Summer of Nothing and Everything

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

August is already half over. At first, it was dry and hot – too dry. Now it’s cooled, but there’s still no rain. There’s hope of it this week, thankfully. We need a few days of drenching rain to offset the drought. I’m doing everything I can to keep the plants hydrated, but the earth is baking, and so are we.

And yet the world here is still lovely, and my breath catches at every sunset, despite the seemingly endless swelter.

The first few tomatoes have begun to ripen in the garden. And the kids have had a summer much like I had as a child. No camp. No schedule, with occasional exceptions. Just pool (if there’s no wedding next door the kids are allowed to use the estate pool), bike rides, Mario Kart competitions, and relaxing. I’ve let go of the kids missing out on camp or educational experiences, because that’s not what they want. They want unstructured time. Friends. Sleepovers. Late night tag in the yard, flickering with fireflies. They are happy and content and (mostly) well-rested.

And that’s what I want for them. It’s delightful to watch from my chair as I work. Childhood is short, and the ability to just be is a gift. Also, it’s cheaper than camp, although we do go through a lot of ice cream.

Sithean is up for sale. We don’t know exactly precisely how this is all going to work or even if we’re going to move – if the numbers don’t work it’s moot – but we’ve acknowledged that something has to give. We need space, to simplify our stressors and to be truly settled. I’m grieving at the idea of leaving this magical place, but I also know when we are stretched so tight with all the things that must be done that we may snap – and we are – that it’s time to change the paradigm.

We can’t renovate and adopt and re-launch Eli’s career and maintain my own and eat dinner together and garden and and and….

So we’re capitulating. It’s in the universe’s hands right now. We do not have anywhere else to live planned yet, but we know we are staying in our town. My feelings are all over the place because this is home, but at some point the must-do list became too long and the weekends of picking sinks and fixtures got old just as it started. In another life, another me with fewer demands on time could do it.

Just not this me, in the here and now.

Our Farm Share (CSA) and the garden are both producing. I’ve made several batches of pesto already, and I have the zucchini teed up for fritters. A first pile of Tomatillos will become Salsa Verde later in the week. We are full of vegetable and fruit abundance.

So what happens if I no longer have a little house on my little enchanted hill? I don’t know – so much of my identity is wrapped up in this house and this place I’ve somewhat forgotten what it’s like not to be grounded to a piece of earth all the way to my bones. When I came up the driveway the first time and saw this place, with asparagus plants, past their producing time but looking like Charlie Brown Christmas trees, waving in the trench bed, I felt a sense of home. This house wanted us here, it wanted the love and chaos and cherishing. Homes have energy, and this one was ours. So what now? Do I become big-old-rambling-house-down-a-long-driveway person? Big Ol’ House on the Whatever Hill (in Topsfield that you can expect to live on a hill is a safe bet, an almost inevitable likelihood)?

I don’t know. It’s weird, to be honest, like I’m walking down a long hall with no real destination. But here’s what I do know. I know that at some point the to-do list, rather than the enjoyment of our place, took over. I know that we must live for the life we have now rather than the life perhaps I envisioned when I drove up that driveway.

There’s more of us now, and more will arrive. I know that Sithean is okay with it – a sense that we’ll miss each other but we did our job, providing safety and grounding, and an opportunity for love to creep back in. Maybe we don’t need the sanctuary from upheaval that this place enveloped us in quite the same anymore.

So we’ll find new magic, and let this place wrap a new family in it’s warmth. As for us? New magic will find us. That I know.

The Cheap Girl’s Guide to Inflation Eating

Water lilies on the Ipswich River

It’s hot. Really, really hot. As July draws to a close (how did that happen already!?) we are lucky to be at the cooler end of the heat dome that has covered a huge chunk of the US over the last week, but it’s still 98 degrees here today. And we are in extreme drought conditions, so I’m working hard to keep the plants and animals alive. It’s supposed to rain some tomorrow, and I’m grateful just thinking abut it.

Our CSA is in full swing, and we are working to keep up with using the produce. I’ve got my first batch of basil pesto in the freezer, and more to come soon. It’s almost time for me to make zucchini fritters in bulk to freeze, and shred and freeze zucchini for winter meals. I picked the first cherry tomato out of the garden, too, and that will all ripen soon enough. It looks like we may have a banner year for squash again.

Our summer has been busy and the gardens became a weedfest while we were off doing our things, so I’ve been getting up early to try to clean things out and get the last of the compost spread.

Over the last couple months we’ve pared down what we buy at the grocery store and are really trying to use up what we have. Inflation is impacting us for real.

I admit it, I’m not the world’s most frugal person, but I used to be, and I’m leaning in again, not just because of inflation, but because we’re almost 10 months into our 10-year plan to save, pay off debt and be ready for retirement. While we’ll still travel, something I value highly, and our renovation will be with an eye to the long haul, for the most part we’re just not spending on anything other than food and bills. (And this spring I bought pansies. Lots and lots of pansies because they are so pretty) .

Ok, well the kids both needed new shoes and clothes too. But I’d be lying if I said the state of the economy wasn’t on my mind, enough so that we’ve contemplated whether it might be more financially prudent to move than to renovate this house. I know, I know. Leave Sithean? I can’t even. But I also acknowledge that in order to fit us the dining room is now a master bedroom, and there’s no room to move and nowhere to put anything. The decision process is heavy on our minds.

