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.

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.