Early Holiday Preview

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Garden Gate at Dusk – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November arrived, and with it the cold.  The other night it rained, and in the morning I found ice pockets in the downed leaves in the front yard.  The chickens seemed confused by the cold when we let them out to roam, and the heat lamp in their coop is on full-time now.

There’s nothing left to do outside other than tidy up the garden and yard for next year and prepare for the winter holidays, which are my favorites.  It’s time for a pot of chili and a fire in the wood stove.

It’s almost time to start baking for the holidays.  Maybe it feels early, but this is the time to start thinking about it.  There’s a few things that we always make – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookies, sugar cookie cutouts, and others that I’ll blog about, but most important is our very simple Peppermint Bark.  This is a great thing to make early and store in the refrigerator until it’s time to give gifts.  And it’s SO easy, and even small kids can do it with a little supervision

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Here’s what you need:

A double boiler or two pans, one with about an inch of water placed below one that is absolutely dry.  If water hits melting chocolate, it will make it grainy, but the water in the pan below will keep it from burning.

3 cups milk chocolate chips
3 cups white chocolate chips
Crushed candy canes
Sheet pan
Wax paper

Cover the sheet pan in wax paper.  In the double-boiler, over low heat, melt the chocolate chips.  Spread onto the wax paper-covered sheet pan, and wash out the chocolate pan.  Dry it completely either using an oven burner or a towel.  Repeat with the white chocolate chips, spreading carefully on top of the milk chocolate so they don’t combine.

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While still warm and soft, sprinkle in crushed candy canes.  Place in the fridge to chill.  When ready, break up into 2-3″ chunks and put in goody bags or boxes.   Let the kids eat the scraps and shards that aren’t big enough to give away.

 

Final Harvest

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November arrived with a huge windstorm that both postponed Trick-or-Treating until Saturday and brought down the leaves in volume from the maple, oak and ash trees.  Their final display of gold and red regularly causes me to catch my breath, but the weather is turning cold this weekend, with our first frost, so that beauty will turn into the beginnings of winter, more stark than lush.

Our lawn has a leaf coat on it now, but I don’t really like to rake, and honestly leaving it until spring is the environmentally sound thing to do, so I’m considering whether to leave it messy or not.  I try not to trade environmental soundness for appearances, but I hate being the only messy lawn on the block.  Still, I’m working on living with my discomfort.

The last pumpkin is out of the garden, and I pulled the last batch of Tomatillos, plus a few ripening tomatoes this morning in advance of the upcoming cold.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap our fledgling fruit trees in their winter fleece coats, and next weekend I’ll be pulling up all the plants and vines, spreading a layer of compost on the beds and calling it a day until next spring.

I feel like a squirrel at this time of year, stocking up for the winter.  A bushel of apples from our local orchard is in the fridge, while I wait for the delivery of my new dehydrator, bought with a wedding gift card.  I love dried apple chips, on salads and just to munch on, and I will make a batch of apple sauce, which we mostly use for baking.

In a few weeks we’ll head to a farm near my sister in upstate New York and buy bushels of squash, sweet potatoes, and at least 20 lbs of onions, which should hold us until around February.  Our farm share ended last week, and the last of the kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, garlic and shallots are being used up.  In October, November and December the food bill spikes while we stockpile and fill the kitchen with holiday goodies, and then it winds down through February.  While I know the grocery store will still be there, I think this is the way we humans are supposed to live, storing and preserving our food.  I do it imperfectly.  We can’t live on what we put up and store, and we’ll never have enough land to grow it all.   And that’s ok, because part of the strategy is investment in local farms.   This year, Vermont cheese fills my fridge, my vegetables and apples vary between zero and 6 food miles, I haven’t actually purchased an egg in months, and my meats now come within a 150-mile radius, which while it sounds like a lot, is 1/10th of the average of transported food and vegetables.  That doesn’t necessarily outweigh the chips in the pantry or the other purchases, but I’d rather do this imperfectly and incrementally than all at once.  For the same reason that diets fail, so does massive lifestyle change.  My daughter and I spent some time at the local grocery store last weekend, and this weekend we are headed to HMart to stockpile some our Asian pantry and freezer staples.