My son raised money at his lemonade stand for games but also for charity, and he and I went over to my hometown outreach organization to bring them the $20 that he had set aside. Their food pantry demand continues to spike, especially with the cost of everything rising, so even a little bit helps. We are fortunate enough to be able to afford to eat healthy and delicious food, but we are being thoughtful and careful with what we spend.

So how are you going to keep eating well through all the economic uncertainty? Because you are. And so are we.

First, as I mentioned, I’m buying less. I try to run out of things before I replace them, and I’m trying to be conscious of what I can substitute. Today I made homemade macaroni salad (this recipe is so delicious) but I didn’t have sweet peppers so instead of what it called for I added celery, onion and chopped up cucumber. Was it as colorful as the picture in the original recipe? Nope, but it was still lick-the-fork good. We might still buy salmon, which somehow became cheaper than beef, but instead of frozen and in bulk we’re buying just enough for a meal.

Second, we’re using up the stuff in the freezer. I’m inventorying what we have before we shop all the time.

Third, we’re meal planning. Even if we sometimes veer off the plan, it’s always with an eye to using things up. As soon as the weather is cool enough to roast a couple of chickens I’m going to use one of Fed and Fit’s weekly meal plans to make several meals for the week, since our Walden Local Meat share has been delivering whole chickens regularly lately.

And we’re eating very well. Last week I marinated chicken in a mixture of shallots, garlic, oregano, paprika, salt, pepper and lemon juice and served that over pesto orzo (last summer’s homemade pesto from the freezer) with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil from the plants on the porch and burrata, which I had bought in a fit of hunger the prior week. I toasted some walnuts and threw them on top of the orzo and it was incredibly good.

For recipes: I am hooked on this blog and I can’t wait to try her lentil sausage skillet recipe – ThriftyFrugalMom
I also can’t recommend enough the recipes in the Good and Cheap cookbook, which is available as a pdf for free! It’s designed for someone who lives on SNAP benefits or $4/day for food.

For grocery shopping: Bulk is almost always a cheaper option if you can squeak it in. I found 4 lbs of steel cut oats for $10.82 on Amazon, and that will last for a lot of meals. I don’t make homemade oatmeal a lot, but it’s cheap, filling and good, so I’m going to start. Bulkfoods.com is a great source for lentils and other bulk grains but definitely shop around.

If you can, try ethnic grocery stores around you. I use a fair amount of Ghee in cooking, and the Indian grocery store is far more frugal. Same for bulk rice and lentils – I buy Basmati and Sushi rice in 10 or 15-lb bags and store them in mason jars. Even fruits and veggies can be much, much cheaper here. Especially if you buy in season.

I’m not going to wade into the meat vs. meatless perspective, but I will say that there are cheaper proteins than beef and chicken. And breakfast for dinner (my favorite pancake recipe is here and it makes quite a few) is almost always cheaper than other options.

Other than oatmeal, here’s a few things i suggest keeping on hand for easy, cheap meals:

Tortillas & Shredded cheese for quesadillas, burritos, etc
Dried beans (really easy, especially in the crock pot or instant pot)
Rice – filling and you can add spices and a few veggies to it for a really good meal
Lentils. These things are the best. Quick cooking, nutritious and tasty, and cheap, cheap, cheap. I guarantee you will find this Dal recipe addictive.
Flour and potatoes: making almost anything from scratch is cheaper, add a little cheese and make pierogies in giant batches – filling and super good.
Onions – I use them in everything, they are vitamin C and flavor powerhouses
Bananas – if you need a quick fill of your stomach these are amongst the cheapest of fruits. Banana bread is also cheap and delicious if they start to get brown.
Melons also go a long way. I can get a cantaloupe for $2.99 and it adds fruits for lunches for days
Pasta can be added to almost anything and even though prices are up, it’s still pretty cheap and a pound goes a long way. I don’t recommend all the carbs all the time but add some chopped onion and a drained can of solid white tuna to sauce (I’m serious) and it’s a great dinner.
Milk
Eggs
Bulk yeast – do not buy the little packets, get a pound at a time and bake! Well, when it’s cooler.

Of course spices are great and these too are way, way cheaper in bulk. If you can save up for a couple bulk spices each month you will fill your pantry.

The last thing I will suggest for saving money on your food is gratitude. Feeling grateful for a plate of food is something I never stop feeling, even if it’s not what I thought I wanted for dinner.

The moon over Moosehead Lake, Maine



Summer Eating

Roses on the garden gate – photo by Eli 5 Stone

Summer mornings, even the weekday ones, are my favorite time. The air is cool enough for a light blanket over my legs. Everyone else is asleep, and I can watch the sunrise through the living room windows while I sip coffee.

Taco the rooster starts crowing far too early, but even that is part of the ambiance here, although I do occasionally consider really how badly we need his company in the here and now, and come up fairly empty on what he’s useful for.

