Farmlet Retreat

Twilight in Topsfield

At 3:46 pm a couple Friday nights ago, I decided to stop adulting.

The kids left for their Dad’s for the weekend. My husband was tired. Work had been relentless and my daughter had been sick most of the week. I had woken up with a headache.

So I cooked some frozen dumplings, put on pajama pants, and ignoring the sun and nearly 60 degree weather, climbed into bed under the blankets with a copy of a book I had previously read and loved, The Wilder Life, and decided that everything in the world could be dealt with – later.

I should have gone out to clean up the yard and weed. But I didn’t.

It felt glorious to just check out. And retreat into Laura World, which is what the author, Wendy McClure calls it. And yes, I know Laura Ingalls Wilder is complicated and there’s ugly parts of her books and opinions and perspectives, this is not lost on me. But when life gets too much, no matter my age, I find myself craving the simplicity of butter churns and cheese making, over 401k balancing and client issues. I don’t actually want to live a life where I sit on tree stumps for dining room chairs, but I do always feel a little wistful that I don’t want to be that person.

Most of all, I took the signs that my body and mind needed rest very seriously. I slept, I did some chores, ran, and went for a walk with my husband at twilight on a nearby trail. When Sunday arrived, I had a long list to cook, and some things to do before the kids came home, but I did just about all of it and then some. I went into Monday not fully restored, but better rested and with my batteries charged again.

When I returned to the world, so to speak, a transformation had taken place. Daffodils were in blooming, the apricot tree was starting to flower, and everything everywhere was green and in bud.

Daffodils in bloom on the front lawn – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

My seedlings are huge now and some are in need of transplanting. Eli and I are spending countless hours designing next year’s home remodel – from counters to paint to sinks and hardware, and everything in between – thousands of decisions to be made. I can’t wait to share how it will all look, as much art installation as house, in large part because of my amazing and talented husband.

The world continues to be unsteady around us, with the IPCC’s new climate report, war and famine in Ukraine, Yemen, Sudan, the bent to autocracy here in the US – we walk a fine line between aware and engaged, and trying to maintain our shields against a constant barrage of bad news, with nearly no mention of all the good in the world. Worrying about the explosion of weeds and how to manage them, or what to have for dinner is a relief, in a way. I can’t apologize for needing to retreat to Laura World or my garden or kitchen. My mind and home and family need tending to, and while I can participate in making the world a better place, I can’t change the course of world events, or only a little, so I do what I can and try the best to preserve space for joy and flowers and love.

And after a long, cold, sad winter for us, there’s starting to be all those things. But the honest truth was that despite all the joys of spring, I was just teeth-grittingly, bone-wearingly tired. It wasn’t even one specific thing, although work had been unusually stressful and more busy than usual, and crossing the 6 month mark of our loss of my brother-in-law Billy is a gut punch even now. The loss of him, the loss for my sister and her daughters, and the idea that we’ve now entered a phase of life where losing people may become common is is a cord that runs through our days.

And even renovation planning is tiring – as we make renovation decisions that will both restore and improve Sithean, the sheer daunting volume of them overwhelms.

So when the kids schools broke for vacation, we vacated our life in the most literal sense, and drove to the mountains, Eli, I, the kids and their Dad, for a few nights of escape. We cooked meals in advance, packed all the snacks and games one could possibly want, sent Teddy the dog on vacation to his grandparents (and original owners) house, arranged for the chickens and bunny, for we had lost Clover in early March, leaving only Marshmallow to be fed by my neighbor Melissa, watered the seedlings heavily and got out of dodge at 9 am on a Wednesday.

Despite the Jenga-esque efforts of packing coolers, 3 seasons worth of clothing for the ever-changing mountain weather and all the aforementioned snack foods, we arrived in Jackson NH just past lunch time on a Wednesday and breathed relief into the rented house. We heated our chicken parmesan with some garlic bread, salad and pasta and then I went off to nap.

When I woke up Thursday (my nap didn’t last that long, we did manage to have an evening) I felt somewhat restored. I love to travel, but the feeling of ‘I have to get out of here right now so I can rest‘ has become recurring lately at Sithean. ‘When did I lose that sense of sanctuary at home’, I not-infrequently wondered, along with ‘and how do I get it back?’. Maybe it’s just going to be more going to be more transitory until we’ve renovated and moved back in, late next year. Maybe home is a project, not a sanctuary for now, and I just have to ride that out.

I miss that feeling of sanctuary though.

So it’s not surprising I needed to retreat into Laura World, even though it’s impossible to not see the grinding poverty and endless tragedies she endured as an adult. But maybe that makes it all the better – she went through all that and could still see the magic, and create her own Laura World. And maybe that’s the lesson – even when grasshoppers eat your crops and your house burns and you literally lose your farm, if you can still see the magic and the beauty in the world, you can create some for yourself.

Maybe that’s enough.

So I rested and was ready to come home to the sunshine and the flowers and my garden.

Springtime Grace

Moonlit Spring Night

All of a sudden, the bitter cold transitioned to something resembling tolerable, and we even had a day over 70 – concerning if you think about climate change, deliriously wonderful after 4 months of shivering – to cap it off.

