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.
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.
It finally, finally rained. Our part of Massachusetts is officially in drought, and while we need more, I’ll take every drop I can get. As I watched the grass brown and the dirt turn to dust where we weren’t watering, I worried more and more. When it rains, I feel like I can breathe again.
My garden is mostly faring well, although a family of hares and a groundhog made short work of most of our snap peas, the last of the lettuce and quite a few cucumber plants. I’m hopeful that the cukes will recover, but it’s questionable. I go out to check the garden regularly, and I find the groudhog especially bold – he just looks at me and keeps munching until I get close, then finally scampers off, to come back right when I stop looking through a hole in the fence.
I shout and scare him away, feeling part Mr. McGregor and part Beatrix Potter, because the animals are adorable and I like them here, although I wish they would do just a tiny bit less chomping. My life is a storybook in more ways than one.
The weekends fly by here, with so much to do and not nearly enough time to do it in. I’ve managed to keep the Potager mostly weeded, and am making inroads into the trench bed. I took my turn picking up veggies at our CSA this week, and picked some herbs in the gardens there – basil, sage, thyme and lavender make a lovely scented bouquet and taste wonderful as well. Yesterday I cleaned off the porch, which had collected just a little too much mess, and began to store some clothes – with our upcoming re-engineering of spaces, some things just have to go into storage. If I don’t miss them, they can leave permanently, but I often find when I purge too fast I end up replacing the things I let go of, so I’m more cautious about it these days. Still, an inch at a time we get closer to where we want to be.
July is just about here. This year is flying by. Zucchini is ripening in abundance, and it leads me to one of my favorite simple dinners – Zucchini noodles and cherry tomatoes in pesto. It’s simple, fast, incredibly healthy, and right about now starts being local food. You can put chicken or salmon on top, a bit of Parmesan, and you have an amazing dinner. My pesto recipe is here but you can always buy some. Still, fresh is so easy, and so delicious.
You will need:
2 medium zucchini (can we please call them courgettes, like they do in Britain?)
A couple handfuls of cherry tomatoes
A pan with olive oil swirled
Salt and pepper to taste
Slice or spiralize the zucchini, and saute until soft. Add the tomatoes midway, and allow them to get soft as well. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and stir pesto into the hot pan, coating everything thoroughly. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
I’ve never really understood mangoes. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I like them, immensely, and in almost anything. In salad, as salsa, in my breakfast smoothies, as a sweet offset to savory Asian food of almost any variety, you name it, mangoes always make it taste just that much better.
But I’ve never quite gotten the hang of how to dissect one (yes, yes, I know, there’s almost certainly some tiresome YouTube guru who can teach me this in a four minute twelve second video if I just took the time. Being perfectly honest with you, I almost certainly will, but I don’t really want to) and I’m completely mystified about how one end of a mango can be completely ripe, if not over-ripe, and the other end can continue to be hard as a rock. It’s not like they are that big, just over the size of a softball in most cases, so it’s not as though each single fruit is ripening in multiple growing zones. Also they have the biggest pits – a huge chunk of the mango is actually the pit part. Pit overachievers, are mangoes. So I just peel them and slice off a bunch that isn’t pit, and it seems to work out. But I’m sure there’s a better way that, in all likelihood, I’ll never actually be curious enough to discover.
This is the funny thing about adulthood. It’s almost as much about what you aren’t willing to do as you are. There’s those things you have to do, and those things you do because you like to, and the things you do because it’s what responsible people do, like making sure your children bathe on the regular, even if sometimes you care a little less than you are supposed to about whether they washed behind their ears properly (they look and smell clean, ok?). There’s also the things that you would do, as time, money and opportunity present themselves, like exploring Fiji or reading a Bill Bryson book while tucked up in bed with a glass of wine, which is a great way to spend a Saturday evening.
And then there’s the things that you jettison because you simply don’t care enough. For me, this includes skiing, which everyone around me seems to enjoy, but from my perspective seems just a lot of up and down in cold weather (this from the person who can run for miles without a goal of actually getting to any particular place), watching informative videos, which would bore met to tears but are too boring to elicit that much emotion, or going on cruises, which I’ve always viewed suspiciously, and now that they are Covid-19 hotbeds of infection, seems to be validating my general skepticism of why anyone would want their hotel to be swimming in the ocean when there’s perfectly good land nearby.
