Thursday, May 2, 2019

Merlot's New Digs

About 5 weeks ago I bought a Betta. It had been a really long time since I had a betta and I had since given away all of my fish stuff, so I got him a small temporary tank and the bare essentials to go with it. It turned out to be a good choice at the time because I had to buy several types of food until I found one he liked. I was glad that I hadn't made a huge initial investment since we were wasting food left and right.

His small 1-gallon acrylic cube was an upgrade from the little cup he came in and he was very happy for a while, but I was feeling pretty sorry for him only having enough room for one good kickoff before he got to the far end of the tank. I was also having to do half water changes about every other day, which was not a big deal for me but was upsetting to Merlot. It was time to go bigger and cleaner.

I never do anything without over-researching it, so I set out watching every single video on Youtube that I could find on Betta tanks, Nano* tanks, Planted tanks, Low-tech tanks, and a lot of product reviews. I really wanted to plant a low-tech Nano tank and maybe put a snail in there to eat the fish shit. I was going to need a tank, a heater, plants, substrate, and good lighting.

*Nano is Greek for 'small' and is used to describe tanks under 20?gallons. I think they say 'nano' and we are supposed to hear 'I got a small tank on purpose and not because I'm poor'.

It looked like I was going to have to spend at least $75 on just the tank if I was going to get anything pretty. I am way too cheap for that. I wouldn't want to spend more than $75 for the entire project. I also wasn't too sure about hang-in-back filters they came with. I'd had this kind of filter before and ended up with a dead betta. Nothing I could do would slow the flow down enough not to rip their poor fins up. Even though I am sure there are some very nice filters that are better suited to bettas, nice means expensive. Again... I'm cheap.
It was killing me waiting for the glue to cure.

Still not sure which direction I was going to go, I was watching Aquarium Co-op videos one day when I saw a review for Nano air pump. It was supposed to be really good and was a crazy low price.  I immediately ordered one and the adjustable air stone and some black tubing they had for cheap. I had already seen videos on how to DIY a filter and this was all I was missing to do so.

By chance I found a 5 gallon kit at Walmart for $30. It was one of those traditional glass in the black metal frame with the hood and hang-in-back filter system. I bought it. And then I thought about it over the weekend, never getting it out of the car, and then took it back. I just didn't want it. Those things are not the pretty I was looking for. It was too big of a compromise. It came with the filter I couldn't use and it was going to take up a lot of space. Merlot didn't necessarily need five gallons. Three gallons seemed ideal, really. So I set out trying to find a three gallon tank CHEAPER than this 5gallon had been. Because seriously. They shouldn't cost MORE.

During my search on Amazon for anything that was 3gallons, I finally came across this really big jar. It was only 2 1/2 gallons, which was a compromise. But it was also only $20, which was a HUGE SCORE! I could not click that buy now button fast enough. I held my breath for 2 days that it would get to me in 1 piece.

Filter and heater hidden in the back
So, besides the 5 gallon tank, I bought other things that I took back. Black gravel. A huge java rock that had a cool hole in the middle that Merlot would love, but I worried it would take up most of the room. I also bought some organic potting soil, getting ready to put all this together and buy some plants.

I researched the FOOEY out of plants. Which ones needed low light. Which ones did okay without CO2 injections. Which one grew slowly and didn't get too big. I had a short list of plants that would work and went out full of hope. SURELY I would find two or three of these.

I found one. $12 for a tiny bit of dwarf hair grass at Petsmart. They didn't have any of the other plants I had decided would work. I stood there in the store googling every plant they had that didn't look too big and none of them would work. Not to mention... at that price it was going to cost me another $50 for just a few plants. This was not going to work.

So... I bought a package of fake plants. I was a little sick about it. I really wanted a planted tank, believing this was best. And maybe someday we will have this (a 2nd upgrade?) but for now I couldn't justify spending any more money. This was compounded by the knowledge that I have killed every houseplant I ever had and would likely be throwing my money away. It was a good time to remind myself that standards that are set by strangers on the internet are not necessarily the best thing for everyone.

And here you may be asking why didn't I just order plants online. Aquarium co-op has seriously cheap plants and my shopping experience with them had been beyond satisfactory. And the answer is that by this time I had convinced myself that I would just kill them or poison the fish or had bought the wrong soil or light or SOMETHING. I had lost confidence in the live plant scheme. It maybe needed more research STILL and I didn't want to wait because poor Merlot's little tank looked yuck this morning and I just did a water change yesterday. 