Seed starting is in full swing, and so is planning for our renovation next year, with an infinity of decisions to be made, we’re starting now to reduce our stress later, and get a better grip on our budget.

But mostly we are focused on spring. The first of the seedlings have started to come up, which gives me a sense of hope, and the yard is slowly starting to turn green. I don’t have to travel for work again for a while either, which is nice. After 2 trips in 3 weeks, which was immediately followed by the annual butt-kicking that is Daylight Savings Time, I can rest and enjoy being home before the hectic spring yard work really kicks in.


Seed Starting is the Best Kind of Magic

There’s a bit to do now, as it’s time to mow down the trench bed, and Eli is removing debris, including a huge branch that took out some of our old lilac bushes after a recent wind storm. The lilacs were going to have to go in service to renovation anyway, so maybe in the end that will turn out to be a gift, Mother Nature taking them down for us so I don’t have the heartbreak of watching them dug up.

Next year, it’s unlikely we’ll have a garden, and even this year I’m shying away from planting trees or perennials, other than a commitment to start working on turning at least some of the front yard into a wildflower garden in front for my son and a few varieties of poppies, which I’ve been meaning to add for years.

We begin to use the last of the winter vegetables. A few remaining onions from our 50-lb sack, the last few of the half bushel of sweet potatoes, one of the last 2 spaghetti squashes. Once spring warmth comes they will not last any longer. We’re also walking the line between keeping stocked, with food prices soaring, and eating down our pantry and freezer space. As we eat through the last of the pesto and kale from last fall, we won’t be filling that space up again until after our big renovation. I have mixed feelings about that, as I view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, but it is the most sensible approach for us.

As we pass the 5-month mark of loss, the gut punches of memory are less frequent, but no less powerful.

Which is why my thoughts return to my 2022 mantra, Go Easy, and the idea of grace for myself and for so many others. The pandemic, climate change and Russian war-making, and the return of famine to the news have left me worried, angry, sad, stressed. Inflation is real, and has seen our gas, food and energy costs spike. We’re anxious about the costs of our renovation, even while acknowledging that the time has come for it. We’re grateful for warmer days, even while recognizing that perhaps it just shouldn’t be this warm in March.

But we are blessed with family, friends and a safe home, and my endless gratitude for it all. I’m grateful for the grace of today, and right now, that’s enough.

Meal Plan and Batch Cook Your Way Through Anything

There is always something lovely to see on my walks

The weather continues to be challenging – first a giant, but rather pleasant snowstorm, then rain, then sleet and snow followed by another drop in temperature. Saturday afternoon was warm enough for us to bundle up in snow gear and take Teddy for a walk on nearby Greenbelt land. Sunday morning I woke up to 5 degree temperatures, with the bunnies having to take up residence in the basement for the 3rd time in a month. If it stays above 10 degrees, their hutch & run, which is covered in a tarp most of the winter, plus their winter coats keep them warm enough. Below that and we’re likely to wake to bunny popsicles, so in they come, bunsicles being on no one’s list of favorite things.

Challenging these days is more than the weather as my uncle is likely to succumb to his cancer soon enough. We’ve lost a lot in the last few months, my family and I, but I am trying to appreciate and hold gratitude every day as a result, and hold on to all my people.

The lingering warmth in the living room from the fire was lovely, as were my cozy blankets, but I had spent much of Friday afternoon and Saturday morning running errands, primarily food related – Costco, Trader Joe’s and Market Basket, plus our local dairy for a week’s supply of milk, and then the Co-op for bunny food and treats, and suet cakes for the birds. At this time of year, there’s not much for the wild birds to eat, so we try to keep our feeders full. By the time I was finished I had spent $518.41, which is the bulk of our grocery budget for the month. I’ve lately been returning to my old habits of buying most of our groceries at the start of each month, and supplementing fruit, veggies and milk in.

We’re also coming to the end of stock-up shopping, as we’re going to renovate the house next spring, and that requires us moving out completely for a while. Moving some food is inevitable, but it’s time to start emptying the pantries and freezer for real. I tend to view a full larder as an edible emergency fund, and that thinking has served me well, but it will be kind of fun to start to see empty spaces too.

To do that we’ve got to eat what we have and carefully manage our inventory and stockpile. Some things we simply can’t run out of – coffee, cereal for my son, olive oil and spices, things like that. Others I want to make sure we see how long we can go before we need any more. And to eat healthy and stay within a reasonable food budget, meal planning and batch cooking.

I’ve also made the commitment to make 1 dinner and 2 lunches each week for my younger sister – she’s still dealing with the death of her beloved husband, and while I can’t make the loss easier, I can ensure that once a week she and the girls have a hot meal, homemade bread, and that she’s got a couple lunches to take to work each week. Sometimes I add cookies or a treat, sometimes I don’t. But it’s forced me to be a creative and thoughtful cook, since variety and healthy is very important. And it’s making me way, way more efficient in the kitchen. It’s a small thing, and my target is 12 months of food delivery, once a week. Eli helps too, last week we sent over a big pile of his homemade Empanadas. My take is that their life is hard enough, and a little help is sometimes the difference between being able to tie a knot in your rope and hang on, and not having enough rope left to tie.

