Category Archives: Uncategorized

Tip #18: Make it a boat

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Eggplant. Winter squash. Summer squash. Zucchini. Russet potatoes. Sweet potatoes. Tomatoes.

Fill’em, bake’em, and serve’em.

I am not always interested in a meal that has a bunch of separate components sitting next to each other on the plate. Sometimes, I want my food in one tidy package. (Not the plastic kind, of course.)  When I do not want soup or a casserole, which also fit this craving, I like to stuff and bake (although not necessarily) vegetables. One of the great things about “boats” for dinner is that they are a great way to clean out the refrigerator and use up those odds and ends of nuts, seeds, and grains in the cabinet. In my experience, kids like the whimsy of stuffed vegetables, too.

I grow Carnival Squash–which is shaped like Acorn Squash and prepared the same way, but has a prettier skin and slightly sweeter taste–mainly so that I can fill it. Most often, my go-to filling is a chopped, cooked green, quinoa, scallions, dried fruit, pistachios, and feta. A little crunch and a little chew, a little sweet and a little savory; we love it.

This week, I had sweet potatoes to use. They last forever…until they don’t. We were at that point. There was also a cup of chopped cauliflower, two cups of blanched Swiss chard, the heel of a local nutty-tasting cheese, a cup of a cooked wild rice blend, and some leftover ham in the refrigerator. I not-quite-caramelized an onion, added a clove of garlic and the greens, and cooked them until they were tender. After baking the sweet potatoes, I halved them and hollowed them out (leave about a 1/4″ border of the flesh, so they don’t collapse) and mixed the flesh with the greens and ham. I sprinkled a little cheese in the bottom of each sweet potato half, over-filled them with the mixture, and topped them with the remaining cheese. Back into the oven they went, and dinner was done. The fridge was a little less crowded, too. I call that a win-win.

This method works with any vegetable (or fruit) that has a skin that will hold up after hollowing out. Some of them (most of them) will need to be baked and then hollowed, but tomatoes, zucchini, and summer squash (even cucumbers, filled with a cold salad) can be hollowed out without baking first. A metal spoon is your friend here.

I would not necessarily say that serving dinner in one contained package is less work than the separate components on a plate, (unless you’re combining leftovers) but it is a fun way to mix up what you put on the table each evening.

Back to the strangeness

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It is snowing.

Mostly, that makes me want to run around shrieking and throwing things, but I remind myself that tomorrow it is supposed to be 50 degrees and sunny, so the ever-growing coating of white stuff outside my window will disappear rapidly.

It helps. Kind of. I still feel a shriek bubbling up occasionally.

This has been an odd winter-into-spring here in the North Country. Winter never really made an appearance until mid-January, and except for some pretty low temperatures in February and March, it was not ever that cold. Everything is relative, mind you, and “not that cold” hereabouts is in the thirties and forties. Or even twenties when it is a sunny day with no wind. When “cold” can be -27, you take it where you can get it…

Anyway, back to the strangeness. Winter held off until spring this year, and we have had quite a bit of it this April. There has been more snow this month than there was between November and March–at least it feels that way–and about two weeks ago we had a low of 15. Those kinds of temperatures that late in the season can be bad for blooming fruit trees, so I have been holding my breath a bit, waiting to see what will happen. The Nanking cherries are blooming, which is a positive indicator, so I am hopeful.

Today feels especially gray because of the fact that I had been hoping to plant out my cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, onions and escarole early this week. I am itching to be in the garden and this game of up-and-down with the temperatures is making it hard to decide what is going to be best for the plants. Lots of people accustomed to this kind of thing will point out that today’s snow is a great boost of poor-man’s nitrogen for the garden, so there is that. And there are those 50 degree temperatures with lots of sun moving in for the rest of the week.

With all the gray and white out there, oatmeal seemed like a great breakfast today. We are out of propane for the stove, of course, because that is how life goes. But boiling water in the electric kettle and pouring it over quick oats does a suitable job, so oatmeal with maple and raisins it was. I am hoping the propane delivery will happen before I head to work–they have to get in the house to do a leak check–or there will not be any cooking here for dinner. Or breakfast, again.  But there is coffee, so the general public is safe when I finally venture out there.

Snow in late April. It is awfully pretty, but I am ready for that daffodil, tulip, and lilac kind of beauty.

