Sky Fall

Sometimes everything just goes along as it does. Seasons change, harvests get harvested, days pass in rapid succession in our full life. And then, every now and again, the world spins off its axis.

Which is what happened on the night of October 20th. The phone rang at 10:24 pm, long after sleep has usually come for me.

The phone never rings that late.

Grief, to me, is like the ocean. Vast, inexorable, with waves that can pull you off of your feet and riptides that can pull you under as you try to hold yourself upright carrying heavy loads in each arm that you cannot put down no matter how badly you want to. Rapid fire, one after another the waves take you down until you are too exhausted keep standing, but stand you must.

Eventually it is more like a gentle tide on the beach. There, but peaceful most of the time, except when the occasional giant wave soaks you and takes you off your footing. They become less and less, but the surprise waves still arrive unbidden, at a smell, a memory, a moment. The heavy loads are lighter, smaller, then eventually they have begun to wash away.

That second part takes a long time. For some it never comes. And for us now, the grief is too fresh. My beloved brother in law, gone too fast and too soon, leaving my sister and her daughters alone against the buffeting water and falling horizon, too young to be a widow, too young to be fatherless. My sister was fortunate to have found a real love story in her other half, and that story should not have ended the way it did.

Too soon, brother mine. Too soon.

So we grieve. People send food, far too much food. More food than anyone could possibly eat in 2 lifetimes, food that tells us they care even if we have no appetite whatsoever.

There are calls and texts and questions “How are you?”. The real answer is “Terrible” and that’s just my grief. How do you watch your sister realize, over and over that their person is gone and never coming back? The realities are agonizing, too much to bear. The rest of your life is too long to love someone and lose them and face it alone.

All the things that are left, no longer needed where he is. Phone, car keys, shoes. Reminders of what he left behind. A world of 5 is now 4, wondering how they will ever do without him, looking at the the things that are left and wishing for just one more moment of their use.

So we do what we can. We thank the folks who brought food, we tidy up, we offer support, we field the calls. The world has wrapped us all up in a loving embrace to grieve with us. We hug, and we cry, and for the moment decide that worrying about Covid-19 has to move to the background.

We cry some more. The crying passes, but then another wave, and more arrive.

We prepare for the inevitable – a funeral, a final goodbye, the return to daily life that will be emptier, one less. The world is not a better place without him. It is far worse.

Sometimes life goes along as it does. And then every now and again, the sky ruptures and falls down upon us and the waves wash over us and the pain is too much to bear but bear it we must.

Goodbye, my brother. I miss you. Too soon.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Just as all the October busyness came to an end, our son caught a cold (thankfully, just a cold) that lingered and we got it too, but in the adults it was a weird cold/stomach bug thing that apparently is floating around. For the first time since I had the Norovirus in my 20s, food was not only the last thing on my mind, but the worst thing I could possibly think about. Thankfully Eli and I tracked about 36 hours behind one another, so while I was down for the count other than work meetings he was taking care of kids and animals, and when he needed to be let off the hook, I could take over, even for a little while.

I returned to life after days with little energy and no appetite for the bounty of fruits and vegetables that fills our home, other than the apples. When I could eat though, I recognized that we needed something simple, filling and with nutritional density, so I pulled up the recipe I’d seen pre-illness of Homemade Hamburger Helper. Sure enough, I still had some shredded zucchini in the fridge from last year, and I dumped the whole frozen block of it in the pot to cook, and got at least some nutrition into everyone. Casserole-type dishes aren’t my usual, but the do have their place. I would modify this one next time, making it a bit thicker, maybe cooking the noodles separately, but as comfort food goes, this one hit the spot. It also used up some things in the fridge and freezer, so it will get some tweaks and be moved into the ‘save for cold winter night‘ column.

HalfbakedHarvest.com’s Homemade Hamburger Helper

The weather is scheduled to finally cool in the next several days, but has been unseasonably warm for weeks. A few more tomatoes, and lots of squash are still ripening, and the weather has allowed me to leave the tropical plants outside longer than usual, but it’s now time for them to make their trek inward.

Around all of this democracy in the US continues to undergo earthquakes, the earth is on the climate brink, and the pandemic, while abating for now, is raging it’s way across the earth. Illness dogs one of my dear uncles. All of it has an effect of destabilization, giving the sense that there’s nothing to hold onto. My missives of apples and flowers and weather and dinner seem small in comparison. We live in stormy times, but what else is there to anchor to if we don’t hold to the firmament of home?

When your stomach wobbles, the world shrinks – you can’t make a meal plan when food is anathema, you can’t plan your day or even know whether a cup of ginger tea is going to help or create more unpleasantness, and you muddle through responsibilities, doing only what needs to be done, skipping everything else. So too when the world wobbles it distracts, throws us off, creates anxiety and an inability to make solid plans as well. We’ve all had a lot of stress in the last few years, and a little grace is important.