This week’s meal plan is varied, healthy and yummy, and I’m excited about it.

Pre-prepped Lunches
Lemon Cranberry Quinoa Salad topped with chicken – this stuff is so, so good and filled with fruit and veggies. I subbed in the apple since the store didn’t have jicama
Falafel and Tzatziki

Dinners
Sunday: Roasted chicken and vegetables, homemade dinner rolls
Monday: Creamy sun dried tomato pasta for our family and for hers (this is also an insanely good and easy recipe, just use a very deep skillet)
Tuesday: Beef Bulgogi (I made a triple batch, with 2 in the freezer for later)
Wednesday: Salmon over cauliflower rice with Garlic Scape Pesto I froze last summer
Thursday: Eli cooks, always delicious
Friday: Homemade pizza in the oven or chicken soup with rice, depending on moods and motivation
Saturday: Whichever one we didn’t make for Friday

While I’ve made all sorts of breads and baked goods, I’ve never made a dinner roll. This week I decided to tackle that gap with a recipe for Scotch Baps. I took the recipe from one of my oldest cookbooks, one I got in my early 20s, called Soup and Bread, by a writer and chef with the worlds coolest hippie name, Crescent Dragonwagon. Soup and Bread is a contemporary of The Moosewood Cookbook, a cookbook I bought about the same time and proceeded to hate every recipe I tried from it. Some I made twice thinking it was me, and never have I disliked a cookbook so consistently.

Maybe it’s me though, because it was a bestseller. If Mollie Katzen, the author, taught me anything, it was that it’s okay to be disinterested or even loathe things that everyone else seems to like, which is perhaps why I was always so comfortable disliking Sex and The City. I tried – and by that I mean I toughed it out through 2 episodes – and always thought that show would be improved by all the cast being taken out by a wayward Zamboni.

By 11:30 on Sunday the Baps were in their final rise (more on them in a moment), everything else was either made or in the oven and my wonderful husband had rescued my too-damp falafel in the air fryer.

So about that cookbook, and those Baps, Soup and Bread (and if you want to have a splurge to the tune of $4.59 you can have a wonderful read and a happy belly) – Baps are a dense roll, with a butter and milk base. I think I would use less flour than the recipe calls for, maybe 4 cups total for the rolls and more for dusting, and they really weren’t terribly photogenic, but these things are good. It’s my understanding in Scotland they are morning rolls, toasted with butter and with some sausage on them, but we’ll eat them with our roasted chicken for dinner.

As we roll into another busy week, the peace of Sunday afternoon with warm food and loved ones is something I treasure. The cooking is done, the preparations are complete, and there’s nothing left but to sit and enjoy the last of today’s sunshine before twilight comes again.

After the Storm

26″ of snow later…

A giant snowstorm hit New England this weekend, just as Omicron paid a visit to Eli, I and my son – my daughter was spared, and is spending our 5 days of isolation with her father. We were feeling neither very good nor horrible, just middle of the road crummy , which led to doing a lot of nothing, in and around Eli and I working.

Saturday I felt better, and the storm was in full force, so other than some shoveling and a bit of playing outside for my son, the only thing to do was to putter around the house, make meal plans, drink tea and cook – dinner last night was Half Baked Harvest’s One Skillet Greek Meatballs & Lemon Butter Orzo, one we’ll definitely make again.

Snow Day Dinner

I contemplated a nap but it was a little bit late in the afternoon before I considered it, so I skipped it, opting instead for a long sleep into Sunday morning, when I woke up to cold and over 25 inches of snow having fallen in 24 hours.

It was profoundly lovely, although cold enough that the chickens decided that even their run was a little much.

The chickens were having none of it and hid inside

Despite Covid leaving us tired and coughing, and the frigid temps, we all got outside for a little bit and enjoyed the snow. Teddy the Doggleby especially enjoyed it, despite the snow being taller than him in most places.

Teddy watches as Connor uses the driveway as a sledding hill

Tonight’s dinner is Instant Pot Carnitas in taco form, adjusted just a little to reduce the spice by omitting the chipotle powder along with some broccoli

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Just over 3 months ago, our lives changed utterly when my brother-in-law, more brother than in-law, died suddenly. The loss reverberates daily – in our missing him always, and in small things, like making sure my sister has someone to plow her out for her shifts in the ER, to which I can only say that John, who plows me out has taken it upon himself to make sure she’s okay, even heading back to help clean off cars after a bit of a snafu at the beginning of the storm. I say it a lot, but it is so true – we’re lucky ducks, even when bad things happen. A new normal is starting to knit itself out of the tear in our hearts and lives, one that involves being there to help his loved ones hold up the sky.

As I went out to bring the chickens some scraps and overripe grapes, I watched the cold January sun sink down through the trees, illuminating our house like a Maxfield Parrish painting, and just felt grateful for this lovely place, for our family and friends, and all the blessings around us.