This year is flying by. Everyone I talk to agrees, and no one is exactly sure where the time is going. It’s crawling up on July. The garden is planted, the world is green, but won’t be for much longer – we desperately need for it to rain. School is out and there are two full, lovely months before we have to start gearing up for it again.

And we’ve been busy, with every weekend being filled with commitments. After 2 years of quiet weekends, I’m happy to see everyone and feeling quite overwhelmed, and wishing for time in my garden. Unstructured time is good for all of us.

But on a rainy Sunday last weekend, I was able to slow down. While it was, in fact, Father’s Day, my husband was in Los Angeles, my bestie, who had come to stay for a few days left early that morning and the kids were with their Dad. Other than the dog, who decided to nap through the morning, I was alone and not on a schedule for the first time in ages.

The rest of the country was experiencing a heatwave, but it was downright chilly in Massachusetts. I sat in bed under the blankets and contemplated all the things I could be doing, which included nothing. I sipped my tea and pondered more, occasionally getting up to do a small chore, such as laundry or dishes, then returning to my seat.

Even that time though, was productive, as Sundays are the days to make our meal plan. As we go into summer, time becomes more fungible, and meals more flexible, fresher and based on local ingredients. Our CSA is heading into week 4, and while the garden isn’t producing yet, it will be soon enough. This week I brought home the first zucchinis from the CSA, and cheerfully broke out my spiralizer. I don’t eat zucchini noodles because they are just healthy, I eat them because they are completely delicious, absorbing whatever flavors you add to a saucepan.

We have lettuce and bok choy and turnips galore right now, along with farm-fresh scallions, so my daughter made us homemade Ramen. All you need are noodles, broth, soy sauce and some seasonings, eggs and cut up veggies. It’s cheap, delicious and most of all, accessible, i.e. you don’t have to have a pantry full of fancy ingredients to make it. Slicing up scallions, cucumbers and carrots to go in keep it healthy and they are all affordable veggies.

I do have a pretty diverse pantry, but these days, with grocery prices skyrocketing, I’m focused on how to do it better, cheaper, and full-flavor, with a focus on using up what we have. We love Moroccan and Israeli pearl couscous, and I finally bought a 5-lb bag so that we can have it any time (for comparison,Whole Foods sells 12-ounce boxes for $3.19 each) and 0ver the next week we’ll add Moroccan Chicken and Couscous to our repertoire. The cost of it on Amazon has gone up to $23 but I think we paid $17. Bulk food purchases pay off in the short and long haul if you can store them. I regularly make Dal and my own Lentil Sausage Soup and a 5-lb bag of red lentils still lasts me quite a long time. 18-24 months maybe?

This week I bought some beef (ouch! So not cheap) so that I could marinate some Beef Bulgogi, and pop it in the freezer. Two pounds will feed us for dinner and a couple lunches at some point when no one feels like doing food prep. While it was a bit of a splurge it is very handy to have ready to thaw. And tomorrow we’re going to give Pesto Chicken Saltimbocca a try. I have lots of cherry tomatoes on hand from my last trip to BJs, and I bought some chicken cutlets.

But otherwise, we’ll eat the food we have. The raspberry bushes are starting to produce and we have some other fruits. It’s prime grill time and most of our meals will be focused around that. Hamburgers, grilled veggies, and simple sides, lots of no-recipe recipes. And occasionally just cereal for dinner too. Because it’s summer, and we can.

Simple Spring Meals

Thompson Falls, Gorham NH

And just like that, everything is green and in bloom. How I love spring!

Our return home from the much-needed respite of the mountains coincided with a few things, and not just driving up to see the tulips blooming. I love tulips, and can’t wait to plant more.

We’re less than a year until our renovation starts, so cleaning out and organizing things in earnest has to begin, and so does a cutback in our spending so that we can start to place deposits on our renovation. While we will have to finance some, our goal is to do as much in cash as possible. This is a very big renovation, and we want to be able to add a few splurges, like my new cookstove.

We also all need eye exams and the adults need new glasses, so we need to watch our spending all fronts. We have lots of fun trips planned this year, in the RV, and to bring the kids to NYC for a big surprise, so we’re going to do plenty of enjoying even as we get frugal.

This also means we need to cut back our spending on food and eat down what we have. Despite the rising food prices and temptation to stockpile, it’s time to empty our pantry and freezers. We want to be able to unplug them next summer when the house is under construction. I haven’t emptied a freezer since the pandemic started, and honestly it feels weird and uncomfortable to do it given all the food price uncertainty, but it needs to be done.

Of course, it also won’t hurt us to be buying fewer snacks and packaged food. The pandemic took that to new heights, and now it’s time to get back to more healthy basics. Eat healthy, spend less – what’s not to like?

I came home to some veggies that needed using up – while things that go bad can always go to the chickens or the compost, I don’t like wasting food, so I’m trying to be better about fruit and vegetable management.

Leeks and turnips in particular needed to be used, but the spring weather, and some really heavy vacation eating meant that I needed something lighter, so I stumbled upon, and proceeded to adapt, an old NY Times cooking recipe for soup. Vegetarian, vegan if you omit the parmesan, light but creamy and tasty, and a good use for cheap vegetables. I made mine for lunches this week, but it’s a great meatless Monday option as well. It’s a good winter soup, not that different in concept from a vichyssoise, but it was also wonderful the Saturday night of our return.

