Kitchen Creative

We’ve migrated into the part of the year when we’re all supposed to be reinventing ourselves into new, better selves. As I sit at my kitchen table after a run on my treadmill (I’m training for a race, so eventually I have to run outside but right now it’s cold out and I don’t want to), I contemplate all my new improved self behaviors, such as patiently, rather than my usual impatiently, waiting for my husband to leave the kitchen so I can finish the leftovers by myself, or being excited when I accidentally drop a bath bomb intended to be used by the kids and break it, therefore making it fair game for me.

In my defense it is dragon shaped and apparently emits vegan sparkles.
I mean, wouldn’t you?

Our meal plan this week was just about flawless. Well, it was. Coming to the end of the first week of our pantry challenge, with a mantra of using up what we have, we had made a plan through Saturday to use what we had, with Sunday picking up on some added fruit, veggies and milk. Total spend for the 2 weeks on groceries? $66.61 + another $8.78 on a couple of gallons of milk from our local dairy. Not bad. We had plenty of apples, squashes, sweet potatoes and onions, plus some other random veggies in the drawers to use up. Our freezer had plenty of meat in it, and so far we’ve eaten pretty well. Then of course as we were taking stock for lunches we realized that we had definitely under-planned, and spent another $49.01. Way less than our usual, more than we had hoped.

Eli and I were by ourselves on Saturday evening, so my plan was stuffed spaghetti squash, a house favorite. And then I took a look at our 4 spaghetti squashes. Moldy, all of them. And I had just spent the grocery money that was supposed to hold us until January 20th, just under 2 weeks away.

The only thing between me and running to the store is our pantry challenge. That challenge is part of us cutting back spending to achieve bigger goals. But you know, I could have just run out.

I didn’t. I quickly started googling recipes for the ground lamb I had thawed in anticipation of stuffing the squashes, and mentally inventorying our food supply. Theme? I really thought I was going in a Lamb Keema direction, but since we’re short on our 30 plant based foods for the week, I was going to jazz it up. To be honest, we have a lot of root veggies to use up, so I peeled and chopped a few sweet potatoes and a rutabaga that had been part of our last winter CSA distribution, and melted some ghee in a glass baking dish. I had actually never cooked a rutabaga before, but I took 2 home as a challenge in late December.

And then, um, they sat in the veggie drawer.

I put the chopped sweet potatoes and rutabaga in the baking dish, tossed a bit more ghee on top, and popped them in the oven at 375 degrees F. I was going for nutritional density without heavy refined carbs. Not being totally sure how I wanted to season them, or even really if I was going to mix them in with dinner or have them as a side, I didn’t put anything else on them.

At some point I started mulling just how many vegetables I could stick in this meal. I have recently been targeting variety – 30 plant-based foods a week, which is supposed to be a huge differential in gut health. I had some baby spinach that needed to be used up, half an already-baked butternut squash from a recipe earlier in the week, and of course, onions and frozen peas. But the night prior, in a planned exception to our Uber Frugal Month I had dinner with a friend at a Tapas bar. She and her family are going through a thing, and sometimes you suspend your spending freezes and dry Januaries for a night of friendship.

I got a little inspired by the Potatoes Bravas we had shared, and went in the general tapas direction. Mostly.

I made the Potatoes Bravas sauce for the sweet potatoes and rutabagas, tossed them after they had baked for 45 minutes, and left them for another 45 or so.
There was a lot of sauce left, so to that I added a generous splash of red cooking wine, and the butternut squash, which had been baked into a soft mush. Stirred that around and it was surprisingly good.

In a separate pan I cooked the ground lamb, a package of frozen cauliflower rice, and the last of the spinach. I then combined it together in my cast iron skillet – I splurged on a Staub skillet a while back, and it is one of the best purchases I have ever made – and topped it with a hard cheese that we hadn’t opened over the holidays, called Casa de Medivil, in keeping with my not-really-but-maybe Spanish theme.

I toasted (ok, sort of burned) the last few pine nuts I had in my fridge, and added some olives and marinated peppadews and mushrooms to a plate of sliced burrata, then topped it with a little bit of Maple Bacon Aioli we had in the pantry that needed to be opened and used, and topped it with the pine nuts.

And that was dinner. Total plant-food count? 11, 7 of which we hadn’t had previously during the week. I don’t count the seasonings, although technically you can.