Oddly, one of the things that makes me most hopeful is articles about the tiny intricacies of home life. The Washington Post has a home maintenance series that talks about how to clean your gutters or preserve kale and potatoes. The reality is we all want our food to last longer and need the gutters cleaned. Food Network is explaining what certain food items are and how they are used, like evaporated milk. Everyone has recipes, but these are useful bits of information that actually help people, instead of wondering what some politician or celebrity is doing. They center their writing on us, not them, and are something we all can use.

The next thing we need is how to play certain card games and start local clubs. Mass media would do a lot worse if they talked about how to bring a supper club back into vogue (and of course everyone who can should be vaccinated, because that’s how you also invest in your community, by not spreading disease by accident). We need to start borrowing one another’s tools, bringing a casserole by, and hosting Supper Clubs and maybe we should all learn Whist. This is not a lyrical wax of the poetic to olden days when women wore high heels to breakfast and half of people were shut out of things on the basis of color or sexual orientation or all sorts of other things. It’s a hearkening to what’s been lost and what we all need – community. I don’t really want to learn Whist, but we do need to get back to talking to one another and the only way to do that is at ground level.

Remember the pop song Breakfast at Tiffany’s ? It’s about a couple about to break up because they have nothing in common, except they both liked the Audrey Hepburn film. It’s also a seemingly good articulation of where we are as a society. I don’t know that big sweeping things – these are important, of course – are the only thing that can save us. We need to talk to one another too, even if the only thing we can agree on is that the food needs more salt.

The size of our worlds may get smaller, but the horizons may grow much larger than we think.

No-Recipe Recipes

It’s almost impossible to imagine that it’s already mid-October. Time seems to keep jumping forward at impossible speeds. We watched our local Fair open and close, and even braved it a couple times ourselves at not-so-busy times, rang in the number 9 for our son and went to visit my sister and her family in upstate NY, all within the month.

Ferris Wheel in the distance

The garden is still producing spottily so I’m letting it run it’s course for a few more weeks. I have this weird aversion to ripping it out if even there’s a tiny chance of something ripening. And there are still – mystery squash, made mysterious by me forgetting what variety I planted and then proceeding to forget to go look in my seeds for the all-too-findable answer, are readying themselves in abundance, which is just fine with me, and a few lingering tomatoes and peppers still appear. With another week of 70-degree days ahead I expect a little more summer food out of it yet.

A trip to my sister’s invariably means a trip to the Carrot Barn and bulk fall foods to store and preserve. This time we came home not just with squashes and onions and sweet potatoes but also with half a bushel of tomatoes to can and slice. Not feeling like steaming the skins off and pureeing them, I instead decided to oven roast them before freezing.

Oven roasted is simple. Slice the tops off, slice them in half, and place on an oiled baking sheet. Roast them at 450 for 30 minutes and set aside to cool.

Peel the skins off and remove as much of the seed pulp as possible – squish them in your hand a little, then place in bags to freeze. When you defrost them they turn into sauce quickly (recipe to come). The key is to deal with them quickly, because hyper-ripe tomatoes go south fast. You can slice off any localized soft or black spots in tomatoes safely and still slice or roast them (really, you can) but typically you have about a day to use them.

I ended up with about 8 tomatoes left to use as slicers this week, so we’ll be eating a lot of tomatoes. Which is just fine with me, as everything I want these days is flavored with autumn.

Despite the warmth, it was time for roasted vegetables and a bit of creative, October-ish use of veggies, what I call the no-recipe recipes. Things that you just throw in the oven or in a pan, using what you have. Doing this is frugal, creative, and seasonal, plus healthy – all the things. One sweet potato I cut was the size of my forearm, and half of it remains in the fridge

We had 2 cabbages, so I sliced up one in an oiled pan with 4 onions and 2 Gala apples, and topped it with a bunch of sausage sliced in half. I added a few pats of butter and 1/4 cup of apple cider and roasted it for about 2 hours. I covered the pan with foil for all but the last 20 minutes or so. When you cook cabbage like this, it ‘melts’ into an ever-so-sweet and savory bed for the sausage, onion and apples.

Add to that a pan of beets, turnips, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots drizzled with olive oil and about 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of rosemary, then roasted at 375 degrees F for about 4.5 hours and you have a tray of deliciously caramelized veggies that can be eaten with just about anything. Roasted veggies are remarkably filling and flexible and you don’t need to have a mix – try baking whole onions that way, or just a tray of whatever you have.