The cold draws me to the kitchen, always.  With the onset of chill, I feel pulled into the warmth of the oven.  Last weekend it was cold and rainy, so I spent as much of my time in the kitchen as I could.  This weekend will be the same – one last batch of Salsa Verde for holiday gifts, homemade potstickers, maybe a pot of chili.

One thing that happens at this time of year is that my fridge is filled with root veggies. With the final CSA pickup, and me not cooking as much due to some back-to-back travel it was time to use some things up – leeks, a very large golden beet, red and yellow onions, parsnip, carrots, mushrooms, a fennel bulb and a couple sweet potatoes went into the oiled pan, got covered in more olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then into the oven at 400 degrees F under aluminum foil. Roasted veggies are simple and delicious, needing only time and just a tiny bit of seasoning.

After about an hour, I tossed them a little, but left them covered.  After hour two I uncover them, and then roast them for another hour or two more, until the veggies are soft and caramelized.

While they roasted, I moved on to the pint of Peppadew peppers I picked at the farm this week.  Marinated stuffed Peppadews are a favorite of mine, but they are expensive.  These, on the other hand, are not and it’s the same thing.  I used this recipe, and now they are in the garage fridge waiting to be seeded and stuffed with goat cheese.

None of these recipes are particularly complex, which is part of the appeal.  There’s a place for intricate food preparation, but during stocking up season, the key is to keep the food moving into it’s final form, so when winter comes, you still have a touch of spring and summer to sustain you, literally and figuratively.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking From Scratch When You Have No Time

Most of the working parents I know are completely overtaxed.  A lot of non-parents too.  The sheer number of things to remember, stay on top of, clean, organize, send back to school, finish for work, do around the house…it’s sometimes amazing any of us manage to sleep at all.  And sleep we don’t – 30-and-40-somethings are some of the most sleep deprived people in history.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things to go by the wayside is homemade food.  Cooking is something I personally find pleasurable, but it’s not for everyone, and often the food you see on blogs and in cookbooks is full of expensive, Lentil Sausage Soup_Readysingle-use ingredients.  For someone who might get home at 6 and need to get food on the table for hungry kids, Frozen Pizza, Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, take-out and all the simple things rule.  And even I, who loves to try new things, has to look askance at some things – who the hell wants squid ink on their pasta anyway?  Even if my kids would eat it (they won’t) I see no reason to, and I’m a cheerful consumer of calamari.

But here’s the thing, you can actually do healthy, homemade dinners at home and be a busy working parent.  You laugh, but it’s true.  Here’s the tricks of the trade:

  1. You prep food in bulk.  On a given Sunday afternoon, I might make 80 meatballs, and portion them out in meal-sized bags before I pop them in the freezer.  Beef Bulgogi is tasty and a huge hit amongst kids as well as adults, gets put in the freezer to marinate as it thaws, and when we  grill it, we might eat 2-3 meals off of the makings.  Whatever ‘it’ is, make a lot of it, and use your freezer.
  2. You meal plan.  Honestly, this is one of the things that will make your life so much easier, because part of the mental load at night is ‘what’s for dinner?’.  This way, you know what’s for dinner and you can do #3 to be ready.
  3. Prep the food in advance.  Early, early in the morning or the night before is your absolute best friend.  Screw cooking when you are tired, stressed from your day and everybody is eating Goldfish to fill the gap.  Put soup makings in the crockpot first thing in the morning and come home to dinner – just add bread.  If you don’t have a crockpot, you need one.  Trust me on this – even if you have only 5 recipes you know everyone will eat, that’s 5 times a month you aren’t stressed about dinner.

    Put a pot roast in there with some broth and seasonings as well as some root veggies, come home and make noodles with a little butter on them, and dinner is ready.

    Plus your house smells amazing, and most importantly, you don’t have to think at the end of your day.  Brilliant you did the thinking in advance.

