Home Food

It was raining yesterday morning, so the sun didn’t rise for the last day of 2020. It went from black to grey and unsettled in the early hours, which seems fitting for this year. When the sun set, we were feasting on our tradition of homemade Chinese food, all from scratch, with a movie to accompany. It was simple, but it was home, and traditions are comfort. For all that we love to travel, home is the nicest word, and everyone deserves that feeling.

A lot of people don’t have it, and may never. When someone tells me that they aren’t political, I become puzzled. 40 million people sit on the brink of eviction due to job losses and economic instability from the pandemic, through no fault of their own. The only thing that is saving them, that can, is policy. We will in 2021 potentially be 8 billion meals short of feeding all our citizens without direct intervention.

Feeding and housing people shouldn’t be something of politics, but it is policy, and it is the basics. Think of the things that make you feel safe when life is uncertain. Food. This is why breadbaking became a thing this year. Bread is literally the staff -and the stuff – of life. That feeling of warmth, safety, and being fed and nourished. Family. ‘I just want to hug my people’ is something I heard over and over. And home. If we could all come together and agree on one thing, I would hope it is that everyone deserves a safe place to sleep and food.

Maybe someday we will get there.

2020 saw so many things, but what was interesting to me in these unstable times is how very much things like stocked pantries, vegetable gardens, and food security became important. The mass exodus from cities to find a home somewhere. I suspect one of the lasting effects of the pandemic is that people will be more rooted. Multi-generational households will be more common.

That sense of place, a touchstone in the madness is important. It’s why when I arrived here 4 years and 10 days ago, there was a clear decision involved – for me, and then Eli and I, Sithean is forever. We plan to be able to pass it to our children, whether they want it or not is their decision. We will leave the land better than we found it, with the soil enriched, fruit trees producing, a place for our beloved chickens intact. What happens after we leave this earth, hopefully a long time from now, isn’t up to us. But what we do with our time is.

Our focus for our property is a combination of making it more beautiful and doing critical infrastructure work. And continuing traditions as well as making new ones, so that the other humans in our little tribe, our pod, our family, associate it with the things that make home.

Last night that was homemade Chinese and Thai food. Some people grow up going out for brunch on Sundays, but not us. My father would take us for Dim Sum in Boston’s Chinatown. We would hold a handwritten number, with a chop on one side and number on the other, and they would call diners, seemingly at random but really based on table availability. If you were a small group, you would be seated with others at a large round table, and then the carts would start coming by. Bao, deep fried crab claws, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, Ha Gow, and my favorites, chive dumplings and turnip cakes. Of course, every kind of dumpling available. We would eat and eat and eat until we could fit no more.

And still to this day, these foods are comfort foods to me. With no Asian family history to speak of, I’m as comfortable with how to use Wonton wrappers as I am with making Sunday bacon. My kids don’t have the same childhood of enforced wandering around Boston’s historic sites every weekend, but the food is one I am determined they will grow up with. Which is why yesterday afternoon you might have found Eli and my daughter cheerfully making scallion pancakes from start to finish. Usually Connor is my dumpling maker, but yesterday he punted, so it was just me.

Early phases of pad thai

The thing about this food is that once you get the right ingredients, it’s not hard. Stunningly easy, actually. My dumpling recipe comes from a really excellent cookbook called Dim Sum by Ellen Leong Blonder, and between the detailed illustrations and the simplicity, it’s one of my favorites.

You will need:
1 package wonton wrappers (I use the round ones, but square is fine)
8 oz ground pork
8 oz finely shredded napa cabbage
2 tablespoons crushed ginger
1 (or 2 small) scallions, finely chopped
Salt
2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons rice wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Add the chopped napa cabbage (it has to be napa, regular cabbage is a little too thick) to a bowl with about a tablespoon of salt and let sit for an hour. After the hour is up the cabbage will be heavily wilted. Rinse it in a colander and squeeze out as much water as you can with your hands.

Meanwhile, make the dumpling mixture. Take all the other ingredients other than the wontons and mix well in a bowl. Mix in the drained cabbage. Lay out the wonton wrappers on a cookie sheet 5-6 at a time, and wet the edges with water (it helps to keep a small bowl of warm water for this purpose at hand). place a scant teaspoon of the mixture at the center of each wrapper and fold in half. Create 3 folds, or pleats in the top if you like.