Holiday Lights

Twas the Night Before Christmas….

“I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” – Abraham Lincoln

Right after Thanksgiving, we went to cut down a Christmas tree. My husband lit up the house beautifully at my request to have all the lights, and we began to celebrate the season despite the underpinning of grief, and the news that my uncle was hitting new lows in his cancer battle.

And I found myself unable to write or really, make clear decisions about almost anything.

It was a little like the final guitar wire snapped, 2 months after the bomb that was the loss of my brother-in-law detonated in our family, as we tried to navigate our grief and a way to live with it. I found myself tired constantly, forgetful, and disorganized. The kids were just…off. No one could concentrate. I would buy groceries and forget to use them, couldn’t for the life of me remember what to make for dinner, and wander into rooms and just stare. The Omicron variant blew up some of our plans. “Why do we even make plans?” I wondered not infrequently.

Grief, they say, is disorienting, but I found it to be more along the lines of dislocating. Something is not where it belongs, and the ripples of that strange ‘gap in the system’ mean that nothing quite makes sense, which in turn made my brain feel like it was wearing a sweater most of the time.

But we are blessed, and the greatest way we are is in that our people just keep showing up. My best friend, tired of hearing me cry from 1500 miles away, hopped a plane and joined us for a weekend in the mountains, surprising my children and creating a sense of normalcy and fun, then extended her stay a few days when my daughter wasn’t ready for her to go. My next door neighbor showed up with a bag of dog food for Teddy (also, he keeps eating their dog’s food, so this was partially an investment in brokering peace on earth and goodwill between dogs) and checked in frequently. My husband took over much of the cooking and mostly adapted to a weary, forgetful wife, perhaps preparing for what it might be like 30 years from now.

But my children, most of all, grounded me. Because my son still fiercely and fully believes in all the magic of Christmas. Elves on shelves, magical appearing candy and surprises in Advent Calendars, and Santa in all his magic. He made lists and planned surprises for all. No matter what, all the enchantments that are the holiday season needed to appear, and so they did.

Every morning, finding Elphidelphia, our Elf on the Shelf, and checking the advent calendar for treats or treasures, but most of all, as my husband strung the house with lights, he decided to make me a lighted North Pole for the yard with my husband as a gift. My daughter made us all homemade Ramen for dinner.

Our Christmas was filled with love, and then a multi-day playdate/sleepover with the kids down the street capped it all off. I took some days off and started to catch up on sleep. I cooked all day on Christmas, the kids loved their gifts, and suddenly joy crept back in, like vines that flower through cracks in the pavement.

Tempered of course, with sadness and worry about those whose loss is greater than ours, but joy and hope nonetheless. I wish the same to you and yours.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Just as all the October busyness came to an end, our son caught a cold (thankfully, just a cold) that lingered and we got it too, but in the adults it was a weird cold/stomach bug thing that apparently is floating around. For the first time since I had the Norovirus in my 20s, food was not only the last thing on my mind, but the worst thing I could possibly think about. Thankfully Eli and I tracked about 36 hours behind one another, so while I was down for the count other than work meetings he was taking care of kids and animals, and when he needed to be let off the hook, I could take over, even for a little while.

I returned to life after days with little energy and no appetite for the bounty of fruits and vegetables that fills our home, other than the apples. When I could eat though, I recognized that we needed something simple, filling and with nutritional density, so I pulled up the recipe I’d seen pre-illness of Homemade Hamburger Helper. Sure enough, I still had some shredded zucchini in the fridge from last year, and I dumped the whole frozen block of it in the pot to cook, and got at least some nutrition into everyone. Casserole-type dishes aren’t my usual, but the do have their place. I would modify this one next time, making it a bit thicker, maybe cooking the noodles separately, but as comfort food goes, this one hit the spot. It also used up some things in the fridge and freezer, so it will get some tweaks and be moved into the ‘save for cold winter night‘ column.

HalfbakedHarvest.com’s Homemade Hamburger Helper

The weather is scheduled to finally cool in the next several days, but has been unseasonably warm for weeks. A few more tomatoes, and lots of squash are still ripening, and the weather has allowed me to leave the tropical plants outside longer than usual, but it’s now time for them to make their trek inward.

Around all of this democracy in the US continues to undergo earthquakes, the earth is on the climate brink, and the pandemic, while abating for now, is raging it’s way across the earth. Illness dogs one of my dear uncles. All of it has an effect of destabilization, giving the sense that there’s nothing to hold onto. My missives of apples and flowers and weather and dinner seem small in comparison. We live in stormy times, but what else is there to anchor to if we don’t hold to the firmament of home?

When your stomach wobbles, the world shrinks – you can’t make a meal plan when food is anathema, you can’t plan your day or even know whether a cup of ginger tea is going to help or create more unpleasantness, and you muddle through responsibilities, doing only what needs to be done, skipping everything else. So too when the world wobbles it distracts, throws us off, creates anxiety and an inability to make solid plans as well. We’ve all had a lot of stress in the last few years, and a little grace is important.