Turnip Leek Soup with Lemon & Parmesan

3 leeks, sliced in 1/2″ rings
2 large turnips, chopped into 1/2″ dice
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 c grated parmesan
2 tsp salt or to taste
1/2 tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons white wine or cooking wine
dash of cayenne
1/2 cup arborio or short grain rice
Chives and croutons for garnish

Slice the leeks and soak in cold water to remove grit
Peel and dice the turnip. (If you have chickens, they love the scraps)

In a large soup pot, saute the leeks in olive oil for 3-5 minutes, until they begin to soften. Add the diced turnip, and continue to saute for another 5 minutes. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute.

Add the bay leaves, stock, wine, rice, bay leaves, pepper and cayenne and simmer for approximately 30 minutes, until the turnip has softened and the rice is cooked through. Remove the bay leaves, and puree with an immersion blender or in batches in a blender or food processor. Return to the pot, add the lemon, parmesan and salt, and stir over heat for another minute.

Ladle into bowls, top with chives and croutons.


Another great and healthy meal prep food is this Lemon Cranberry Quinoa Salad that I had with hardboiled eggs after getting a couple miles in on the treadmill, which I can honestly say is one of the best investments I’ve made ever. It’s healthy, quick and delicious, and a hit in my house, even with my 13 year old daughter. I buy dried cranberries in bulk and put them in anything.

And then there’s one of the cheapest side dishes of all, Polenta, literally cornmeal, salt and water, with some Parmesan cheese and butter. Paired with Chicken Francese – it’s a bit of work but a really good meal – and any of the vegetables you might have around. But really, you could pair it with any protein or skip the protein and just saute some veggies on top.

Our meal plan this week:

Lunches: leftover soup, cranberry quinoa salad and leftover enchiladas

Sunday: Chicken Francese, polenta, roasted asparagus
Monday: Beef bulgogi (pre-prepped and in the freezer), rice, salad, naan
Tuesday: Parmesan crusted chicken, broccoli, popovers
Wednesday: Just Eli and I, cheese and crackers and fruit
Thursday: Eli cooks
Friday: Instant pot chicken gnocchi soup (personal rave for Skinny Spatula, everything she blogs about tastes amazing)
Saturday: MYO Pizza in the Ooni oven
Sunday: Picnic with cousins! Menu TBD

Happy Spring!


Farmlet Retreat

Twilight in Topsfield

At 3:46 pm a couple Friday nights ago, I decided to stop adulting.

The kids left for their Dad’s for the weekend. My husband was tired. Work had been relentless and my daughter had been sick most of the week. I had woken up with a headache.

So I cooked some frozen dumplings, put on pajama pants, and ignoring the sun and nearly 60 degree weather, climbed into bed under the blankets with a copy of a book I had previously read and loved, The Wilder Life, and decided that everything in the world could be dealt with – later.

I should have gone out to clean up the yard and weed. But I didn’t.

It felt glorious to just check out. And retreat into Laura World, which is what the author, Wendy McClure calls it. And yes, I know Laura Ingalls Wilder is complicated and there’s ugly parts of her books and opinions and perspectives, this is not lost on me. But when life gets too much, no matter my age, I find myself craving the simplicity of butter churns and cheese making, over 401k balancing and client issues. I don’t actually want to live a life where I sit on tree stumps for dining room chairs, but I do always feel a little wistful that I don’t want to be that person.

Most of all, I took the signs that my body and mind needed rest very seriously. I slept, I did some chores, ran, and went for a walk with my husband at twilight on a nearby trail. When Sunday arrived, I had a long list to cook, and some things to do before the kids came home, but I did just about all of it and then some. I went into Monday not fully restored, but better rested and with my batteries charged again.

When I returned to the world, so to speak, a transformation had taken place. Daffodils were in blooming, the apricot tree was starting to flower, and everything everywhere was green and in bud.

Daffodils in bloom on the front lawn – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

My seedlings are huge now and some are in need of transplanting. Eli and I are spending countless hours designing next year’s home remodel – from counters to paint to sinks and hardware, and everything in between – thousands of decisions to be made. I can’t wait to share how it will all look, as much art installation as house, in large part because of my amazing and talented husband.

The world continues to be unsteady around us, with the IPCC’s new climate report, war and famine in Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, the bent to autocracy here in the US – we walk a fine line between aware and engaged, and trying to maintain our shields against a constant barrage of bad news, with nearly no mention of all the good in the world. Worrying about the explosion of weeds and how to manage them, or what to have for dinner is a relief, in a way. I can’t apologize for needing to retreat to Laura World or my garden or kitchen. My mind and home and family need tending to, and while I can participate in making the world a better place, I can’t change the course of world events, or only a little, so I do what I can and try the best to preserve space for joy and flowers and love.

And after a long, cold, sad winter for us, there’s starting to be all those things. But the honest truth was that despite all the joys of spring, I was just teeth-grittingly, bone-wearingly tired. It wasn’t even one specific thing, although work had been unusually stressful and more busy than usual, and crossing the 6 month mark of our loss of my brother-in-law Billy is a gut punch even now. The loss of him, the loss for my sister and her daughters, and the idea that we’ve now entered a phase of life where losing people may become common is is a cord that runs through our days.

