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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Late Summer Delicacies

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This evening my daughter is off to a wedding with her father and grandparents, and my son stayed behind with Eli and I – he’s a little young as an attendee for evening weddings yet, and mostly happier to be left behind.

He dug his own little garden and planted, telling me that while he’s not sure yet he wants to be a gardener, he might be so he’s giving it a try.  And maybe we’ll get some late season flowers and wax beans as a result, which never hurts.

I spent most of the afternoon in the kitchen, canning and preserving.  Pesto, pickles, and a start at tackling the bounty from our trip to pick blackberries, which typically ripen around now, just in time for my birthday.   I’m not quite sure yet what we’ll do with the ones we don’t freeze, but I’m leaning towards Blackberry Financiers, which are a favorite and store and freeze well, for a summery treat in the cold and dark of winter.   I have some wild Maine blueberries too – the net of this is that in and around the tasks we have in the final 12 days leading up to our wedding, there’s a lot of food to put up.

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Which is why lunch was a simple arrangement of tomatoes and cucumbers from the CSA, basil from the front yard, and red pepper and feta spread with mozzerella from the farm we picked the blackberries at. Simple, tasty and absolutely beautiful, as summer food should be.

Dinner was slightly more involved, but only slightly – Rosemary Ranch Chicken, fresh corn, couscous and salad, but still one of those fresh summer meals that fills without leaving you feeling too full.  I’m sitting and listening to the cricket chorus, and our sunflowers are in full bloom, both sure signs that summer is coming to an end.

We are just a few days away from the wedding, and deep in the throes of both house projects and of food preservation for the summer.  So far we’ve put up several kinds of berries and made pesto and canned pickles – both the bread and butter and dill kind – and blanched and frozen kale.  The tomatoes, peppers and tomatillos are just starting to ripen, which means September weekends will be filled with sauce-making and salsa verde.

Summer meals are best when light, leaving the intracacies of cooking for the colder months.  Eli is always ready to grill, and we have a salad to complement our meal most nights.

Summer is, when done right,  is easy and delicious.  Soon it will end, and with that ending comes the chilly nights and more complex meals and flavors – curries, roasts, soups and root vegetables.  But for now, I’m grateful for the bounty of the season, for the pleasure of picking my Sungold tomatoes for the season and adding them to our butter lettuce from the CSA.  This is the time of year where everything is delectable, right outside the door, and for far too short a time, readily available.  I love all the seasons, but I will miss the summer lettuces and cucumbers, even when I happily trade them for squash and pumpkins.

For now though, I am reveling in the bounty that our warm season brings.  I hope you are as well.

 

Pickle Time

 

It’s a sleepy, IMG_1034 (1)chilly morning here already – 54 degrees, which is a little odd for August.  It almost feels like fall is arriving early, but this is New England, so we’ll likely get a heat wave soon.

It’s been a while – not because I was too busy (although I was pretty busy) or because I ran out of things to say, which I do once in a while, but because just as life was humming along with the final wedding details being ironed out, the downstairs bathroom renovation moving along, and the garden starting to produce tomatoes, my computer died.   And died just as I was about to kick off nearly 4 weeks of nonstop travel, which made the shopping for a new one a bit complicated.

While losing my computer for a few weeks wasn’t the end of the world – I have other electronics – it was beyond irritating, not in the least because it was yet another unplanned expense.  But today I finally made the time to sneak out and acquire my fabulous new HP Chromebook, and I am already in love.  I carry my laptop everywhere, and this one is going to be a pleasure to use every day.

So let’s see…where was I before all of that?

The garden is once again a jungle, this time of tomato plants, rather than the squash run amok from last year.  Sungolds are ripening, and this year, having trained the squashes and pumpkins up, they are not the majority of the chaos.  I planted a lot of tomatoes, and I think in a few weeks I may begin to regret that.

But despite that and all the busy, this year I’m making more time to preserve the fruits of my – and the CSA’s – labor.  The first of our endeavors was to freeze strawberries and raspberries that we had picked, but the more labor-intensive but utterly worth it effort was put into making bread and butter pickles, which are a favorite of mine.  Our CSA has had several weeks of all-you-can-fit-in-your-bag pickling cucumbers, and I’m taking advantage.

The key for pickles is the prep.  Salting and soaking the cukes, making the brine, prepping the jars.  Other than just setting the expectation that you’ll get a few dish towels messy while ladling the cucumbers into the jars, and you really do need a jar lifter so you don’t burn yourself,

It will take about 2 hours from start to finish to make 5-6 quarts, but in the end you will have the best pickles you have ever tasted.

