In Celebration Of Fathers

Summer’s bounty has started to arrive.  Our CSA started this week, with lettuce, scallions, broccoli and some other goodies, plus a quart of fresh-picked strawberries.  Not much other than the dill that quietly naturalized in the garden is ready to eat yet here at Sithean, but in a few weeks I expect that to change.

Eli and I had an unexpected evening alone last night, and pulled out all the stops on dinner at home to make Half-baked Harvest’s Chicken Souvlaki Bowls, which were pretty delicious, and fun to eat on the weekend that we’ve finished up Whole30.

Chicken Souvlaki.jpg

I don’t plan to make Whole30 a lifestyle – cheese and wine are far too important to me – but we did feel healthy and lost some weight, so I suspect we’ll be having some periodic stretches of it in our future.

Today we’re celebrating Father’s Day at a bluegrass festival – us, the kids, and my ex-husband, headed off to picnic, listen to music and eat from food trucks.  That’s not probably typical, and it does occasionally feel pretty awkward to all of the adults involved, but I don’t think I would change it for the world.  As a matter of fact, when I look back on my life in old age, I think I will value that combining of us together not just as 3, and hopefully someday 4,  co-parents but as friends and as a mutual support system.  It’s intentional, and it’s actually pretty great.

And fathers – in all their forms – are hugely important.

My father had – has – a lot of mental health issues that impacted our relationship over the years.  I spent a very good deal of my childhood years wishing for a ‘normal’ childhood.  It wasn’t all bad, and I still often treasure memories of tromping around Boston on Saturdays with him and my sisters, but there’s a good deal I would rather not have happened as well.

Having a parent who isn’t a good parent is a tough thing and all too real for too many kids.  In my adult years, I’ve realized that as a parent, one of the greatest gifts he gave me is a long list of what not to do with my own children.  One of those not-things?  Ensuring that their Dad, I and Eli fully align on the really important stuff and avoid conflict about the small things.  We put the kids at the center, and every decision is a result of that.

My ex and I have carefully crafted a friendship out of the end of our marriage. We still irritate one another, but we also trust one another 100%.  We’re not always in agreement, but we always align, and we still enjoy one another’s company.   He’s helped around the house endlessly, especially in the early days, and we’re completely committed to helping one another out when it’s needed.  He’s a great Dad and a great human.  I’m lucky.

To enter as a stepfather and a partner into a situation that is as complex as that is requires a special kind of patience and thoughtfulness.  Enter Eli, who handles it with immense grace.   In some ways, I’m sure it would be easier for him if my ex and I weren’t quite such good friends.  But he makes it work, and better than that.

Moving the Chicks .jpeg

I’m not sure there’s anyone on earth who could have stepped into the stepfathering role quite as wonderfully and generously as he has.  Great with kids, committed to learning both them and great parenting, always up for a game or an art project or a Nerf battle outside, he brings not just love and support to me, but light and fun into our house in a way it wasn’t there before.  He loves us all, and shows it all day, every day, in endless ways.  He bears kid moods and meltdowns, relentlessly adapts to our traditions, and brings his own flavor of joy to everything we do – making even dinner time fun and interesting.

He was the thing we didn’t know we were missing until we found him.

Life with him is so, so much better than it was before, and if I thought I was lucky always, I didn’t know it like I do now.  It’s not perfect, and everyone is still adjusting, but even so – this is the best life has ever been, and it keeps getting better.

Add to that my children’s wonderful grandfather, Angus – whose limitless patience, candy jar and love of them is a joy to behold, someone who I adore and admire as a person and I am lucky to know, my amazing and adored brothers-in-law, who are  truly great fathers as well as visibly loving and adoring my children , and I’d say my kids are doing pretty good in the father, uncle and grandfather category.

Today as we sit on a blanket and listen to bluegrass, I won’t be wishing a thing was different – even if it rains, or there are mosquitoes, or the kids eat too much sugar and get overtired.  That’s the small stuff.  The big stuff is the 3 central adults in their lives surrounding them to give them experiences and time and teach them what it means to take a less-than-ideal situation and make it something great.

Happy Father’s Day to all of you.  May your day be filled with love.