And even renovation planning is tiring – as we make renovation decisions that will both restore and improve Sithean, the sheer daunting volume of them overwhelms.

So when the kids schools broke for vacation, we vacated our life in the most literal sense, and drove to the mountains, Eli, I, the kids and their Dad, for a few nights of escape. We cooked meals in advance, packed all the snacks and games one could possibly want, sent Teddy the dog on vacation to his grandparents (and original owners) house, arranged for the chickens and bunny, for we had lost Clover in early March, leaving only Marshmallow to be fed by my neighbor Melissa, watered the seedlings heavily and got out of dodge at 9 am on a Wednesday.

Despite the Jenga-esque efforts of packing coolers, 3 seasons worth of clothing for the ever-changing mountain weather and all the aforementioned snack foods, we arrived in Jackson NH just past lunch time on a Wednesday and breathed relief into the rented house. We heated our chicken parmesan with some garlic bread, salad and pasta and then I went off to nap.

When I woke up Thursday (my nap didn’t last that long, we did manage to have an evening) I felt somewhat restored. I love to travel, but the feeling of ‘I have to get out of here right now so I can rest‘ has become recurring lately at Sithean. ‘When did I lose that sense of sanctuary at home’, I not-infrequently wondered, along with ‘and how do I get it back?’. Maybe it’s just going to be more going to be more transitory until we’ve renovated and moved back in, late next year. Maybe home is a project, not a sanctuary for now, and I just have to ride that out.

I miss that feeling of sanctuary though.

So it’s not surprising I needed to retreat into Laura World, even though it’s impossible to not see the grinding poverty and endless tragedies she endured as an adult. But maybe that makes it all the better – she went through all that and could still see the magic, and create her own Laura World. And maybe that’s the lesson – even when grasshoppers eat your crops and your house burns and you literally lose your farm, if you can still see the magic and the beauty in the world, you can create some for yourself.

Maybe that’s enough.

So I rested and was ready to come home to the sunshine and the flowers and my garden.

Springtime Grace

Moonlit Spring Night

All of a sudden, the bitter cold transitioned to something resembling tolerable, and we even had a day over 70 – concerning if you think about climate change, deliriously wonderful after 4 months of shivering – to cap it off.

Seed starting is in full swing, and so is planning for our renovation next year, with an infinity of decisions to be made, we’re starting now to reduce our stress later, and get a better grip on our budget.

But mostly we are focused on spring. The first of the seedlings have started to come up, which gives me a sense of hope, and the yard is slowly starting to turn green. I don’t have to travel for work again for a while either, which is nice. After 2 trips in 3 weeks, which was immediately followed by the annual butt-kicking that is Daylight Savings Time, I can rest and enjoy being home before the hectic spring yard work really kicks in.


Seed Starting is the Best Kind of Magic

There’s a bit to do now, as it’s time to mow down the trench bed, and Eli is removing debris, including a huge branch that took out some of our old lilac bushes after a recent wind storm. The lilacs were going to have to go in service to renovation anyway, so maybe in the end that will turn out to be a gift, Mother Nature taking them down for us so I don’t have the heartbreak of watching them dug up.

Next year, it’s unlikely we’ll have a garden, and even this year I’m shying away from planting trees or perennials, other than a commitment to start working on turning at least some of the front yard into a wildflower garden in front for my son and a few varieties of poppies, which I’ve been meaning to add for years.

We begin to use the last of the winter vegetables. A few remaining onions from our 50-lb sack, the last few of the half bushel of sweet potatoes, one of the last 2 spaghetti squashes. Once spring warmth comes they will not last any longer. We’re also walking the line between keeping stocked, with food prices soaring, and eating down our pantry and freezer space. As we eat through the last of the pesto and kale from last fall, we won’t be filling that space up again until after our big renovation. I have mixed feelings about that, as I view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, but it is the most sensible approach for us.

As we pass the 5-month mark of loss, the gut punches of memory are less frequent, but no less powerful.

Which is why my thoughts return to my 2022 mantra, Go Easy, and the idea of grace for myself and for so many others. The pandemic, climate change and Russian war-making, and the return of famine to the news have left me worried, angry, sad, stressed. Inflation is real, and has seen our gas, food and energy costs spike. We’re anxious about the costs of our renovation, even while acknowledging that the time has come for it. We’re grateful for warmer days, even while recognizing that perhaps it just shouldn’t be this warm in March.

But we are blessed with family, friends and a safe home, and my endless gratitude for it all. I’m grateful for the grace of today, and right now, that’s enough.

Vacationing in the Suck Palace (and Maybe How to Check Out of It)

The Moon On October 20th of Last Year

Warning: This isn’t my usual kind of post. There’s no recipes, for one. There’s a pretty picture, but a sad one.

Sometimes bad things happen to perfectly good people and families. The call in the night. The diagnosis. The accident. And a terrible, horrible no good very bad moment turns into a very long and crummy time.

I’ve done it a bit in my my life, and I call it Taking a Trip to the Suck Palace. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s like that book We’re Going on A Bear Hunt. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you can’t go around it, you have to go through it. Whatever the it is, there’s no way other than to acknowledge that for a while it might just be kind of, well, shitty.

