Friday, February 18, 2011

Roman (style) hobnails

A while back I mentioned a pair of Roman style caligae I made as well as plans to make another pair that would be a bit more robust and even more authentic. To that effort one thing I had to find was Roman style hobnails. That's not an easy task. Until recently I had only been able to find them from one source in India and luckily got enough for at least one pair of sandals before they disappeared back into obscurity. I can only imagine being a peddler of historic reproduction hobnails is a niche market on the best of days but someone must be buying them because they seem to be popping up again in a few places around the web. Anyway, I'm reworking my original design to account for a few things I learned as well as planning a northern European brogue style shoe and thought I'd share what these semi-mythical hobnails look like.

They're about as close as you can get, or at least closer, to the originals and more durable than cut tacks or nails, an order of magnitude different from commercial hobnails used in modern shoes. The ones pictured are 7mm hobnails and would be a smaller variety based on archeological samples. Looking at them it becomes clear pretty fast that they played an important role in the mobility and combat effectiveness of Roman troops. It'd be akin to having golf cleats installed on modern infantry boots. Not something you'd want to tangle with if you could avoid it but also a lot less effective and useful now that we have paved surfaces just about everywhere.

They aren't cheap but you can find them in these online stores.

Wild Edibles; Onions

While dandelions are kind of a no brainer in the foraging realm onions are less so. There are a couple species that look similar enough to lilies that tend to grow in the same places to cause problems. So this is one that is best taken to a plant expert for verification before you eat. They do smell like cultivated onions and it is possible to identify them by photos but the similar looking lily can be very toxic. Not something to take a chance on. A lot of locals call this variety "onion grass".

These grow wild over much of the San Francisco Bay area and, like dandelions, come up every year in our backyard. Not taking any chances, I uprooted a clump of them from root to blossom and took them to the botanical conservatory in Golden Gate park for positive identification and even then I used them sparingly until I was certain no one eating them was having an allergic reaction. These should be safe for anyone not normally allergic to onions.

So far I've used them cooked in egg dishes, added to both potato and onion soups and as a pizza topping. Ours don't get a lot of light and grow in a cool area but I have seen them at local farmers markets better than twice the size we have. The greens have a bit of bite but are more fragrant than flavorful and are very mild when cooked.

There are a number of varieties of wild onions across North America. So, it's probably worthwhile checking with a local wild plant expert to see if there are any in your area.

The next step for me will likely be cultivating these in containers. They've taken up residence in an old planter already and it's always nice to have some degree of control over the soil your plants grow in.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wild Edibles; Dandelions

A pretty young plant floating in clean water 
Some people see foraging as a hobby, others as a survival skill or even a basic gourmet skill. In my case it's been a pretty basic thing for most of my life and not something I thought about too much until I moved to San Francisco. As cities go it's pretty fertile. Somewhat due to climate and some due to green spaces throughout the city. The parks here are among the largest in the country and there are even places where it's safe to gather wild edibles. One enterprising individual, somewhat regrettably so, was even running a business providing foraged food baskets with things gathered in the bay area. Regrettable in that he was running a commercial operation gathering on public land, the good/bad of that I'll leave for another discussion.

This is a good size for using the greens
I'll try to post about a few different plants, some of which are available almost everywhere. There is at least one invasive plant that is so ubiquitous as to be everywhere. Luckily it's useful from root to blossom. This first plant I'll mention is none other than the common Dandelion. It can be eaten by humans, fed to animals and even makes a wine with a growing niche popularity.

Brought to North America by early colonists, a number of sources agree there were none here before 1620 when the Mayflower arrived but that they were common by the 1670's. Anyone who has ever blown a dandelion seed head to the wind can attest to how easily they spread so this isn't too hard to believe. At one time the much maligned flower wasn't considered a weed at all and can still be found in produce aisles.

As for uses, the most simple is to take the youngest leaves you can find and cook them like any other green. They're similar to spinach with a bit more flavor. Larger leaves can be bater dipped and fried to make fritters or cooked with eggs to make frittata. The greens are usually a little more bitter than I like for salad but I've done everything with them from baking them into bread to adding them to quiche. I think one of the most interesting uses is using the roots as a coffee substitute or to stretch coffee the same way chicory is used. By itself, again, much like chicory, tastes a lot like burnt pencil shavings by itself but adds a pleasant smokiness to dark roast coffee.