Once you are finished with putting all of the dumplings together, you can start to cook in batches, or you can freeze them in baggies, being careful to keep each dumpling separated or they will thaw together in a giant lump – I tell you this from experience, not the cookbook.

To cook, coat a nonstick pan or wok in oil, and fry on medium heat for 2 minutes per side, then add 1/2 cup of water and let it cook off. Once the water is cooked off, let the dumplings sear for about 45 seconds on each side and then remove. Cook in batches of about 10 per batch. Serve immediately.

Dumplings Cooking in the pan

The warmth you feel in your stomach will spread quickly through your soul.
Happy New Year to you and yours.

Holiday Lights

The last few weeks have rushed by. Work continued to be busy straight up until I closed my laptop on the 23rd, long after everyone else in the house had eaten dinner.

Other than a single day next week scheduled to play catch up, I’m on vacation until the new year, and so is my family. Christmas Eve, which would normally be centered around visits to family and friends, dinner with my parents, and food preparation for a big Christmas dinner, is even quieter than we thought it would be, while we wait for someone who has potentially exposed us to Covid-19 to get test results back. We’re all fine, just waiting.

My son has started talking about the things he doesn’t want to end after the pandemic does. Mostly he wishes I could be home like I am now. I do too, and I’m working to limit my travel after this ends. We know we have months ahead of us yet, but everyone seems to instinctively also know that this, too, shall pass.

Today is for baking – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookie recipe is a requirement for Christmas for more than 20 years now, maybe a few more sugar cookies too. And Eli will try his hand at Pierogies, a warm reminder for both of us of our childhoods. That, combined with homemade apple sauce, kielbasa from a polish shop nearby and a few other items will be a fun meal and homage to our shared Polish ancestry. Even in our quarantine, we will celebrate.

I hope all of you have a warm and merry holiday filled with love. From our home to yours, happy holidays.

Taking Stock

Early mornings are my favorite time. Before everyone is up, there I am, with a book or my computer and my cup of coffee, enjoying the quiet of being alone before the world starts up around me.

Yesterday morning after I put a pot of eggs to hard boil on the stove, I sat in the living room, which was still cozy warm from the previous night’s fire in the wood stove, and illuminated by the lights on the Christmas tree. With just a few days to my favorite holiday, we are starting to slow down. There’s still much to do – I am late to getting the last few packages in the mail (this is true every year), we still haven’t gotten much wrapped and there’s some baking to be done. But all of our shopping is complete, Eli continues to create Elf on the Shelf magic with our house elf, Elphidelphia, most nights and other than a lot of wrapping still to do, which I actually enjoy, there’s just not a ton left to manage.

This year we will not spend our Christmas Eve with my parents or Christmas Day with my former in-laws. We can’t – we made the decision a couple weeks ago to put the kids into a school that is open and in-person 5 days a week, and so all semblance of assured safety for those around us is gone. It was the right decision, but it comes tinged with regret. Our cozy 9 month long bubble popped, and now we go out into the world again, just as infections rage all around me. I can’t say it doesn’t worry me, but I also know it’s what the kids needed. So we rolled the dice, and the outcome is now one of crossing our fingers and hoping that the other families there are as careful as ours.

So Christmas will be simple, with a lovely cheese board and a ham and some simple, pre-prepped side dishes for lunch. Eli, I, my ex and the kids are the sum total of the humans we will be with, and for this year that’s just fine.

Our winters are always quiet, but this one will be so much more so. But as much as I miss our people, I intend to enjoy it fully, with long peaceful walks and runs, time spent in the kitchen, Friday nights spent with homemade pizza and movies, and books. My garden seeds – although I need very few this year – are ordered because I know there will likely be shortages again this year, even though I am several months away from the potting bench taking up residence in the living room.

After re-engineering our spaces last summer to make room for more kids to arrive in our lives in 2021, we ended up with a lot of clutter in various places. Little by little, I’m going through and clearing it out. This week I tackled the top of our bureau, which has long been the resting place for unmatched socks, outgrown kid clothes, and various things that we don’t quite know where to put. Now it has just a few items on it, all carefully placed, and it’s a serene view for when I sit propped in bed with my laptop on chilly mornings. Of which there are a lot of these days. Decluttering – it’s what’s for winter.