I did all this while Eli was putting on our new storm door, which required hours of creative carpentry, because nothing in this house was built to any standard sizes, since there wasn’t as much of that back in 1850. The new door is just about done and lovely, and my husband braving the cold to do carpentry on the porch is something I have endless gratitude about, especially considering I wussed out on being cold this morning even for the 5 minutes it would take me to break a sweat running.

Did we meet our 30 plant-based food varieties goal this week? I honestly don’t know, I totally lost track. Close…I think? I’ll track better this coming week.

Sunday I made a batch of chicken tortilla soup, and put together a shepherd’s pie, for Monday dinner I splurged on tortilla chips and fresh Pico de Gallo because it’s just not the same without.

I was traveling Tuesday and Wednesday, so Thursday I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, cooked pasta, and added a jar of Rao’s sauce, and made some popovers and that, plus sliced avocado and peppers was dinner. Friday was bulgogi, also from the freezer, with rice, roasted broccoli, and some Trader Joe’s scallion pancakes I had bought on a whim and stuck in the freezer a while back. There were plenty of leftovers for weekend lunches.

Tomorrow is Saturday, and my plan for breakfast is two-ingredient pumpkin donuts (thank you @sydneyinsuburbia), fresh fruit, and breakfast sausage from the freezer. And then it will be time for steak tacos and more meal plans.

Days of Rest

It’s all over. Christmas, and the big turkey feast. Trips to the grandparents for the kids to ice skate. A big evening out for Eli and I. A New Year’s Eve feast with the grandmas. In one short week, we filled our lives with wonderful meals, company, and so much of everything – fun, work, joy, celebration. So much time with family. Our hearts are filled with love from it all.

But we’re also weary.

But from here, it’s mellow. It’s January, and oddly warm as it is here, it’s the quiet part of winter. We have another couple days of vacation before life comes back to greet us, and I intend to use that time well for both rest and restoration, as well as to get a few things done.

We still need to dismantle the Christmas decorations, but from now until late February when I start my garden seeds, it will be the small things that really matter. Meals, routines, small cleaning or home improvement projects, time to do a puzzle. Later this month or in early February I’ll order more seeds, but not yet.

Because today and tomorrow the plan is to rest, to cook, to organize, and just be. It’s time to get my training going for the 10-mile race I am planning for April. This year is home-centered. We’ll spend some time away in the mountains and in Maine this summer, and depending on the adoption situation we’ll maybe get away for a few days over April vacation, but most of our time this year will be spent at home, and that contents me. Last year was a big one for trips, but being away from home so much meant that some things, like being an attentive gardener, or keeping track of what was in the freezer went by the wayside.

This year the focus will be much more on making sure we have time to breathe and spend in the yard.

Garden. Kids. Home. And in May, baby chicks. Most of our flock is almost 4 years old now, so it’s time. While we are still getting eggs after a prolonged pause, we are sporadically losing chickens and it’s time to replenish our flock.

But first, we are in day 1 of our pantry eat down and frugal month challenge, which means overall we’re just not spending money on anything other than bills. The biggest part of this is the pantry challenge. The rules are this – for the full month of January we can buy vegetables for planned meals, milk for drinking, coffee augmentation & cereal, as it’s an essential in this house, and fruit. Alternatives must be found (for example, toasted tortillas if we’re out of tortilla chips, etc) for anything we don’t have. Other than our monthly meat delivery, which I forgot, in the holiday madness, to put on hold for January our total budget for the month for food is $198, which is about 1/4 of the usual expenditure in this area, and we may be able to do it for less.

And a perk of the big cleanout is…cleaning out. As things empty – and our time is put into cleaning out closets and drawers, we clean as we go along. To say the house needs it is an understatement as clutter is creeping in everywhere.

Since we had our big Chinese feast last night, most of the meals so far today have been leftover oriented, but tonight we’ll need something healthy to offset all the heavy meals of the last week or two. I have some fresh broccoli and cauliflower, so I’ll pan roast them with a little garlic, salt, pepper and olive oil and serve them up with a simple chicken dish, maybe Butternut Squash Butter Chicken, or a simple stir fry. This week is the race to use up all the veggies in the vegetable drawers that I bought around the holidays. My budget starting next Friday is $72 including all groceries, and milk. If I want delivery, in order to stay out of the store, that has to include delivery and tip, so I’ll be very careful about our meal plan, but this week we have to be a bit more flexible to use up what we have.

