Preparing for Spring

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February has settled in, and in the last few days brought with it breathtakingly cold weather.  When I got up this morning, the thermometer hung at 5 degrees F.  The bunnies took up residence last night in a rectangular bin in the dining room, because we had officially landed in rabbit hypothermia weather, and being responsible for our pets becoming rabbit popsicles is not part of my life plan at the moment.

Cold of this depth brings stillness.  No one other than the birds are out right now.  Keeping the feeders full is something that is going to have to wait another hour, but feeding the birds is part of our winter responsibilities too.  Plus it is wonderful to watch birds I hadn’t seen since my grandmother’s time, like goldfinches and bluebirds, make an appearance.  But the lack of humans and cars, and ambient noise of anything other than Mother Nature’s creatures is such a gift.  Even where we are, in a sleepy town on a quiet road, this kind of silence is rare.

Lately I’ve been so deep in family life and work I haven’t stopped to take a look around much, but this morning, as I look out the picture window I remember what a magical place I’ve come to.  Just a house, to be sure, but not just a house either.  Sanctuary, for birds, wildlife, and us.  When we arrived here, I had no sense of how it would all work out, just that we belonged here, that I belonged here.  It was like holding my nose while I stepped off a cliff, with not much but faith in….myself?  The universe?, and the knowledge I could never uproot my kids again and so had to make it work to sustain me.

And oh boy we have made it work.  I haven’t achieved all the goals by a long shot – I still have no idea how we’ll pay off the house before Connor goes to college.  I’ve improved on our local food, but have by no means cut the cord from the grocery store. We definitely managed a significant amount more food preservation last summer than I had in previous years, but can we live on it?  Nope.   We’ve managed to build out plans for the much-needed renovation for this place over the last 18 months, but still haven’t figured out that one either.  Still, we plan to break ground next spring, gulp.  The house needs to be more airtight, we have to deal with water issues, and with 2 of us working at home, we need better spaces to handle it.  I also could use a closet bigger than a shoebox.

But we have done so much, and we’re not just making it work, we are thriving.

Which is why last night, as the 4 of us sat down to a roast chicken dinner, complemented by our locally-retrieved sweet potatoes, onions and potatoes to have a Mario Kart competition (the kids absolutely trounced the adults) I took a minute to reflect on where we are.   Like seeds with enough water and light, we took root here, first the kids and I, and then Eli.  And while some of it is just that humans have a great capacity to get on with things, some of it is that this place tended to us, as we do to it.

Despite the cold, spring is starting to show it’s imminent arrival.  Connor and I potted seeds for Sweet Peas, taking inspiration from My Country Life, as well as Hollyhocks and lettuce last week, and the first of the lettuce seeds are already poking up.  We’ll start more in a couple weeks, as our last frost date isn’t until the beginning of May here.  The chickens are still laying, but less these days.  Still, we have plenty of eggs for cooking and eating, and lots to give away as well.

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Lettuce Seeds

I have a lot of seeds this year.  My plans are to complete the garden with Eli, finally!  And to finish turning the front of the house into an herb garden.  The kids want garden space too, and I’ve gotten a lot of flower to put in the front of the house, an oft-neglected spot.  After weeks of relaxing weekends, I feel ready.  While there’s still a long stretch of soups and curries, and cozy nights in front of the fire ahead, and putting the winter running gear away is a long time off, I’m getting excited about planting and harvesting again.

Spring preparations start slow, but pick up speed as we move into March.  It may be a little ways off, but soon enough the windows will be open and the flowers blooming.

 

 

Winter Daydreams

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Sithean’s landscape turns to frosted magic when the snow falls, as it did this weekend, before turning back to January levels of bitter cold again.  Our weekends have been unplanned and relaxed lately, and while we interrupted our spending freeze to go to the movies yesterday, it’s been mostly pleasant to be at home with little calling our attention other than the day to day chores around the house.

Sunday morning, after a great evening with an old friend and her daughter, complete with chicken parmesan and ice cream sandwiches made with Karen’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, I woke up to about 5 inches of snow on the ground and no where in particular to be.  I fed the bunnies, curled up on the couch, and enjoyed the lingering warmth from the last night’s fire in the wood stove.

Today is busier – the roads are clear enough for me to run, and I head to the airport in the afternoon.  But since it’s a holiday, it’s a quiet morning here, with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs for everyone and no particularly pressing needs to be met.   That doesn’t mean there aren’t a million things we could be doing – house projects, decluttering, but January is also the time to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.  I’m a huge goal-setter, and I mostly measure a good day by how much I have accomplished, but there’s a very great deal to be said for just sitting and thinking.