Ahhh…

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Today was the kind of day I wait all winter for: not too warm, so we can gradually get used to being warm, but warm enough to have lunch and a few beers outside with friends. (Hot dogs! On the grill!) The above photo was taken around 4:30 or 5; otherwise, we had abundant sunshine all day.  I haven’t figured out yet whether or not the pink tinge on my face is windburn or a hint of sun, but it’s nice not to look like I dust my face with powdered sugar. Winter pallor: not sexy. On the other hand, it means it’s time to break out the sunscreen again. Not so sorry about that.

I used to think my favorite season was summer, but I’ve come to realize over the last five or so years that the excitement I feel as I walk around the yard greeting the first buds on trees and the plants pushing up through the ground may mean that my favorite season is spring. Daffodils! Tulips! Lilacs!

I’m feeling a little giddy at the thought of all of those flowers.

Hurry up and wait

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The best advice I have about spring is the advice I find hardest to follow.

Wait.

It was mid-60’s here today, with moments of sunshine that were warm and not just bright, like they have been for the last three months. If a gardener was tempted to stick seeds in the ground, the sodden, cold mud that’s just below the surface of mulch and debris would be a good reminder that it will be awhile. But, oh, it’s tempting to think I can be out there planting things.

Instead, the first warm spring day of the year is reserved for clean-up. I do most of the vegetable garden in the fall, and some tidying of the flower beds if I get around to them. But by October, I’m tired. I’m ready to be done for a few months, and I’m canning my brains out to preserve vegetables and fruits for the winter. (I don’t even put that much up, in comparison to some–most?– people who can. I have no idea how they do it.) So, if I’m being honest, flower bed clean-up isn’t high on the list.

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I don’t feel too badly about that admission, though, because except taking out things like peonies and phlox that can over-winter powdery mildew, most of what I leave has seeds for birds, and provides shelter for critters. In fact, the catmint could probably hide a small city, it’s such a matted, enormous clump. Another benefit is that the hydrangea mop heads, echinacea seed heads, lily seedpods, and grasses offer some visual interest in an otherwise bare garden. (That picture is post today’s clean-up. I’m leaving the grass and hydrangea, because things are still pretty bare…)

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Finally, spring clean-up is like a discovery expedition.  Cutting back the catmint and spearmint, I found the green whorls of tiny new foliage. The day lilies were already putting up new green beneath the flattened gray foliage of last year, and under the mulch, the reddish tips of a peony were showing. One patch of chives is also on its way, though I had to look pretty closely to find it. Exciting stuff. (And probably puzzling to the drivers going by while I had my head practically hidden in the juniper and my bum in the air while I was looking for the chives.)

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I also planted some seeds today, which helps with that “I’d like to have my fingers in the dirt” feeling that I get around the end of February. Celeriac, escarole, leeks, and bunching, red, and yellow onions are nestled in their pods, sitting on a heat mat under the grow lights. The escarole should be the first thing that comes up; I’m looking forward to the excitement that comes with that first tiny green.

This first spring day is usually also a good reminder of muscles that winter makes me forget I have. My calves, hamstrings, and shoulder muscles are moaning quietly in sympathy with each other after the three and a half hours of bending, reaching, crawling, lifting, and pulling. Because heaven forbid I start slowly.

The aches and pains are okay, though. On the northwest side of the house, there’s a witch hazel getting ready to bloom for the first time since I planted it a few years ago. Those scraggly, wispy, crimson flowers–followed by a profusion of others from spring through fall–make everything worth it.

Clutching at mental straws

I am sitting at our kitchen table clutching a gigantic mug of tea with milk and sugar, and clutching at mental straws, both for comfort. I made the mistake of looking at preliminary poll results for Super Tuesday (a name we’ll have to change now, I think) and I’m reeling. I keep hoping some reporter is going to pop up and say, “You’re on Candid Camera, America!”

I zig-zag between thinking, “Oh my god, what has happened to this country?” and, “It will be okay. It’s only four years. America has had terrible presidents before, and survived.” And I know I’m jumping to conclusions that are by no means predetermined, but I am fighting down a panic attack over thoughts of what might happen to this country if Donald Trump is elected.