Tomorrow I’ll make Chicken Parmesan that will cover lunches for my son as well, and prepare some sort of turkey soup with the broth I made for Tuesday, when everyone is back to work and school, and likely to be tired at the end. I’m thinking something along a Mexican theme, with salsa verde and tortillas toasted into chips.

Wednesday is just Eli and I, and I have the ingredients, minus the ground chicken (I’ll sub in ground beef) for a re-creation of Buffalo Chicken Enchilada Bake.

Thursday Eli is planning to make us Broccoli Cheddar Soup, and then this weekend, while the kids are at their Dad’s and we’re cleaning out closets and doing projects, I’ll stuff spaghetti squash, roast sweet potatoes, and maybe make some homemade Indian food dishes for us as well as preparing something delicious for Sunday night when the kids come home. Probably Shepherd’s Pie, which we haven’t had in ages, and will help use up the last of the red potatoes we bought for Christmas dinner.

Tuesday and Wednesday of next week I have to travel, getting home Thursday morning, so Eli will be on his own for food prep, but I’ll pick back up for Friday night dinner with the kids on the 13th, and cook straight through the weekend.

It might sound funny to take so much pleasure in using up what we have, but there’s something about January that makes me want to use things up and tidy, maybe making space for all the new that’s on the way in.

Happy New Year to you and yours. May today be restful for you, body and spirit.

Counting our Blessings

This time of year I feel like we’re never still for more than a moment. Their are presents to buy and make, gifts to wrap, cookies to bake, food to deliver, packages to mail, and all of that on top of just our general busyness – work, school and life.

We finally start to still on Christmas in the late afternoon – all the work is done, gifts are gifted, Christmas dinner is eaten, and there’s nothing left but to sit back and breathe. It’s that moment around 5 pm Christmas day when there’s nothing left to be done that I finally sit and relax. And for us, the day after Christmas is a continuation of the nothing – leftovers, a fire in the wood stove, everyone gets to enjoy their presents and relax.

But as I sit and write, we’re still a couple of days from that. The Christmas turkey is thawing, I’ve got batches of cookies to bake tonight, and gifts to wrap, and the refrigerator is filled with delicious things, so full it’s hard to squeak it all in.

Still, for all the craziness, it’s been joyful as well. I managed to sneak away for a weekend in Montreal with the oldest, just the two of us, and it was a delight. Cold, but marvelous 1-1 time visiting the Christmas Markets, Biodome, A Jean-Michel Basquiat exhibit, and a dress-up dinner, plus exploration of bakeries, the underground city, and Chinatown. 13 is honestly a delight – interested in food and experiences, willing to try new things, funny and opinionated. While we did that Eli took my son into Boston for a night for pool time and holiday shopping.

January is our pantry challenge month, and so far I have meals planned to the end of the first week. We have a lot of things to use up right now, so our meals are being built around what we have in most cases. But first we had to have all the things for our Christmas meal, so our final grocery delivery came today. We also have a few things we don’t usually cook from our last winter CSA, like celeriac and rutabaga, so I need to get creative to use those up.

I have some days off after the holiday, and some of that time will be spent prepping freezer items, such as homemade pizza dough, so we can just grab it and thaw it. 2022 was full of travel and adventure. The coming year will be much more centered around home, and that’s just fine. Adoption, the garden, and some home maintenance in advance of full renovation – taking trees down, the end of the driveway needs repaving, and just generally getting ready. In order to be fully ready, and because interest rates and construction costs are so high, we postponed a year, but we’re reaching the point where we can’t wait.

So it’s time. But first, it’s time to gather and celebrate, and be profoundly grateful for our life, just as it is.