So my list of things is almost certainly not yours, and that’s all good. But one thing we should probably agree on is that the idea that everyone needs to master cooking before actually doing some cooking is just silly.
The average life expectancy of an adult in the United States is 78.4 years. If you remove the first 18, in which it seems likely that others do the bulk of the cooking, that leaves 60.4 years in which you need to feed yourself, on average 3 times per day. That’s just over 22,000 meals you have to eat, and if you happen to get married and have a couple children, that’s a lot of food. And look, I like a bowl of Cheerios for dinner as much as anyone, but there’s only so much of that you can do before you have to do something with food that requires heat and seasoning.
Let’s skip the math of servings for 40 years of marriage and 18 years of kids plus college summers and all the friends of your teens that come over and eat the pantry empty and dinner parties for a bunch of people in which you make 6 kinds of taco fillings because it seemed like a good idea when you were planning the party 2 months earlier but then partway through you realize you never want to eat another taco as long as you live or at least for a week or two, because who gets tired of tacos, really?
Still, you have to feed yourself at some point, and while you can outsource that pretty well, having mastery of at least a few dishes is a great confidence builder. After all, no one other than your spouse needs to know that you only really know how to cook 3 things, and presumably your spouse likes you for other reasons.
So if you cannot cook do not rush out and try to overachieve, and master some intricate meal with expensive, single use ingredients. Am I going to tell you to roast a chicken with mascarpone? Or how to bone a duck? No, no no. You should first master enchiladas. And if you are so inclined, a quick mango salsa to go on top.
Why? Because enchiladas are incredibly filling, and equally incredibly forgiving. You can modify almost any part of the recipe. And mango salsa is delicious and super classy looking. These two things together will wow a potential date, future in-law, or colleague, and you can post them on Instagram and everyone will ooh and ahh. Who cares if you haven’t actually folded laundry in 2 years? You can still achieve Kitchen Godhood.
This is a photogenic meal. One that a single person could eat for days on. I just ate some leftovers for lunch and it’s just as delicious the next day.
I need to stop and note here that my husband is the enchilada maker in the family. His are so good that I don’t even bother trying. These are not fancy food, they have simple ingredients like enchilada sauce from a can – yes, you can make your own, but that’s an endeavor for later – taco seasoning and cream cheese. This is accessible cooking at it’s finest, and that’s the first step into the more complex stuff, should you so choose. It’s simple, it’s pretty, it’s affordable, and it’s cheesy. What more can you ask for?
Simple Mango Salsa
2 mangoes, medium sized, peeled and chopped
1/3 of an English cucumber, chopped small
1/2 medium red onion
1 lime, juiced
Couple dashes cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper to taste
Chop everything, put in a container with a lid, shake well. Let stand about 2 minutes and shake again before serving. Also, start with this. Once you are done chopping and you have a pretty bowl of salsa in front of you, you will probably feel as though you have superpowers. Whether you put on a cape is up to you. I don’t judge.
A note on the enchilada recipe – this is a consolidation of my husband’s notes and my editing. All pictures are by him.
E’s Enchiladas 2 pounds of chicken breast cut into 2-3″ chunks 4 ounces of cream cheese, more or less Taco seasoning, half packet 2 10 oz. cans red enchilada sauce (we go with mild, because children) 1 yellow onion 2 plus cups shredded cheese, Mexican blend 5 to 8 flour tortillas Salt & pepper to taste Olive oil as needed
Chop an onion somewhat fine
In a well-oiled pan, place chunks of chicken breast and cook over medium-low heat.
When they are cooked most of the way through, one at a time, remove them to a cutting board and shred with a couple forks (you can also cook them in the instant pot with some broth to make them shreddable, about 12 minutes if, like wife, you have no patience for this step)
Put chicken back in the pan, and repeat with each chunk until all chicken is shredded. Toss in your onion, a bit more olive oil, cream cheese and taco seasoning. Once everything is cooked together, toss in a handful of shredded cheese. If you want to add some herbs, jalepenos or some other veggies like peppers, now is the time
While chicken finishes cooking and cheese is melting still on medium heat, coat a baking dish with olive oil. A 9×12 baking dish is great, but enchilada sizes are flexible so your dish can be, too. Just remember that metal will heat faster than glass, so keep an eye on your dish as it cooks andreduce heat by 25 degrees if using metal.
