hIgh quality nitrogen-containing fertiliser?

NO!
Not unless you’re after copious greenery on top and rubbish carrots underneath.
NO NITROGEN FEEDING


  • Water: Frequently and generously?
    …if you want to DESTROY them.
    So water when you think of it.
    Sometimes.
    If the mood takes you.
    Whatever.

Then there are a heap of other tips you need to follow:

Cover the newly-planted seeds to keep them warm, cosy and protected until they sprout:


Cull a number of the sprouted seeds early to reduce crowding:

Then discard the seedlings removed…

No…oo. My babies…


Cull again a few weeks later when growth is lush and magnificent.
Yes, again.

Carrot growth lush

And discard again…

This is doing my head in…


Until finally, weeks and weeks later, when a small orange blip is seen breaching the soil and you believe it’s time to harvest, you hope against hope that you’ve managed to grow a dead-straight carrot.

Perfect carrot

YES!!!

 

 

 

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

If there’s one treat on earth that’s even better than crispy pork crackling – because it’s lower fat and doesn’t involve murdering a sociable, intelligent and highly trainable animal – it would have to be salmon skin that’s been baked to crunchy perfection.

(I mean no offence to all the salmon out there, but be honest, you’re not in Babe’s league.)

So for months I’ve been trying a variety of cooking tips found on an assortment of Google sites to achieve this, and after much experimentation using friends as guinea pigs (thank you all for suffering through various iterations) have finally hit the jackpot and am delighted to share the results, which have proven to be reproducible in my oven at least, right here, right now.

#55 Create Perfect Crispy Salmon Skin

It turns out that salmon skin nirvana is not too difficult to achieve:

  • Preheat a fan forced oven to 200ºC
  • Choose a salmon steak with a generous covering of skin. I’ve noticed they sometimes sell skinless salmon steaks. Unbelievable! I pray they don’t just toss out the skins…
  • Carefully detach the flesh from the skin with a sharp knife, just so…

  • …before scraping off all the fat and any residual flesh on the undersurface so the skin is glistening and streamlined.

  • Then cut to size and pat dry on a paper towel:

  • Next, season generously with salt, pepper and oil, rubbing in well, and lay the pieces on an oiled metal cross-wire cooling rack.

(It goes without saying that Murray River pink salt, freshly ground black pepper using an obscenely long pepper grinder and a virtuous brand of EVOO were chosen)

Now the following step is VITAL to success:

 

  • Place the racks with their compressed cargo onto a baking tray and into the hot oven on the middle shelf.

Then, if you cook the salmon fillet in a frying pan on the stove top at a low-moderate setting for 5 minutes on one side and 4 minutes on the other, this 9 minutes will be the exact time it will take for the skin in the oven to reach perfection.

Yes, really.

I invert the two little trays (as one) at the same time as I turn the fillet on the stove top, too, just for symmetry.

The salmon skins should be golden brown, straight-as-a-die and delicate crunch heaven.

You’re most welcome.

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

Aah, Austria.

How could I ever forget my one-and-only visit to this beautiful land-locked country?

Three of us on the obligatory rite-of-passage backpacking trip around Europe found ourselves in Salzburg at Christmas in 1974.

Mozart, the Sound of Music, golden cakes and tortes and strudels that reached out from shop windows to embrace us and our first ever White Christmas.

Magic.

But then life got in the way and I forgot all about the country and its delicious pastries until a few years ago when I was gifted a small slice of an Austrian Panama Torte, baked by my elderly Austrian neighbour Martha and kindly brought over by her husband Joe, as a thank you for the spare eggs I’d given them.

I was told this was a special-occasion cake, complex to make and based on a precious recipe they’d brought with them from their home country to Australia after the War.

Clearly this was a very special offering and after the first bite, it was obvious why. It was melt-in-the-mouth chocolate and almond nirvana. The future was now clear for me:

#52 Bake an Authentic Austrian Torte

I asked for the recipe a few times over the years, but with our busy lives, it never quite happened so I resigned myself to the memory of that cake rather than ever tasting the reality of it again.

Until one day, three months ago, Joe brought frail Martha over to my place – together with her handwritten recipe, translated from the original German, for the famous Austrian Panama Torte!