Meal plan for Christmastime:

Friday December 23rd
: Taco Pizza, guacamole, salsa and chips
Saturday December 24th: Dinner with Family – their house
Sunday December 25th: Cheese board, turkey, stuffing with sausage, sage and onion, 4 cheese mashed potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and onions, and cranberry-raspberry sauce. Eli will make pizzelles, and our guests will bring green bean casserole and pie.
Monday December 26: Leftovers. Mom definitely doesn’t cook
Tuesday December 27th: Turkey pot pie, broccoli cheese soup
Wednesday December 28th: Play-it-by-ear day, maybe leftovers, maybe something else, definitely the day to turn the turkey into soup stock. I do have to cook for some friends who have a child fighting cancer, so we may end up having the same thing they are
Thursday December 29th: Time to detox from Christmas food so Salmon with horseradish and mustard crust and a squash salad
Friday December 30th: Date night – some nice person at an Italian restaurant is cooking
Saturday December 31st: Homemade and ordered Chinese food
Sunday January 1st: Montreal Steaks with Green Goddess salad
Monday January 2nd: Chicken Parmesan, popovers, pasta and broccoli

From my home to yours, Happy Holidays. May they be filled with warmth, light and food.

It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving and I’ve Already Bought Christmas Dinner

There’s no turkey shortage this year, but still, reasons.

I hope your Thanksgiving day was warm and cozy and merry however you celebrated, and that might be ‘uh, not at all, Rachael, we live in East Somewhere that doesn’t do the whole Pilgrim-y myth thing, we do what any sane person does in November and that’s stay inside and eat soup‘. This is all good, although I’m going to unequivocally state that turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and whatever sides you prefer is the meal of the year. Which is why we frequently hit the repeat button for Christmas.

This year food prices are absolutely shocking. I mean like the tub of cream cheese that was $3.69 last year at this time is now $7.69. Even though we are doing ok, we have to be thoughtful. I’ve considered making a price book again, just to track the changes.

Last year prices weren’t so bad, but there was shortages of everything. While the supply chain has smoothed out, the increase in prices is reason enough to spread out the costs. So here’s what we did.

  1. November is our big food stockpile month anyway, so this year we have most of the goods from that – squashes galore, sweet potatoes and a 25 lb bag of keeping onions my sister brought from the farm by her that we love. So with the exception of potatoes and cheese and crackers, most of the sides are set. We have 5 pie pumpkins alone, so I see a lot of pumpkin recipes in our future. So most of our sides will come from this bounty.
  2. Stuffing bread and mixes are cheapest around Thanksgiving, and for the most part, they keep. Same with turkey brine mixes if that’s your thing. So those are bought and tucked away in the pantry for a few weeks.
  3. Our meat share offers turkeys at Thanksgiving, but not at Christmas, so we ordered a lovely bird and popped it in the freezer. Same with salami/cured sausage, so we got that too.
  4. We ordered 5 lbs of cranberries – I love cranberries – this fall and used some for Thanksgiving #2, but still have plenty for more Cranberry-raspberry sauce, cranberry bread, and so on.
  5. Flour and sugar for Christmas baking are also the cheapest right around now, so we just buy a lot. We also have a lot of butter from our last (and likely last) Azure Standard order. We make baked goods for gifts, and of course, for ourselves.
  6. Our Winter CSA runs through December and so we’ll choose our greens and some sides from that. We have a pickup every other week, and the list of what’s available is published the Monday of pickup week. So we’ll eat well, but won’t be able to plan that part out.

So what that means is when I start doing Christmas dinner prep sometime on the 23rd – because much prep can be done in advance – I’ll probably only need a few things. December’s grocery budget is much, much lower than November’s, but we’ll still need to shop for our traditional homemade Chinese feast (the last couple years we have supplemented with ordered food, not sure how we’ll do it this year). We’ll take the kids with us to the Asian market to get our supplies the week before Christmas.

January’s budget is lower still, since that’s the month of our pantry challenge. We’ll buy milk, fruit and veggies and that’s all. It’s pleasant to start cleaning out the freezers and cabinets as we head into a new year. It makes meal planning super important, because we can’t just run out to get something, but it also means being creative, which is a fun way to challenge oneself.

And all that’s great. But by doing it in advance I also saved myself time and mental energy, which is a holiday gift in and of itself.

Why Recipes Are Just a Starting Point

I am not a big YouTube watcher – after talking on Zoom all day 8-10 hours a day, the last thing I want is to watch videos. Also, I just generally prefer the printed word, but a recent profile of June Xie on The Guardian got me watching.

This woman is a badass cook, and is much more along the lines of mostly how I grew up, with a bunch of things throw in a pot or pan, and very few measurements. It was creative, and cheap, and while there were definitely a few recipes that were followed to the letter, most of the time it was simple.