  4. Keep it simple.   Eggs and toast are great for dinner.  If you have an instant pot, try this amazing Macaroni and Cheese recipe that gives any restaurant a run for it’s money.   And it’s going to be on the table in about 12 minutes from the point you prep it.  Cook time is, no joke, 4 minutes.  You can’t get through a take out line that fast, Mama.  And I promise, even your picky eaters will eat it.  And hey look, if you throw in some hot dogs or kielbasa for extra measure – we all do what we gotta do.  Quesadillas – tortillas and cheese – are very popular amongst the kid set.  Add some cooked chicken or something.  All done!
  5. Do keep some pre-made food on hand.  Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken is a staple here – add rice, a little broccoli, and dinner is served.  I got a rice cooker as a gift over 14 years ago and it’s still going strong, I put the rice in, add water, press a button and….I don’t burn the pot any more.  Put out the word, I bet someone has one they don’t use.
  6. You can honestly freeze almost anything.  Homemade pizza dough.  Homemade cookie dough.  Broth.  Leftovers put aside for another meal.  Even bread.  The key here is to have a bunch of things you can pull out and eat.

What you do have to do is some advance planning.  But a little bit of it goes a long way.

What are your tips and tricks for getting dinner on the table?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meal Planning

It’s been raw and rainy over the last 24 hours.  I braved the rain last night to head to the garden, where tomatoes are still ripening, albeit not for much longer.  We haven’t had a freeze yet, but the average temperatures have been dropping week over week, so by next weekend I’ll need to clean out the garden completely.    I’ve been holding out because the tomatillos are still producing, and I am getting Sungold and San Marzano tomatoes consistently.   The Mexican Torch Sunflowers are still in bloom as well, defying every reasonable expectation for summer flowers.  IMG_1586

Nonetheless, after another batch or two of sauce, it will be time to close up shop for the winter, pulling vines, raking, and rearranging the bricks.

I’d like to finish the garden fence as well, assuming we can before it gets too cold.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll wrap our baby fruit trees in fleece jackets for the winter, clean up the yard, and start battening down the hatches for cold weather.

We still haven’t been apple picking, so we’ll squeeze that in on Sunday, but a few local, fresh apples have worked their way into our last few weeks of the CSA, as have winter squash, so tonight we’ll be working our way through a batch of Apple and Brie soup with Pumpkin Granola, along with a salad, fresh bread, and a roasted chicken for the kids

We’ve been lucky over the last several days to enjoy deliciously warm fires in the wood stove.  After we bank the fire for the night with one final log, we close the door to the living room, and in the morning the room is still cozy warm.   We invested in some new log racks this year, and we can now store all our wood on the porch and in the house, which makes fires so much easier.

We’ve taken another step towards local food here – starting next month we’ll see monthly deliveries from Walden Local Meat , key to our efforts to reduce our food miles, control meat intake a little bit better, and stop eating quite so much residual plastic.  While the $207 each month for 10 or 11 pounds of meat, another couple pounds of local fish and ground beef and bacon added in is a large chunk of our grocery budget, I expect it will be offset by us not having to think about running to the store for ingredients.  I’ve ordered our Christmas Turkey as well, ensuring our holiday dinner is taken care of with a click of my mouse.

Which gets me to the really important point.  While I love to make new recipes, and I keep lots of ingredients on hand so that we can eat a variety of food, most of the meals here are based on what we might have on hand.  I have a lot of Salsa Verde and chicken, so Enchiladas Verdes are going to be on the menu every couple of weeks.   I turned a roaster chicken into Chicken Soup with Rice last night, adding popovers for a quick and easy side.  I buy flour in 25-lb quantities so that we always have baking ingredients around, and of course we always have plenty of eggs now.

I know I have about two weeks of lettuce and tomatoes for salads before they are replaced by roasted vegetables baking in the oven once or twice a week, or cold-weather greens like spinach.

So what does a menu plan here look like?  Well, it’s flexible – we might get busy and a labor-intensive meal gets pushed for something similar.  What have we had a lot of lately, and do we need a break from repetition?  What needs to be used up?  We have a few bananas past their prime, so banana bread or muffins.  We also have a pileup of root veggies, so a roasting pan full on Sunday night is probably just the thing.