Gently pour in one can of enchilada sauce over oiled dish, set aside. Using a clean baking sheet for work surface (cutting boards also work) place a single tortilla on the pan, and fill and roll.
Note from E: I wish I could say there was an art to rolling an enchilada, and maybe there is but I don’t care to learn it. Just put a blob of gooey chicken mix toward one end and roll toward the other. Just remember to place them into the baking dish seam side down.
Place each rolled enchilada in the oiled, enchilada sauce-filled pan as you go.
Now that your enchiladas are all in a row or the shape of a series of poorly cut floor boards in the baking dish, (and your pan and cutting board are soaking in the sink), pour the second can of enchilada sauce over the top. You can coat the whole surface for maximum goo factor, or leave some exposed tortilla, up to you. Sprinkle the remainder of your shredded cheese over the entirety of the dish. Use as much as you like, the “2 cups plus” noted above is just a suggestion. We love cheese, so Eli goes wall to wall with it.
Bake at 375 for 30 to 40 minutes, covered except for the last 10 minutes. Remove from oven when cheese is browned at the edges and bubbling. Devour.
The other night, my husband and I were alone and simultaneously not consumed by work taking up our attention 24/7 for the first time in weeks. Spring is exploding all around us, even as the worldwide deaths climb to nearly 250,000, 65,000 in the United States alone. Massachusetts is a hot spot, and we remain in lockdown until at least May 18, but perhaps longer. As we hear the news around us, and continue to isolate from the people we love, we are trying to focus on the things we can control – working hard, taking care of the kids and the house and yard, tending our animals, each other.
And like so many others, our focus is often in the kitchen.
Since we were alone and wanted time together more than anything, I made Beef Burgundy in the instant pot, and we settled in to start watching Julie & Julia, a movie I hadn’t seen in nearly a decade and he hadn’t ever, and we realized something – Julia Child’s obsession with food was much like my own, and Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci’s portrayal of Julia and Paul Childs reminded us of ourselves to an almost silly degree, only I’m not as tall or permed or talented as the amazing Julia was.
But the love of food, on that matter, there’s no question. No matter what is going on, if I settle down to fresh eggs from our chickens or a delicious home-cooked meal, it invariably makes it better.
I love food, the process of making it, the magic of turning flour, water and yeast into the most delicious bread imaginable, the delight of mastering a new recipe, the joy of when someone says “More please!”.
Almost everything I do is surrounded by food. Hence the regularity with which I exercise. And also, while so many people around me focus their charitable dollars on medical research and other important things, for me, it’s making sure children and families eat. All the places we can put our dollars matter, but for me, it’s the basics.
Without food, we cannot thrive. Without food, our brains don’t develop or function correctly. Food is a basic requirement of our survival, and so many lack it. Food is literally right there with shelter, water and bathing. It’s a basic building block for all of us.
Yesterday while talking to a neighbor I may never agree with politically, we both worried about famine as a result of our new reality. Here. Food is something we can all agree on – we all need it. In a polarized world, food may be a common ground we all can share.
It’s also why I’m endlessly driven to the garden, to find yet another local food source, to source from another local farm. Because as much as I love the grocery store, and oh, I do, I also know our food chain is fragile, dependent on shipping, low-paid workers, and the continuation of farms that we need but seem, as a society, not to value nearly enough. For those of us who can, diverting our food dollars – even a few more than we usually spend, to local food makes a huge difference. It ensures a safer food supply – Tyson doesn’t need your dollars, but these guys do. Find someone near you at LocalHarvest.org. So does Onemightymill.com, who grinds wheat in Lynn, MA, right down the road from me. And WaldenLocalMeat.comhas been supplying our meet for 6 months now. It’s honestly some of the best meat we’ve ever had. That Beef Burgundy? Made from there, with the produce mostly from our Misfits Market box. I love my MisfitsMarket.com box – they rescue organic produce that the grocery stores think looks too imperfect to sell. We use them in the winter now, while our CSA and garden aren’t producing. While it isn’t as local as I would like, it’s preventing food waste, and they are trying to add SNAP to their list of ways to pay. I like a company with morals like that.