What kind of message is America sending when a large percentage of voters are choosing a man with the kinds of values Trump seems to have? What kind of message does Trump’s success send to Black people, hard-working immigrants, and non-Christians who are citizens of this country? Equally important, what kind of message is America sending to the world? It is naive to think that how the world views us is irrelevant; 9/11 taught us that very clearly.

Many articles I’ve read espouse the theory that it is disenfranchised white males, terrified of losing their majority, who respond to Trump’s antics (what else should I call them?). But poll numbers across the nation would indicate that it is not simply those white males who are supporting him. If it is, then they are the only Republicans showing up to the polls.

How does a citizen who lives in a country founded on the principals of freedom, justice, and equality (even if the birthing has been a long, tough one and is still not quite over) give any credence to a man who spews hatred at his worst and tomfoolery at his best, every time he opens his mouth? Why are the racist, bigoted, uneducated, half-formed ideas of a man with no consistent platform or ideas for running our country resonating with so many citizens? A man interviewed about his support for Trump said it was like voting with his middle finger. Really? This should be considered an admirable way to make a decision?

What happened to voting as an act of thoughtfulness, or of hopeful defiance, instead of an act of rage? I am disgusted with our current two-party system, and with the utter disregard our politicians seem to have for the ordinary men and women who make up this nation. But when I choose my candidates, I do it with the idea that voting is an act of hope, not a “fuck you” to the people of this country with whom I don’t agree.  I’m all for change, attained by radical means if necessary, but the idea that a president who thinks, “saying it like it is,” is an acceptable excuse for hate-mongering goes against everything decent for which our founders strove.

And we haven’t even gotten into whether or not the man has any capability to handle the president’s duties in foreign policy.

I am truly frightened for the future of this country if Trump is elected president. It feels like it will be a reversal of everything we have achieved in the last 150 years, both on the “freedom and justice for all” stage at home, which is pretty wobbly, and on the stage of world opinion, also wobbly. The slog toward November is going to be a long one.

Galloping away in the dark

One of the reasons I live in the North Country, with its long, usually sub-zero winters and too-short season for flowers, is the deer. I don’t hunt, and I don’t have any particular attachment to venison. I don’t think they’re always beautiful animals, though they are graceful. It’s the opportunity to see them in as close to their natural habitat as possible, along with the fox, the coyote, and the wild turkey.

Last night, the dogs woke me up just before midnight. I let them out back, used the bathroom, and went to let them in.  They were standing side-by-side, looking northwest into our (pathetically puny but I’m trying) fruit orchard. It’s not uncommon for Shiloh to ignore me, but unusual for Montana to do so. After a few seconds, he trotted reluctantly to the door. I walked out to get Shiloh and was stopped by the sound of hooves galloping on frozen ground.  In the barely available light from the side of the house, I could see a group of deer running toward the woods.

The noise froze me for a few seconds–not to be confused with the freezing from being outside in my nightshirt in February–and I could feel the sound in my bones.  Midnight is the fanciful hour, and my head went to a band of dashing marauders on horseback, stealing from the (completely bare and frozen) garden to feed themselves. A gust of wind snapped me out of it and I herded Shiloh inside.

This morning, a small group of deer was back, crossing the field to the north of the orchard. They were wary, moving in fits and starts and not stopping until almost to the edge of the woods. They browsed a bit and then stepped into the trees. Their now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t ability is always a bit startling, like they’ve vanished out the back of the wardrobe or slipped on an invisibility cloak.

I grew up in the suburbs; my wild encounters were limited to birds, the occasional snake, and the even more occasional skunk. I didn’t know that being able to see animals in their wildness would be such a moving thing. It is magical.

Lunch

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Doing something about all the food I found myself whining about the other night. (Insert eye-roll here)

The Kitchn posted this recipe the other day, and it sounded great to me. But I wanted to use escarole instead of cabbage, and fennel seeds instead of caraway…so I did. I also added a little red pepper flake to the squash while it roasted (along with the fennel seed) instead of adding it to the dressing. I toasted the walnuts on the pan with the squash for the last few minutes it was roasting.

I think almost any winter squash (other than spaghetti–although it might be worth playing around with) would work here, as would a lot of different assertive greens and the nut of your choice. I’d keep nuts of some kind, unless you’re allergic (duh), and the celery (you could use fresh fennel bulb–it would be awesome) and apple. They provide a great crunch against the softness of the squash.