Love

On Motherhood and Gardens

Sithean May 11 2019

This morning I woke up early  to cook for the Mother’s Day brunch we are hosting at noon today.  I probably could have opted to do nothing instead of making Butternut Squash Lasagna, Asparagus Tart, Deviled Eggs, and some other treats, but I take a lot of joy in feeding people, and work though it is, it’s pleasurable work to have the people I love around me.

After everyone leaves, I’ll turn my attention to the garden if the weather holds. After weeks of nearly nonstop rain,  I was able to spend some time cleaning up and working on it yesterday.  Of course, now finishing it is going to be a mad rush before I have to plant, but this is a permanent structure, with finishing it being a one-time job.  It needs a final fence section, a gate, some last bits of compost spread, and only 4 of the 11 garden beds got built before giant squash plants ran amok last summer.  I need to be done by the beginning of June, but I’m not worried this year – I’ve got some help, and the work isn’t that daunting.  And even if it is, I’ll get done what I get done.  This place is the work of a lifetime.

Spring is in full bloom here, and the rain has made everything green and lush and blossoming.  The school year is winding down with concerts and events absorbing our time, and summer planning is in full swing. Eli and I have some inside projects to do too – painting the downstairs hall, sanding and re-staining the front porch, and some work on the downstairs bathroom.  Between that and both of our jobs, we’re likely to have a very busy and exhausting summer.

But also a lush and beautiful one.  The seedlings, which are in the process of hardening off, will grow into vegetables, and herbs.  Several fruit trees will be planted, new ones and a replacement for my cold-hardy cherry that didn’t survive the winter.  More trees will need to come down, some of them because they are dying, others because they pose a threat to the house.  Pine trees are great for wildlife but their root systems are shallow, and I’ve already had one fall on the house after a windstorm.  I’m working on reducing the risk.

That’s how summer works on a farmlet.  We do our share of relaxing, and there’s few things I like better than to just go out and weed in the sunshine, but from May 1st on, it’s pretty high-energy until we put the garden to bed in November.

Being a gardener is much like being a mother.  You add food, water, attention and love and a home, and you hope that you aren’t too tired and flawed to muck up the growing process.  Sometimes you screw up, run out of time and energy, or just wish for a break.  But in the end, you hope that your children, like your garden, bloom.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the amazing mothers out there.  May you, and your children grow and thrive.

K & C May 9

 

 

 

Asparagus Day

First Asparagus 2019

 

I love waking up before anyone else is stirring on the weekends. It gives me time to think and write.  I feed the bunnies and the ever-growing chicks, water my seedlings, and take a look at the yard and garden.  I was gone for 3 days this time, and it felt like a lifetime.  I left with a few things in bud.  I returned yesterday morning in a chilly rain, to spring having exploded around me.  The peach and apple trees are in bud, the raspberry bushes are starting to once again take over the yard, and the daffodils are out.

I’m lucky enough to have a thriving career, and I love what I do, even if it means time spent away from home.  The surprise and joy of seeing how Sithean changes from day to day next never ceases to impress me- the setting here means there’s always something new on show.

Last year, just as the garden and yard started to produce, I got about as busy as a human can get at work.  I put up less than an eighth of what I had planned to, and a lot of the garden went to waste.  This year, with Eli’s help, the big garden will get finished, and we will preserve more of our food. The seedlings are growing quite large, and it’s almost time to start hardening them off, and planting some early cold-weather crops like Edamame and Lettuce.

Seedlings April 2019

But nothing, nothing is more exciting than when the asparagus bed starts to produce.

Starting in early April, I check the asparagus bed every opportunity I have.  Usually starting way too early in the season.  But it’s hard to wait –  fresh asparagus tastes nothing like it’s grocery-store counterpart.  It is sugary sweet and ideally picked about 2 minutes before it is cooked.

This morning while it was still dripping,  I went out to feed the animals and wandered over.  And lo and behold, it was there.  I couldn’t resist picking it on the spot, even though it’s too early in the day to eat it.  This year we seem to be getting an actual spring, if a slightly soggy one, and I think that means we’ll get a bumper crop.

Asparagus can be boiled and then salted and served, or, my favorite, broiled with olive oil, salt and lemon.  Grilled.  Wrapped in bacon or prosciutto and baked.  The simple possibilities are endless.