With a lightly salted plate of sliced tomatoes and a bit of leftover naan, Monday’s dinner dinner was simple, filling and we ate no less than 8 kinds of vegetables. Not to mention the turnips really needed to get eaten, so it was helpful in more than one ways. To eat seasonally and not waste much food takes work, but the work is so satisfying.

We bought fresh yellow and orange peppers in NY, so tonight Eli is making stuffed peppers with our Walden Local ground beef, and that too is an amalgamation of ideas – meat, sauce, cheese, cauliflower rice, put in the air fryer, which is a handy little tool we acquired for free from someone who didn’t want theirs.

Our food abundance is also a race against time to use up the things that need to get used, and that drives all our meals for a while. We’ll get back to intricate recipes in winter, but fall produce, commingled with the last few tastes of summer calls for use-what-you-have eating in it’s simplest form.

At The End of The World, Plant a Garden

Part 1 of lots….

I remember a time when living in the US and occasionally traveling abroad, Americans were known as often loud and ignorant of other cultures, yes, but more importantly than we ever knew, we were seen as happy. “What are you all so happy about, anyway” asked a colleague in Munich, just after Bush v. Gore.

These days between political polarity and climate angst and the pandemic, cheery outlooks on life seem harder to come by. Everyone is mad or worried about something – I should add that they should be, absolutely, but let’s talk about mindset for a minute – and added to that is a nice topping of performative rage on social media. When I found myself apologetic for the lack of diversity in my community I received back “Well, you could move“.

Well, we could. But we’re planted here, and I’d rather do things to enact change than leave the home and space we adore. To live in a more diverse community and that would be valuable for sure, but to leave our home, the animals, the home we’re invested in and the soil we enrich and the gardens and trees and community we’ve so lovingly invested in would be a loss for us, and I believe for Sithean as well. We are tending and loving our land with the intent to leave it better than we found it. While 1.24 acres isn’t a lot of land, it’s enough to grant us a garden, fruit trees and a somewhat curtains-optional environment.

But this generalized sense of needing to feel bad about all the things in order to demonstrate commitment and depth of emotion seems a little…off to me. So I thought I would unpack it a little, and talk about some things anyone feeling like they aren’t doing enough.

So let’s talk about Climate Change for now. What are the things that don’t cost big piles of money – or any – that you, or I can do today? Recognizing that it’s fall and I’m writing this as the growing season is coming to an end in the Northern hemisphere, here’s some carefully chosen things you can do whether you have land or not, in the coming months.

You see, hope is about taking steps. Is one little compost bin going to change the world? No, but 50 might, and if all 50 people got one more person to add composting that’s 100, and then the next 50 and the next 50. Remember that Mother Theresa quote “We can do no great things, only small things with great love“?

So in the spirit of yes, there’s little time to act, but most of us will fail if we try to change everything about our lives at once, here’s a few things you can do.

  1. Compost. Whether you have land and can put up barrels (or just find a location for a pile if you aren’t in a heavily populated area) or need to enroll in a municipal composting program, composting is something everyone can do. And if you have neither land or one of those programs you can still do it! Have a rose bush in the window or on a balcony and once a week feed it your leftover coffee grounds. When you steam broccoli or kale or chard or cauliflower use the leftover water to feed your plants. You do not need a fancy compost container for the counter, anything will do. Need some help? Composting for beginners, right here!
  2. Find local food producers and buy from them as you are able. I’m fortunate to live in Massachusetts, which has an incredible local food movement I can take advantage of, but almost everywhere I’ve been has at least a farmer’s market, local farms or even local wineries. Between Eli and I we’ve found local meat, tea, flour and bread products, we have our garden and our CSA that we share with the neighbors, apple orchards….I haven’t found local coffee, so we try to buy as much as possible from Tiny Footprint. Many farmers markets take SNAP, and if you can, gleaning is also a great way to get free food and support your local farmers and community. Wherever you are, there’s a farmer or a community garden that needs you. The week I spent near Lancaster Central Market remains one of my favorite food memories ever, as is the pesto and fresh pasta I ate in Italy from a local shop, or the pesto-swirled minestrone I ate in the Cinque Terre.
  3. Plant something. Even some lettuce in a bowl – dirt, seeds, water – is a single ingredient of just a meal or two, but it’s one less plastic bagged salad to purchase. Imagine if we all did. But even if it’s just a tiny tree on a balcony, you are capturing carbon, my friend! Every time you water your tiny whatever-tree, you are
  4. Eat a meatless meal. I’m actually not an advocate for worldwide veganism or anything like it, but I do think that my family and I need to get better about thinking of meat as a condiment rather than the central component of a plate. Still, one meal a week is just grand. There’s so many choices that you probably already know and like, such as spaghetti.