As I watch the bird feeder out the living room window and think about nothing in particular, it’s a great reminder that my life is particularly blessed.  I live in a place that takes my breath away.  I have a wonderful family, great friends and health.  Gratitude, something I practice actively, comes easily when the world is still and peaceful.

Still, my mind wanders to spring.  Will the bulbs Eli and I planted come up around the Seckel Pear?  Will the baby fruit trees survive the winter?  Should I try for 2 plantings in the garden this year, even though I only managed on last year?  I want to do more companion planting as well, and work on truly turning the front garden into a sea of herbs.  A plan is required, as it always is, and it’s never something that I come to quickly.

As I get older, I appreciate winter more.  I’ve come to realize the point of January is daydreams, sleeping in, plans, sitting with one’s thoughts.  Spring will arrive, as it always does, with a frenzy of planting and work, and I’ll be lost in it.   But for a few fleeting weeks, there’s a breath in the business of life, and while I may never enjoy being cold, I have learned gratitude for this necessary point in the year that reminds me that respite and rest are just as much a part of humanity as accomplishing things.

‘Use What You Have’ Eating

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I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.

We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up.  I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend.   That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time.  We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed.  We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time.  We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.

I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation).  Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual.  All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few  staples.

Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month.  We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year.   And gets used, I might add.  At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps.  The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.

We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up.  We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner.  So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.

Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips.  Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month.  It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.

Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft.  Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese.  Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine.     I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.

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And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying.  I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.

When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely.  For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly.   Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days.  I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel.  Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.

I have mushrooms  that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.

Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas.  I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great.  But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived.   I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good.  Surprisingly good.

Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own.  But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.

But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.

 

 

 

 

 

New Year Spending Freeze

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2019 took it’s last bow, while we ate a combination of takeout and homemade Asian food and finally got a chance to put on our matching family penguin pajamas.

2020 came in with a gorgeous orangy-pink sunrise.

Today is for sleeping in, removing the last of the Christmas decor, and our most important New Year’s Day task, setting our goals as a family for 2020.  Those penguin pajamas that I’ll spare everyone a picture of?  They were on 2019’s list, the kids having determined that we needed to have a set of matching ones. Other key goals were ‘have a family picture done’, the wedding, and Connor’s perfect addition of ‘share our love’.

Every year we make a list, and every year we try to get to all the things.  This is an acheivable list – not ‘Mom becomes and Olympian’ but things like ‘more family dinners’, ‘do something new on vacation’.  Our first year at Sithean the list included meeting our neighbors, which we’ve done rather successfully.

In addition to the fact that I intend to mostly live on broth and salad for a week or so, to offset the heavy foods the holidays brought with them – I enjoyed them all, but I need something lighter for a while, today kicks off a major initiative for us – a Spending Freeze.  From now through April 15, we’re only buying groceries and things we absolutely need.

So what is a spending freeze?  It’s not a financial diet (diets fail), it’s merely a course correction.  We have all the things we need and many things we don’t.  We have a lot of big, big goals coming up in the next couple years.  We’ve accumulated some debt, which I hate.  Our pantry and freezer are completely stocked.   And over the 3 years we’ve been here at Sithean, clutter has crept in.

It’s time to clean out, not add more.  Ending mindless spending is one way to do that.

For 4 1/2 months, we’ll focus on the things we need, such as food, and make lists of the things we might want.  Since we won’t be buying stuff, we’ll have time to really consider if we want it.  Every purchase needs to be weighed against questions – do we need it?  Can we get it without spending?  Can it wait?

But surely there are things that will come up?  There are. 

K’s 11th birthday will be an exception, although her big gift is already purchased.  I have a little cash set aside for things like book fairs for the kids, and Easter is in there too.  Car and house maintenance that must be done, will.  I ordered our garden seeds early, along with some much-needed tomato cages, and pre-ordered 2020’s fruit trees, because those are time-sensitive items.  I can’t start seeds in mid-April and have a successful garden.  

But for the rest, it’s going to require creativity.  For Eli’s birthday in early April, it means I need to create or find for free a gift, a challenge that I need to start thinking about now.  It means I’m not planting Cranberry bushes until 2021, because those didn’t make the priority list.

If Eli and I find we really need a meal out, we have a couple gift cards we can use, but otherwise it’s home for us for a while.  Which is great – we love to cook, we have lots of food to use up, and honestly if we get tired, there’s nothing wrong with the occasional bowl of Cheerios for dinner.

The key here is not to feel deprived.  We are doing this so we can have other things, not giving spending up because it’s what we ‘should’ do.  This is the path to way more opportunity in the future, not a diminishing of our present.

Happy Frugal New Year to all of you!

 

 

 

Holiday Traditions

 

IMG-2067The bitter cold that had followed repeated snowfall and settled over New England for a week or so finally broke here yesterday, just in time for Christmas.