For us, it’s been 3 extended family deaths in 4 months and a lot of other crises in between, the kind of run of things where you start making dark jokes with others about how you might be able to open your own morgue and call it Dying to See You. But whatever your ‘it‘ is, sometimes life is kind of hard and sad and difficult, and you have to go to the Suck Palace.

Maui it isn’t. I visualize it as a depressing motel room that needed to be renovated about 30 years ago with grimy 70s orange carpet and a window that looks out onto the dumpster.

Your job now is to be in that room.

And you have to visit it while you are also simultaneously doing your regular life. Meals need to be made. Laundry done, work attended to, bills paid.

I woke up this morning in a good mental space despite it all, knowing that this too, shall pass, even as I was choosing what to wear for a drive to yet another memorial service, this time for an Uncle I adored, who lost a 2 year agonizing battle with cancer. It was no life for him at the end, but his going leaves yet another empty seat that can’t be filled. No one again is going to show my children how to find hermit crabs on the beach in Cape Cod, or help my daughter find so many shells I have to take off my shoe to hold them all.

Even though at night when I step outside, I look at a certain point in the sky, where we noticed an ultra-cool moon at about 9:20 pm on October 20th, 2021, not then knowing an hour later we would get the call that changed all the things, I still know that even if it will never feel ok to lose my people, I will be ok. We will be ok.

But I also remember what it’s like not to know that.

To not know that grief, which is truly physical as well as emotional – it really hurts – will become less of a pile of bricks, less pain. It doesn’t go away, and if you are in the first of the concentric circles of loved ones around someone, their spouse or their children, it’s different than it is if you are in a different concentric ring, a little further away. It’s still awful, it’s just different.

Visits to the Suck Palace last longer than anyone wants to hear about, and even the most patient friends just wish maybe you could just get over it and move on? Gently and politely they push you to talk about something, anything else, and talk about getting your mind off. You know, like even a liquid lunch isn’t likely to make you forget unless you drink to the point where you probably need to get some help for it. I don’t suggest that, as it creates it’s own crisis, although a few well-placed margaritas here and there can help some, if that’s your jam.

In the end, your visit to the Suck Palace will last as long as it lasts, and the more I talk about our losses the more I hear from others who lost multiple family members in a year or less – it’s more common than you think, as are the secondary challenges as you watch grief in action. I have a new boss, and I wasn’t sure how he would react to yet another impact – but instead of frustration, he told me about his year of it, when there were so many deaths so close together he and his siblings had to juggle who could make it to what funeral.

His kindness was everything, as are the random texts from friends just checking in. It really is the little things.

If you are in an outer ring, you send support inward, and any other feelings outward even when that’s hard to do. Finding a physical way to support, such as meals or notes or texts or visits or flowers is a good place to put that energy, even if you don’t get much back in the beginning, consider it an investment in being kind without expectations in return.

Gratitude helps, sleep helps, connection helps more, and giving yourself all the grace in the world. These days my exercise routines are shot between weather and just nonstop demands on my time, so I’m getting a treadmill to help squeeze in the workouts, but I’m also cutting myself a whole bunch of slack.

Hug your people, tell them you love them, plant some flowers, make donations, go for walks, bake…there’s no one right way to do this. And one day you’ll open the door and step out onto the beach and remember how to find a hermit crab in the sand.

And you will smile because it happened and that person’s gifts are still here. Even if through tears.

Meal Plan and Batch Cook Your Way Through Anything

There is always something lovely to see on my walks

The weather continues to be challenging – first a giant, but rather pleasant snowstorm, then rain, then sleet and snow followed by another drop in temperature. Saturday afternoon was warm enough for us to bundle up in snow gear and take Teddy for a walk on nearby Greenbelt land. Sunday morning I woke up to 5 degree temperatures, with the bunnies having to take up residence in the basement for the 3rd time in a month. If it stays above 10 degrees, their hutch & run, which is covered in a tarp most of the winter, plus their winter coats keep them warm enough. Below that and we’re likely to wake to bunny popsicles, so in they come, bunsicles being on no one’s list of favorite things.

Challenging these days is more than the weather as my uncle is likely to succumb to his cancer soon enough. We’ve lost a lot in the last few months, my family and I, but I am trying to appreciate and hold gratitude every day as a result, and hold on to all my people.

The lingering warmth in the living room from the fire was lovely, as were my cozy blankets, but I had spent much of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning running errands, primarily food related – Costco, Trader Joe’s and Market Basket, plus our local dairy for a week’s supply of milk, and then the Co-op for bunny food and treats, and suet cakes for the birds. At this time of year, there’s not much for the wild birds to eat, so we try to keep our feeders full. By the time I was finished I had spent $518.41, which is the bulk of our grocery budget for the month. I’ve lately been returning to my old habits of buying most of our groceries at the start of each month, and supplementing fruit, veggies and milk in.

We’re also coming to the end of stock-up shopping, as we’re going to renovate the house next spring, and that requires us moving out completely for a while. Moving some food is inevitable, but it’s time to start emptying the pantries and freezer for real. I tend to view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, and that thinking has served me well, but it will be kind of fun to start to see empty spaces too.