Yesterday I did all my ordering of groceries from various locations, and stopped off at the Asian grocery store. From now until February 1, or maybe longer, other than milk from the local dairy, which we pick up 2x a month, and our Misfits Market deliveries, we’re on a grocery store & spending freeze. No going, no ordering. I stocked up this weekend because our holiday meals are important and there’s a pandemic on, but at the end of the day it’s time to get some daylight into the pantry and freezer, and one does that by eating it down.

Covid-19 is also spreading really, really fast in Massachusetts and everywhere, and we’re hunkering down for the next few months as much as possible, so having less coming in from the outside world while we eat through our stockpile is a good idea.

This year we have done so very much. As I look at the patched, and still to be painted walls in the bedroom, I think about the gift that new pipes throughout was to us and the house. There’s still more trees to take down, and I get a little sad about each one as they are removed, but the 7 trees we took down posed danger to the house and us, and now we have the start of a clearing that might eventually become something. An orchard? We don’t know yet.

And then there’s the RV, which sounds like a way too big investment until I tell you how very much I love it. It’s like playing fort, only for adults (and the kids, but mostly it’s for us, ha!). The sheer coziness and contentment Eli and I felt in the mountains over Thanksgiving weekend was not something I think you can put a sticker price on, as we lit candles at the little table after a day of hiking, and sat down to a delicious dinner of homemade enchiladas that he had prepped at home. Moments like that, when you realize you have everything you need and then some, are an amazing gift. Twenty years from now I imagine it will feel exactly the same.

And there’s been so much else. The pleasure of knowing that an entire bed of garlic for us and our neighbors is tucked away under the snow in the garden. The freshly painted walls in the living room and a comfy couch that will seat all of us and then some. The fact that we are moving along in our adoption journey. Our kids. One another. 2020 has been a hard year to sit with, with illnesses and mental health issues and job challenges for so many we love, plus a pandemic and so many people at risk and in need. We have been incredibly lucky, despite me getting sick and our work and life load having exploded in intensity. This meant that Eli and I had to team up on a whole new level, ruthlessly prioritizing our time. We’ve settled into most of a routine based around our various strengths and weaknesses, and I think we’ll just continue to refine that over time.

Since this year we tended to some very expensive items, next year will be a little different. Our focus, other than replacing the super crappy electric stove in the kitchen and adding a few needed implements like a leaf blower and chain saw, is savings. We have our RV, which means for us now travel is cheap and awesome and comes with our own private bathroom, which is wonderful in a pandemic (we love tent camping but communal restrooms are a no-fly zone for us right now). We are a few months away from being adoptive-parent certified, we hope. And we’ve been taking steps to get a better handle on expenses, cutting as many as possible. We’re also knee-deep in a refinance, dropping the mortgage down to 20 years at 2.25%. Our target is to pay it off in way less than that, but carving off a full percentage point and dropping the term from 30 to 20 years for effectively the same monthly payment will save us a ton of interest over the life of the loan.

We still have a lot of big goals ahead of us – an eventual renovation, kids to college, and a lot of expenses to evaluate and cut over the next several months. That includes some recurring expenses but also our grocery spending, which is a little uhm….well…never mind. More on that later.

But the name of the game for 2021 is using and enjoying what we have. We have spent the last several years building the life we want, and now it’s time to slow down and live in it for a while.

Thanks Giving

I woke up yesterday morning to rain, that turned to snow and wind later in the day. I was up early, as I always am, but this time with purpose – yesterday was our little family’s belated Thanksgiving dinner. Combined with tree and house decorating for Christmas, the first Saturday in December is a big deal here.

December 5th was Thanksgiving here because the adults in the family banded together several weeks ago to isolate, get all of us tested and exercise extreme caution so that the kids and their Dad could spend the weekend with his parents, both of whom are at risk due to age and medical conditions. We all figured since it was both Thanksgiving and Grandma’s birthday, better that than not at all.

That meant that Eli and I were alone, and deciding that an empty house wasn’t our thing, took the RV up to Maine for 3 days. We prepped and cooked all our meals in advance and were pretty isolated other than passing hikers at a distance as we climbed to the top of Old Speck Mountain, a piece of the Appalachian Trail about 270 miles south of it’s end point at Mount Katahdin. It was snowing at the summit, and wet and slippery both up and down, but an experience we both loved. Time alone without chores to talk, sleep and be outdoors is rare f or us, and we relished every moment, despite the chilly weather and missing the kids.

