Winter’s End

Another round of fluffy snow fell the other night, and the landscape is all whites and grays, cold loveliness. Despite what any groundhogs may or may not have seen earlier this month, winter’s grip remains and won’t loosen for at least another few weeks. Still, it’s time to start thinking about spring, with things to plant being ordered and the potting bench migrating it’s way under the living room window. My Meyer Lemon tree has begun to bloom, a tiny sign of hope for and warmth.

This year we’ll add blueberries, more mulberry trees, and replace a few of the baby trees that have not made it over the years. My son is lobbying for walnut trees as well, although I don’t really know where to put them. And with our parents starting to be vaccinated, hope of a different sort is taking root as well.

In between daydreams of flowers and sunshine though, pandemic reality continues to warp at Sithean. My 8 year old has begun to chart his speed and success rates at levels (worlds?) in Mario Odyssey with notes on paper, like a stockbroker from nineteen tickety-two. If he begins dressing like a Newsie I will find it only mildly odd, and would mostly wonder where he found brown knickers in a child’s size 10 and whose credit card he swiped to get them. The possibility that he’s founded a gaming platform since November and now is a multi-billionaire who can buy his own knickers is just the sort of thing that would turn out to be true.

Honey Locust in the Snow

Additionally mind bending is that my tiny baby daughter who only yesterday was dressed in a giant pink-and-purple fleece onesie, is now twelve and educating me on Cottagecore, which seems to primarily be about wearing floaty floral dresses and eating banana bread in fields of wildflowers. That the potential wildflowers are currently covered in several inches of ice and snow does not dissuade her, nor does the fact that she doesn’t even like floral prints. Or dresses.

Suggestions to add a thatched roof to Sithean do not go unheard so much as the general upkeep, lack of expertise, total lack of thatch material locally, and the fact that the current roof is only 2 years old leave me no choice but to reject her plan out of hand, with the counter-offer of a t-shirt with some fancily sketched mushrooms on it and some banana bread for breakfast paling in comparison, but deemed potentially acceptable. Maybe.

And so our pandemic winter treks onward. My brief fit of rejoining the world with Museums and cheese and outdoor brunch under patio heaters while a cold February rain misted in for my daughter’s birthday has passed, and I find myself content to return to my natural state of sweatpanted isolation. My web conference colleagues got excited about being ‘on video’ for a while, but that trend seems to be slowly trailing off somewhat. June sounds like a good time to get out again.

It’s time to turn inward again anyway. With impending spring comes the start to rush, and to finish the inside projects before the outdoors calls us to clean up and prepare for the next season. Before us is the final large stack of paperwork to initiate our home study and launch into adoptive parenthood, alone with our continued reorganization projects. Our decluttering efforts are showing their fruits in spaces that got- and remained – without piles of stuff on them. But there’s still more to do.

So today, in and around a short run, projects and lots of laundry, we’ll prep chicken parmesan, potstickers, and lots of other delicious foods for the week, as we do most Sundays. And tonight, as the 4 of us settle in for a simple evening with hamburgers, roasted potatoes and a movie before the week begins we’ll count our blessings.

Because while our ever-so-slightly-bent-reality pandemic winter treks on, we know spring is coming.

Radical Acceptance

I’ve started writing and stopped on multiple blog posts in the last couple weeks. The dark and cold of a pandemic winter overcame my generally positive mindset. My daughter was struggling in school, bad things kept happening to those around us, and the pandemic was spreading, and spreading some more. New variants, vaccines but not for us, even my walks, oases of time to think and breathe, were given over in service to ice and cold and dark and school schedules.

I started thinking about escape to somewhere warm and near the ocean, with a pool and where, just for a while, we could ignore the pandemic. Pretend it wasn’t. Since Covid-19 washed up on our shores I’ve been worried but calm about it, other than ensuring that every bit of pantry and freezer space is filled at all times. Did we need 4 bottles of lemon juice? No, no we didn’t, but it, and all the other things filling the cabinets staved off some of the stress. Finally I took a day and reorganized things, so I could stop the overbuying and easily see what we have.