5. Vote. At this point, it really matters at the local level as well as the national one to get involved. If you want a say, it’s a simple process. Add a letter or a call or a visit to your congressperson to ice the cake, but really – unless we want the world to burn, we have to care enough to take the steps to make it happen.

6. Bonus round: have a buy-nothing month. Eat down your freezer and fridge and pantry (full disclosure, even in buy-nothing months I have to purchase milk and fruit for kids lunches if there’s nothing from the garden or CSA, so it’s a buy almost nothing month). Don’t got to the store, just eat it up. By the end of the month you may have some fairly interesting meals, but if you try to view it as a fun challenge for the family rather than an experience of bleak deprivation, you might find it’s something you can all get into. Kids love a challenge.

And that is the true key. It would be easy to get all depressed and angsty about the future, and if you did, no one would blame you. But depressed and feeling like you have no power to change anything at all is a surefire recipe for nothing to ever change. The first thing we must do is feel hopeful, do things we are proud of, and build on that feeling.

I’ll have lots more to say on this, so consider this Part 1 of ‘How to live with Climate Change’. Today’s lesson – even the small stuff matters.

How Does My Garden Grow – September 2021

The garden is a riot of vines and flowers these days, with pumpkins and squashes having long given up any semblance of order, and growing anywhere they feel like. I have to step carefully just to enter, and I’ve lost track of what might be under the endless squash vines.

Tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers and peppers still ripen, but the end is near for them and I think I pulled the last zucchini this morning.

The basil has died completely, and the last batch of pesto made it to the freezer. I still have preserving to do – tomatoes, salsa verde, and grape jam, but soon enough that will be the end of the line, and all there will be left is to harvest squashes. In addition to our ever-prolific (also delicious) Rouge Vif d’Etampes pumpkins, the spaghetti squashes are rampant this year. Stuffed spaghetti squash is a winter favorite for Eli and I, healthy comfort food at it’s best.

The days are still warm now, but it starts to get chilly overnight, enough that fewer windows are open.

Eli and I took the RV out for one last trip, our last of the year to do some hiking and just to spend some time togeher.

Despite the wonderful September weather, we have a lot to do at home, so our tiny house on wheels needs to be put away. We had some water issues in it with all the rain, so Eli started on the renovations to it we would have done anyway, although maybe not so soon. He transformed the dining nook, which turns into a spare bed. I’m fortunate to have a house that is permeated with art, which is in turn inspired by the gardens I work so hard on. A photograph of one of our Mexican Torch Sunflowers became the painted art that we eat at while we camp.

Final bits of home study paperwork have surfaced for the adoption, testing our patience with the Backyard Ultramarathon-meets-Alice in Wonderland’s Caucus Race style process. But we’re almost there, and it’s just a bit more to go.

I haven’t done as much canning and preserving this year as last. It’s been a less-than-ideal year for tomatoes, and we haven’t dried or preserved really any. But we’re in good shape generally, and our lives are still filled with the bounty of the season

Soon enough we’ll begin to stockpile winter vegetables and cooking will focus on soups, stews and fire up the woodstove on chilly evenings.

The last few zucchinis helped me perfect my zucchini fritter recipe. For some reason I got obsessed with the idea that I could make a perfect zucchini fritter, and went through multiple large zucchinis in service to the idea. After multiple challenges where the flavor was perfect but the fritters fell apart every single time, I finally realized that pan frying was just not going to work, so I baked them on high heat instead.

And then they just worked.

Healthy Zucchini Fritters

1 large zucchini
1 medium onion
1 tsp salt
2/3 cup almond flour
1/2 cup parmesan cheese
2 eggs
1/2 tsp garlic powder

Shred the zucchini and the onion in a food processor. Place in a colander over a bowl and mix in the salt. Let sit for at least 30 minutes to drain water out of the zucchini.
Rinse the zucchini and onion mixture and let drain for a few minutes. Then squeeze the mixture to remove as much water as possible.

Drain the onion and zucchini using salt to remove the moisture

Add the remaining ingredients and stir. Preheat oven to 425, and line 2 baking sheets with foil. Drop on sheet and flatten, then bake for 20-25 minutes, flipping them once carefully. Serve with any number of dipping sauces – applesauce, sriracha mayonnaise, or honey mustard.

The fritters will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, but should be reheated in an air fryer or the oven.

Remembering to Listen

A shared view of our little corner of the world

I tend think everyone who can remember, remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in an all-team on a project on an Air Force Base when the word came in that there was ‘a fire’ in the World Trade Center. The conference room we were in had recently had a television installed on the wall – this is common now, but it was ever-so-new then. We turned on CNN and watched the second plane hit.