To do that we’ve got to eat what we have and carefully manage our inventory and stockpile. Some things we simply can’t run out of – coffee, cereal for my son, olive oil and spices, things like that. Others I want to make sure we see how long we can go before we need any more. And to eat healthy and stay within a reasonable food budget, meal planning and batch cooking.

I’ve also made the commitment to make 1 dinner and 2 lunches each week for my younger sister – she’s still dealing with the death of her beloved husband, and while I can’t make the loss easier, I can ensure that once a week she and the girls have a hot meal, homemade bread, and that she’s got a couple lunches to take to work each week. Sometimes I add cookies or a treat, sometimes I don’t. But it’s forced me to be a creative and thoughtful cook, since variety and healthy is very important. And it’s making me way, way more efficient in the kitchen. It’s a small thing, and my target is 12 months of food delivery, once a week. Eli helps too, last week we sent over a big pile of his homemade Empanadas. My take is that their life is hard enough, and a little help is sometimes the difference between being able to tie a knot in your rope and hang on, and not having enough rope left to tie.

This week’s meal plan is varied, healthy and yummy, and I’m excited about it.

Pre-prepped Lunches
Lemon Cranberry Quinoa Salad topped with chicken – this stuff is so, so good and filled with fruit and veggies. I subbed in the apple since the store didn’t have jicama
Falafel and Tzatziki

Dinners
Sunday: Roasted chicken and vegetables, homemade dinner rolls
Monday: Creamy sun dried tomato pasta for our family and for hers (this is also an insanely good and easy recipe, just use a very deep skillet)
Tuesday: Beef Bulgogi (I made a triple batch, with 2 in the freezer for later)
Wednesday: Salmon over cauliflower rice with Garlic Scape Pesto I froze last summer
Thursday: Eli cooks, always delicious
Friday: Homemade pizza in the oven or chicken soup with rice, depending on moods and motivation
Saturday: Whichever one we didn’t make for Friday

While I’ve made all sorts of breads and baked goods, I’ve never made a dinner roll. This week I decided to tackle that gap with a recipe for Scotch Baps. I took the recipe from one of my oldest cookbooks, one I got in my early 20s, called Soup and Bread, by a writer and chef with the worlds coolest hippie name, Crescent Dragonwagon. Soup and Bread is a contemporary of The Moosewood Cookbook, a cookbook I bought about the same time and proceeded to hate every recipe I tried from it. Some I made twice thinking it was me, and never have I disliked a cookbook so consistently.

Maybe it’s me though, because it was a bestseller. If Mollie Katzen, the author, taught me anything, it was that it’s okay to be disinterested or even loathe things that everyone else seems to like, which is perhaps why I was always so comfortable disliking Sex and The City. I tried – and by that I mean I toughed it out through 2 episodes – and always thought that show would be improved by all the cast being taken out by a wayward Zamboni.

By 11:30 on Sunday the Baps were in their final rise (more on them in a moment), everything else was either made or in the oven and my wonderful husband had rescued my too-damp falafel in the air fryer.

So about that cookbook, and those Baps, Soup and Bread (and if you want to have a splurge to the tune of $4.59 you can have a wonderful read and a happy belly) – Baps are a dense roll, with a butter and milk base. I think I would use less flour than the recipe calls for, maybe 4 cups total for the rolls and more for dusting, and they really weren’t terribly photogenic, but these things are good. It’s my understanding in Scotland they are morning rolls, toasted with butter and with some sausage on them, but we’ll eat them with our roasted chicken for dinner.

As we roll into another busy week, the peace of Sunday afternoon with warm food and loved ones is something I treasure. The cooking is done, the preparations are complete, and there’s nothing left but to sit and enjoy the last of today’s sunshine before twilight comes again.

After the Storm

26″ of snow later…

A giant snowstorm hit New England this weekend, just as Omicron paid a visit to Eli, I and my son – my daughter was spared, and is spending our 5 days of isolation with her father. We were feeling neither very good nor horrible, just middle of the road crummy , which led to doing a lot of nothing, in and around Eli and I working.

Saturday I felt better, and the storm was in full force, so other than some shoveling and a bit of playing outside for my son, the only thing to do was to putter around the house, make meal plans, drink tea and cook – dinner last night was Half Baked Harvest’s One Skillet Greek Meatballs & Lemon Butter Orzo, one we’ll definitely make again.

Snow Day Dinner

I contemplated a nap but it was a little bit late in the afternoon before I considered it, so I skipped it, opting instead for a long sleep into Sunday morning, when I woke up to cold and over 25 inches of snow having fallen in 24 hours.

It was profoundly lovely, although cold enough that the chickens decided that even their run was a little much.

The chickens were having none of it and hid inside

Despite Covid leaving us tired and coughing, and the frigid temps, we all got outside for a little bit and enjoyed the snow. Teddy the Doggleby especially enjoyed it, despite the snow being taller than him in most places.

Teddy watches as Connor uses the driveway as a sledding hill

Tonight’s dinner is Instant Pot Carnitas in taco form, adjusted just a little to reduce the spice by omitting the chipotle powder along with some broccoli

.