But if you want to get really fancy, as I will for our annual Mother’s Day brunch here, you make Carolyn Roehm’s Asparagus Fontina Tart.  It is simple, and beautiful enough to replace flowers as a centerpiece.  I sometimes add tomato slices in a spiral under the asparagus, which adds flavor and beauty, but you could just as easily top it with a few edible pansies and serve as-is.

8 ounces frozen puff pastry thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1/2 cup Fontina cheese
16-20 stalks of asparagus, cut to about 4 inches long

  1. Preheat the oven to 375
  2. Roll out the puff pastry on a floured surface until about 1/4 inch thick or slightly thinner than that.  Use a saucepan to cut an 8-10″ round and return to the fridge to chill for 20 minutes
  3. Remove the pastry and place on a greased baking sheet – I like olive oil for this.  Pierce the pastry with a fork all over
  4. Arrange the asparagus in a spoke with a few asparagus tips in the center, upright
  5. Cover with the cheese to about 1/2 inch from the edges
  6. Bake for 20 minutes until puffed and golden and you can pierce the asparagus with a fork.
  7. Serve warm or cool

You’ll look like Martha Stewart for about 10 minutes of your effort .

If you want to be really fancy for dinner too, take the leftover puff pastry, some prosciutto and cut into rectangles about 4″ long.  Lay in a slice of prosciutto and 3-4 asparagus spears and bake as described above.  When it’s out of the oven melt a little butter with lemon juice, salt and pepper and glaze the asparagus puffs in the lemon butter sauce.

Happy Asparagus Day!

Springtime in Winter

Sithean March 2019

It’s been bloody cold lately, with snow coming at regular intervals.  Winter, as it always does at this time of year, is hanging on, not quite ready to let go.  There’s signs of hope though – forecasts for 50ish degrees later this week, the local Co-Op is advertising mulch rather than shovels, and tomorrow marks the beginning of seed-starting.  I rearranged the living room to accommodate the potting bench, and as soon as it stops sleeting we will bring it in.  The clocks changed last night, which is disorienting, but another sign that soon the white stuff will dissipate, and the earth will be closer to the sun.

It was icky today, with the weather changing from snow to sleet to rain and then cycling back through all three at intervals, so I postponed my long run for 2 days to avoid slipping on ice, and instead Eli and I went for a long walk.  A long wet walk, but a good one.  I’ve been thinking about goals a lot lately.  Setting them, working towards them, adjusting them.

Every year on New Year’s Day, we list out goals for 2019.  This is an all-in family endeavor and this year’s list included ‘finishing the garden’, ‘a new coop’, and ‘make new memories for the 4 of us’ among other things.  We’ve made steady progress on some, others not yet started, but as we head towards 1/4 of the year complete, I think we’re doing all right.  There is, of course, limitless things still to do, on our goals list or just on the to-do list.  So I did a lot of them, and then, after our walk and more things, I perched myself on the couch to watch the birds, write a little, and allow myself to ignore the endless things to clean, sort, iron and organize for a bit.  The kids are with Dad tonight, so the house is quiet.  Eli and I are going to make another batch of Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen tonight, because this weather calls for comfort food for a little longer.

The big news here is the imminent arrival of 27 baby chicks – 26 girls and 1 rooster –  from Murray McMurray Hatchery, a combination of beautiful varieties, such as the Pheonix chicken and the Crevacoeurs.  I have wanted to place an order with them for as long as I have had chickens, or longer.  We got some good layers, but we also got chickens for their looks and cool factor.

McMurrayHatchery_RareBreed_Crevecoeurs

But the real news is the impending arrival of our new chicken coop.  After years of free range co-chickening with the neighbors,  and losing them all to the large variety of predators that abound here, we decided that we needed to provide better protection, and invested in a coop with an enclosed run, complete with wire underneath the run, predator-proof latches on the nesting boxes, insulation for winter, solar lighting and automatic chicken door, and last but not least, epoxy floors, nesting boxes, and removable trays for easy cleaning.  This is, to be honest, the Tesla of chicken coops, and if I have to make a plug for a vendor, I’ll do it for this one – Lancaster Chicken Coops was helpful, friendly and some of the best customer service I’ve ever had.  They even offered to bundle delivery with other area customers to make it cheaper.  The coop isn’t even here yet and I’m already in love.