Shortly after the base was evacuated for anyone other than critical personnel. The traffic out of Boston was astounding. My cell phone, in those days a tiny flip phone, didn’t work. I finally got through to my Mom, who wanted me to come home. I couldn’t – I just wanted to be alone. I drove to the beach. I looked out at the view of a Nuclear Power Plant and wondered if that, too, was on a list. I realized there was no safety anywhere.

And yet there I was, perfectly safe. The news and the pictures of the towers dominated for weeks. People speak of the unity, and it was there, but what was also there is what I can only call ‘Patriotismo’ – the idea that if you disagreed with war, you were un-American. The idea that if you didn’t have a flag sticker, you were un-American. That if you were brown, you were suspect and inherently un-American.

It was the macho approach, and there wasn’t much room for nuance.

I saw that too, and I saw the first ideas that if you dissented with the prevailing wisdom, you were un-American, or worse. I sometimes think that I can draw a straight line from there to the rage posting on Facebook, to ‘purity tests’ I started to see a few years ago become more pervasive on both sides of the political coin, that if you were not sufficiently enraged about something, your feelings and beliefs might be not just insufficient, but something worse. By far, this is exhibiting itself most dangerously in violence and misinformation on the right, but it’s also on the left. We have stopped listening to one another.

Yesterday I took a long, peaceful walk, did more canning and preserving, more house chores, and went and fetched my kids from their Dad’s. There was no big ceremonies here, but I did go spend some time with my neighbors. Melissa, who in many ways sees the world differently from me, but in many ways the same, has been my treasured friend since I moved here.

I often think I might not have made it through the first winter without my neighbor’s generosity – from the first meeting, where they sent us home with Chicken Broccoli and Ziti and fresh eggs, to her husband Jay’s plowing my driveway, unasked, to the countless evenings we just wandered over for wine and conversation. Over the last several years, she has often listened to my rage and frustration at the people who support policies that actively harm my family and to the impact and fear that Covid-19 has brought into my life. The day before I started coughing on April 4, 2020, I was running 10 miles. 2 weeks later, and for 6 months after, I couldn’t go for a walk without catching my breath. And I know I’ve had it easy compared to some.

It was not my grace that preserved our friendship, I was too angry for that. It was hers.

Melissa listened, valued what I said whether she would agree or not, and valued my friendship enough to keep at it. It’s not without trepidation that we navigate tough topics. Vaccination, politics, that the personal is political and vice versa, and what that means. It’s hard, and when we hit those topics, we both feel the stress and the weight of them.

But at the end of the day, we value one another. Our advice, our advocacy for one another. We don’t agree about everything, but that’s ok. I’ve recognized that in her listening to me, even when she has wanted to walk away, she’s exhibited maturity I can learn from. I’d like to think she’s learned from me too, but that’s not the really important part.

I turned off social media for the most part about 6 months ago. I’m still engaged in the news and social issues, but I think I’ve decided that there is still, 20 years later, not enough room for nuance there. If you listen to people, put down the computers and the phones and walk the dogs together, you can hear what’s in their hearts. You can find a way across the divides that get in the way and find a common understanding. We don’t have to agree, but we do need some grace.

I believe most of us are good people who will help our neighbors when they need it. 9/11 brought us evil, but also thousands of acts of good. No one cared who you voted for that day, we cared that each other was okay.

Every day I go to the garden she & Jay helped me build. We share a CSA. They welcomed me, the kids, and then Eli with their full hearts. We share trees. The love and commitment to this place, and the knowledge that as we grow old, the worn path between our homes will continue to be used.

It’s easy to be surrounded with people you agree with, but I have never learned from the easy stuff. And so, 20 years and a day after American political divisions turned into cracks that turned into fissures that turned into cravasses we could all lose our humanity in, my gratitude is for a friend who never stopped listening, and for how lucky E and I are to have them.

How to Live

View from above the canopy, Vermont Institute of Science (VINS) – Photo by KRM

The heat broke last weekend, and September rolled in just a few days ago. Summer is over, just like that. Finally, finally I hit the kitchen with relish rather than dread of the heat. Snuggling under the covers to write with a mug of steaming coffee in the morning feels delicious. The fall home-maintenance spree continues, and between chores and food preservation and some other big items, there is more to do than there is time. It’s also expensive this year – we need a new chimney liner and the furnace needs some intensive maintenance, things that make us glad we have the savings to cover it.

The children alternately rail against the fading of the unscheduled bliss of another summer and look forward to their friends again. Eli and I continue our near-endless preparations for fall and winter, with home maintenance, food preservation, and continued cleaning and organizing. The bunnies are also doing their part. They are almost done with their August moulting, in which they generally look bedraggled and natty, covered in hair balls for about a month before their winter coats come in.