Thursday I went to BJs and stocked the house with everything I could, from candy canes and Christmas candy to groceries and bows. Other than occasional trips for milk and fresh fruit and veggies, we need nothing, and won’t for quite some time. Friday I stopped working a bit early and we took off to find a Christmas tree at the tree farm that long ago was my next door neighbor. It was a gorgeous, sunny and warm day, and the fresh air and the tradition of cutting our own tree was good for all of us.

And now, other than the new school the kids will start to attend on Tuesday, we’ve battened down the hatches. Covid-19 is spreading out of control here and almost everywhere in the US. From now until Memorial Day, we’re tucked in tight.

Which brings me back to that Thanksgiving dinner, and our celebration at home. To get through a winter of relative isolation, a level of coziness combined with periodic celebration is required. Settling in for a family dinner of Turkey, stuffing and all the trimmings while the wind blows and the rain comes down is important for any number of reasons, but most of all that traditions are comforting, and they ground us. Our traditions adapt and change over the years – this year just us 4 together, but our table expands and contracts as our family changes. But enough components stay the same – the cheese-filled mashed potatoes, the cranberry raspberry sauce, the deliciously brined turkey, the us – that they are touchstones in our lives, the things that make home.

In a cold Covid winter, when hospitals are overwhelmed and the best thing we can do is stay home, making home the place we want to be is important.


Pancakes for Breakfast

Ends are always beginnings, be it storybooks or seasons. After our blast of early arctic weather for Halloween the days got warm, so warm that we could see family outside in upstate NY in early November and come home to work on the yard in relative comfort. I had not seen my sister and that part of the family in a year due to the pandemic, and those moments are precious. We won’t have another chance to see extended family for a while, given the spiking infection rates, so it was worth the quarantine time to do it.

We came home with bulk vegetables again this year – sweet potatoes, onions, butternut and Hubbard squashes, Crispin apples, which are my favorite. They will store for months as we eat them, and eat them we most definitely will. They, along with deliveries from Misfits Market will be the primary source of our veggies for the winter.

The dehydrator continues to produce apple chips for munching -and we do, in unmeasurable quantities. Given the half bushel of apples that came home with us last week the dehydrator will continue it’s work for a while, but otherwise the preserving is done. I admit a sense of relief about that – I love looking, not to mention eating – at our home-preserved goods, but it’s a huge amount of effort and time that now needs to go to other things.

The cold returns intermittently, even as a few last of the outside things remain to us. Last weekend Eli and I tore out the vegetable garden, planted a full garden bed’s worth of garlic, and put down a layer of insulation and feed for the garden -when Eli cleans out the chicken coop in the fall, that becomes garden soil topping and food for the soil. The ammonia smell has the upside of driving away most of the animals that want to burrow under the fence and eat the garlic as well, so I’m hopeful. A week later no animal yet has braved the smell.

We still have some yard cleanup to do, now that most of the leaves are down, and some last tulip bulbs to plant, but we are mostly done with outdoor work for the winter. Seven trees came down this week, all giant pines that were in the general vicinity of the tree that fell on the house in 2017. More have to come down in the spring, but for now, all the big-budget items are done for the year.

Which is just fine with me.

We have turned our energy inside to insulating windows, and then small indoor projects for the winter. Cleaning, organizing, maybe painting the kitchen. I am looking forward to the quiet of winter. The holidays will be small this year, in more ways than one, but I look forward to them nonetheless – this may be the last year my son is a believer in Santa, and so will relish the moments, while trying to accept that a different kind of holiday magic will take over after that. But first all the things – cutting our tree at the nearby tree farm that once upon a time was our next door neighbor, homemade cookies and peppermint bark, hiding gifts.

And there is always our New Year’s Eve, filled with homemade Chinese dumplings, scallion pancakes, and deliciousness. Everyone pitches in for that meal, and the eating of it is the culmination.

With infections spiking everywhere, we start to make hard decisions about who we can see and how we can spend time. Outdoors, for walks and around the fire pit. But it is going to limit and isolate us to an extent, and there’s no real avoiding that. We are battening down the hatches for a winter as a small group again, and prepping for a likely lockdown. But I’ve learned the key is things to look forward to. Random invented holidays. Tiny surprises. Scavenger hunts. Going for walks with Teddy the dog, who still doesn’t quite get the concept of walking but is trying valiantly.

It doesn’t fix all of the things we’re losing, but it does help.