But facing down another year without our people was maybe more than my always optimistic mindset could manage, and all the things, combined with the sheer relentlessness of work for me lately, I reached the tipping point. Even the Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Parmesan Tater Tots and other cooking I was doing, normally therapeutic, wasn’t helping.

Then the TV started having issues, and out the window went family movie night. Our Friday night homemade-pizza-and-movie is something that the kids participate in only some of the time, but I hold out as always there, a connection point that holds us together.

Of course, none of these things are particularly huge problems. We are warm, fed and housed. We have enough and then some. But I was tired and overwhelmed, and nothing felt quite right.

Nonetheless, despair and I are not friends, I’m deeply programmed with a little too much of ‘put on your big girl pants and deal with it-itis. So I did, a little at a time, after first, wallowing in feeling sorry for myself for a few days.

First, my daughter, putting in place tools to help her with her schoolwork and a lot of listening. Then, acknowledgement that winter in 2022 might include a warm-weather vacation away, but not this year, so alternative plans for some days off at home. Our de-cluttering and tidying continues, this time as much for mindset purposes as anything else. Normally I don’t get much of it done on weeknights, but this past Thursday I sat down and slogged away at a corner of the living room that was piled up with puzzles games and the last few things from Christmas that we forgot to put in the attic and started on it. There’s still more to do, but every little bit helps.

Eli and I planned our summer RV trip to the mountains, and a random day off later this month when we will drop the kids off at school and take some time to connect and walk and be together.

My daughter and I took the dog for a walk. Eli and our son took a quick trip to the Art Store and Target, a rare and tiny burst of normalcy, carefully timed to limit exposure. We cooked homemade Indian food, something I’ve been trying to master. Eli fixed the TV.

Homemade Onion Pakora, Palak Paneer and chicken Tikka Masala with Naan and some homemade tamarind and yogurt sauces.

But it wasn’t any of those things that truly made the weight of the world leave my shoulders, although at one point Eli offering to literally take it from me did leave me laughing.

It was a squirrel.

We have this one determined squirrel, whom we have semi-affectionately named Stinker, who loves to clean out the bird feeders. Some of our feeders are more squirrel resistant than others, but the one just outside the living room window is an easy access point for him (her?). Birds eat from it too, the birds of my grandmother’s house – chickadees and goldfinches and robins and Bluejays. And even some rarer birds like bluebirds show up. This week it got emptied, as it always does, and sure enough, when I woke up, there was Stinker, trying to glean the last few crumbs before another snowstorm arrives.

And I remembered. My job here is to tend this place and it’s denizens. Eli and I are both providers here, each with our critical and respective jobs in caring for animals, children and home, but even before him I took on the role of Provider, first when I became a mom, and then when we arrived here, promising leave this place only when my time on earth is over and in better shape than I found it. I had, amidst piles of laundry and long hours at work and worry about all the everything, completely lost perspective. I chose this work, and some days it’s harder and more than I can manage. But this the long game, and Sithean and I belong together. I will almost certainly get lost in the day to day again, but at least for today I know where I need to be.

The Long Pandemic Teatime of the Soul

I drink a lot of tea in the winter time. I do not like my tea very strong, and after I drink the first cup until it has cooled down – I do like it very hot – I often top it with water and reheat, sometimes over and over again. An old friend once referred to it as me liking ‘scent of tea’ and she definitely nailed it. I’ve never reverted to drinking hot water with lemon slices, but that probably would be fine with me too. It’s warmth from the inside, which is helpful because our house isn’t well insulated, and cranking up the heat isn’t a constant option.

Last week, after watching and reading about how new strains of Covid-19 are spreading and far more infectious, we decided to accelerate our big grocery stock up and so on Friday and Saturday, shopped like food and household goods were going out of style. We have some bulk items coming from Azure Standard – a test run of their co-op – in early February, and will continue our Misfits Market and Walden local meat deliveries, but the intention here is to have enough of our core needs to last about 60 days. Things like bulk pasta, dried beans and flour will last much longer.