And in the midst of it all, my daughter and I snuck away to a tiny cottage in a remote corner of Vermont for a girls weekend that had been near-infinitely postponed and relocated due to Covid-19. Originally set for Newport, RI in May of 2020, a few days ago we found ourselves in a tiny cottage on a Wagyu beef farm in Vermont, about 7 miles from Okemo Mountain and infinitely far from almost everything. Which was just fine with us.

I came home to prepare for the increased busyness of fall. It’s time to start the dehydrator – with cherry tomatoes and apples alternating. Our meal plans and life work better if I can do a lot of food preparation on the weekends. The basil is still thriving, but not for many weeks longer, so pesto gets made every few days, and mostly gets tucked away in the freezer for the colder months.

At the end of just that one food-preservation effort, we’ll have enough to have it every couple weeks until next July, when the first fresh batch is available. This year I may freeze a little fresh basil and water as well to have it for other recipes. There’s nothing that beats the smell of food made with fresh basil, and pesto is a favorite of ours. The options for it’s use are near-endless.

The first of the ripe tomatillos became Salsa Verde , and there is more to come in the next few weeks. And the zucchini, which i neglected to pick for a few days, has once again grown into baseball bat-esque appearance. We’re still eating last year’s zucchini relish, so I set out to find a recipe for something a little different. I’m hoping to share my zucchini fritter recipe with you soon, but it needs a little refining – the taste is amazing, the look and texture not quite there yet.

Our life doesn’t have much balance in it. During the week, I am tied to the phone and WebEx nearly constantly, often for 9 and 10 hours a day, with work deliverables on top of that. When the kids are home, Eli is the primary parent, with me rushing in to help when I have a moment. He parents while managing an exhaustive number of chores inside and out. And we’re still never done, although we always make a ton of progress. The kids are well-fed and loved, even if they have had a little too much screen time this summer, and to be honest, throughout the pandemic.

By the time the evenings roll around I’m often too tired to take on much other than any dinner prep and cleanup that must be done. Which means things pile up to be addressed throughout the weekend, and that often makes for really busy weekends. A need to focus on preserving and cooking and indoor chores often means a direct choice to watch the weeds get bigger. Outdoor chores get selected, and the laundry waiting to be folded and managed piles up and we eat more Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken than is probably the right amount. Parenting fills much of Eli’s day, interrupting work on the book that we’ve both decided is worth more to write then him taking one-off illustration jobs. When we realized the constant water had created a mold issue in the RV, he stopped everything to handle it, and there goes another week or more.

If you are getting the idea that we can’t really keep up, you have it right. Our life is particularly compressed right now, and will become more so when we open our doors to adopt in October. We originally said August, and then realized that we needed to get the garden preservation done and kids settled into school routines. We are trying to do it all, and we simply can’t.

So what we do is triage. This past week the zucchini were overwhelming the refrigerator, the house needed some interior work and we needed to cook and prep for the week, so I was on cooking and food preservation, and I finally broke down and did some string trimming over weeding – not ideal, but it bought me some necessary time. Add to that I’m slowly pulling runs into my schedule along with walks, and the fact that my daughter needed a few last things for fall – another trip out – and last Sunday passed quickly.

This weekend was a holiday weekend, and I took advantage of the day Monday to cook nearly all day. This of course meant again – minimal yard time, and the clothes are not necessarily sorted and put away, as one would wish they would be. But throughout the day I made: salsa verde, pesto, paleo meatballs, chicken souvlaki bowls, roasted shishito peppers, took another crack at zucchini fritters, and my personal favorite, a slightly modified version of these Cherry Crumb Bars for the kids lunches this week.

The only change I made was to heat the cherries, lemon juice, cornstarch in a pan with my own addition of a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Letting the cherries cook in the juice, water, sugar and cornstarch gave it a great texture. My ever-tolerant husband did most of the cherry pitting.

By the end of the day I was pretty tired, but meals for multiple days were prepared, the kids school lunches were set, and I had washed and begun to pack up the RV bedding into bins in the attic and done most of the lingering laundry. It’s piled on the chaise near my bed, and there is a pile of paperwork right next to it, waiting to be gone through. But we have our priorities straight – food preservation comes first, because it’s a time-driven activity.

When I sat down to breathe as the cherry bars baked, despite my weariness I had a moment of gratitude that our life is messy, busy, cluttered, and lovely, and almost completely exactly the way we want it to be.

Another Trip Around The Sun

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

The summer is flying by now. Which, to be perfectly honest, is fine. I love all the seasons, and we have, despite near-incessant rain, enjoyed our summer – seeing friends and family, travel, and time to be homebodies as well. It’s been one of the first years where I thought we struck a good balance between time to spend on goals and rest and time spent out doing things.