We are about to enter the season where food is plentiful in the northern states. Snap peas and lettuce are peeking out in the garden, and either today or tomorrow we’ll harvest the first asparagus. We’ve been relentlessly planting fruit trees. I’ve begun hardening off our seedlings on the porch, and dropping extras to friends. We have several friends and acquaintances on our regular egg consumption list. I cannot feed the world, but I can provide a dozen fresh eggs to a short list of people every couple weeks. And help out our local food pantry. And start extra seedlings. For me, feeding people gives back.
I can cook for my family – a physical demonstration of love for them.
Tonight, I stir fried ground beef with rice noodles, onions, broccoli and fresh chives from the garden, which are always amongst the first things to come up.
I added to that Connor’s fresh bread, and if anyone gets hungry later, we have leftover chocolate pistachio cake, dropped off as part of the Mom’s weekly baking program, and sliced strawberries. Sometime this week I’ll take my parsnips, sweet potatoes and turnips and turn them into latkes. I have several mangoes lying around, so I’ll make a simple mango salsa. What are we going to put it on? Who knows, maybe the latkes.
The love of good food and cooking is one of the best ways I can think of to cope with the loss of normal life. Getting lost in the growing of it, and the creating of it is, to me, a reminder of the infinite blessings we have.
And if you want to feed those in need around you, here’s some ways.
It seems like everyone has re-discovered their kitchen these days. With lots of time at home and a need to limit contact with others, cooking and baking are on the rise. Here’s some simple things you can make in quarantine, with things you probably already have in the kitchen.
I’ll talk more about my own experience with C19 later. Let’s just leave it for now, as I still waffle between bursts of energy and profound exhaustion. Still, I finally found myself back in the kitchen, profoundly grateful to be able to be where I was. While I recognized that my relative youth and good health were in my favor during my comparatively mild experience, there’s nothing like a bout with a virus that has killed over 100,000 people in a couple short months to give you a reality check.
I felt nothing but blessed to be back amongst my cookbooks and cooks tools. And given the challenge that finding flour is, I was deeply glad I buy mine in bulk. We had the better part of 20 pounds of organic white flour (I buy 30 lbs at a time) lying around, plus a few variations. Still, if you need some, I highly recommend One Mighty Mill, right down the road.
Connor and I, who have been reading the Little House books, with the intent to make everything in the Little House Cookbook as a result (He hasn’t been into homeschooling. Food, he’s into, so I decided it was better if Mohammed goes to the mountain, so to speak) dove in to his first recipe of homemade bread. In this case we veered off of the Little House so for something simple that might pique his interest, and it did, and then some. On and off for well over a decade I’ve been making the recipe from Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day, and it’s a great starter recipe for anyone who hasn’t got tons of experience with baking. Years ago, Kiera titled it ‘Mommy Bread’ but now it’s officially ‘Connor Bread’. His pride in his breadmaking skills is profound.
I veer off the recipe link in a few ways. One, we add different flours. Typically about 1 cup of the 6.5 cups in the recipe are a combination of whole wheat, buckwheat and oat flour. This is healthier and richer than plain white bread. The other is that I use a regular old baking sheet sprinkled with cornmeal to prevent the bread from sticking.
We ate it with Rosemary Ranch Chicken, salad, couscous and another so-easy-anyone-can-do-it recipe, pickled onions. Pickled onions have been something of a trend in the last couple of years, but they are very easy. All you need is cider vinegar, sugar, salt an onion and some time.
You will need:
1 red onion, sliced thin (you can use white too, but you won’t get the awesome pink color)
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
Mix vinegar, salt and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Add onion slices. Let sit for a couple hours, until soft, periodically stirring. Eat.
Today, we’re going to prepare for Easter by making birdseed eggs for our bird feeders. These are a great project for kids too, and super easy to do. A bit messy, but that’s not bad, if you can take the mixture outside, all the better. Birds can then help you clean up the mess.