As a cultivar it's one of the easiest things in the world to grow. I'd suggest either gathering them wild or replanting each season. The taproots get bigger over time and will cause even young greens to taste bitter. I've not tried to trade them but you might even find some vendors at farmers markets are interested in them once they get to know you a little and are assured you haven't gathered your plants on the side of the road or next to where you store your mower gas. If you have a patch of lawn you aren't using you might even consider sewing it with dandelions for a care free food crop that will literally take care of itself.

Some cautions might also be in order. Namely that some people are sensitive to a latex like compound in the leaves and stems. The white milky liquid was even explored for use as a rubber substitute during WW2. So, if you are new to eating dandelions it might be wise to try them cooked first and in small amounts. Another thing to know is that they contain diuretic compounds. So be careful with this plant until you know how it might effect you. The white sappy stuff is also what gives them a bitter taste as they get bigger. I have never heard of a non-edible variety but there are a few plants that look like dandelions. None of those I have encountered were toxic but they also wouldn't be considered desirable to eat.

When I gather, I typically toss the plants into a bucket of cool water. Some people suggest salt water, I'm not sure I'd waste the salt but it might help draw more of the bitterness out of the plant. I haven't tried freezing them but I'm sure it'd be much like freezing spinach. They're best used fresh.

This post is more intended to encourage exploring the use and cultivation of dandelions rather than serve as a recipe hub but if anyone is wants them email me and I'll post a few but there are many many recipes on the web just simple Google search away. I've also had success simply substituting dandelions for spinach in most any recipe I've tried.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

DT Misadventures

As seen in the wilds of SOMA
For some reason, in my infinite wisdom, I decided to take off and ride South for a change. Now don't get me wrong, So Cal has it's charms but one of them isn't a slow paced technical ride on highway 1 South. Instead it has some pretty straight fast roads. That's great for getting where you are going but maybe not if like me, you ride a vintage small displacement two-stroke.

Today I learned about spark plug ratings and why some models of DT 250's, not mine, have two spark plugs in the head on the single cylinder. Two-strokes are finicky little monsters at times and they have certain ideal temperature ranges and fuel mixtures. So, they need different plugs for riding on trails and in city traffic than they do going flat out on the highway. Mismatch the riding to the plug and you'll need a new one sooner than you think.

The DT ran like a champ on the run south from San Francisco to Santa Cruz and part of the way back but the extended run into the wind up hill with a hot plug overheated it and fouled the @#$%^! out of it. I, not having experienced this before, did not know what was happening. If only I had and hadn't rushed out of the apartment without my tool kit that just so happens to contain a spark plug wrench and a shiny new plug.

So, I limped the machine into Half Moon Bay, a place where you can buy gas and food and not much else... OK, that's not true but you can't buy cheap socket sets or spark plug wrenches. Nor can you buy anything but an adjustable wrench after 6PM. Thanks Half Moon Bay. Though, I'm told it's the perfect place to go for a weekend with someone you aren't supposed to go away for the weekend with.

So, I pushed the bike for a mile or so and then got frustrated and kicked it a million times until it fired up. No clue why, it just did and it shouldn't have but I wasn't complaining. I kicked out onto the freeway, bad plan, and ran for home. I luckily managed to clear I280 just as the engine went dead again. ...back home-ish but in a terrible neighborhood at 6th and Howard. Try as I might I couldn't get it to light off again and once more pushed it another mile closer to home.

The idea was that I'd find a garage and safely park it over night until I could come back with some tools. At this point I still didn't know if the issue was a clogged jet, fouled plug, something uglier or a combination of all three. What happened was I found out how rude men who who work in parking garages and barely speak English can be. Really flipping rude. You'd think if someone asked a customer service person a business related question they'd at least give decent service even if just to say "No" but alas they need to say "Oh no no no, no motorcycle!" while they waggle a finger at you. If only Bill Cosby had been there, he'd know what to say.

Again, I pushed the little monster up hill another block until I finally found a parking space that looked like the bike would still be there when I came back with my tools, and it was!

After a couple frantic phone calls and talking through the problem with wiser motorcycle guys than me, it was determined twice independently that I'd cruelly ridden the bike too hard and had asked for it. Thanks, I already knew that.

Anyway, failing to find my spare plug I returned with contact cleaner, sandpaper and a pocket knife to clean the plug and hopefully make the .7 mile ride up hill and home.

