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.

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.


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.

Zucchini Rainstorm

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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
Some pesto
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.

No need to measure a thing, just cook to taste.

Serves 2

 

 

 

 

 

Enchilada Mango Cooking Math

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Photograph by Eli 5 Stone

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.

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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
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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.

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For the Love of Food

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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.

I haven’t thought that far ahead, but maybe we’ll grill some scallops in brushed with Chimichurri sauce.  As soon as there’s enough up, I’ll make Half Baked Harvest’s Sesame Roasted Asparagus with Whipped Feta.  I drool just thinking about it.

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.

 

 

 

 

Remembrances

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Preparing for Spring

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February has settled in, and in the last few days brought with it breathtakingly cold weather.  When I got up this morning, the thermometer hung at 5 degrees F.  The bunnies took up residence last night in a rectangular bin in the dining room, because we had officially landed in rabbit hypothermia weather, and being responsible for our pets becoming rabbit popsicles is not part of my life plan at the moment.

Cold of this depth brings stillness.  No one other than the birds are out right now.  Keeping the feeders full is something that is going to have to wait another hour, but feeding the birds is part of our winter responsibilities too.  Plus it is wonderful to watch birds I hadn’t seen since my grandmother’s time, like goldfinches and bluebirds, make an appearance.  But the lack of humans and cars, and ambient noise of anything other than Mother Nature’s creatures is such a gift.  Even where we are, in a sleepy town on a quiet road, this kind of silence is rare.

Lately I’ve been so deep in family life and work I haven’t stopped to take a look around much, but this morning, as I look out the picture window I remember what a magical place I’ve come to.  Just a house, to be sure, but not just a house either.  Sanctuary, for birds, wildlife, and us.  When we arrived here, I had no sense of how it would all work out, just that we belonged here, that I belonged here.  It was like holding my nose while I stepped off a cliff, with not much but faith in….myself?  The universe?, and the knowledge I could never uproot my kids again and so had to make it work to sustain me.

And oh boy we have made it work.  I haven’t achieved all the goals by a long shot – I still have no idea how we’ll pay off the house before Connor goes to college.  I’ve improved on our local food, but have by no means cut the cord from the grocery store. We definitely managed a significant amount more food preservation last summer than I had in previous years, but can we live on it?  Nope.   We’ve managed to build out plans for the much-needed renovation for this place over the last 18 months, but still haven’t figured out that one either.  Still, we plan to break ground next spring, gulp.  The house needs to be more airtight, we have to deal with water issues, and with 2 of us working at home, we need better spaces to handle it.  I also could use a closet bigger than a shoebox.

But we have done so much, and we’re not just making it work, we are thriving.

Which is why last night, as the 4 of us sat down to a roast chicken dinner, complemented by our locally-retrieved sweet potatoes, onions and potatoes to have a Mario Kart competition (the kids absolutely trounced the adults) I took a minute to reflect on where we are.   Like seeds with enough water and light, we took root here, first the kids and I, and then Eli.  And while some of it is just that humans have a great capacity to get on with things, some of it is that this place tended to us, as we do to it.

Despite the cold, spring is starting to show it’s imminent arrival.  Connor and I potted seeds for Sweet Peas, taking inspiration from My Country Life, as well as Hollyhocks and lettuce last week, and the first of the lettuce seeds are already poking up.  We’ll start more in a couple weeks, as our last frost date isn’t until the beginning of May here.  The chickens are still laying, but less these days.  Still, we have plenty of eggs for cooking and eating, and lots to give away as well.

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Lettuce Seeds

I have a lot of seeds this year.  My plans are to complete the garden with Eli, finally!  And to finish turning the front of the house into an herb garden.  The kids want garden space too, and I’ve gotten a lot of flower to put in the front of the house, an oft-neglected spot.  After weeks of relaxing weekends, I feel ready.  While there’s still a long stretch of soups and curries, and cozy nights in front of the fire ahead, and putting the winter running gear away is a long time off, I’m getting excited about planting and harvesting again.

Spring preparations start slow, but pick up speed as we move into March.  It may be a little ways off, but soon enough the windows will be open and the flowers blooming.

 

 

Winter Daydreams

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Sithean’s landscape turns to frosted magic when the snow falls, as it did this weekend, before turning back to January levels of bitter cold again.  Our weekends have been unplanned and relaxed lately, and while we interrupted our spending freeze to go to the movies yesterday, it’s been mostly pleasant to be at home with little calling our attention other than the day to day chores around the house.

Sunday morning, after a great evening with an old friend and her daughter, complete with chicken parmesan and ice cream sandwiches made with Karen’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, I woke up to about 5 inches of snow on the ground and no where in particular to be.  I fed the bunnies, curled up on the couch, and enjoyed the lingering warmth from the last night’s fire in the wood stove.

Today is busier – the roads are clear enough for me to run, and I head to the airport in the afternoon.  But since it’s a holiday, it’s a quiet morning here, with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs for everyone and no particularly pressing needs to be met.   That doesn’t mean there aren’t a million things we could be doing – house projects, decluttering, but January is also the time to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.  I’m a huge goal-setter, and I mostly measure a good day by how much I have accomplished, but there’s a very great deal to be said for just sitting and thinking.

As I watch the bird feeder out the living room window and think about nothing in particular, it’s a great reminder that my life is particularly blessed.  I live in a place that takes my breath away.  I have a wonderful family, great friends and health.  Gratitude, something I practice actively, comes easily when the world is still and peaceful.

Still, my mind wanders to spring.  Will the bulbs Eli and I planted come up around the Seckel Pear?  Will the baby fruit trees survive the winter?  Should I try for 2 plantings in the garden this year, even though I only managed on last year?  I want to do more companion planting as well, and work on truly turning the front garden into a sea of herbs.  A plan is required, as it always is, and it’s never something that I come to quickly.

As I get older, I appreciate winter more.  I’ve come to realize the point of January is daydreams, sleeping in, plans, sitting with one’s thoughts.  Spring will arrive, as it always does, with a frenzy of planting and work, and I’ll be lost in it.   But for a few fleeting weeks, there’s a breath in the business of life, and while I may never enjoy being cold, I have learned gratitude for this necessary point in the year that reminds me that respite and rest are just as much a part of humanity as accomplishing things.