And now that we have the storage space, it’s feasible to buy 5 lbs of Parmesan cheese at a time and freeze it in bags until we need it. And yes, we use it.

Associated, as it is intended to be, with desperately needed pantry and freezer inventory and organization, it offers us a chance to mostly take ourselves out of circulation other than school for the kids and occasional runs for fruit and milk.

On March 8th, we will have been in our new normal for a year. While Covid-19 just passed it’s 1-year anniversary as a human disease, it took a little longer for us. As I look back, in mid-February I started stocking up. At first, I, and others thought I was a little nuts. On the evening of March 8th I flew home from my last work trip, unmasked as we all were, as I chatted with a fellow passenger. No one was talking about aerosol transmission then. He shared his Lysol wipes with me, something that was already in short supply. I had a reservation to return to my office in Michigan in 2 weeks, but I was pretty sure by that time I wouldn’t be going.

By the end of the following week we were all in lock down. The schools closed for ‘deep cleaning’ never to reopen, at least for the rest of the school year. Stores were running out of absolutely everything, and toilet paper was the new hot commodity.

A year and more than 400,o00 deaths later, we are preparing for a potential lock down and shortages again. While I think that things will begin to turn a corner in the spring, we are mindful that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Whether we will see similar food supply shortages as we did in the spring is unclear, but we know that the pandemic is running unchecked globally except in a few select places, so I have to assume this will be an ongoing issue. While everywhere there seems to be the idea that we will be back to normal by summer, I hope so while planning for another year of plague.

So how to get through that if it comes, and what to do to keep you and us safe and sound and well is on my mind. We are taking a very conservative approach to exposure, and I don’t intend to change that. So here are the things we are doing to get through this endless dusk, when the lights are dimmer and the weather is colder and our days are filled with our missed connections.

  1. Routine is your friend. If you know what to expect of each day it’s much easier. If every Saturday morning it’s bacon and pancakes for breakfast, hold that line and make sure there is bacon and all the things. Routine brings relief and clear expectations. And that translates to activities – my son has an Outschool Roblox class on Thursdays while my daughter has a horseback riding lesson (well ventilated – actually freezing cold – barn, good social distancing), and knowing that Thursdays host ‘their’ activities helps.
  2. Nourish your body. Cook good, healthy food as much as possible. Generate excitement and ask for participation in food preparation with your household. As you have time and money, now is a time to experiment with new foods and to refine others.
  3. Get outside. As cold as it is here in the north, I still make a point to walk and run as frequently as I can. My son practices his bike riding skills. My daughter hangs with her chickens, Eli plays fetch with Teddy the Doggleby and he and I try to walk together whenever we can get out for an hour.
  4. Create some holidays. We celebrate Surprise Day here once a year – a day off for everyone where we go do fun things, and pre-Covid, we would celebrate Mama Pajama Day, a day where everyone stays in pajamas all day and we eat ice cream sundaes for lunch. During Covid, there has been a lot more pajama-filled days, but now that the kids are back in school we plan to spin it up again. And it’s probably about time to bring back France Day, created in response to our cancelled trip to Paris last April, in which we eat french food and do activities related to France. Last year it was a 3D Eiffel Tower puzzle, croissants and a french chicken dish. In the end it doesn’t really matter what you do (give your dog a birthday party? Celebrate the color blue?), just do a something.
  5. Make the everyday fun. For nights the kids are with their Dad, Eli and I often make a nice dinner, light a fire in the wood stove, and snuggle up for a movie. We don’t really care what movie, but having a thing that we look forward to makes it fun, and while we always miss the kids, we look forward to time together. If you live alone, maybe pick a night where you do something indulgent, like a glass of wine while in the bathtub.
  6. Give yourself a break. We are human beings, not human doings. If it all gets to be too much, it’s okay to shut down for a while.
Homemade Chicken Massaman Curry

How are you getting through?

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

IMG-3162

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

IMG_5584
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.

IMG-2985

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
IMG_5568 (1)

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.

IMG_5583

For the Love of Food

IMG-2899

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.