I’ve been walking a lot lately. I haven’t had a lot of interest in running, although I’m sure I will at some point, but right now, it’s about being outside and enjoying the peace that comes with exercise rather than any need to push myself. I make my coffee, lace up my sneakers, and unless it’s raining heavily, go as soon as it’s light out for about 3 miles. No music or podcasts, just my thoughts and the scenery around me. I never grow tired of the landscape around me, and every day I notice something new – the moss growing up a tree trunk, the way a tree leans over a small creek, birds. It’s a time for me to collect my thoughts and prepare for the day.
Before I go though, I log the day’s counts in my diary. The number infected in Massachusetts, the US, Globally. Recovered. Deaths.
I don’t do it to be morbid, I do it to ensure I remember. To hold myself accountable for my memory. Years from now I may forget how the body count doubled in just a week, how 1000 died in a single day here in the US, the terror I feel knowing my sister, a nurse, is treating the ill with a limited amount of protective gear, like so many other medical professionals. How completely exhausting it is to weigh every decision to go out as a matter of life and death. How, at the beginning it seemed like a slow threat, but then one that advanced so rapidly it was hard to figure out what reaction was correct at any given moment. How much time I spend praying that this horrific virus passes us by, and our loved ones, our friends, our community. How I got upset at my daughter for not helping make her bed, which wasn’t what mattered, it was my fear that maybe I wouldn’t be there to do it for her in the future. How much I fear that, most of all.
And how little control I feel about all of it.
It’s important to remember this stuff. Someday, when the veil of history comes down, and it’s ‘this happened, and people died’ it’s important to remember the stories of the people that were impacted by job loss and food insecurity, by illness, that died too early. To remember it as it really was, and to tell the story that way, not through the haze that time eventually puts on all of our memories.
But it’s also important to remember the moments. I admit, as stressful as it is for all of us to juggle work and kids home all the time, I love them being there. I love being home with my family every single day. In early March, as the virus closed in and schools started letting out to ‘disinfect’, ultimately to never reopen, my son and I went to the grocery store. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have brought him, but my memory of him grabbing his own basket and going to select the things important to him is one I love right now. I remember the worry and not a small bit of admiration at my fiercely independent 7 year old trotting down the aisle, determined to contribute. “Did I do good Mom?” he said, as he came back with ice cream, a couple bags of orange chicken, cups of ramen, and frozen edamame. “Yes, baby, you did perfect.”. He was so proud to have helped us be supplied with the things he liked. I’ve always loved grocery shopping, and it seems that I’ve passed that on to my younger child. We always come home with stuff I might not buy, but he views the grocery store much like I do, as an endless wonderland of options.
Only a few weeks ago, but it feels like a lifetime. I want to remember too, that the world still turned green, that the forsythia started to bloom, and daffodils appeared in the yard, that spring is here, regardless of the horror outside our yard. I need to remember the good things and the beauty as well, when the world paused for a while.
Tonight we start up a new tradition. Dinner and a movie, with the 5 people allowed in our world right now – Eli, myself, the kids and their Dad. I’m cooking Pumpkin Lasagna with Fontina and Sage, and we’ll grill Rosemary Ranch Chicken, add a salad and some cut veggies, and maybe make Pac Man cupcakes with the leftover frosting and cupcakes from Eli’s birthday. We might do a little Just Dance on the Nintendo. We will absolutely laugh.
Above all things, I want to remember how much gratitude I have for my amazing and limitlessly patient husband, for my children, for my life.
I will remember this, someday in a later time as one of pain and fear for all of us in the world, but also as a time when we remembered what really mattered. Each other.
Early on in the C19 panic-buying days, which was only about 2ish weeks ago, people were doing some super-crazy things, like buying out entire stores supplies of toilet paper and meat. It was awful and greedy, and impacted a lot of limited-income people.
I’m an advocate of keeping a full pantry, fridge and freezer, but I want to differentiate between what is a ‘good’ stockpile and a ‘bad’ stockpile.
Here’s some helpful hints on how not to be a jackass at the grocery store.
Good: Buy extra so you don’t have to go out more than once every few weeks. Bad: Strip the store of things you don’t even need and more than you can eat, or with the intention of reselling at crazy prices. Feeding off people’s fear isn’t good business, it’s icky.