So... fake plants. It was an economy package with 2 big bunches and 4 individual little tufts of grass. I can't find the exact ones on Petsmart's website). I took the big bunches apart and combined them into one (Super Glue Gel- as was recommended by many youtubers.) I then cut up some of the smaller ones that I had pulled out and glued them onto small river rocks I had on hand. I made a kind of vine across the largest new rock and then glued some of the medium-high grasses and broad-leaf plants to small rocks that would weigh them down. This left the small tufts that already had the weights attached to use up front.

I found several types of homemade filters on Youtube, but I went with the one that I had all the supplies for already. If it doesn't do a good job then I will try a different kind. At any rate, Merlot had no filter before so anything is going to be an improvement.

I used some gravel from his small tank- thinking it would have some bacteria already established (not sure why that's a good thing but e'body be sayin' bacteria this and that). I used some stuffing from my hoard of stuffing and then weighed it down into the jar (rescued from the recycling- it once held capers) with the smallest river stones I had. The airstone is sandwiched inside this, btw. I tightened the air stone as much as I could to keep the bubbles small. Merlot doesn't seem to mind it too much. In fact, his sleep spot seems to be on top of the fake ferns about 4 inches away from where the bubbles bubble up. If he can sleep there I think that probably means he's okay with bubbles.

I hung the nano tank heater right beside the filter as you're suppose to put it where the warmed water will cycle throughout the tank. I haven't actually plugged the heater in yet as the thermostat stayed at 79-80 without the heating despite the fact there's a large fan blowing in the room. We have it, though, if the temp drops on a rainy night and hopefully it is still working by November- when it's cold again in Alabama.

Yes. I did take enough pictures to animate them. Like you wouldn't. 

So... I guess I will keep the organic potting soil. I have some herb seeds I will try to grow just big enough to kill. I need to get my friend to cut a notch in the lid for the tubes/cords to run out. I tried to cut it with my tin snips but they are rusty and dull (I'm not very good for tools, either). It SORT of fits as is- enough to keep Merlot in and cat paws out- but will be happy when it's more fitted on rather than just propped. At any rate, removing the lid and putting the lamp above makes for much better pictures.

I got a low-watt LED bulb to go into one of the many directional lights I have around here and it works just fine but it looks a bit tacky. I may get a better light eventually, but it will work for now. And I think maybe I need a check valve but not exactly sure why. I think it keeps all the water from draining out of your tank if the air pump goes crazy and starts working in reverse.

All in all I spent $90 (plus tax), which was about $15 over my goal, but not bad really. Merlot loves his new tank- it is just the right size for him. He was very funny to watch at first. You could almost see the amazement that it took him so much longer to reach the top. He swam in huge loops from bottom to top over and over. And the he swam back and forth, back and forth like a big horseshoe shape. Below are the essentials. The only other thing I bought was a $3 LED bulb and a $2 thermostat that sticks onto the tank. I already had some small river stone and gravel from the old tank (as well as water conditioner), and the things to make the filter.

All the parts with some links...
Jar $20 
USB Nano Air Pump $8
Fluval Black Airline Tubing $3
Never Clog Air Stone $2
Large River Stones $2/$4
Assorted Plants $15
(Petsmart - not these exact ones)
Heater $15
(Petco - cheaper online!)
5lb black sand $5
Super Glue Gel $3

May 30 Update on the tank:
1. The superglue doesn't last for plants that aren't going to eventually attach themselves (ie. fake). I've removed some of those or switched them out.
2. The homemade filter is working really well. I've replaced 2/3 of the floss every 2 weeks (as it begins to look dirty).
3. I've  done one full vacuum, but have mostly just suctioned up what poos or wasted food I can see with a pipette. It's a bit of an adjustment learning to feed him with the water flow. Some foods that float well in a static tank sink immediate in a current. And of course this is the food he likes best.
4. I do a 1/4 water change about every 5 days. I've added an ammonia indicator, so go by that. Not sure it's accurate, tbh, but he seems happy with the water changes so I will keep it up.
5. I still want to do a planted tank. I think I am going to set up a new jar, plant it, move Merlot in, then redo the old jar for maybe a 2nd betta or some nanos.
6. I may have to get into serious fish eventually. I have fallen in love with cichlids during my many pet store runs.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Golden Mushroom Soup (Vegan)

Golden Mushroom Soup Braised Tofu
One of the things I have missed most since giving up meat almost 8 years ago is Campbell's Golden Mushroom Soup. It was always really great with a grilled cheese sandwich. Unfortunately, it is made with beef broth, so was out of the question for an herbivore. Today I decided, since I had some very lovely mushrooms, to try to make some. I searched  online for a copycat recipe that I could veganize.