Chicken Coop

It’s dark and cold tonight, but spring is coming, and with it the tiny peeps of baby chicks to our little farmlet.

Winter Nights

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I got back from our vacation to Orlando on Wednesday night, and after a day of rest – amusement parks are fun but exhausting – I took a look through the kitchen and decided it was past time to do some stocking up.  Our pantry eat-down has had mixed results – we’ve gone through a lot of food, but we haven’t stopped grocery shopping completely – with 2 small children and 2 people working from home on the regular, running out of milk, eggs, fruit, Goldfish and the like just isn’t an option.

Still, our grocery bill dropped a bit, and our pantry and freezer got a good bit emptier.  Which is good on a few levels, as we’re slowly beginning our steps towards springtime, despite the snow on the ground.  My garden seeds arrived, and are waiting for early March to start planting under the living room window.  The baby chicks – 27 of them, gulp – arrive in just a few weeks, and we’re almost ready to order the new coop for mid-April delivery.   Add to that our CSA payment for the season has been made, this time to include a fruit share, and I’m feeling good about the quality of our diet for the coming year.  It will be healthy, varied, and in large part, local.

Despite that, we are tied to the grocery store, and today we needed quite a bit.  Because I’m traveling quite a bit the next two weeks, I bought enough to cover meals at the ready for the days I will be here.  I don’t have a menu at the ready, per se, but I always try to have the ingredients for meals at the ready. This time on my list is:

Macaroni Medley, a family specialty (recipe to come)
Homemade Potstickers, Paleo Scallion Pancakes and Thai Basil Stir-fry
Chicken Parmesan with zucchini and regular noodles
Simple Lentil Sausage Soup
Butternut Squash Soup (using the last of our CSA squash from the fall)
French Onion Soup

All of these meals make enough for us to eat dinner, plus leftovers for lunches and additional servings.  Because it’s cold out, we’re heavy on the soup, as we always are at this time of year.  It’s simple, filling, and can almost always be cooked early in the day and left to simmer until dinnertime.  It’s warmer than it has been but the chill is still with us for a few more months, and last night, after 6 days in the Summerlands, an extra level of warm food was necessary.

Cooking for me is not just necessity, it is also pleasure.  When it’s just Eli and I, I tend to be able to experiment and try new recipes.  Lately I’ve been trying a lot of recipes from HalfBakedHarvest.com, and yesterday’s crib, while my children were in Maine with their grandparents for a couple nights, was her Thai Peanut Chicken Ramen.  I didn’t have the good kind of ramen on hand, so we improvised with my favorite buckwheat noodles, which I prefer anyway.  I doubled the chicken and added a little Sambal Olek for heat, and it was absolutely delicious.

In total, this is about a 45 minute recipe if you include chopping the mushrooms and the peppers, ransacking the fridge for wherever the heck I had stashed the Ginger Garlic Paste and getting the instant pot up to pressure.

One prep tip I highly recommend is to take a freezer-safe baggie, and whenever you are prepping onions or mushrooms, take the stubs or the peels and put them in the baggie in the freezer.  You can add to it freely as you cook, and when you are ready to make chicken or turkey stock, just dump the contents in with the carcass, water, a dollop of vinegar, some bay leaves and thyme, and cook for 7 or 8 hours.  You will end up with the best broth ever. In preparing one meal, you also lay the foundation for another.20190222_170142

Dinner was ready in no time, and this has now become one of our favorite new meals.  Spring will be here soon enough, and with it fresh greens and salads.  But for now, coconut milk, chicken, peanut butter, honey, and noodles fill our bowls.

 

How to Simplify Your Life – Stocking (and De-Stocking) the Pantry

big churn

Today,  I wanted nothing so badly as to just have a very large, calorie-intensive italian meal delivered to me.  Whatever it was, it needed to involve lots of food slathered in sauce and ricotta cheese.  What can I say – it’s cold outside, and  I wanted Eggplant Rollatini and a lot of things to go with it.  I was hungry, more than a little, I certainly didn’t feel like cooking dinner, and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything I had in the house.

Even with my near-limitless pantry options, I get bored.  And unmotivated.