We sat in the garden as Martha haltingly talked me through the Byzantine instructions and I faithfully took notes and tried to make sense of the sometimes confusing translation.

2 ½ ribs of chocolate? Who measures chocolate in ribs?

Austrian cooks, that’s who and they mean horizontal ribs, not vertical

The almonds and the chocolate, I was instructed, MUST BE carefully hand grated. No food processor should go anywhere near them or this whole light and fluffy flourless concoction would come crashing down.

And the egg whites have to be beaten to within an inch of their lives but their folding into the almond/chocolate/egg yolk mix must be done with the tenderness of wrapping a newborn.

The oven door has to be propped ajar for the first 15 minutes of baking or the mixture might just refuse to rise.

this was serious baking

And yet it worked, and a newly minted, pleasingly light and fluffy cake came out of the oven:

Martha’s had a lifetime of practice slicing it horizontally to perfection – two cuts, do you mind – before spreading the chocolate butter icing between the layers, but my skills doing this tricky manoeuvre with such a mercurial cake were untested.

Enter, the ever helpful YouTube with instructions on how to measure the cutting lines before marking them with toothpicks…

… then gliding a fresh piece of dental floss through the cake just so…

… creating three (almost) perfectly cut horizontal slices.

This only left the chocolate butter icing to prepare and spread between layers and all over, before garnishing with lightly toasted almond flakes…

…and cutting into slices to share with family and friends

And the taste?

 

 

#51 Construct…something

A story oft told in my family –  and it’s not apocryphal – is that when my father was conscripted into the army in 1941 and tested to assess where his skills lay and therefore where best to deploy him, he scored zero for ‘mechanical comprehension’. Zero.

Never before in the history of the AIF – and possibly the navy and the RAAF – had a seemingly intelligent chap failed to answer even one question correctly in this particular category. As a result, he became something of a cause célèbre for a while, then found his niche writing and producing sketch comedy and variety shows – in between fighting the Japanese – which helped boost the men’s morale in their down time.

What this meant, of course, is that I grew up never seeing a hammer, nail, screwdriver, drill, lever, cogwheel or any type of power tool in use at home. Ever. And although I’d longed for a meccano set as a child to no avail – though to be fair, I never told my parents this as it would have shocked them – becoming a talented handyman has long been a secret, unfulfilled desire. I am in awe of people who can build things.

So on the basis that my old letter box needed a makeover recently, the time to put to use my horribly stunted home handyman skills had arrived:

#51 Construct…something (that requires limited tool skills)

The letter box in question is nothing more than a space between bricks that had a plastic tub at the base, wedged in with two black rubber hose lengths, to catch the letters and a makeshift ‘lid’ to prevent rain dripping down. Embarrassing really…

…hence the blurry photo

So its replacement would need to be made of a waterproof material that could be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, formed into an oblong shape with a couple of ‘steps’ bent in opposite directions and then painted.

Material that could do all this was totally beyond my mechanical comprehension (I’m with you, Dad) so I turned to a friend and expert we’ll call my Bunning’s Buddy (or BB). We meet there most weekends; he to buy mysterious tools and materials for his latest innovative mini-Taj Mahal projects and I to watch in awe before heading to the garden section.

(I’d post photos of the AMAZING floor to ceiling bookshelves he made that can be opened with a hidden handle to reveal an entire bedroom behind, but it might make my revamped letter box look even more pathetic.)

Anyway, BB recommended using Corflute:

…a hitherto unknown product that looks like cardboard but acts like plastic!

Turns out, this waterproof material can be measured to fit snugly, cut to size without using anything with the prefix ‘power’, will bend along straight lines and can be painted. Bingo!

Using the well known rule among tradies to ‘measure twice, cut once,’ I soon realised this guide was meant for professionals. The rule for newbie home handymen, is ‘measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings for more Corflute, measure twice, cut once, return to Bunnings again for supplies, repeat ….’

But eventually, stage one was successfully completed:

Then stage two:

And finally stage three: painted and secured:

And all done without hammering a nail, driving in a screw, using a power tool or cutting myself with the Stanley knife.

Dad would be proud!