While looking for recipes, I found several that were for braising meat with the soup, so I decided this would work great with some crispy tofu. And I was right! What a delicious meal this was along with some doctored up canned green beans (recipe for that below as well). I wish I had taken the time to make some rice as well, but as usual, I was really hungry and feeling the clock ticking on crocheting I needed to get back to. More so than usual this year as my custom order queue is twice as full as last year. (And here I am writing a blog post instead of working- oops!)

This recipe is based almost verbatim on one I found on a website called Mushroom Appreciation- it's a neat little resource for growing your own  mushrooms- something I would never have time for. I altered it just a little to accommodate plant-based foods and to leave out things that I didn't like or normally use. Wine, for example. I don't really keep wine on hand as I don't have time to be even a little bit foggy-headed. Wine is for special occasions. Also, I halved the recipe because I wasn't sure how long it would be good and knew I couldn't eat that much in a day or two.

Anyway... here it goes!

Friday, February 1, 2019

Benjamin Bunny Hat

My grandson loves the Peter Rabbit and Friends cartoon and every time he watches it I think 'someday I will make Benjamin Bunny's hat!'. Being a much slower knitter than crocheter, and really wanting to squeeze in a couple of presents before Christmas, I decided to do a crochet version.

The colors of my hat are not quite accurate as I had this really plush apple green that I wanted to use. The hat would look great in any combination of colors, with or without the ears. It is a very thick and warm hat, and very stretchy, so should fit for quite a while!

It is very important that you make a gauge swatch before beginning this hat and adjust your hook size accordingly. A 15sc by 18 or so row swatch should do it. I measured it relaxed and unblocked to record the gauge, so you will want to do the same. I used Aran weight yarn for my hat shell, so got pretty big stitches from my hook/yarn combo. Keep that in mind as you are choosing a yarn and trying to match gauge. If you choose a Worsted Weight, you will most likely have to go up a hook size or two.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

General Tso's Broccoli Tofu

This dish has quickly become a favorite. It's surprisingly easy to make and very filling. Paired with some veggie spring rolls or a simple Asian slaw, it's quite an impressive dish for  company without keeping you all evening in the kitchen. This dish is pretty versatile, too. You can substitute any veg that you prefer- and cook it to your preference before adding the sauce. It  works really well with frozen veg if you are like me and hate running to the shops for fresh veg every few days.

I've been experimenting making my own Oriental sauces lately. For me, a store-bought bottle of sauce, besides being expensive and full of things I can't pronounce, always seems like too much sauce for one recipe but not enough sauce for 2 recipes so then the extra sits in the fridge for weeks until you forget how long it's been in there and are afraid to use it. So, basically, you've spent $5+ for a bottle of sauce and thrown away 30% of it. If you can make a gravy, then making a sauce is easy peasy. If you have yet cooked a liquid until thickened then it's probably time to start! 

As with most of my recipes, I have taken bits of recipes from here and there and adjusted to my liking or to the ingredients I tend to have on hand. Feel free to make it sweeter or tangier or spicier to suit your tastes! After making this a few times, I have toned down the sugar and the vinegar to get a less intense sauce. 

Friday, January 11, 2019

Vegan 'Chicken' and Dressing

I went through the holidays really wanting to veganize a traditional chicken and dressing, but pretty sure someone else in the family would bring a vegan dressing to one of our many gatherings and did not want to step on their toes. As it turned out, nobody brought any vegan dressing or vegan stuffing so I went through the entire holiday season not having my dressing itch scratched in the least. I was also seriously off my cooking game recently and some of the dishes I made flopped or I ruined by falling asleep and letting them burn (I really shouldn't cook so close to bedtime!). The one thing that I contributed that people actually ate was a pan of sweet cornbread (see my chili recipe for that one), though my daughter said it was basically just cake. She doesn't care for my cooking in general, though, I think. Someday I will tell you how she adulterated my guacamole on Christmas. (haha)

So today, going into my last free weekend as the crochet orders have began rolling in again, I decided to tackle the whole vegan 'chicken' and dressing thing. Now or never, it seemed.

This took all day.

Seriously. I stood at the stove and stirred gravy until my back hurt. I am not used to making such a huge amount of sauce at a time and it takes a while to heat through!  In the future, I think I'd do some of the prep for this recipe the day before.

So... traditional chicken and dressing. It had been a while so I looked up a recipe to remind myself the ratios and the seasonings. This one is almost identical to how I remember it being made, though I am sure we never added eggs.  I based my amounts on this recipe, though I switched some of the combos. I made a gravy to take the place of  broth and cream soup and in my mind dressing has both cornbread AND biscuits in it. Next time I make this (now that I know it works), I will get more pictures, but for now I really just want to write this down before I forget what I put it there!