Here’s the link to The Kitchn version.  Make it as is, or change it up at will. The Kitchn Delicata Squash salad

Gratitude

Some weeks, I am way better at being than other weeks.  This has not been one of those weeks. I have managed to take down the Christmas decorations…mostly, and vacuum the living room and dining room. It only took two days to get both rooms done. I have managed to do all of my dishes, though not always right after I used them. I have managed to walk the dogs in bone-chilling weather, except for today, and I managed to get them to the groomer and pick them up without one of them leaping out of the back of the car while I was trying to get their leashes on them.

There have been two naps. Today’s will probably have me awake until 2 a.m., which means I’ll need another one tomorrow–it’s a vicious cycle, you know.

Last night, I went out to dinner with friends, and I was talking about the garden and needing to place my seed orders.  Then I heard myself say, “I don’t know why I bother. I’m mainly just feeding me. My fridges (plural) and freezers (plural) are stuffed with last year’s vegetables, and I still have tons of canned stuff. Who am I growing a garden for?”

Um.  What?

Soooo…I’m whining about having too much food from the garden that brings me so much joy? While I’m out to dinner?

Hi. My name is Arsehole.  Nice to meet you.

It’s easy to get caught up in the less-than-awesome aspects of our lives, isn’t it?  What I was really whining about was the fact that my husband and I don’t live together (Because he’s supporting us while I live my dream of growing food and starting a food business.  Poor, poor me.), and so the food that I’m so happily growing for us winds up often being for me, which means it takes a long time to eat it all.  I could bring it to a food pantry, but I’ve been told that the ones around me won’t take fresh food (don’t get me started).

We all know–or I would like to think that we all know, and if it isn’t true, don’t tell me, okay?–that someone, somewhere (lots of someones, actually) have it waaay worse than we do.  That, in fact, our lives are pretty damned awesome.  But everything is relative, isn’t it?  And so during the weeks that I’m really missing my husband, or bummed that I’m not working more, or just plain out of it, I get trapped in the woe-is-me cycle in my head. It slows me down, and makes me bored with myself (cue the Springsteen). I take a lot of naps, and take multiple days to get a room vacuumed.

I’ve learned two things that help when this happens.  First, don’t beat myself up.  The laundry starts to pile on the floor because the cabinet is too full to stuff any more clothes into, the dying flowers drop their petals on the table and I leave them there (How’s that for a woe-is-me image?!)…and it’s okay.  I’ll snap out of it and get it all done.  I’m not perfect, because I’m human.

Second, a good way to snap out of it is to be grateful.  When a whine creeps into my thoughts, I squish it with a reminder that my husband loves me, or my dogs are awesome, (even with 5:45 a.m. vomit wake-up-calls…I’m talkin’ to you, Montana, you adorable rotten animal) or my friends and family are supportive, or…  There are a lot of grateful reminders I can give myself.

Grateful people are happy people. So while I work on snapping out of my funk, I’ll remind myself againandagainandagain that I have an embarrassing wealth of things for which to be thankful. And I’ll move that pile of laundry to the top of the washing machine, where no one can see it.

We have lift-off

“Say yes.  Whatever it is, say yes with your whole heart & simple as it sounds, that’s all the excuse Life needs to grab you by the hands & start to dance.” -Brian Andreas, storypeople.com

A year and a half ago, I said “no” to continuing to teach under conditions that I found (find) reprehensible for students and teachers. I left teaching, a profession I loved (still love) and expected to do until I die. After 21 years, it was like being just out of college again.  Worse, actually. When I left teaching, I had no idea what I wanted to do, other than the vague notion that I wanted it to be something relating to food.

For the first three months, I threw myself into the garden.  Then I threw myself into putting up what I had grown in the garden. (I still twitch a little when I think of all of the tomatoes I canned in October of 2014.) Then winter set in, and I threw myself into sitting at the kitchen table and wondering what the hell I had done.

While there is a lot that’s appealing about not working, it turns out that I function better with a schedule, and the feeling that I’m contributing to my family’s coffers.  At least, contributing more than canned tomatoes and blanched, frozen kale. It felt good to grow most of our produce that first year, and again this year. Really good.  But it didn’t feel like enough.