Good: Buying things you like to eat so that you can eat them over the next couple weeks Bad: Buying things that are WIC eligible when you can buy another brand (they literally cannot) and stockpile shopping in the first couple days of the month when SNAP benefit recipients, who likely never have enough food anyway, are in dire need of resupply. Sure, go to the store if you need a few things, but save your big shops for later.
Good: Thanking the people who are going to work every day so you can eat. Bad: Voting against policies that would give them increased job security, benefits, and living wages.
Good: Buying what you need. Bad: Grabbing the last thing on the shelf because it’s there, even if you don’t need it.
As I write this, 664,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Over 30,000 have died. When in a matter of days it was reported that an otherwise healthy 17 year old and an infant died, my calm shattered and ice water ran through my veins. We are still on the uphill slope of this, the curve that everyone is now trying to flatten is a mountain, and we are less than halfway up the side. 2 of the 4 of us have compromised immune systems. The only thing we can do is hold the line, stay home, sterilize everything, and hope for the best.
As I drove my children to their Dad’s house for a couple days, I passed a church that summarized, even for those of us that aren’t particularly religious, the correct direction:
No Services Keep Praying
And so I am, for all of us.
We are safe and sound here, as much as we can be. I just stocked us up again on groceries, and our meat deliveries continue. Eggs are an abundance that we can share by leaving cartons on the front porch for friends and neighbors. To our monthly meat deliveries I’ve added Misfits Market, until the garden and CSA start producing. I’ve learned the local cheese shop delivers as well, so if we find ourselves in need of cheese, we have options. I know that what we are experiencing is positive luxury, and my gratitude is boundless. I also know we’re helping keep some local businesses in play, and for that I’m happy as well.
Knowing that our intentional isolation is the only way, and that still there is risk to us focuses me in on what matters. I am content to just be home. I plant, I work in the yard, clean the house, and cook. Oh, and Eli and I juggle work – which is impossibly busy for me and very much the same for him, plus homeschooling kids. There’s no relaxing or boredom here, no need to think up things that will fill our time. We take it day by day, trying to balance all the things, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing.
There’s a lesson in all of this – there is only now, and we have to take advantage of it, live our lives. Nothing is written.
The other night a surprise snowstorm blew in, and Eli and I went for a long walk in it, coming home soaked and chilled to the bone, but pleased to have had the outside world to ourselves. We try to walk as much as possible these days, needing the fresh air. My son has even taken to occasionally disappearing to the play set in the backyard, sometimes accompanied by his iPad, just to be outside. And probably away from us, as there’s a lot of togetherness happening. Still, the kids are happy about my prolonged grounding at home.
Spring came back right after our snowstorm, with a few daffodils showing up in the yard, and the lilacs turning green with buds, and the snow melting by morning. Yesterday we started clearing out the trench bed. Asparagus Season is only a few weeks away, and the yard needs a great deal of work. We haven’t figured out where the bricks to finish the garden beds are going to come from if we can’t go buy them – there are old, crumbling bricks in back of the garage that we can use as placeholders at least. We would like to paint a bedroom, but that, too, requires a trip to the store no one should risk. We definitely need a lawn mower, rather than a service this year. At some point we may have to manage that, but not quite yet.
So we putter with what we have, like so many generations before us, only with infinitely more resources. And we rest. This morning, I watched the rain. I woke up early and started some seeds, when it was dark enough that I still needed a lamp to see by. I read, and I wrote. I sat, at peace with where we are right now. My children were asleep upstairs, so too my husband. The world begins to green around me. Thus far, we are only touched by isolation, not illness.
And I cook. We still have some onions, butternut squash, and potatoes from our Thanksgiving stock up, but these need to be used quickly now. The onions will go into some French Onion Soup this week. We have 2 small pumpkins hanging on as well, ready to turn into Pumpkin, Sage and Fontina Lasagna. Eli’s birthday is coming up, so we’ll need to celebrate that as well.
For tonight, it’s simple. Stuffed Spaghetti Squash – simple and delicious. Serves 2, just double the recipe for more.
Here’s how to make it:
1 medium spaghetti squash, halved and seeded
Small container of pesto
2 oz goat cheese
1 lb ground turkey or lamb
2 small onions, chopped
1 garlic clove, finely minced
salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan, to top
Preheat oven to 400
Oil a baking sheet and put the halved squash face down on the sheet
Bake until tender, about 40 minutes
While the squash is baking, saute the ground turkey, onion and garlic in a pan until turkey is cooked through and onions are soft. Add salt and pepper and set aside.