Now that the cold is here, pancakes and bacon on Sunday mornings are another important tradition to keep. My recipe is an adapted version from Allrecipes.com, and simple as can be. Warm, cozy, and the total effort is maybe 15-20 minutes. You will never need to buy pancake mix again.

Fluffy Sunday Pancakes
3/4 cup milk
1 tbsp vinegar (white is best but rice or cider works just fine)
2 tbsp butter
1 large egg
1 c flour (can supplement up to 1/4 c non-white flour such as wheat, spelt, etc)
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
dash of vanilla

Add the vinegar to the milk and let stand for 5 minutes. ‘soured’ milk functions like buttermilk for recipes. After 5 minutes it will be somewhat lumpy on top.

Melt the butter. Add the egg and melted butter to the sour milk mixture, and whisk together thoroughly.

Add the dry ingredients to a bowl and mix well. Add the wet ingredients and mix thoroughly. The mixture can be a little lumpy, but get out any big lumps.

Spoon into a lightly greased or nonstick frying pan on medium heat. When small bubbles appear on the side facing up, flip the pancakes. This should take about a minute, maybe a little less if the pan is good and hot. Cook on side two until both sides are lightly browned.

Keep warm in the oven and repeat until the batter is gone. Makes about 12 medium pancakes.


Warm Things

The snow came to Sithean, more than three inches of it, and stayed as the world succumbed to a deep freeze. When I woke up Saturday morning it was 21 degrees F and the world was coated in an icy white blanket, a cold finale to all the things that grow.

I can only hope that the baby fruit trees survive, since we ran out of time to wrap them in their winter covers. I had expected chilly and a few snow showers this early, but not a freezing snowstorm. They look okay, but time will tell.

We all stayed curled up under blankets for a while, but eventually the need to get things accomplished pulled me from my cozy spot, and I started my final round of food preservation. Kale chips, which are simply washed kale, pulled in bite sized pieces off the stems, tossed in olive oil and salt, and baked for 10 minutes at 350 degrees, are some of my favorite treats. I made that last batch of salsa verde – possibly my best batch to date – and put together a simple chicken broccoli pasta with pumpkin-shaped pasta and then roasted a bunch of root vegetables in balsamic vinegar and olive oil at 400 F for several hours while my amazing husband pulled together a Halloween Scavenger Hunt, since trick-or-treating didn’t fit our risk model this year.

Which is hard, because the kids were pretty sad about it. Still, we counted our blessings and at least managed a quick hello to our amazing nanny/teacher Lauren, who had bags of treats and hugs for the kids.

By this morning, the snow was gone, but the grey skies remained. November, and Daylight Saving time is upon us, and we are in a rush to prepare for the rest of the cold weather – insulating windows, putting cozy flannel sheets on beds, ensuring that the log holder in the living room is well-stocked for fires.

And the season for warm, cozy food is upon us. This morning I tested out Gingerbread Brioche Cinnamon Rolls, and while the dough was far too dense and heavy for me and the kids to really enjoy, the flavors are amazing. If you make it, start with a 1/2 cup flour less than the recipe calls for, and roll the dough thinner.

I’ll be perfecting this one over time.

Sunday dinner is a revisit of Instant Pot Beef Bourguignon. Add to that a little prep work on Italian Pot Roast that I will put in the crock pot tomorrow morning, and thawing some chicken meatballs to go in lemongrass miso broth and we are set for a while. My goal this week is to have enough leftovers to get us through lunches and at least one dinner.

The chill may be creeping into New England, but inside Sithean we are cozy warm.

Letting Go

To everything there is a season is especially true in New England. And the season of gardens and flowers came to an end, simultaneously slowly and abruptly, with the onset of frost and impending snow. I ran out in the early evening after work last night, braving the cold rain to pick the last few pink tomatoes and a couple tomatillos. Everything else is harvested now, and what is left is soon to be gone.

The freeze that is set to follow it will kill all my plants, and then it’s a matter of pulling out the old, and planting some garlic and more bulbs around the yard before the dirt becomes impacted with ice for the season. This too shall pass – more words for gardeners. But there is still one final round of preserving work to do – a few more apple chips, that last batch of salsa verde, and a friend dropped off a garbage bag filled with kale to be turned into kale chips and blanched and frozen. Add to that our final CSA visit tomorrow, and the harvest is complete. I may get inspired to make apple sauce or apple butter, but by Sunday afternoon, what can be done for the season will be.