Just over 3 months ago, our lives changed utterly when my brother-in-law, more brother than in-law, died suddenly. The loss reverberates daily – in our missing him always, and in small things, like making sure my sister has someone to plow her out for her shifts in the ER, to which I can only say that John, who plows me out has taken it upon himself to make sure she’s okay, even heading back to help clean off cars after a bit of a snafu at the beginning of the storm. I say it a lot, but it is so true – we’re lucky ducks, even when bad things happen. A new normal is starting to knit itself out of the tear in our hearts and lives, one that involves being there to help his loved ones hold up the sky.

As I went out to bring the chickens some scraps and overripe grapes, I watched the cold January sun sink down through the trees, illuminating our house like a Maxfield Parrish painting, and just felt grateful for this lovely place, for our family and friends, and all the blessings around us.

Saturdays in the Kitchen

Picture of our walk – photo by Eli 5 Stone

As January rolled in with our first snowstorm and kid snow day, so did a critical phase of what Eli and I are referring to as our ’10 year plan’, our combined target of some big goals, like adoption, which we are just in the waiting phase on, and some really big house renovations, and a parallel track to financial independence. In order to achieve our goals it’s going to require serious focus. And in 2022, that means tightening our belts and evaluating all of our expenses.

I’ve found that spending less feels onerous without a goal, and only minimally painful with one (or more). And we are going for strategic use of our money, with travel a priority, but focused on trips where we can use hotel, airline and car rental points or the RV, as much as possible. Our recent loss of my brother in law, still fresh and painful, has taught us not to wait to make memories, but like with all things, balance and a plan for the future – a plan that there will be a future -is required.

I sat down to start this post the other night with a glass of inexpensive wine, and a bowl of Half Baked Harvest’s One Pot Hamburger Helper , which uses up a lot of my frozen shredded zucchini, as well as a bunch of the fancy leftover Christmas cheese and is filling and warm and yummy. I used cassava pasta instead of traditional pasta and added a splash of white wine for flavor, but this recipe is good, healthy and uses up what’s in the freezer and the pantry.

Because if you preserve something you really need to eat it. Past me was admittedly terrible about this, forgetting things in the freezer and fridge, current me is getting much, much better at it. For us, meal plans, batch cooking and planning ahead are the only things that work. And because our lives get so busy, cooking ahead saves us a ton of stress.

Yesterday Eli and I went to the grocery store and then I spent about 5-6 hours in the kitchen. I made Anadama Bread, a double batch of Butternut Squash Lasagna with Garlic and Rosemary, chipotle turkey stuffed sweet potatoes with spinach, and a pot of healthy Butter Chicken with mashed cauliflower for Saturday dinner. I also took some of the last of the beets we had from our farm share, and peeled and chopped them small, coated them in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted them at 375 degrees until slightly crunchy. Roasted beets are a no-recipe recipe that both Eli and I love.

We have lunches now to take us at least until Wednesday, between the stuffed sweet potatoes and a pot of French Onion Soup I made on Friday night. We have a squash lasagna for the freezer, which will reappear on a night where no one has the time and energy to cook and provide lunch leftovers for a few days, and we had a great dinner from about 20 minutes of effort.

Later this morning I will return to the kitchen and prep tonight’s dinner and Monday as well. Tonight is a simple batch of parmesan-crusted chicken, with broccoli and popovers on the side, and Monday is likely the bulgogi I prepped and froze in December, with a side of couscous and edamame. Eli takes meal prep Tuesday and Thursday so the next time I’m on duty is Wednesday, but we’ll see how the leftover situation is then, we might need to eat down what we’ve made, or we may pull some chili from the freezer.

We’ve tried batch cooking and eating the same thing for days, but generally that isn’t popular here, and it doesn’t help us when we have highly variable meats that arrive from our local meat subscription, or when we have to plan around garden/CSA produce, also highly variable, so we try instead to rotate meals that we enjoy that allow us to use up the food we have. And I go looking (and get inventive) when I need new recipes for when we have something to use up. Right now our pumpkins and squashes need using, so the squash lasagna and stuffed sweet potatoes served multiple purposes.

We’ll be eating stuffed spaghetti squash probably once a week for the next few weeks too, as we have a plethora of them that we grew, and they won’t last forever. I’m holding on to some tomatoes that I froze in the fall to make a giant batch of sauce later this month, and that will turn into spaghetti and meatball dinners and probably lasagna and homemade pizza too.

Come February, it will be time to go to work on the sweet potatoes and keeping onions we bought back in October before they reach the end of their life. By early March, when we start our seeds most of the pesto will be gone from the freezer and we’ll be mostly beholden to the grocery store for our fresh fruit and veggies, although my plan is to plant some greens next weekend to supplement with lettuce for salads and greens for stir fry. In April and May the farm stands will open again, and we’ll maybe wander into Boston to Haymarket to supplement now and again if time allows. By then we’ll be back in the garden as well, and by June the garlic scapes will be turning into pesto again. But for now, the unhurried afternoons in the kitchen keep us warm and well-fed, and are part of what has become our annual cycle of food use here at Sithean.

Bird Feeder in the Snow by Eli 5 Stone
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