What kind of time do we have?  If there’s lots of commitments, we might make something simple, like Rosemary Ranch Chicken, or if there’s lots of time I might make something more intricate.
Also key are kid requests – no matter what’s in season, we periodically spend the time chopping and prepping for Taco Night, complete with homemade guacamole, because, well – it’s always a hit.  The key here is not to over-plan, but to constantly assess who’s eating, what’s around, and whether everyone has a good appetite.

Here’s our meal plan for this weekend:

Friday Night: Chicken Soup with Rice, Popovers, Salad

Saturday: Eggs and Bacon for Breakfast, lunch out or whatever’s available, dinner Apple Brie Soup with Pumpkin Granola, Salad, Bread, Chicken

Sunday: I’ll get up and bake – banana muffins to go with scrambled eggs or something similar.  Lunch will be leftovers, and dinner will be roasted veggies and some kind of grilled meat, maybe turkey burgers, which are always a hit.

Simple Roasted Veggies:

Cut up a variety of root veggies – mushrooms, onions, beets, carrots, leeks, sweet potatoes, turnips – whatever you have.
Drizzle with olive oil, salt and balsamic vinegar
Bake at 375 for approximately 4 hours, occasionally turning.  Remove foil after 2 hours

Veggies will caramelize with the oil and balsamic vinegar.  Make enough for leftovers.

Monday: This is a holiday here, and the kids head to their Dad’s after breakfast.  Dad just bought a new house, so the kids are excited to go set up their rooms.  We’ll probably make pancakes or waffles for breakfast, have leftovers again for lunch, and dinner will be something Eli and I enjoy, like Grilled Scallops with Salsa Verde and Salad, along with leftover roast veggies.

Happy Eating!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Living In Two Seasons

IMG_1539Winter on the farmlet is peaceful.  We do less, generally, and relax more.  But in the months leading up to winter, there’s a lot to do, so it’s best to start early and space everything out.  In this place, we live in two seasons simultaneously,

In the garden,  the gorgeous – and enormous – stalks of Mexican Torch Sunflowers continue to bloom.  These were a surprise, the only variety of sunflower that took root in the garden, out of the several types I planted.  While they have dwarfed the fig tree they grow around, it seems to be alright under there.  Butterflies seem to love them, so they will make a reappearance next year, although maybe next time I’ll give the fig some space.

I’ve got a few more weeks of tomatoes, and my Tomatillos are just starting to get ripe, so I have a bit more canning to do, but that too, is winding down.  The rest of the pumpkins are almost ready too, and I’ll probably see a few more peppers as well.  By around October 15th, I’ll be pulling out plants and prepping for next year.  I love to garden, but I equally love putting the garden to bed for the season, just as much a pleasurable part of the rhythm of the year here as planting and harvesting.  There’s a satisfaction in getting things ready for the next round.

This year that means we need to cut back and prune the overgrown raspberries, which have started to take over more than their share of the yard.  I never did get to dividing irises and peonies, so that will have to be done next year.  All over, it’s time to prune back the summer growth.

The chimney sweeps were here latst week, and a half a cord of seasoned firewood will arrive on Friday.  The last chore in winter heating is furnace burner cleaning before we flick it on for the season.  We can only supplement our heat with the wood stove, but it keeps the living room nice and cozy.

The bunnies will – when it gets good and cold, get a tarp over their hutch and run.  I’ve tried a few options for insulation for them over the years, and that seems to be the simplest to keep them safe from wind and weather.  We bring them in for a night or two if the weather gets dangerously cold, but generally they stay where they are.

We’ll keep cleaning the chicken coop as long as we can into the winter, and they will get a heat lamp and an electric waterer that keeps everything from freezing.  Eventually though, we have to let it be until spring, other than surface cleans.  Extra pine shavings laid down every few weeks help, but it gets hard to clean in the coldest weather.

I will also fill the freezer so that we don’t have to go out when the weather is bad.  I’ve got a few months to do it.  It’s interesting, always living in the now and 3 months ahead, but it’s the only way I ever want to be.  When I’m blanching and freezing kale in June, or canning tomatoes in August, it’s an investment in the future.   I’m ready for chilly nights, and when they come, I’ll be daydreaming about the next garden….