Oddly, one of the things that makes me most hopeful is articles about the tiny intricacies of home life. The Washington Post has a home maintenance series that talks about how to clean your gutters or preserve kale and potatoes. The reality is we all want our food to last longer and need the gutters cleaned. Food Network is explaining what certain food items are and how they are used, like evaporated milk. Everyone has recipes, but these are useful bits of information that actually help people, instead of wondering what some politician or celebrity is doing. They center their writing on us, not them, and are something we all can use.

The next thing we need is how to play certain card games and start local clubs. Mass media would do a lot worse if they talked about how to bring a supper club back into vogue (and of course everyone who can should be vaccinated, because that’s how you also invest in your community, by not spreading disease by accident). We need to start borrowing one another’s tools, bringing a casserole by, and hosting Supper Clubs and maybe we should all learn Whist. This is not a lyrical wax of the poetic to olden days when women wore high heels to breakfast and half of people were shut out of things on the basis of color or sexual orientation or all sorts of other things. It’s a hearkening to what’s been lost and what we all need – community. I don’t really want to learn Whist, but we do need to get back to talking to one another and the only way to do that is at ground level.

Remember the pop song Breakfast at Tiffany’s ? It’s about a couple about to break up because they have nothing in common, except they both liked the Audrey Hepburn film. It’s also a seemingly good articulation of where we are as a society. I don’t know that big sweeping things – these are important, of course – are the only thing that can save us. We need to talk to one another too, even if the only thing we can agree on is that the food needs more salt.

The size of our worlds may get smaller, but the horizons may grow much larger than we think.

No-Recipe Recipes

It’s almost impossible to imagine that it’s already mid-October. Time seems to keep jumping forward at impossible speeds. We watched our local Fair open and close, and even braved it a couple times ourselves at not-so-busy times, rang in the number 9 for our son and went to visit my sister and her family in upstate NY, all within the month.

Ferris Wheel in the distance

The garden is still producing spottily so I’m letting it run it’s course for a few more weeks. I have this weird aversion to ripping it out if even there’s a tiny chance of something ripening. And there are still – mystery squash, made mysterious by me forgetting what variety I planted and then proceeding to forget to go look in my seeds for the all-too-findable answer, are readying themselves in abundance, which is just fine with me, and a few lingering tomatoes and peppers still appear. With another week of 70-degree days ahead I expect a little more summer food out of it yet.

A trip to my sister’s invariably means a trip to the Carrot Barn and bulk fall foods to store and preserve. This time we came home not just with squashes and onions and sweet potatoes but also with half a bushel of tomatoes to can and slice. Not feeling like steaming the skins off and pureeing them, I instead decided to oven roast them before freezing.

Oven roasted is simple. Slice the tops off, slice them in half, and place on an oiled baking sheet. Roast them at 450 for 30 minutes and set aside to cool.

Peel the skins off and remove as much of the seed pulp as possible – squish them in your hand a little, then place in bags to freeze. When you defrost them they turn into sauce quickly (recipe to come). The key is to deal with them quickly, because hyper-ripe tomatoes go south fast. You can slice off any localized soft or black spots in tomatoes safely and still slice or roast them (really, you can) but typically you have about a day to use them.

I ended up with about 8 tomatoes left to use as slicers this week, so we’ll be eating a lot of tomatoes. Which is just fine with me, as everything I want these days is flavored with autumn.

Despite the warmth, it was time for roasted vegetables and a bit of creative, October-ish use of veggies, what I call the no-recipe recipes. Things that you just throw in the oven or in a pan, using what you have. Doing this is frugal, creative, and seasonal, plus healthy – all the things. One sweet potato I cut was the size of my forearm, and half of it remains in the fridge

We had 2 cabbages, so I sliced up one in an oiled pan with 4 onions and 2 Gala apples, and topped it with a bunch of sausage sliced in half. I added a few pats of butter and 1/4 cup of apple cider and roasted it for about 2 hours. I covered the pan with foil for all but the last 20 minutes or so. When you cook cabbage like this, it ‘melts’ into an ever-so-sweet and savory bed for the sausage, onion and apples.

Add to that a pan of beets, turnips, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots drizzled with olive oil and about 1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar and a sprinkle of rosemary, then roasted at 375 degrees F for about 4.5 hours and you have a tray of deliciously caramelized veggies that can be eaten with just about anything. Roasted veggies are remarkably filling and flexible and you don’t need to have a mix – try baking whole onions that way, or just a tray of whatever you have.

With a lightly salted plate of sliced tomatoes and a bit of leftover naan, Monday’s dinner dinner was simple, filling and we ate no less than 8 kinds of vegetables. Not to mention the turnips really needed to get eaten, so it was helpful in more than one ways. To eat seasonally and not waste much food takes work, but the work is so satisfying.

We bought fresh yellow and orange peppers in NY, so tonight Eli is making stuffed peppers with our Walden Local ground beef, and that too is an amalgamation of ideas – meat, sauce, cheese, cauliflower rice, put in the air fryer, which is a handy little tool we acquired for free from someone who didn’t want theirs.