During that first autumn, I struggled with what the “food thing” might be.  Then one night, friends were here for dinner.  One of them said, “Hey! I have an idea! Why don’t you cook for us?” I laughed, then said yes.

The idea for a personal chef business took root in my gray matter that night, and it worried around in there until I began tentatively saying to people, “I’m starting a personal chef business.  If you know anyone…”

Lo and behold, people DID know people that might want to use a personal chef, and two friends recommended me to two families that I wound up working with this past summer.   Then one of those friends asked if I might want to help her with a large order of the (wonderful) energy bars that she makes, (‘Dak bar plug! If you see them, buy them.  They’re great!) and a few months later, she asked if I might want to help with a catered dinner. Yes, and yes again.

All of this saying yes helped me understand what I do and do not want to do as a personal chef.  Once I knew that, it was time to start a business.

Gulp!  Me, start a business?  I don’t have a business degree, or management experience, or any of a million other excuses that I used to slow myself down. What did I know about starting a business? Not much, but neighbors and friends did, so I asked a million questions.

Which brings us here.

I’ve started a business: My Garden, Your Table: A Personal Chef Service.  It’s official. I have a Certificate of Authority that says I can collect sales tax for the State of New York (lucky me).  I have business insurance.  I have a business certificate from the county. I have business cards.  And because I am still addicted to school supplies, I have pens with my business name and number on them.

I have a family that did a two week trial run of my services, and just tonight, committed to six months of me cooking for them–once a week, a meal to eat the day I make it, and another for later in the week. They said they have two other families that are also interested in the service.

Holy shit.  I started a business.

It all started with, “Yes.”

Review of Local Contractors–Willsboro, New York and surrounding areas

When my husband and I bought our house, we knew no one in the community. The house was old and in major disrepair, which meant we needed to find contractors who could help us with the things we couldn’t do ourselves (most of it…). Not knowing anyone made this a challenging process, especially since there weren’t many reviews we could find. While Angie’s List and the Better Business Bureau are options, I: a) don’t believe you should have to pay for information about a business’s work, and b) don’t believe an organization that makes money from the businesses it has information on is going to always be objective.

Because finding information has been a challenge, we’ve had some hit-and-miss experiences. Some were simply frustrating, but others left us with dangerous results that had to be redone. And working with some of the businesses has been an utter delight.

The reviews here are based solely on my dealings with the businesses, and are alphabetical by business name. As we use more of them, I’ll update the information. The beginning of the review will have mostly factual information, and I’ll put my opinions at the end. My hope is that this might help people who use the Internet to search for information make decisions about businesses they are considering hiring.

Belzile, Gilbert (Electrician)

Work performed: troubleshoot power issues with two overhead lights and a double-outlet box in the kitchen; run new wire for one of the lights and the outlets

Ability to reach by phone and/or internet: does not often pick up–has happened once in seven phone calls, returned my phone call once out of six messages; does not seem to have an internet presence
Cleanliness: swept up and disposed of debris
Cost: $35.00/hour plus the cost of materials
Demeanor: polite, willing to explain what he was doing and answer questions, good with the dogs (we have two; it matters to us)
Timeliness: arrived 15 minutes to half an hour late for all three appointments
Work: When he left after performing the work on 9/21/15, both overhead lights and the outlets worked. He had to run new wires to the circuit box in the basement, and move the outlet box about 18 inches to the left of where it had been. I told him we would repair the channel left in the drywall and the hole where the former box had been. We then went out of town for a week, and upon return had a guest. On Sunday, 10/4/15, the guest (my dad) moved a chair in the library behind and to the left of the kitchen (if you ran a straight line without the interference of the dividing walls, it would be about two feet to the left and three feet below the new outlet box) and found a foot-long length of exposed electrical wire coming out of the drywall and going into a hole drilled into our finished wood floor. From the debris left around the top of the hole and the splinters in the bottom of the hole, it was determined that the hole was drilled from the first floor into the basement. Disregarding the ragged hole in the drywall and the hole in our wood floor, the exposed wire was not to code and could be dangerous, especially if one of our dogs had decided to chew on it.
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I called Mr. Belzile Monday morning and left a message; called again on Tuesday afternoon, and finally reached him mid-morning on Wednesday. He denied any knowledge of the exposed wire and said he would be at the house Thursday morning at 8. He arrived at 8:30 on 10/8/15, looked at the wire, and continued to state he had no idea he had done it, stating that he thought the wire had gone down between the walls. He apologized and commenced repairs, pulling and re-running the wire after cutting a new hole in the kitchen wall, about three feet below the new location of the double outlet. He began repair on this hole and the one in the library, and in addition began repairs on the channel and empty box area that we said we would fix. When he left around 11:00, he stated he’d be back in the afternoon to finish repairs. He did not return or call.
At 4:45 I called and left a message, and again at 5:15. In the second message, I stated that if he didn’t return my phone call, I’d assume he was returning first thing Friday morning, 10/9/15. There was no phone call, and he did not show up.
There are still all of the drywall repairs to be finished, the painting to be done, and the hole in the floor to be fixed.