And while there’s some sadness in letting go, there’s also relief. Another season is past, and what will come next is to be seen. We enter another winter warm, safe and well-fed. A full cord of wood will help keep us cozy, some desperately needed new pipes provide our water and the squashes and preserves are just a tiny bit of the bounty that fills the freezer and pantry. For all that there is so much to worry about, my gratitude for the small things – enough to eat, a warm house, my morning walks, my family – is boundless.

I pray I never lose my ability to be grateful for the basics.

Now it is the tiny respite before the holidays, that few weeks where the doing of things – other than work and school – starts to wind down. This year the holidays will be mellow and quiet for us, and Eli and I will do something we’ve never done, in celebrating Thanksgiving with just the 2 of us while the kids go with their Dad. I love big family gatherings, but I’m truly looking forward to a quiet and lovely meal with my husband. We’ll do the big family things next year. I’ll cook a turkey and all the sides in December, because it wouldn’t be winter without it, but I don’t feel a need to keep everything ‘normal’.

It simply isn’t this year, and that’s okay.

I’ve reached the point where I don’t like where we are with this virus but I’m at peace with it. We’re home. We are creating our new normal, and that includes lots of cooking and doing house projects. Our groceries primarily arrive by delivery and we go out almost not at all, so much so that I recently realized my car inspection sticker had expired…2 months ago. We have almost finished a wide variety of house projects and winter preparations, with only insulating our old, leaky windows for the season left to go.

It’s time to take a breath. Here on the Sithean farmlet, there are of course, endless things to be done. Paint needing touching up. Closets and a chicken coop to be cleaned out. Laundry, cooking, planting the things that need to winter over out of doors.

But as I make my lists I also revel in how much we’ve accomplished.

When I look back on 2020, I will be sad about the virus running unchecked through the country, about 1000 acts of police brutality on protesters, about the housing insecure and the hungry, and that somehow in 2016 we elected a petty narcissist who wanted to tear down democracy and create an alternate sense of truth. My feelings on this are powerful, and I am unapologetic about them. But also I have let go of my anger at those who brought us here – and that, too, is an accomplishment.

I cannot ask for empathy for others who need it if I don’t first give it myself. 2020, then, is a year of evolution. If what we need is a shared reality to bridge our divides, I can either rail against those on the other side of the chasm or I can build bridges. I choose to build.

Tonight we will settle in with homemade pizza, a movie, and probably another fire in the wood stove. We will celebrate another week of hard work gone by and a weekend spent cooking and planting and continue trying, probably unsuccessfully, to teach Teddy the dog what it means to go for a walk (Dear Teddy, it means actually walking, not alternatively pulling my arm out of it’s socket or randomly lying down in the road).

Tomorrow we will celebrate Halloween in whatever way we can that involves no trick-or-treating. And while I don’t know what’s next, where we are is enough right now.

May you be warm and safe on your journey through the rest of this year.

It Will Be So Awful, It Will Be Wonderful: An Homage to Travel and Staying Home

Years ago, as a 20-something, I became obsessed with the idea of saving up for a year off, to travel around the world. I read, and saved and mapped routes and read some more.

Then I met my first husband, and instead of a year off those dollars went into savings for a house. There were trips sure, but there were kids and careers and that year-long trip around the world never happened. But at the time, it was my ultimate dream.

This was the early 2000s, and blogging was just starting up. And I stumbled across a travel writer called ‘Jet City Jimbo’ aka Jim Klima. He and his wife, Sue, went on an an African overland journey with Dragoman, one of the oldest overlanding companies. One of the most compelling installment stories I have ever encountered, it was called ‘It Will Be So Awful, It Will Be Wonderful‘. They spent a month trying to cross Zaire. They had to dig the truck out more than once. Flash floods. New people. It was both epic and amazingly human. The blog posts are sadly long gone, and I am firmly planted in my day to day life now. Still, despite the fact that Jim Klima and I never met, and he died too early of cancer, I owe him a lot. His words held me spellbound, and while I read many other travel blogs and books, only one other writer and book, Jeff Greenwald’s The Size of the World, ever came close to that level of immersive reading.

I didn’t want to just take the trip, I wanted to be that kind of brave and independent and free.