Remove the squash from the oven and flip until they are rind-side down, let cool slightly
Mix the cooled turkey mixture with the goat cheese and pesto until well combined. Load up the squash ‘boats’ with the mixture, and top with Parmesan, Asiago or another grated hard cheese.
Return to the 400 degree oven for 15 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted. Serve immediately.
I woke up this morning to a dusting of snow on the ground – the sun is glowing and the sky is cloud-free, and other than a little wind blowing, it just added a sugar coating to a glorious morning.
We’re about 5 days into the spending freeze, and a good chunk of the grocery money is already used up. I budgeted $450 this month just to see how that worked, which is about $100-$150 less than we usually spend. That budget includes most of our meals – Eli works from home 100% of the time, and I do about 65% of the time. We rarely eat out, although I tend to have to when I travel, which is reimbursed. We pack the kids lunches 50% of the time, and breakfasts for all of us are home-based most of the time. We try to eat healthily, and our meals include lots and lots of vegetables.
I spent $75 yesterday at Trader Joe’s on both food and wine (it’s a spending freeze, not a life of bleak deprivation). Add to that what we’ve spent on things that arrive automatically and we should be ok, although this will be tighter than our usual. All we really will need is lunch meat, milk, and fruits and vegetables and a few staples.
Next week our Walden Local meat food order will arrive ($167), although because of the holiday and so many meals away from home, we still have a lot left from last month. We have some Amazon Subscribe-and-Save items arriving as well ($132.66) that will come in handy, especially the 30 lbs of organic flour that arrives 2x a year. And gets used, I might add. At about $1.42/lb, it’s more expensive to buy organic flour by a fair bit, but knowing that I’m minimizing our pesticide consumption helps. The next step is to get our flour locally, which will increase our costs but support a local, truly organic grower, but not yet. Add to that the food we’ve put up and purchased, and I think we’ll be in good shape, even though there’s a lot of January left.
We still have most of the sweet potatoes, a lot of regular potatoes, onions and 2 big butternut squash from our Thanksgiving weekend stock up. We’re also completely buried in fresh eggs, so fritattas, deviled eggs, quiche and lots of other options can be both breakfast and dinner. So long as we employ some creativity, we should eat well and healthily for the month.
Our biggest risk area for the budget is snacks – I plan to make some homemade granola bars next weekend (this recipe is great, even without the coconut, which is not my favorite), and there’s always cookies, popcorn, and homemade guacamole with some tortilla chips. Plus I stashed some Nutella-and-Breadstick snack packs for when the kids are completely frustrated by the lack of appealing snacks later in the month. It’s probably not a flawless plan, but it’s pretty solid.
Last night we finally used up the spaghetti squash that we came home in November with – I halved it, scooped the seeds and then baked it with olive oil, salt, pepper and a few cloves of garlic until it was soft. Then I filled it with a mixture of cooked ground lamb seasoned with garlic, and then mixed in goat cheese and pesto, and I topped it with a little shredded cheese. Spaghetti squash ‘boats’ stuffed with almost anything are a favorite of mine. I had no idea that my husband had never experienced spaghetti squash when I bought it, but he was so impressed by both Mother Nature’s ingenuity and dinner generally that we’ll be adding it to the list of things we grow and buy in bulk this year.
And on that topic, I’m thinking next weekend I might start some winter lettuce indoors to cut down on what I’m buying. I don’t usually grow much in the winter, but it’s a pretty low-effort endeavor to grow stuff from scratch, especially in small quantities.
When you are trying to eat what you have, it’s the time to use cookbooks and food websites as a starting point, not in order to follow recipes precisely. For example, find a recipe for stuffed spaghetti squash and then modify based on what you have rather than what the recipe says exactly. Tonight for dinner I need both kid-friendly food and to start to tackle the red peppers that have been sitting around for a few days. I pulled some beef bulgogi from the freezer, and that, along with a salad and some quick and easy popovers will cover down on dinner tonight and likely leave Eli some leftovers while I travel. Those red peppers will be sliced up along with cucumbers for the kids, who consume both without question.