I learned from my neighbors that pickle crisping additives can be replaced by putting a single grape leaf at the bottom of each jar.  Since they happen to have mature grapevines and don’t mind when I crib a few leaves here and there, I availed myself of them.  That said, there’s plenty on the market if you don’t happen to have neighbors with grapevines.

Today I’m on to dill pickles – I like this recipe from Practical Self Reliance, but there’s a lot of good ones out there.  The key for dill is to use pint jars and make sure you are using a recipe meant for canning.

Canning your own food is not scary.  I repeat, not scary.  Anyone can do it, I promise.  And when you are done you will have the best

You need:

Jars
Jar lifters
Couple dish towels
Wet towel for wiping off the rims of the jars
Big pot of water
Recipe for pickles (or whatever)

That’s it.  Add to that a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon, and you will have deliciousness to eat and give away.  And here’s the great news – you can often find jars free (get the lids and bands new) and once you have them, reuse them.  This can be a cheap, and tasty, hobby.

Happy pickling!

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Summer Bounty

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I woke up this morning a little too early, with morning rain rolling in.  The kids have been with their grandparents this week, but they are finally due home later today.  It’s a mellow week – I work for a few days, then we’re off to the mountains for a bit.

The combination of rain every few days combined with sun means the gardens are growing and everything is lush and beautiful.  The chickens are let out most days to perform one of the most critical jobs on the farmlet – eating ticks and other bugs.  Deer ticks are a huge problem here in Massachusetts, and chickens are one of the best defenses for our little space.  They view them as nothing so much as tasty snacks.

Our CSA started up a few weeks ago, and is supplying us with lots of greens.  We are enjoying salads almost nonstop.  My current favorite is a little feta, some lettuce and tomatoes, a sliced-up mango, avocado, and toasted pumpkin seeds.  It’s a really great combination of savory, sweet and sour,  but really any type of salad this time of year will do.

We’ve mostly jettisoned pre-made salad dressing for the simplest and most delicious kind – squeeze one lemon over the salad, add salt, pepper, and olive oil, and toss.  I’m never going back to a bottle of dressing.  Ever.

We’ve also been getting broccoli and kale in enough volume that it’s time to start blanching and freezing it for the cooler weather.  It seems almost ridiculous in June to be planning for winter, but it always comes, and the more food I preserve now, the less we will need then.

The Honey Locust tree is in bloom, dropping waterfalls of  beautiful white flowers all over the driveway.  The blooms last only a few days, but create the sense that driving up to the house is a Hollywood dream sequence, with flowers wafting over you in slow motion.

The garden is growing beautifully, and other than the rabbits that tunnel under the fence a la Peter in Mr. McGregor’s garden to compete for the bounty, we should have an amazing harvest this year.  It’s a late-summer garden, mostly tomatoes and peppers because of the effort to build and finish it, but it’s almost time to add fall greens, and finish the fence and gate.  In the middle sits a small fig tree, planted just a few weeks ago, but starting to leaf.

All in all, we planted 5 fruit trees this year – a Cinnamon Spice apple to replace the one that is dying and needs to be removed (it tastes just like it sounds), a Seckel pear, 2 apricots, one an Iranian variety, and one a Japanese Ume type, and the fig tree in the middle of the garden.  My dwarf cherry didn’t survive the winter, but I will wait until next year to try again on that.  I bought my trees from Trees of Antiquity, started by a preservationist in order to save some of the older, less planted species.  Since preservation is part of what is so important to me here, paying a teensy big extra to know that I’m continuing a line of trees that has grown for hundreds of years makes me smile every time I see the tiny leaves growing on what amounted to little more than sticks with roots when they arrived.

One thing that has been critical in building and preserving this land is amending the soil.  Last year nearly 16 yards of organic compost went into the new garden, and this year I’m adding more everywhere I plant.  The mostly ignored front of the house got some newly-divided daylilies from the Moms, but when I started digging I realized the soil was mostly dust.  A few buckets of compost later, the daylilies are preparing to bloom.

I never grow tired of listening to the rain, especially when I can just sit and enjoy it.  All too often, I sit on Saturday mornings and make a to-do list.  But this morning I decided that despite all the important things that must be done, so too is it important for me to reflect on how far we’ve come since that cold December night when the children and I first arrived.  Not even 3 years yet, and we’ve added so much to this place.  And it keeps adding to us.

I hope your home brings you as much joy as ours does.

Asparagus Day

First Asparagus 2019

 

I love waking up before anyone else is stirring on the weekends. It gives me time to think and write.  I feed the bunnies and the ever-growing chicks, water my seedlings, and take a look at the yard and garden.  I was gone for 3 days this time, and it felt like a lifetime.  I left with a few things in bud.  I returned yesterday morning in a chilly rain, to spring having exploded around me.  The peach and apple trees are in bud, the raspberry bushes are starting to once again take over the yard, and the daffodils are out.