My opinion: This has been an altogether unpleasant situation. While I appreciate the fact that he did the repair of the wire and the beginnings of the repairs on the drywall, this does not change the fact that Mr. Belzile lied about his knowledge of the wire, because the hole in the floor could only have been drilled while standing in the room it is in, unless he owns a drill that is about five feet long, with an adjustable 75-90 degree bend in it. He moved the chair to cover the damage after it was done, and I can only assume that he would have been perfectly happy to have left an exposed electrical wire hanging out of the wall for as long as it took to discover it. Fortunately, the humans discovered it before curious dogs did. Bottom line, I would not hire him again, and would recommend to anyone asking that they not do so.

Carriage House Landscaping Service (Landscaping and Hardscaping)

Work performed: spring 2013–enlarged the garden; spring 2015–installed a stone patio and supplied compost for the garden

Ability to reach by phone and/or internet: easy, as is contact via email and on Facebook
Cleanliness: both jobs were left tidy, with minimal to no work required by me
Cost: by the job; provides a detailed written estimate and both times came in at the estimated cost
Demeanor: polite, willing to explain what is being done and answer questions, good with the dogs (we have two; it matters to us)
Timeliness: has always arrived on time for appointments
Work: Our first dealings with the Carriage House were for enlarging the vegetable garden; they added a 20’x40′ area, requiring removing the top soil down a foot, bringing in a bed of sand, and adding a mix of top soil and compost to the surface. This surface area was covered with garden fabric anchored down by earth staples. They were able to seamlessly add this to the existing garden.
The second job the Carriage House did for us was a stone patio in front of our sliding glass doors. The job took one and a half days and required hand-digging of the area because of the existing garden. They made sure that the patio was sloped so that water runs away from the house, and they followed the curves of the garden with minimal (unavoidable) damage to the plants around the edge.

My Opinion: I would (and will) hire the Carriage House for future jobs. Pat, the owner, is professional, friendly, and skilled at what he does, and so is his crew. I highly recommend them.

Woltner-Summit Contracting (general contractors, specializing in energy-efficiency)

Work performed: did a NYSERDA engergy audit for us, and performed work based upon the recommendations–insulated the attic with cellulose insulation to an average depth of 10″, reduced air infiltration by sealing areas between the conditioned living space and the attic and basement, repaired wind-damaged soffit area

Ability to reach by phone and/or internet: cell phone is best, though messages left on the office line are returned; email works–calls and emails usually returned with 48-72 hours
Cleanliness: work areas swept and debris disposed of
Cost: by the job; provides a detailed written estimate and came in at estimated cost
Demeanor: matter-of-fact but polite, willing to explain what is being done and answer questions, good with the dogs (we have two; it matters to us); has a dry sense of humor that took me a bit to get, but which I came to enjoy
Timeliness: has always arrived on time for appointments
Work: The initial energy audit was thorough, and Ed let me ask him a million questions. He wanted me to understand what he was doing.
The work was done by his crew. Ed stopped by each day. The first NYSERDA-driven estimate included additional work in the basement, but Ed was reluctant to do this because we had a wet spring and early summer, which meant our basement was incredibly damp. He didn’t want to seal that moisture in, possibly leading to rot in the wood. A field-change was made to the estimate, removing that phase of the work.

My Opinion: Ed and his crew (who were polite, efficient, and as unobtrusive as possible) are knowledgeable about the work they’re doing and up-to-date with energy-efficiency developments. They monitored-and-adjusted based on what the house was telling them, rather than simply going ahead with the work. I would use them again, and highly recommend them.