I started thinking about Jim Klima and his writing as we approach late fall here at Sithean. There’s still a bit of basil growing and some tomatoes ripening, but mostly it’s about harvesting everything we can. One or two batches of salsa verde are still waiting to be made, but other than apple chips and some applesauce, the preserving is basically done. Our CSA is winding down it’s last few weeks, and root and cool-weather crops dominate the harvest.

There’s no real travel being planned other than camping, and with infection rates spiking, we expect to turtle up even more. We are far, far from an overland truck in an African desert, but on some level, this is the same. We are deep in a pandemic in a time of political, climate and economic instability. Each of us, because contact is fraught, is traveling with a small group of people into strange places and circumstances we didn’t expect. We all hope that our jobs, pantries and bank accounts are going to protect us, but no one is sure.

Still, this odd time has also allowed Eli and to really consider how we want to live. I still think someday I would like to take that trip around the world, trekking the Dogon Escarpment, seeing the Fjords in Norway, and immersing in various cultures, but I am more focused in how we get, over the next several years, to a point of financial independence that allows us to do that whenever we are ready.

We’ve made some big outlays this year, and the most recent one was one that has been on the dream list for both of us for a long time – a small, tow behind RV. We knew we wanted one, but it keeps us safe and mobile for as long as the pandemic lasts, and long after.

But that, along with the other house maintenance and improvement projects, are investments for us. As we start to look forward to 2021 and onward, the number of things we need to spend money bottoms out. While we are a long way off from financial independence, it’s a place on the horizon. And while our outlays this year have been very large, we know they are for a purpose, setting ourselves up for a longer haul.

There’s awful to the pandemic, in that I miss our people, I miss traveling, and I worry about our kids being isolated. I worry for the world and people around me. But there are so many gifts also – time at home, the joys of watching my kids master sign language in homeschool, the slower pace that our mornings entail, the delicious food that comes out of our kitchen. The views from my morning walks, which never fail to take my breath away.

Tonight, it’s just E and I, and after a hike this afternoon, we will enjoy some homemade baba ganoush, pantzaria salad, made with garlic and beets grown less than 10 miles from home, and a recipe for meatloaf from one of my favorite cookbooks, Cooking From Quilt Country, based on a PBS series with Marcia Adams. The meat, too, is local. I love to roam, but I am also well-planted here, and content to be.

There’s no round the world travel in my future, but there’s a path to the freedom towards it. As we all traverse uncertain times, I hope my fellow travelers – all of you, are finding joy and wonderful in the awful.

And here’s to you, Jim & Sue Klima, for changing my little world.

A Breath in Autumn

It’s hard to believe we’re already well into October. Time seems to be passing so fast these days.

It was down to 37 degrees F two nights ago here and while the garden once again survived, it’s end is near. Yesterday morning I pulled 3 last zucchini, a few tomatoes and enough tomatillos to make another batch of Salsa Verde. The zucchini will be weekend meals and the bigger ones will go into the dehydrator with a little olive oil and salt. The tomatoes, especially the Sungolds, taste of sunshine still, but they won’t keep long unless I dry them. But I’m reluctant, because I want that sense of fresh summer produce to last.

Still, I can’t really complain because Autumn here is profoundly lovely, and truth be told, I’m a little tired of canning and preserving after a couple solid months of it. I am looking forward to the rest that comes with winter.

But first we must prepare for it. A cord of firewood arrived on Wednesday, and I have reluctantly capitulated to the necessity of the central heat on sporadically. We have started to remove air conditioners from windows and insulate them. The kitchen smells of soup and warm, cozy meals.

We celebrated my son’s 8th birthday yesterday, a day of joy and fun for all of us. We worry a lot about family members that are going through some tough times. And I am torn between watching the news and wanting to shut it all off. Of course, I can’t, because this time so much of what I truly believe in, so much of what I am for is at risk. Women’s rights. Equality. Economic security for all of us. Social safety nets. Healthcare.

The things that make strong, open, trusting societies. We’ve lost too much of that here. And all the while, Covid-19 numbers have begun to spike.

We start our final push towards our pre-adoption home inspection this week, we are decluttering still, and with some yard cleanup to do after a windstorm covered the lawn with leaves and pine needles.

I took a couple days off to extend the long weekend, celebrate 8 with my son, and to do all the things that need to be done. But I’m finding that I needed to take it off for other reasons – I’m getting burned out. I needed a couple days where schedules were more lax.