This past weekend found us very busy on Friday and into Saturday. Friday afternoon my son had a haircut, I had to run to the farm to get the next installment of our winter CSA, and then we had a much-delayed Azure Standard pickup. All 3 of those things meant our plan for homemade MYO pizza was off the table until Sunday, so I started picking through our very full freezer for options. I pulled out some pulled pork from Walden Local to thaw, and noodled around the interwebs for ideas. And found it – a tamale pie recipe. Which called for things we didn’t have.

I had ordered groceries – mostly based around the idea that we need lots and lots and lots of cheese for Thanksgiving appetizers, so it wasn’t hard to add (gasp!) a box of corn muffin mix to the order. Do I normally buy pre-made mixes? No, not really, but with only a few minutes here and there to cook, and hungry cold kids after school, I figured I had better take a couple of shortcuts.

I didn’t have creamed corn, but I did happen to have one random can of corn in the house, nor did I have sour cream, but I did have plain Greek yogurt. So I added a full cup of that, more than the recipe called for to offset the lack of cream in the corn.

I baked that, then I covered the top with some of the homemade refried beans I’d made and frozen a while back. Then I added the pulled pork but I also sauteed half a red pepper in with the onions and garlic for a little color and extra veggies (our current goal is to eat 30 varieties of plant-based foods a week) put the enchilada sauce on top of that, and then topped it with shredded cheese and baked it.

And that was how I loosely baked Delish’s Tamale Pie, but not really. At the end of the day my oldest pronounced it good, but it really could have used more flavor. Still, it was filling and warm on a cold night.

I’m a huge fan of the food renaissance that has occurred over the last 2 decades, and I love that people who make food are just as big as rock stars, because food is literally life. I adore trying new recipes, mostly on weekends when I have extra time. I take delight in feeding my family wonderful, healthy meals. I love learning about different cultures via their food.

But look – we all have to eat, right? And not every meal we eat needs to impress Gordon Ramsey. And I’m a fan of the idea that most of the time you shouldn’t be trying.

I mean that. What you should try for is: healthy, nourishing, tasty, and with variety. Pretty, too, I like a good looking meal. But you know what you shouldn’t worry about? Whether you used Himalayan Sea Salt or plain old table salt. If you didn’t use the Burrata the recipe called for vs. just some mozzarella. The pressure to follow recipes exactly and use ingredients that may or may not be out of your budget should be jettisoned.

Completely.

It was just as busy Saturday, so I got up early and tossed some stringy cuts of beef from our meat share into the crock pot with red wine, crushed tomatoes, and onions and carrots – the recipe called for celery but we didn’t have any and I never use it fast enough to make it worth buying – sauteed and then coated with a combination of cinnamon, allspice, pepper and cloves. 10 hours later the stringy beef was shreddable and it went well on top of pearl couscous and a cabbage slaw I just made up, with a dressing of the juice of 2 limes, a couple teaspoons of sugar, a generous scoop of plain Greek yogurt and a little bit of olive oil. I topped it with toasted pumpkin seeds.

This pot roast is always a hit in our house.

The slaw turned out great, even for my not-really-cabbage-loving husband, a win for the ‘use what’s in the house and use a recipe as a jumping off point’ method of feeding everyone.

Because it’s Thanksgiving week and our autumn bulk food stock up time, even though we don’t host this holiday, the pantry and freezers and fridge are literally bursting with food. We’re on for starters Thursday and a series of sides and a dessert for the other side of the family’s Saturday feast. On top of that, it’s holiday cookie baking season, and we ordered our Christmas turkey – oh how i love turkey – so that’s taking up a bunch of space in the freezer. Because everything is so full it’s easy to lose track of things, so I’m working extra hard to try and stay on top of what we have.

This week’s meal plan is a little wonkier than most because of the holidays.

Sunday: Homemade pizza with various toppings – finally! Pesto, fresh mozzarella, sauteed onions, sun dried tomatoes, sausage, shredded mozzarella and tomato sauce are all good options, but really any veggie or condiment we have in the house is fair game. Everyone chooses their own toppings for MYO night.

Monday: Leftover night – Parmesan-crusted chicken I made a while back and froze for a future meal, leftover Italian pot roast, with noodles or more pearl couscous, whatever the kids want. Sauteed spinach on the side, simple with garlic, oil and salt.