The weather has continued to be mostly soggy, with a few sunny days in between. In the last 7 days we’ve seen the remnants of Tropical Depression Fred and Hurricane Henri in addition to the heavy rains that still hit periodically. The cabinets and doors are sticking, we can’t leave bread on the counter out without the risk of near-immediate mold, and the ground is spongy to walk on frequently. The west is dry as a bone and we have almost more water than we can bear.

Still the garden is doing well. The garlic is cured and in use or being given away, and tomatoes have started to ripen along with cucumbers, near-endless zucchini, and giant pumpkins and squash abound, getting us ready to roll into fall. Which I am completely ready for.

Garlic curing on the porch

I look forward to all the seasons these days, as they are all full of gifts in their own way.

I woke up yesterday morning to begin my 49th trip around the sun, 48 chronologically. My house is filled with flowers from the farm where we have our CSA, and the day was a peaceful one. I walked, then weeded, which always gives me a sense of accomplishment, despite the fact that it was way too humid to be out in the sun. My husband made my parents and I a delicious dinner in the garden, complete with paleo chocolate cake for dessert.

And that followed a relaxing Friday with the kids, with lunch on the water, a church yard sale and a trip to the farm together to pick up our CSA and pick endless flowers among the butterflies and bees.

We are preparing for back to school, with great trepidation. While masks and testing will be in place for the first month, the Delta variant has made me long a bit for last fall’s homeschool experience again, as much work for Eli as it was. I want my kids in school, they need to be, and it isn’t safe for them to be there either, so the stress abounds endlessly. Still, we will hold our noses and plunge ahead, as best we can. Every decision is once again filled with worry, which isn’t much fun at all.

And there is no more bubble to nest in, the world has recalled us. Life keeps moving forward, ready for it or not. I am holding tight to all the blessings we have, which are many, and looking forward to hot apple cider, leaves crunching, and this wave of the pandemic to pass us by.

3 Rules to Make You a Better Cook

Squashes Growing Out of the Garden and Into The Yard

As July trails into August, the rainy weather continues a good deal of the time, with sunny days here and there. According to a local paper, we’ve received over 10 inches of rain this month vs. an average of 2.95, and last year’s low of just 1.9 inches. Even when the weather predicts sun, we see bouts of rain that hurls itself into the already-soaked ground. Other than a few basil plants I have not lost any garden plants yet, and most seem to be thriving, but I’m watching them all carefully.

The Ipswich River, where we canoe, has never been so high on the banks in my memory. Our paddles are peaceful and lovely, but the usual plethora of turtles and wildlife seem to have retreated. Hopefully just until the water table is lower.

Teddy objects to my ‘no jumping off the canoe into the water’ rule. Like the other members of my family, he acknowledges me as our household Fun Sponge, diminishing all the joy of wet dog in car. Photo by Eli 5 Stone

We are starting to hunker down again, with the Delta variant spreading. I’m grateful we got our vacations in this year, and some time to feel almost normal. And it’s time to turn inward anyway – not only is our prime food preservation time coming, but it’s time to focus on preparatory chores for the fall and winter. Getting our septic system pumped, cleaning windows, taking down some trees, and scheduling chimney sweeps and furnace maintenance are the top of the list. And then there is the back to school supplies that need to get ordered and the summer reading to be managed. All in all, we’ve got plenty to keep us busy at home, with occasional weekend hours devoted to hiking, canoeing, family activities or just doing nothing.

The first few zucchini have ripened in our garden, and more will follow soon enough. We still have shredded zucchini in the freezer from last year’s batch, but I’ve been rushing to use up the preserved everything so that I have space in the freezer for this year’s bounty. I am expanding my zucchini repertoire, so last night we tried a slightly modified version of this Zucchini Involtini. Instead of the pesto being spicy I used spicy italian sausage from our meat share. It was delicious, but it shows the benefits of recipe modification. I didn’t have the chicken sausage the recipe called for, but I had a perfect alternative.

Photo of Dinner by Eli 5 Stone

I am tending to devote one day per weekend to inside chores and one day to outside (this primarily consists of weeding, which I could do 24/7 for weeks and still have work to do). On weekends I prep much of the week’s food. Yesterday I roasted eggplant and beets, cooked up sausage to go in our dinner, made a batch of fresh Pesto, and worked on Healthy Blueberry Cake, a favorite of Eli’s.

But I am working harder on a double challenge – to limit food waste (I’ve written about our food waste strategies here) and to get creative when I am out of something rather than just running to the store. This is a lifelong challenge for me – I love a good challenge, but sometimes lack of time impedes me flexing my creative muscles. On the weekends though, that’s often less true, and so I try out more complex meals, and work to get ahead of the week. Still recipe modification inherently limits food waste because you are using something you already have.