Some of my tired, our tired, because Eli is too, it is our own fault – we’ve done so much this year, too much. But some of it is the endless on button that is 2020, with always more meals to prepare, housework and yard work, schoolwork to help with, all the emotions (theirs and ours) of isolated kids, a job that basically runs 24/7 and and all the other things – chores, family time, etc – there’s this sense of never switching off.

And it’s taking it’s toll. Most of my friends aren’t sleeping that great. I know I’m not. Mental health is a huge thing for all of us, a large bucket encompassing everything from sleep to downtime to connection with others. The knowledge that it’s likely that we’ll still be in a similar situation – maybe a vaccine, but only 50% effective, and lots of people refusing to take it – at this time next year is a challenge to face. I’m profoundly lucky in all of this and my stress is off the charts. I think of those who are facing real challenges and then I feel kind of guilty for being so stressed, but that only makes it worse, not better.

So I’m going with one thing at a time. – one day, one moment, one tidied-up corner of the room, one more day when everyone ate and laughed and hugged. I’m counting my blessings. I’m going for walks. I’m telling people I love them more. Connecting. Letting myself go back to bed.

I can’t control the world around me. Some days I can’t even fully control my emotions. So I remind myself that so far, my track record for getting through tough days is 100%.

And so is yours.

Harvest

Photo by Eli5Stone

I woke up yesterday to a chilly morning, dark and 46 degrees F. It was cold enough Friday night that we brought the lemon tree into the house. Soon enough it will have to live inside again until May, along with the hibiscus trees, but not yet. Please not yet.

The garden seems to know that the end is coming. Pumpkins and squash are ripening faster, ready to be picked and cured for a few weeks – stored in a cool place before eating to let the sugars develop better – and the tomatoes require picking twice a day. Fall raspberries are producing in abundance, and the apple tree needs clearing off.

The dehydrator runs almost nonstop these days, mostly turning our cherry tomatoes into dried ones, to be packed in oil and used on our winter pizzas, pastas, and wherever else I can use them. My neighbors can the bigger tomatoes and the San Marzano tomatoes for me (I grow, they can, which is a fantastic arrangement).

Dehydrating tomatoes is easy – slice in half, coat in olive oil and salt, and pop in the dehydrator. Mine takes about 24 hours to turn into dried tomatoes but every dehydrator works a little differently. As soon as I get the next jar filled with dried tomatoes I’ll switch to making apple chips – adding a little lemon juice before drying keeps them from turning brown, but apples need no other help.

Our weekends are busy beyond compare these days, as we still work on cleaning and organizing on top of preserving, still finishing the projects we started in July and we have also started homeschooling, after determining that remote school wasn’t really going to work out for the kids. There’s more things to do than there is time, so we do as much as we can in priority order, jettisoning the things lower on the priority list for now.

Food preparation on weekends doesn’t get us through the whole week, but it does get us through several days each week. Today I’ll be making a double batch of Chicken Parmesan and thawing sausage for Lentil Sausage Soup. On top of that I’m going to finally make these treats for the kids, preserve some zucchini, which is still, unbelievably, producing in the garden, and start the process of making grape jam. My neighbors have Concord Grape vines, and there were more than they needed this year.

Despite all the things to do, the nonstop motion of our lives is winding down. In just a few more weeks all the preserving will be done. While housework, laundry and errands never end, we are beginning to see the end of the major reorganization and home improvement projects as well. This weekend, as we completely cleaned out and reorganized the living room and hallway closet, I could start to see the the light at the end of the tunnel. Sure, there will always be organizing to do, but the big stuff is getting knocked off. Soon enough, I’ll stop writing blog posts about how much we are doing and focus on one or two things (with recipes) to share again.

Even our newest household member, Teddy, is settling in. Teddy came to us from some family members, and is, even for me, who has never necessarily been a ‘dog person’ a fun addition. That he likes to canoe with us helps a great deal.

Teddy the Canoe Dog

But even despite that, we took the time to have a great dinner last night together, and watch a movie. In a few weeks we’ll take some time to do some fall camping. If the garden doesn’t get cleaned out and readied for the winter until November, and the laundry doesn’t get folded today, oh well.

When there’s everything to do, the best thing you can do is decide to focus on what you can, and avoid any pressure – internal or external – on your priorities. Through all this I try to remember the wise words that we are Human Beings, not Human Doings. And I rest, between whirs of the food processor. I hope you can too.