Fouled plugs kind of don't un-foul too easily but I did manage to scrape and scrub it enough to get the bike started and in a cloud of blue smoke I was off through crowds of drunken Valentines celebrators and unexpected 10PM traffic. None the less, when the DT growls cars usually give me some room. I made it to the top of Nob Hill before the engine died again and I managed to push another couple blocks and then bump start it down a hill just far enough to ride to my parking space like nothing happened.

Some tipsy neighbors walked by and asked if I had been out riding. "Yep, great day for it. Rode down to Half Moon Bay." The response, "Man, I wish I had a bike like that." I just smiled and said thanks not wanting to burst the happy bubble of bike envy.

So, I'll be ordering up a half dozen plugs and making sure to carry spares at all times. Seems DT 250's are notorious for eating plugs.

Another lesson learned. Just happy I made it home.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Flat tire...

Things like flat tires happen to any bike but with old bikes you often discover other things in the course of fixing something like a flat tire. In this case I made it just to the service center by putting some foul smelling messy fix flat into the tire. The tube was predictably, "an odd size" and had to be ordered. OK, good to know. Then it was discovered that the rear brake wasn't out of adjustment as had been suggested by another mechanic but rather in dire need of new break shoes.

So, after only a couple weeks it's back on the road with a new tube and some real stopping power. Wish there was a better way to protect from road hazards than "being careful". I will be adding a tube patch kit to my on board tools but I'm not sure it would have helped in this case as the tube was damaged in a couple places because the screw was so long. Actually, I doubt that even something like self sealing goo would have helped. At least it was the rear...

Happy to have it back on the road again either way.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Knit like a man?

Yeah, yeah, that's right, like a man. I have, at various times of my life, spun yarn from wool and other fibers but had never learned to knit a single stitch. It just never appealed to me and even as an adolescent, I found more value in spinning the yarn and then trading a portion of it for the knitted object of my desire. Offer most knitters four skeins of homespun in return for a hat or scarf that will only consume one of them and they usually take you up on your offer.

Recently, I was talking about that practice with a gal who had knit an awesome hat for me years ago and she related a sentiment that a spinner who doesn't knit is like a baker who doesn't eat bread. Hmm, good point. She also mentioned the while it's perfectly OK to spin for the sake a spinning, and please continue to supply yarn, that I might find knitting my own things both rewarding and a better use of my time than spinning yarn for someone else. Another, good point.

If you hadn't already guessed I'm also kind of a whole experience kind of guy. So, taking the process full circle certainly appeals to me and I'm at the point where I want interesting things made from interesting fiber. Sometimes even when trading highly desirable homespun for finished pieces, I end up needing too much yarn to garner the deal or it becomes more trouble for the knitter than it's worth. So, I finally relented and decided to learn to cast on and do a basic continental knit stitch.

It was a maddening process. I was watching online tutorials and couldn't figure it out to save my life. I managed to cast on but it was just murky. Then my monitor randomly broke. So, I paused, got my screwdrivers and pulled it apart. After identifying the loose connection and making a temporary fix until I can re-flow part of the board, I slapped it back together and got back to the tutorials. Aaargg!

Half an hour after repairing a computer part that is normally discarded and replaced if it breaks, as in I can't believe figured that out and fixed it, still I could not knit! Flipping knitting! Not even fancy, cool looking, thanks grandma, knitting. Just basic, this guy is a dork who knitted his own boring scarf, knitting. Ohhh... it was a dark moment.

However, a week later after a visit to the awesome Art Fibers knit shop in San Francisco, I have knitted my first row. The internets hadn't exactly lied to me but had instead committed a foul by not presenting a tutorial on basic knitting so as to teach people who know nothing of how it is done. What? you say. Yes, one gaff far too many how to folks make is to not put themselves in the shoes of someone who is a complete novice. They don't consider that someone learning from an online video tutorial is probably doing so because they don't have anyone to teach them and therefore need "all" or at least as many of the little details as possible. It's as though they are more showing other people who already know how to do things that they too know how to do it and therefore leave out, sometimes critical, details. Knitting, as it turns out, has a lot of little critical details that add up in a hurry if you aren't aware of them.

Say what you want but when the zombies attack and the power goes out, I won't be the one complaining about how cold it is.