Tuesday: Eli Cooks..maybe homemade Empanadas

Wednesday: Chicken Gyros with Naan and tzatziki, a house favorite with roasted Brussels sprouts and onions on the side. Probably a cucumber salad too.

Thursday – Thanksgiving: We make some appetizers and plate some cheese and things. Then onto mashed potatoes and stuffing! Oh, and I’m making these (with sprite for the non-alcohol drinkers and littles) and this amazing salad.

Friday: If we get lucky my older sister and her family will be with us at lunch, and that’s likely going to be a pizza order. Eli and I head out to holiday shop and maybe we’ll get some delicious Indian food out as well. Not a frugal day!

Saturday: Thanksgiving #2. We’re on for creamed onions, a dessert, some wine and Cranberry-raspberry sauce.

Sunday: Time to cut down our Christmas tree, and we’ll need warm comfort food after that outing. Bread of some sort, either Foccacia or our traditional Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. I’ll pair it with One Skillet Greek Meatballs and Lemon Butter Orzo.

And then I’ll prep a dish for Monday, just to get us through. Occasionally our meal plan holds us through the week, but often things change and our plans get upended. Still, we mostly eat at home, even if it’s just some Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, rice and sliced veggies because no one had time to cook. Or some ground beef and veggies in a simple stir fry over rice.

But we’ll be flexible. And if we don’t have an ingredient, we’ll find something we can use in our house or we’ll move on to another more fitting dish.

Sunday Food

It looks like November outside, but it has remained unseasonably warm, a thing both enjoyable and worrisome. But what it does mean is that this morning I went out and picked a few tomatoes, peppers and the only butternut squash to survive drought, bunnies and groundhogs eating the garden, and rot.

A hard freeze is coming this week, finally, so I want to be prepared. By next weekend it will be time to rip out the last of the garden and prepare it for next year.

We spent a lot of of money on groceries and supplies this month. I don’t know what it is about November that leads me to stock us to the gills, but every year it’s the same.

This weekend I went to Trader Joe’s and Costco, borrowing a friend’s card for the latter, and stocked us up on bulk items I know we’ll use, plus a start of things for the holidays. I’m not even close to done for Christmas but I am picking things up here and there.

We literally have almost everything we need, except twice now I’ve forgotten to get garlic powder.

Next week comes Azure Standard – huge piles of squashes, canned tomatoes (since our garden really didn’t comply this year, largely because of drought), seeds for next year and some other pantry supplies. Also our meat share and the next drop of our CSA.

So at the end of this week we’ll be in eat-down mode again. After 2 back-to-back trips to my office in Michigan to meet with clients, I’m home for a month, with the exception of a weekend away with my oldest, just us.

We have a busy week ahead with lots of appointments, kid activities and things we absolutely have to get done, so this week’s meal plan was made with that, and the target of eating a lot of veggie varieties in mind.

Knowing that Sunday was my best day to cook, I made the meal plan and then headed into the kitchen. First up was using the last of the farm apples and making Spiced Apple Butter. If all goes well we’ll have enough to give away as well as use. My travel lately meant I was a bit behind on using up the apples, so we lost a few to rot. A couple cores went to our bunny, Marshmallow and the rest of them plus the peels to the chickens, who were very happy about it.

Tomorrow’s dinner is meant to use up the Tomatillos that are still coming out of our garden, so right after that I pan-roasted 2 Poblano Peppers, 1 Jalapeno, 6 cloves of garlic and about a pound of tomatillos at 400 degrees F for about 15 minutes. Taking that prep step out will allow me to do the rest of the cooking during small breaks throughout the day. The recipe calls for carrots and onions as well, so we’ll get a large variety of veggies into our diets tomorrow.

And then my son requested chocolate chip cookies again, so I went to my go-to recipe, which makes enough to eat and some to give away.

Tonight Sunday 11/13: Chicken Parm, pasta, garlic bread, broccoli & the last of the Shishito peppers from the garden roasted with olive oil and salt

Chicken Parmesan will make plenty of leftovers for lunches this week, and we still have a couple servings left of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen for lunches too.

Monday 11/14: Instant pot chili verde, rice, salad. I combined a couple recipes to make ours, which I’ll post soon.