Our food abundance is also a race against time to use up the things that need to get used, and that drives all our meals for a while. We’ll get back to intricate recipes in winter, but fall produce, commingled with the last few tastes of summer calls for use-what-you-have eating in it’s simplest form.

Remembering to Listen

A shared view of our little corner of the world

I tend think everyone who can remember, remembers where they were on the morning of September 11, 2001. I was in an all-team on a project on an Air Force Base when the word came in that there was ‘a fire’ in the World Trade Center. The conference room we were in had recently had a television installed on the wall – this is common now, but it was ever-so-new then. We turned on CNN and watched the second plane hit.

Shortly after the base was evacuated for anyone other than critical personnel. The traffic out of Boston was astounding. My cell phone, in those days a tiny flip phone, didn’t work. I finally got through to my Mom, who wanted me to come home. I couldn’t – I just wanted to be alone. I drove to the beach. I looked out at the view of a Nuclear Power Plant and wondered if that, too, was on a list. I realized there was no safety anywhere.

And yet there I was, perfectly safe. The news and the pictures of the towers dominated for weeks. People speak of the unity, and it was there, but what was also there is what I can only call ‘Patriotismo’ – the idea that if you disagreed with war, you were un-American. The idea that if you didn’t have a flag sticker, you were un-American. That if you were brown, you were suspect and inherently un-American.

It was the macho approach, and there wasn’t much room for nuance.

I saw that too, and I saw the first ideas that if you dissented with the prevailing wisdom, you were un-American, or worse. I sometimes think that I can draw a straight line from there to the rage posting on Facebook, to ‘purity tests’ I started to see a few years ago become more pervasive on both sides of the political coin, that if you were not sufficiently enraged about something, your feelings and beliefs might be not just insufficient, but something worse. By far, this is exhibiting itself most dangerously in violence and misinformation on the right, but it’s also on the left. We have stopped listening to one another.

Yesterday I took a long, peaceful walk, did more canning and preserving, more house chores, and went and fetched my kids from their Dad’s. There was no big ceremonies here, but I did go spend some time with my neighbors. Melissa, who in many ways sees the world differently from me, but in many ways the same, has been my treasured friend since I moved here.

I often think I might not have made it through the first winter without my neighbor’s generosity – from the first meeting, where they sent us home with Chicken Broccoli and Ziti and fresh eggs, to her husband Jay’s plowing my driveway, unasked, to the countless evenings we just wandered over for wine and conversation. Over the last several years, she has often listened to my rage and frustration at the people who support policies that actively harm my family and to the impact and fear that Covid-19 has brought into my life. The day before I started coughing on April 4, 2020, I was running 10 miles. 2 weeks later, and for 6 months after, I couldn’t go for a walk without catching my breath. And I know I’ve had it easy compared to some.

It was not my grace that preserved our friendship, I was too angry for that. It was hers.

Melissa listened, valued what I said whether she would agree or not, and valued my friendship enough to keep at it. It’s not without trepidation that we navigate tough topics. Vaccination, politics, that the personal is political and vice versa, and what that means. It’s hard, and when we hit those topics, we both feel the stress and the weight of them.

But at the end of the day, we value one another. Our advice, our advocacy for one another. We don’t agree about everything, but that’s ok. I’ve recognized that in her listening to me, even when she has wanted to walk away, she’s exhibited maturity I can learn from. I’d like to think she’s learned from me too, but that’s not the really important part.

I turned off social media for the most part about 6 months ago. I’m still engaged in the news and social issues, but I think I’ve decided that there is still, 20 years later, not enough room for nuance there. If you listen to people, put down the computers and the phones and walk the dogs together, you can hear what’s in their hearts. You can find a way across the divides that get in the way and find a common understanding. We don’t have to agree, but we do need some grace.

I believe most of us are good people who will help our neighbors when they need it. 9/11 brought us evil, but also thousands of acts of good. No one cared who you voted for that day, we cared that each other was okay.

Every day I go to the garden she & Jay helped me build. We share a CSA. They welcomed me, the kids, and then Eli with their full hearts. We share trees. The love and commitment to this place, and the knowledge that as we grow old, the worn path between our homes will continue to be used.

It’s easy to be surrounded with people you agree with, but I have never learned from the easy stuff. And so, 20 years and a day after American political divisions turned into cracks that turned into fissures that turned into cravasses we could all lose our humanity in, my gratitude is for a friend who never stopped listening, and for how lucky E and I are to have them.

How to Live

View from above the canopy, Vermont Institute of Science (VINS) – Photo by KRM

The heat broke last weekend, and September rolled in just a few days ago. Summer is over, just like that. Finally, finally I hit the kitchen with relish rather than dread of the heat. Snuggling under the covers to write with a mug of steaming coffee in the morning feels delicious. The fall home-maintenance spree continues, and between chores and food preservation and some other big items, there is more to do than there is time. It’s also expensive this year – we need a new chimney liner and the furnace needs some intensive maintenance, things that make us glad we have the savings to cover it.