I’m lucky enough to have a thriving career, and I love what I do, even if it means time spent away from home.  The surprise and joy of seeing how Sithean changes from day to day next never ceases to impress me- the setting here means there’s always something new on show.

Last year, just as the garden and yard started to produce, I got about as busy as a human can get at work.  I put up less than an eighth of what I had planned to, and a lot of the garden went to waste.  This year, with Eli’s help, the big garden will get finished, and we will preserve more of our food. The seedlings are growing quite large, and it’s almost time to start hardening them off, and planting some early cold-weather crops like Edamame and Lettuce.

Seedlings April 2019

But nothing, nothing is more exciting than when the asparagus bed starts to produce.

Starting in early April, I check the asparagus bed every opportunity I have.  Usually starting way too early in the season.  But it’s hard to wait –  fresh asparagus tastes nothing like it’s grocery-store counterpart.  It is sugary sweet and ideally picked about 2 minutes before it is cooked.

This morning while it was still dripping,  I went out to feed the animals and wandered over.  And lo and behold, it was there.  I couldn’t resist picking it on the spot, even though it’s too early in the day to eat it.  This year we seem to be getting an actual spring, if a slightly soggy one, and I think that means we’ll get a bumper crop.

Asparagus can be boiled and then salted and served, or, my favorite, broiled with olive oil, salt and lemon.  Grilled.  Wrapped in bacon or prosciutto and baked.  The simple possibilities are endless.

But if you want to get really fancy, as I will for our annual Mother’s Day brunch here, you make Carolyn Roehm’s Asparagus Fontina Tart.  It is simple, and beautiful enough to replace flowers as a centerpiece.  I sometimes add tomato slices in a spiral under the asparagus, which adds flavor and beauty, but you could just as easily top it with a few edible pansies and serve as-is.

8 ounces frozen puff pastry thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1/2 cup Fontina cheese
16-20 stalks of asparagus, cut to about 4 inches long

  1. Preheat the oven to 375
  2. Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick or slightly thinner than that.  Use a saucepan to cut an 8-10″ round and return to the fridge to chill for 20 minutes
  3. Remove the pastry and place on a greased baking sheet – I like olive oil for this.  Pierce the pastry with a fork all over
  4. Arrange the asparagus in a spoke with a few asparagus tips in the center, upright
  5. Cover with the cheese to about 1/2 inch from the edges
  6. Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and golden and you can pierce the asparagus with a fork.
  7. Serve warm or cool

You’ll look like Martha Stewart for about 10 minutes of your effort .

If you want to be really fancy for dinner too, take the leftover puff pastry, some prosciutto and cut into rectangles about 4″ long.  Lay in a slice of prosciutto and 3-4 asparagus spears and bake as described above.  When it’s out of the oven melt a little butter with lemon juice, salt and pepper and glaze the asparagus puffs in the lemon butter sauce.

Happy Asparagus Day!

Winter Nights

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I got back from our vacation to Orlando on Wednesday night, and after a day of rest – amusement parks are fun but exhausting – I took a look through the kitchen and decided it was past time to do some stocking up.  Our pantry eat-down has had mixed results – we’ve gone through a lot of food, but we haven’t stopped grocery shopping completely – with 2 small children and 2 people working from home on the regular, running out of milk, eggs, fruit, Goldfish and the like just isn’t an option.

Still, our grocery bill dropped a bit, and our pantry and freezer got a good bit emptier.  Which is good on a few levels, as we’re slowly beginning our steps towards springtime, despite the snow on the ground.  My garden seeds arrived, and are waiting for early March to start planting under the living room window.  The baby chicks – 27 of them, gulp – arrive in just a few weeks, and we’re almost ready to order the new coop for mid-April delivery.   Add to that our CSA payment for the season has been made, this time to include a fruit share, and I’m feeling good about the quality of our diet for the coming year.  It will be healthy, varied, and in large part, local.

Despite that, we are tied to the grocery store, and today we needed quite a bit.  Because I’m traveling quite a bit the next two weeks, I bought enough to cover meals at the ready for the days I will be here.  I don’t have a menu at the ready, per se, but I always try to have the ingredients for meals at the ready. This time on my list is:

Macaroni Medley, a family specialty (recipe to come)
Homemade Potstickers, Paleo Scallion Pancakes and Thai Basil Stir-fry
Chicken Parmesan with zucchini and regular noodles
Simple Lentil Sausage Soup
Butternut Squash Soup (using the last of our CSA squash from the fall)
French Onion Soup

All of these meals make enough for us to eat dinner, plus leftovers for lunches and additional servings.  Because it’s cold out, we’re heavy on the soup, as we always are at this time of year.  It’s simple, filling, and can almost always be cooked early in the day and left to simmer until dinnertime.  It’s warmer than it has been but the chill is still with us for a few more months, and last night, after 6 days in the Summerlands, an extra level of warm food was necessary.