 

 

 

Preparing for Autumn

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The weather turned chilly at the end of last month, and the nights have stayed that way.  Slowly the trees are turning from green to orange and red.  The smallish people have started to adjust to school, the fall raspberries are ripening, and hoodies are becoming standard morning attire.

Fall is most definitely coming.  I see it in the way the vines and tomato plants are dying down, as I rush to harvest the last of the Sungold tomatoes, our favorites.  The San Marzano tomatoes are ripening as well, and they are the best for sauce.  Tickets for our fair are on sale, and extra blankets are back in use.

Now that the wedding is over, Eli and I have turned our attention to preparing for the cold weather.  The chimney sweeps come next week to make sure the wood stove is clean and safe, and wood needs to be ordered.  Tomatoes still need to be canned, the rest of the basil needs to be turned into Pesto and frozen, and there’s Tomatillos to turn into Salsa Verde, so this weekend, in and around our usual things, is a canning weekend.  I’ve got the first 2 batches done, and there’s more to come.

We have 4 pumpkins ripening in the garden,  plus one white one that has already taken up residence on the porch.  4 more is enough for Halloween and some roasted pumpkin dishes besides, although we’ll probably let the kids do the pumkin patch thing – the rule for us is that you can pick a pumpkin as big as you can carry.  One of ours will hopefully be put aside for my favorite Christmas side dish, the wildly indulgent Dorie Greenspan recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good.

Over the next few weeks, air conditioners need to be pulled out of windows, and we need to finally finish the garden fence and gate before we tuck the garden in for the winter.  All this work will allow us to settle into the holidays and then winter, and relax.

Which is good because we’re ready for the pace of things to slow down a bit.  This year has been a busy one, full of projects and changes, and when we take stock, Eli and I are both proud of what we’ve accomplished and also just, well, really tired.

Tonight is a repeat performance of Chicken Souvlaki Bowls – it’s grey, rainy and chilly out, so we’ll enjoy sitting inside, with some of the last of the season’s sunflowers to keep us company.  Summer has a few days yet, and we are going to relish them all, but look forward to more chilly nights and warm days to come.

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Little Wedding on the Fairy Hill

Watching the Guests Arrive – Photo by E.Capozzi

It happens like that.  The things that are far away all of a sudden arrive.  The days go from hot to cool.  School buses start to make an appearance.  And for us, the day we had been planning for since the winter – the wedding.

I write this a just over a week later, on a quiet Sunday morning.  Everyone is asleep except me, and we’re finally starting to truly rest.

Everyone started arriving Thursday, and slowly the list of things on my to-do list started to get checked off, and new ones stopped being added.  The weather was due to be perfect.  And it was.  The sunflowers were in bloom everywhere and we covered our house and the wedding venue with them.  

I drove to the airport to pick up my best friend and Matron of Honor, Liz, and her husband Joe, and got a much-needed hug from both of them.  The two of them are part of my life’s bedrock, having seen me through some of the hardest things, and that they were with me for one of the happiest things seems only fitting.  They immediately dove in to help, and even gave us space for a quiet moment a few hours before the ceremony.

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Saying Hello Before it All Begins – Photo by J. Capozzi

Falling in love again in your 40s is a supreme act of faith.  Making a second-time-around promise in front of 75 people is a public act of affirmation.   For us, this was the thing that was always supposed to be, and our family and friends showed up to support.  Our neighbor Jay played and sang the kids and I down the aisle, and Melissa, his wife and one of my closest friends, officiated.  My sister made the beautiful cakes, flavors like vanilla with blackberry lavender filling.  Joe and Eli put it all together.  Our family surrounded us, and friends we haven’t seen in years, plus those we see all the time.

It was beautiful.  We started all in a rush because Statler, our flower chicken, decided to try to escape her basket, and chicken-chasing wasn’t built into the schedule (flower chickens being an as-yet insufficiently tapped wedding trend) to walk down the aisle.

“It’s Time” Candice said.

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Walking Down the Aisle – Photo by S. Astyk

On December 21, 2016 I started over at Sithean.  On August 30, 2019 I started all over yet again, but this time it’s we, not me.  I can’t wait to see what’s next…..

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Hello at the Reception – Photo by J. Capozzi