The children alternately rail against the fading of the unscheduled bliss of another summer and look forward to their friends again. Eli and I continue our near-endless preparations for fall and winter, with home maintenance, food preservation, and continued cleaning and organizing. The bunnies are also doing their part. They are almost done with their August moulting, in which they generally look bedraggled and natty, covered in hair balls for about a month before their winter coats come in.

And in the midst of it all, my daughter and I snuck away to a tiny cottage in a remote corner of Vermont for a girls weekend that had been near-infinitely postponed and relocated due to Covid-19. Originally set for Newport, RI in May of 2020, a few days ago we found ourselves in a tiny cottage on a Wagyu beef farm in Vermont, about 7 miles from Okemo Mountain and infinitely far from almost everything. Which was just fine with us.

I came home to prepare for the increased busyness of fall. It’s time to start the dehydrator – with cherry tomatoes and apples alternating. Our meal plans and life work better if I can do a lot of food preparation on the weekends. The basil is still thriving, but not for many weeks longer, so pesto gets made every few days, and mostly gets tucked away in the freezer for the colder months.

At the end of just that one food-preservation effort, we’ll have enough to have it every couple weeks until next July, when the first fresh batch is available. This year I may freeze a little fresh basil and water as well to have it for other recipes. There’s nothing that beats the smell of food made with fresh basil, and pesto is a favorite of ours. The options for it’s use are near-endless.

The first of the ripe tomatillos became Salsa Verde , and there is more to come in the next few weeks. And the zucchini, which i neglected to pick for a few days, has once again grown into baseball bat-esque appearance. We’re still eating last year’s zucchini relish, so I set out to find a recipe for something a little different. I’m hoping to share my zucchini fritter recipe with you soon, but it needs a little refining – the taste is amazing, the look and texture not quite there yet.

Our life doesn’t have much balance in it. During the week, I am tied to the phone and WebEx nearly constantly, often for 9 and 10 hours a day, with work deliverables on top of that. When the kids are home, Eli is the primary parent, with me rushing in to help when I have a moment. He parents while managing an exhaustive number of chores inside and out. And we’re still never done, although we always make a ton of progress. The kids are well-fed and loved, even if they have had a little too much screen time this summer, and to be honest, throughout the pandemic.

By the time the evenings roll around I’m often too tired to take on much other than any dinner prep and cleanup that must be done. Which means things pile up to be addressed throughout the weekend, and that often makes for really busy weekends. A need to focus on preserving and cooking and indoor chores often means a direct choice to watch the weeds get bigger. Outdoor chores get selected, and the laundry waiting to be folded and managed piles up and we eat more Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken than is probably the right amount. Parenting fills much of Eli’s day, interrupting work on the book that we’ve both decided is worth more to write then him taking one-off illustration jobs. When we realized the constant water had created a mold issue in the RV, he stopped everything to handle it, and there goes another week or more.

If you are getting the idea that we can’t really keep up, you have it right. Our life is particularly compressed right now, and will become more so when we open our doors to adopt in October. We originally said August, and then realized that we needed to get the garden preservation done and kids settled into school routines. We are trying to do it all, and we simply can’t.

So what we do is triage. This past week the zucchini were overwhelming the refrigerator, the house needed some interior work and we needed to cook and prep for the week, so I was on cooking and food preservation, and I finally broke down and did some string trimming over weeding – not ideal, but it bought me some necessary time. Add to that I’m slowly pulling runs into my schedule along with walks, and the fact that my daughter needed a few last things for fall – another trip out – and last Sunday passed quickly.

This weekend was a holiday weekend, and I took advantage of the day Monday to cook nearly all day. This of course meant again – minimal yard time, and the clothes are not necessarily sorted and put away, as one would wish they would be. But throughout the day I made: salsa verde, pesto, paleo meatballs, chicken souvlaki bowls, roasted shishito peppers, took another crack at zucchini fritters, and my personal favorite, a slightly modified version of these Cherry Crumb Bars for the kids lunches this week.

The only change I made was to heat the cherries, lemon juice, cornstarch in a pan with my own addition of a teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of water. Letting the cherries cook in the juice, water, sugar and cornstarch gave it a great texture. My ever-tolerant husband did most of the cherry pitting.

By the end of the day I was pretty tired, but meals for multiple days were prepared, the kids school lunches were set, and I had washed and begun to pack up the RV bedding into bins in the attic and done most of the lingering laundry. It’s piled on the chaise near my bed, and there is a pile of paperwork right next to it, waiting to be gone through. But we have our priorities straight – food preservation comes first, because it’s a time-driven activity.

When I sat down to breathe as the cherry bars baked, despite my weariness I had a moment of gratitude that our life is messy, busy, cluttered, and lovely, and almost completely exactly the way we want it to be.

3 Rules to Make You a Better Cook

Squashes Growing Out of the Garden and Into The Yard

As July trails into August, the rainy weather continues a good deal of the time, with sunny days here and there. According to a local paper, we’ve received over 10 inches of rain this month vs. an average of 2.95, and last year’s low of just 1.9 inches. Even when the weather predicts sun, we see bouts of rain that hurls itself into the already-soaked ground. Other than a few basil plants I have not lost any garden plants yet, and most seem to be thriving, but I’m watching them all carefully.