At nearly 40 degrees yesterday, it felt positively balmy as I was out shopping with my Mom, getting us stocked on groceries for the holiday and after.

With just a couple days left, it’s finally feeling like I might be ready for this holiday.  My shopping is done, the packages and (most of) the cards are mailed, and while I’m still wrapping gifts, it’s getting there.  I have one more day of work and then I’m on vacation through New Year’s, which I’m so ready for.

Christmas dinner is at my house this year.  My former husband and I divide the day – someone gets morning, the kids waking up, and a leisurely breakfast, and someone gets the afternoon, Christmas dinner and a lazy December 26th. I like both, and I miss the kids for whatever part I don’t have, but I’m also at peace, knowing that they get a great day without either parent missing out on everything.  Technically it was my year to have the morning,  but seeing as my ex-husband just settled into his new house and is building traditions there, it seemed like the best thing.  Traditions are great, everyone should have some, and none should be so set in stone that you can’t flex for changing situations.

Dinner this year is turkey, one of my more favorite winter dishes.  I try to roast at least one a year.  Making a big meal while trying to pull off Christmas magic can mean one person spends most of their day in the kitchen, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to hone what can be done in advance.  And the answer is that a lot can be done.  My four-cheese mashed potatoes will be made tomorrow and refridgerated overnight, to be baked just before eating.  Sausage for the stuffing can be cooked tonight and left in the fridge to chill.  Vegetables can be chopped and prepped the night before, as the turkey brines.  Even stuffing bread can be cubed and bagged.  And then there’s the benefit of keeping things simple – this year, just a very nice cheese board, with lots of little snacks such as marinated cippolini onions and mushrooms, olives, and feta spread, will precede dinner.  Pretty, and easy to make, a cheese board is just the thing for a busy day.

But the simplest thing to prepare and serve, popular with even the kids, is my sister Sharon’s Cranberry-Raspberry sauce.  This is our family variation of the traditional jellied stuff, and let me just say – it blows the doors off it.  Not only is it beautiful, easy to make and delicious, the leftovers can be swirled into scones, muffins or quick breads, or used as a spread on toast instead of jam.  I’ve never tried it as a cake filling between layers, but I’ve been mulling it over.  In short, this is not a sauce that will sit and moulder in the back of the fridge, until it finally gets deposited in the trash (or in our case, the chicken coop) once it becomes a science experiment, complete with green fuzz.

You’ll want to eat this stuff, trust me.

And it couldn’t be easier.

You will need:

2 16-ounce bags of fresh cranberries
1 16 ounce package of fresh raspberries or the same amount frozen
2 ounces of water
Sprinkling of sugar
1/3 cup raspberry liqueur, such as Chambord

You put it in a pot.  You boil it for a while on low heat until the raspberries break apart and the cranberries are soft.

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Let it cool, give a whir with an immersion blender, and pop it in the fridge.  You can skip the sugar if you want, but I don’t recommend skipping the liqueur – it’s what gives it the depth of flavor, and the alcohol will cook off.  If it’s a little sweet, a dollop of lemon juice will help.

May you have a low stress and delicious holiday!

 

Holiday Mindfulness

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

 

It’s 5 days until Christmas, and between work, life and holiday preparations, it’s a little chaotic around here.  With packages and holiday cards left to mail, and not yet even started on my wrapping, it’s easy to get lost in the list of to-dos. All that work on the Salsa Verde turned into gifts, with gorgeous tags made by my artist husband.  My spiced nuts are packaged up into gift bags and being delivered along with the salsa and cookies.

Modern life is so busy.   Not only are our houses supposed to be decorator-perfect but we’re always supposed to be doing something fun.  Creative.  Interesting.  Instagram-worthy.  It’s not enough to do enough – the pressure to do more and more is overpowering.  Yesterday after Connor’s first-grade concert, then it was class party.  We have Elves on our shelves, Advent calendars to fill, and even the kids at my daughter’s riding class were giving out gifts.  “I was supposed to do that?” I wondered, not for the first time, as I rushed out after to buy a last-minute gift for my daughter’s teacher.  

No wonder we’re all so tired.

Which means that this is the moment for some mindfulness.

We’ll do more baking this weekend, but it’s also going to be fun – Eli and Connor have an outing planned this weekend, while Kiera and I go into Boston with her close friend and the friend’s mom for a day of exploring.  We have a very special house guest coming to visit too – our former intern resident from last summer, H, is returning to us for a night.  We’ve missed her.

So it was time to remember that somehow, some way, the holidays always come together, and I know it will this time too. I don’t have to do everything perfectly, and if yet again I don’t get to making homemade truffles, it’s ok.  There’s always next year.  I have to remember that teaching my kids that holidays are a time of rushing and stress is not the message I want to send.