I have mushrooms that need to get used up when I return as well, so I’m trying to decide whether to saute and freeze them now, or wait until I get back and turn them into something interesting, like a new variation of stuffed mushrooms, perhaps using more of the ground lamb that comes with our meat share.
Key here is to use cookbooks and web recipes for ideas. I’m lucky enough to have a freezer and my pantry completely full, so my options are great. But I’ve had times in my life where all I had was some flour and yeast, cheese and spaghetti sauce, and a few onions, and I made some really good homemade pizza with caramelized onions, which fed me until the next paycheck arrived. I’ve used solid white tuna as a cheaper alternative to ground beef in pasta sauce, and it’s really good. Surprisingly good.
Food writers, bloggers and chefs are always on the lookout for the newest and the freshest ingredients, and I love that – I have learned so much from so many about things I never thought I could cook at home, and flavor combinations I wouldn’t have ever considered on my own. But the reality is that it isn’t how most of us truly eat – most people have budgets, food preferences, limited time to cook, kids who will try a very few new things.
But what we all have is the ability to be limitlessly creative in the kitchen – the worst that can happen is that what comes out isn’t that great, and the best that can happen is you pair flavors you like and come out with a new greatest hit.
I finished the last of my work travel for the year, getting home late on Thursday evening, just as the kids were getting ready to head off to NYC with their dad and his parents, celebrating not just Christmas but his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. While the kids were having fun watching the Rockettes and checking out everything the Big Apple has to offer, Eli and I headed into Boston for a night, to the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum, then dinner in the North End and a little holiday shopping.
We got home this afternoon after a stop at the grocery store, and I got into serious nesting mode – we’re 10 days to Christmas, and we still have a lot to do. Other than a few bottles of wine to give away, we’re basically done with all but the baking of things and mailing of a few packages and well, all the Christmas cards. Just a little behind.
Since those packages have to be mailed out ASAP, and I always want to include some of my homemade treats, I set out to make my Spiced Nuts, which are a great addition to boxes of cookies and fairly addictive. I took the original recipe from a book called Food For Friends by Sally Pasley Vargas, which, if you like to give food gifts, is worth ever cent of the $4.35 that Amazon is currently selling it for and then some. I tweaked the recipe to combine it with a recipe my Great Aunt Sally used to make, and I think the edits I have made turned both very good recipes into even an even better one.
I’m a huge fan of giving cookies and homemade things as gifts, but I tend to like things that are savory more than sweet myself, so most gifts of sweets get eaten by the other people in my life. These nuts are a the best combination of salty, sweet and spicy, perfect for a cheese board, in a basket of goodies, or for a hostess served with a bottle of wine. Ideal for cold January nights in front of a fire too.
Most of all, while a little time intensive, they are absurdly easy, with 2 caveats: Don’t stray far from the kitchen when cooking – nuts go from browned and yummy to burned very quickly. These are great to make when you are already in the kitchen preparing dinner. And prepare the walnuts separately from the almonds and pecans – they burn easier.
You will need:
2 Cups Pecans
2 Cups Almonds
4 Cups Walnuts
3 Cups Sugar
1 1/2 Cup Water
4 tsp Vanilla Extract
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil (don’t substitute olive oil here)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
dash or two of cayenne (if you aren’t going to have small people eat them – if they might, skip this)
2 large foil-covered baking sheets
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
Mix together the cinnamon, salt and pepper in a small container. Set aside.
Combine the sugar and the water and turn on low heat. Add the first 4 cups of nuts and bring to a low boil for 5 minutes.
Remove the nuts with a slotted spoon and spread out on the first baking sheet in a single layer.
Bake for approximately 25 minutes, watching to ensure that the nuts brown but do not burn
Repeat for the walnuts, using the same sugar water.
Remove the baked nuts from the oven and move into a heap on the foil.
Sprinkle each pile of nuts with 2 tsp vanilla, then oil, then half of the spice mixture, stirring to coat.
Spread the nuts back into a single layer and return to the oven for approximately 10 minutes, watching closely.
Remove from the oven and let cool. Combine the nuts into a container. Use within 10-14 days.