Cooking for me is not just necessity, it is also pleasure.  When it’s just Eli and I, I tend to be able to experiment and try new recipes.  Lately I’ve been trying a lot of recipes from HalfBakedHarvest.com, and yesterday’s crib, while my children were in Maine with their grandparents for a couple nights, was her Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  I didn’t have the good kind of ramen on hand, so we improvised with my favorite buckwheat noodles, which I prefer anyway.  I doubled the chicken and added a little Sambal Olek for heat, and it was absolutely delicious.

In total, this is about a 45 minute recipe if you include chopping the mushrooms and the peppers, ransacking the fridge for wherever the heck I had stashed the Ginger Garlic Paste and getting the instant pot up to pressure.

One prep tip I highly recommend is to take a freezer-safe baggie, and whenever you are prepping onions or mushrooms, take the stubs or the peels and put them in the baggie in the freezer.  You can add to it freely as you cook, and when you are ready to make chicken or turkey stock, just dump the contents in with the carcass, water, a dollop of vinegar, some bay leaves and thyme, and cook for 7 or 8 hours.  You will end up with the best broth ever. In preparing one meal, you also lay the foundation for another.20190222_170142

Dinner was ready in no time, and this has now become one of our favorite new meals.  Spring will be here soon enough, and with it fresh greens and salads.  But for now, coconut milk, chicken, peanut butter, honey, and noodles fill our bowls.

 

Breakfast Monsters

Mornings here are the busiest part of the day, typically.  From the moment I wake up to the time I get the kids to school, I only sit down if I can find a few minutes to wolf down some food myself.  There’s lunches to be packed, breakfast to be made, kids to get dressed and out the door, animals to feed and water, and plants that need a drink.

Even weekend mornings are busy until the point when I get breakfast into everyone, at which point we start to take a breath. I cook more on weekends, frequently pancakes, bacon and fruit, although blueberry muffins and waffles periodically show up on the menu.

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I like to take the time to make breakfast for the kids, but the leftover pancakes also go right into the freezer to be warmed for weekday breakfasts.  It’s a quick, easy way to get something homemade into the kids when you have no time.

For me, breakfast has become coffee and smoothies.  I had for years had an egg and yogurt in the mornings.  It’s better not to have to think about food first thing than have huge variety – I can go a long time without getting bored of my breakfast, so long as there’s coffee. And I was always the person, when faced with smoothie options, that replied “I prefer to chew my food, thanks”.  But even the worst cynics can be converted.

I switched to smoothies because I realized I wasn’t quite getting in enough fruits and veggies throughout the day, I needed a new vehicle for my yogurt, and I needed to add some nutritional supplements such as Spirulina, Maca, flaxseed, and a superfood protein powder that has wheatgrass and other goodies.   So I started making what I call my Green Monster Smoothies.  In goes all those things, but also in it goes bananas, blueberries, strawberries, yogurt,  a handful of spinach or super greens, a spoonful of peanut butter and some milk (coconut water or almond/soy milk would work just as well).  I’m finding it keeps me full longer, I’m definitely upping my fruit and veggie intake, and I don’t have to eat all those things individually throughout the day.  And here’s the thing – it tastes really, really good.

And I mean so good I’m sad when it’s gone and I have to wait for the next day.  Which for a ‘no-smoothie as meal’ person, is a pretty solid endorsement.

Smoothie prep

I make enough for 2 smoothies in my $40 sale blender (no, you don’t need a wildly expensive one) so I only have to put in the effort once every other day, and I store the rest in a mason jar in the fridge for the next morning.

Smoothies

I hate to say I’m a convert, but I just might be.  I still like to chew my food, but Green Monster – it’s what’s for breakfast.

Green Monster Smoothies:
1 scoop protein powder – I prefer to use a superfood variety
1/2 tsp Spirulina powder
1 tsp Maca (similar to ginseng and it tastes very good)
2 tablespoons flaxseed
1 banana
handful of blueberries
handful of spinach or other greens
5-6 strawberries
1 cup plain or flavored yogurt
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 -2 cups of milk or milk alternative, depending on how thick you want it

Whir.  Eat.  Be happy.