The Ipswich River, where we canoe, has never been so high on the banks in my memory. Our paddles are peaceful and lovely, but the usual plethora of turtles and wildlife seem to have retreated. Hopefully just until the water table is lower.

Teddy objects to my ‘no jumping off the canoe into the water’ rule. Like the other members of my family, he acknowledges me as our household Fun Sponge, diminishing all the joy of wet dog in car. Photo by Eli 5 Stone

We are starting to hunker down again, with the Delta variant spreading. I’m grateful we got our vacations in this year, and some time to feel almost normal. And it’s time to turn inward anyway – not only is our prime food preservation time coming, but it’s time to focus on preparatory chores for the fall and winter. Getting our septic system pumped, cleaning windows, taking down some trees, and scheduling chimney sweeps and furnace maintenance are the top of the list. And then there is the back to school supplies that need to get ordered and the summer reading to be managed. All in all, we’ve got plenty to keep us busy at home, with occasional weekend hours devoted to hiking, canoeing, family activities or just doing nothing.

The first few zucchini have ripened in our garden, and more will follow soon enough. We still have shredded zucchini in the freezer from last year’s batch, but I’ve been rushing to use up the preserved everything so that I have space in the freezer for this year’s bounty. I am expanding my zucchini repertoire, so last night we tried a slightly modified version of this Zucchini Involtini. Instead of the pesto being spicy I used spicy italian sausage from our meat share. It was delicious, but it shows the benefits of recipe modification. I didn’t have the chicken sausage the recipe called for, but I had a perfect alternative.

Photo of Dinner by Eli 5 Stone

I am tending to devote one day per weekend to inside chores and one day to outside (this primarily consists of weeding, which I could do 24/7 for weeks and still have work to do). On weekends I prep much of the week’s food. Yesterday I roasted eggplant and beets, cooked up sausage to go in our dinner, made a batch of fresh Pesto, and worked on Healthy Blueberry Cake, a favorite of Eli’s.

But I am working harder on a double challenge – to limit food waste (I’ve written about our food waste strategies here) and to get creative when I am out of something rather than just running to the store. This is a lifelong challenge for me – I love a good challenge, but sometimes lack of time impedes me flexing my creative muscles. On the weekends though, that’s often less true, and so I try out more complex meals, and work to get ahead of the week. Still recipe modification inherently limits food waste because you are using something you already have.

And more importantly it will make you a more confident cook. Which is really the goal. In order to get there, there’s just 3 rules to follow.

I made the pesto early in the morning after my walk, and then later in the afternoon I got to work on the rest. The eggplant was roasted for Baba Ghanoush, the beets to be Balsamic Roasted Beets for tonight’s dinner.

When it came time to make the Blueberry Cake I had to get more creative. I didn’t actually have applesauce, but I did have apples, having had a craving for them the last time we grocery shopped. So I peeled 3, chopped them up and cooked the apple pieces down in water.

The peels go to the chickens, the cores to the bunnies, the homemade applesauce into the cake. For us, apples are the perfect zero-waste food. Same with kale, where the leaves are food to humans and the stems are delicious bunny food. I also didn’t have 2 cups of plain yogurt as the recipe called for, so one of them is a cup of strawberry yogurt, and we’ll see how that goes, but I wasn’t driving to the store for a cup of yogurt.

I think key to the ability to modify a recipe is that rule 1 is: ‘what do I have’ vs. ‘what is it telling me to buy’. I could have mashed some bananas I have in the freezer as an alternative to applesauce as well. Would it have changed the flavor? Oh, sure maybe some. Probably it would have tasted just fine. Which leads me to rule 2: Who cares? So what if it changes it some? Maybe it will be better, maybe it will be fine, maybe you’ll decide it isn’t your favorite, but it’s food, not your best friend. Changing it up is just dandy.

We live in a world of celebrity cooks who write cookbooks that are full of good and interesting recipes and have lots of TV shows to tell us how to cook and also show us. I’m a huge fan of street foods and foods that mash up multiple cultural influences. I learn from other cooks all the time and I am grateful for it. But at the end of the day, learning how to chop onions really fast or certain kitchen tips is wonderful, empowering – but if it makes you think you aren’t chopping onions right and therefore not qualified to cook – then it’s time for rule 3: It’s what you want that matters because you, my friend, are the eater here. Gordon Ramsey or Ina Gartner are not cooking for you tonight, you are (I mean unless they are in which case, can I come over?).

You have pots, pans, food stuffs and a stomach. Don’t like pine nuts? Swap them for walnuts. No malt powder for your recipe? Try Ovaltine. Hate chestnuts in your stuffing or giblets in your gravy? Don’t add them. Love them? Add more! Easy peasy lemon squeezy. Recipes and guidance from cookbooks and videos are awesome and can help.

But like all things in life, apply the universal wisdom of a checkout counter ‘penny dish’: take what you need and leave the rest.

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