And more importantly it will make you a more confident cook. Which is really the goal. In order to get there, there’s just 3 rules to follow.

I made the pesto early in the morning after my walk, and then later in the afternoon I got to work on the rest. The eggplant was roasted for Baba Ghanoush, the beets to be Balsamic Roasted Beets for tonight’s dinner.

When it came time to make the Blueberry Cake I had to get more creative. I didn’t actually have applesauce, but I did have apples, having had a craving for them the last time we grocery shopped. So I peeled 3, chopped them up and cooked the apple pieces down in water.

The peels go to the chickens, the cores to the bunnies, the homemade applesauce into the cake. For us, apples are the perfect zero-waste food. Same with kale, where the leaves are food to humans and the stems are delicious bunny food. I also didn’t have 2 cups of plain yogurt as the recipe called for, so one of them is a cup of strawberry yogurt, and we’ll see how that goes, but I wasn’t driving to the store for a cup of yogurt.

I think key to the ability to modify a recipe is that rule 1 is: ‘what do I have’ vs. ‘what is it telling me to buy’. I could have mashed some bananas I have in the freezer as an alternative to applesauce as well. Would it have changed the flavor? Oh, sure maybe some. Probably it would have tasted just fine. Which leads me to rule 2: Who cares? So what if it changes it some? Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be fine, maybe you’ll decide it isn’t your favorite, but it’s food, not your best friend. Changing it up is just dandy.

We live in a world of celebrity cooks who write cookbooks that are full of good and interesting recipes and have lots of TV shows to tell us how to cook and also show us. I’m a huge fan of street foods and foods that mash up multiple cultural influences. I learn from other cooks all the time and I am grateful for it. But at the end of the day, learning how to chop onions really fast or certain kitchen tips is wonderful, empowering – but if it makes you think you aren’t chopping onions right and therefore not qualified to cook – then it’s time for rule 3: It’s what you want that matters because you, my friend, are the eater here. Gordon Ramsey or Ina Gartner are not cooking for you tonight, you are (I mean unless they are in which case, can I come over?).

You have pots, pans, food stuffs and a stomach. Don’t like pine nuts? Swap them for walnuts. No malt powder for your recipe? Try Ovaltine. Hate chestnuts in your stuffing or giblets in your gravy? Don’t add them. Love them? Add more! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Recipes and guidance from cookbooks and videos are awesome and can help.

But like all things in life, apply the universal wisdom of a checkout counter ‘penny dish’: take what you need and leave the rest.

How Does My Garden Grow – July 2021

It has rained with just a few days of sun, for weeks now. The days it is sunny we take advantage as best we can by weeding and mowing the lawn, and trying to be outside. It veers between gentle showers and sudden thunderstorms and wind that take down branches all over town. I generally like the rain, and last year at this time we were rolling into drought but I admit, this makes me uncomfortable. I watch the wildfires and drought in the west through sheets of rain here. Everything is green, but how long until it gets too wet to handle? I don’t know. And yet, there’s not much we can do. So I try not to worry about it. Try.

And when the weather is beautiful, I try to take advantage, like having dinner in the garden at my neighbor’s.

Melissa’s Garden

We made it through our in-home walk through (our adoption social worker being really just the absolute loveliest person, boy did we get lucky) and began to turn our attention to the last few details of readiness. Most of the de-cluttering work is done, although there are some closets still to clean and paperwork to go through. The timing of opening our doors has shifted a bit, with the idea that kids come in after my daughter is settled into middle school. But not long from now.

Garden bounty from our CSA is in full swing, with kale, cucumber, lettuces. summer squash and things like beets and turnips in abundance. I love summer salads. Last night I made my first batch of basil pesto with cuttings from our CSA. It was a bit runny, but it will be delicious this winter, so into the freezer it went. Sunflowers have begun to bloom as well, one of our favorite added benefits of the summer.

Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Our own garden is a bit behind the CSA as it always is. The tops of the garlic have started to die down, so I should be able to pick it and cure it next weekend. With the humidity, ‘store in a cool dry place’ may require getting creative. We should have enough to get us through the winter holidays and to share, and I think I’ll plant it again this year. It absorbs a whole large garden bed for a chunk of the summer, but it’s worth it for the garlic scapes and the joy of it. I may add shallots too. And it’s time to order those things – with the farmlet, summer is the time to plan for fall.

Soon enough our preserving will start in earnest – tomatoes for drying and sauce, infinite zucchini and more. But that’s in a week or two, and for now we just watch the rain and take pleasure in summer’s beauty.