Instead, I want to send the message that yes, we put effort into things that make us proud to give, but what’s really important is what we give to one another.  There will be busy nights between now and Christmas, but ultimately it’s more important that Connor gets to wrap the gifts we’re sending to Auntie Liz and Uncle Joe over general perfection.  If dinner is ham and cheese and Cheerios occasionally, it’s hardly the end of the world.  If the Christmas cards arrive at some houses on the 26th, we’re not exactly committing a cardinal sin.

So this morning, after making sure the bunnies had food and water and were making it through the cold, I tossed in some laundry, put on the coffee and just..sat.  Looking at our tree.  Collecting my thoughts.

Breathing.

It’s ok to put it down sometimes.  No, it’s more than ok.  It’s necessary.  If your friends come over and there’s clutter in the corner, whatever.  Did you feed them?  Do they love you?  Is their presence more important than whether you did everything perfectly?

Today, here’s what I’m going to do.  I’m going to go get my hair done, I’m going to work, I’m going to make something easy for dinner, and we’re going to sit and watch a movie.  Maybe we’ll make some sugar cookies, maybe not.

We are here, warm and safe, surrounded by love.  We have enough, and some left over to give to those less fortunate than us.  Are the tree lights perfectly spaced?  No.  Am I going to get everything done?  Nope.

Will I do the things that really count?  Yes.  Yes I will.  So will Eli, as he always does.  This year, our first year as a family, I don’t just want to celebrate what we’ve done, but also who we are.  We’ve accomplished a lot, sure.  But none of it matters if we’re harried and snapping at one another.

So sit.  Breathe.  Look at the lights.

Remember you do enough.  You’ve bought enough, baked enough, cared enough.

You are enough.

 

 

Holiday Spiced Nuts

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I finished the last of my work travel for the year, getting home late on Thursday evening, just as the kids were getting ready to head off to NYC with their dad and his parents, celebrating not just Christmas but his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary.  While the kids were having fun watching the Rockettes and checking out everything the Big Apple has to offer, Eli and I headed into Boston for a night, to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, then dinner in the North End and a little holiday shopping.

IMG-1978We got home this afternoon after a stop at the grocery store, and I got into serious nesting mode – we’re 10 days to Christmas, and we still have a lot to do.  Other than a few bottles of wine to give away, we’re basically done with all but the baking of things and mailing of a few packages and well, all the Christmas cards.  Just a little behind.

Since those packages have to be mailed out ASAP, and I always want to include some of my homemade treats,  I set out to make my Spiced Nuts, which are a great addition to boxes of cookies and fairly addictive.  I took the original recipe from a book called Food For Friends by Sally Pasley Vargas, which, if you like to give food gifts, is worth ever cent of the $4.35 that Amazon is currently selling it for and then some.  I tweaked the recipe to combine it with a recipe my Great Aunt Sally used to make, and I think the edits I have made turned both very good recipes into even an even better one.

I’m a huge fan of giving cookies and homemade things as gifts, but I tend to like things that are savory more than sweet myself, so most gifts of sweets get eaten by the other people in my life.   These nuts are a the best combination of salty, sweet and spicy, perfect for a cheese board, in a basket of goodies, or for a hostess served with a bottle of wine.  Ideal for cold January nights in front of a fire too.

Most of all, while a little time intensive, they are absurdly easy, with 2 caveats: Don’t stray far from the kitchen when cooking – nuts go from browned and yummy to burned very quickly.   These are great to make when you are already in the kitchen preparing dinner. And prepare the walnuts separately from the almonds and pecans – they burn easier.

You will need:

2 Cups Pecans
2 Cups Almonds
4 Cups Walnuts
3 Cups Sugar
1 1/2 Cup Water
4 tsp Vanilla Extract
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil (don’t substitute olive oil here)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of cayenne (if you aren’t going to have small people eat them – if they might, skip this)
2 large foil-covered baking sheets

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Mix together the cinnamon, salt and pepper in a small container.  Set aside.
Combine the sugar and the water and turn on low heat.  Add the first 4 cups of nuts and bring to a low boil for 5 minutes.

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Remove the nuts with a slotted spoon and spread out on the first baking sheet in a single layer.

Bake for approximately 25 minutes, watching to ensure that the nuts brown but do not burn
Repeat for the walnuts, using the same sugar water.
Remove the baked nuts from the oven and move into a heap on the foil.
Sprinkle each pile of nuts with 2 tsp vanilla, then oil, then half of the spice mixture, stirring to coat.

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Spread the nuts back into a single layer and return to the oven for approximately 10 minutes, watching closely.

Remove from the oven and let cool.  Combine the nuts into a container.  Use within 10-14 days.