Tuesday 11/15: Eli Cooks, kid friendly, protein TBD.  Our monthly meat CSA comes today, so plenty of choices!

Wednesday 11/16: Simple garlic chicken, roasted Brussels sprouts and onions, pearl couscous

Thursday 11/17: Just Eli and I, possibly Clam Chowder. Great for leftovers too.

Friday 11/18: It’s pickup #2 of 4 of our winter CSA share. It’s going to be a cold one, so MYO pizza (dough is prepped on Wednesday and cold-proofed in the fridge) topped with tomato sauce or pesto, caramelized onions, sliced San Marzano tomatoes, the last few from the garden, fresh mozzerella, spinach and whatever anyone else wants.

Saturday 11/19: Busy day – High school open house in the AM, the Moms church fair PM.  Days like this call for the crockpot! Italian pot roast, noodles, salad.

Sunday 11/21: Home day!  Roast chicken with roasted veggies and maybe Parmesan Tater Tots, a house favorite. I might get motivated to make some meatballs for Couscous Meatball Soup on Monday

Sundays in the kitchen are busy but fun, and at the end of it the house smells wonderful.

Planting Flowers in a Year of Grief

One year ago yesterday, my brother-in-law of nearly 20 years died of a massive heart attack, the kind of which in the aftermath there is no pulse, no chance of revival, no going back with a lifestyle change, a stent, a caution to rest. After a reportedly very good day, it became a very bad night, for my sister, her 3 children, and all of us.

After all that time, if one is lucky enough and puts the effort in, the in-law part drops, and one just has a brother. We weren’t confidants or buddies, but we adored one another, with our texts filled with ‘brother mine’ and ‘sister mine’. As someone who grew up without brothers, save for a brief stint with a stepbrother, having them via my sisters has been especially delightful.

The last thing I gave him was some of our homemade Garlic Scape Pesto, and this year I looked at the pile of scapes and let them rot in the refrigerator. I just couldn’t.

Maybe next year.

I describe it as a bomb going off in our family, leaving a smoking crater where there was once just level ground. Everywhere you look is smoke and blackness. A year later, the blast is tidied and no longer do waves of smoke rise from it, but it is still hard to look at. Eli and I brought yellow flowers to Billy’s grave under a tree, leaving them next to the mums from my parents, and then left a bottle of wine for my sister on her doorstep.

It’s been a busy autumn. The garden didn’t do so well this year, between drought and rabbits and groundhogs. There’s still some tomatillos, tomatos and squashes in there, and I’m hoping we have a week or so before a hard freeze in order to let them fully ripen. Our CSA ends this week but we’ve signed up for a winter share. Our usual trip to my sister’s to get our fall stockpile of veggies is going to have to wait a year. Our son turned 10, and we spent a brief few days in Florida celebrating. He has taken up trombone and the gardening club at school.

Work is busy and Eli continues to launch his work into the world. We have a teenager now, so we see her less, but are delighted at her friends and social life, delayed due to the pandemic.

The children are thriving after a tough couple of years

We prepare Sithean for winter as we always do. Our pantry is stocked, our freezer is full, and it’s time for fires in the wood stove.

But this year it’s also time to plant bulbs. Missing from Sithean’s legacy plantings were tulips and snowdrops, which are the first flower here, often appearing on a crust of snow, and now is the season. Over the next few weekends we will dig our bulbs in to the chilly ground, cover them, and hope that in the spring another area of the yard is covered in a profusion of oranges, pinks and purples, with a little bit of cream and some blue alliums tossed in for good measure.

When I arrived here the soil was dead and dust in most places. Each year, we amend it with compost and plantings and try to make this place better than we found it. With vegetable gardens and fruit trees for sure, but also with things that just exist for beauty and the benefit of the insects.

We’ll bring a few snowdrops to plant by Billy’s grave too, just because.

None of us know our time left, so our job is to fill it with life and joy and love. As for me, I’m going to fill my world with gardens.

When To Blow Your Budget

On a hike this summer

Yesterday I bought my oldest a pair of shoes. Platform Ugg booties to be exact, for $150, full price, at Nordstrom. They had asked to go get some concealer, and so we went off for a very rare trip to the mall. On our way out we spotted them, tried them on, bought them instantly.

It was neither planned nor budgeted. They were far out of the normal price range of anything I would buy for a 13 year-old. I don’t think they have taken them off since, they may have even slept in them. The delight on their face at their height and comfort could have been measured in kilowatts.

For me, it was a bit of a way to exorcise some anger at learning that last year a former friend had bullied them, hard, in an approach called relational aggression, which is the pointing, whisper campaigns, talking about someone loudly in their hearing at the cafeteria lunch table, etc. Hard to track or prove, it had been an undercurrent in an already hard year. When it popped up again last week at a shared extracurricular activity, I finally got the full story.

Of course the other child’s mom went into deep denial (Not her baby! We must have misunderstood!), and as there went 11.5 years of social niceties and casual friendship, so did all of my give-a-s**t about it.

I did what any Mom would, I documented, I notified the school it had happened and asked for future monitoring, and I informed the parent that we would be watching, closely in the event that her commitments that it would stop proved themselves not worth the air they were promised in.

And then I took my oldest child to Sephora, got what they needed plus a little, and then as we saw those shoes on the way back to the car, I figured my husband would forgive me (sorry honey, I should have called) and I bought them. Not as a te absolvo to myself for not realizing that their reluctance for school and stress was something bigger than the loss of the friendship compounded by a fall consumed with the loss of their uncle, but because as a result of that and other things makes them think they don’t warrant their parents spending money on them. So they don’t like asking for things.

So I damn well did spend money and reminded them they are worthy of attention, money, and to feel good about themselves. If that was received as parent-y gibberish or it landed I don’t know, but there was a day wreathed in smiles (also hugs as they reveled in their ability to be taller than me).

We’ve been being extremely careful for months and months now. We filled the year with trips and that plus some fairly major unexpected expenses and all the deposits and architect fees we put into the renovation have made things tighter than usual. Add to that inflation and we’re just being super thoughtful before we spend any money on nonessentials.

And this was a nonessential, but in the end…also kind of essential.

Money really can’t buy happiness after a point. Given how often Elon Musk whines on Twitter I observe that no matter how wealthy you get, you can’t escape yourself. Often I feel as much or more delight hiking or sitting with a book as I do in the bigger experiences. I love to travel, and I used to like shopping a lot, although I really don’t now. But sometimes money buys not just a pair of shoes, but a demonstration of value, an experience of real joy along with the stuff.

And that is worth a broken budget once in a while.

When A Door Closes, A Window Opens

Hibiscus in bloom, Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Our summer of nothing and everything had more twists and turns than a miniseries plot, but somehow we landed in a peaceful Labor Day weekend.

The children are back to school – 4th and 8th grade respectively – and Sithean is off the market. There’s nothing to buy in our town, keeping the house show-ready was an exercise in exhaustion, and we may have the general lines of a solution on how we renovate without having to move out and to get the space we need.

We’ve jettisoned the architects, the builder we were talking to jettisoned us after we declined to go along with an out-of-control cost per square foot quote – lovely people all I’m sure, but not useful to us now, and we are starting the process of drawing and researching for a new builder.

We’ve taken the control back into our hands and it feels so, so much better, not to mention the relief we feel at no longer having people wander through our house on demand.

So what happens now is that we figure out the path forward without the stress of more architect bills, or without feeling like everything has to be a negotiation downward on a non-realistic construction quote. It’s freeing.

I mean, it wasn’t fun to be dumped by our builder, someone the neighbors raved about – but at the end of the day, he was never accessible, and non-responsive, so what he was to them was a different thing than what he was to us. And that’s okay, because in the end we need to focus on what we need. And what we need is reasonable and decent communication, for a start.

I do believe that sometimes the universe throws up walls in your way when you aren’t walking where you are supposed to go, and that happened here, over and over again. So much so that we started to believe the only thing we could do was move. Once we started to let go of some pre-conceived notions about what our options were things started to open up, in our minds and in the world.

For now, we’re staying put and getting estimates on our newly designed-by-us plan to get our needed space not by lifting the roof and flipping the stairs, a move that would require us to move out for 6+ months, but to go back and to the left, creating a bit of an L-shape for the house with a wrapping porch.

But for today, there’s pesto and zucchini fritters to make, and food prep for the week. For today, we can let go and let things play out over time.

And for another day, Sithean is home.

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.

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