So when I pulled some meatballs out of the freezer, added them to tomato soup, and then tossed in some chopped, frozen kale, and added a cheese quesadilla (melt some cheese on a tortilla, fold, eat)  I felt virtuous on a couple levels.  First, because I really don’t need the calories from a large Italian dinner right at this moment – this was a loose take on it without the guilt.  But secondly, because this is food I have already bought and paid for.  Part of my effort to eat down the pantry over the next few months is pure housekeeping.  But there’s another, no less important part of this – to offset the myriad expenses that have popped up as Eli and I combine lives with some budget sanity.  Avoiding take out for one night will hardly offset the money we just put into a slightly used Nissan Pathfinder, or cover the cost of a new chicken coop with a predator-proof enclosed run, but I truly believe that attention to the small leaks of money is just as important as the big successes.

That doesn’t mean we never intend to eat out or pick up ready-made food again.  Just this weekend Connor and I ordered Chinese food, because that was what he wanted more than anything for our special weekend.  And I fully believe in prepared food -sometimes from the store, but often from my own freezer, like the meatballs in my soup.  But part of simplifying your life is learning to be content with what you have.  And today, that contentment consists of not having to drive to pick up food when there is plenty available right here.

I believe strongly in having a full pantry for a number of reasons.  They are, in relative order of importance:

  1. It is an emergency fund you can eat.  In times where paychecks might be spotty or income inconsistent, even the most well-prepared of us will want to tighten the belt.  A full pantry is a buffer against times of having less
  2. It offers options to the perennial question of ‘what’s for dinner?’
  3. If stocked properly and over time, it’s variety of the inexpensive sort – out of my pantry I can whip up Thai, Indian and lots of yummy favorites, like my Simple Lentil Sausage Soup

Stocking the pantry is simple.  Focusing on the things you eat, buy them at the most affordable points.  Some foods go on sale cyclically, such as baking supplies in November and December.  Others you have to watch sale flyers for.  Some things, like my favorite wine, that also happens to sell for $6.99 a bottle at Trader Joe’s, I buy half a case or a full case at a time – not just for the case discount, but because I am not the only one that likes it, and it sells out quickly.

By the way, a great skill to cultivate in life is to like the cheap wine just as much as the expensive stuff.  Cheap doesn’t have to mean bad, although you may have to taste a few bad ones to encounter something you like.   I know a lot of people who only like ‘good wine’ and while I do too, I cheerfully enjoy the not-so-fancy too.  Which leaves a lot more options open to me, and is a lot less painful, budget-wise.  

When pasta goes on sale for 69 cents a box, I might buy 10 boxes.  And then not buy any more for a while.

I admit, I’m lazy about it.  I’m imperfect about watching sales, and sometimes I end up paying more for bulk than I would individually – I try to be careful, but it does happen.  I have also learned that you will never get the best price in one place – one of the grocery stores I tend to find the most expensive has the best loss leaders around.  So long as I stick with the sales, I do very well there.

I also strongly advocate periodically eating through what you have in your pantry and freezer before restocking.  It will force you to be creative after the first week or so, but it will also be kind of…fun?  I found some Stone Crab meat in my freezer that I bought a month or so ago and promptly forgot about.  Apparently we’re having crab cakes pretty soon.  Eating down your food supply gives you a chance to clean the fridge, the freezer, the cabinets, as well as making sure the investment you have made with your wallet in your cabinets doesn’t go to waste.

What do you keep in your pantry, and have you ever skipped the grocery store to clean it out?

Simple Things – Soup Night

I realize Memorial Day weekend is for grill recipes, but I woke up to 52 degrees yesterday morning, which was cold enough to make me burrow back under the covers for a while, not something I typically do.  The smallish people came home last night, and i knew they would be tired and hungry after most of the day in the car, as well as in dire need of bathing.  Soup is simple and filling, and good for a raw, chilly day.

So I pulled what remained of a roasted chicken and some grilled drumsticks out of the freezer, and started some chicken broth.  Chicken Soup with Rice by Maurice Sendak is a favorite book around here, and it’s a favorite meal as well.  I do buy chicken broth for various purposes, but chicken soup with rice is always made from scratch, it’s in my parenting rule book.

Chicken broth is easy.  Chicken carcass, with some meat on it, water to cover it, a little vinegar, and some seasoning – I use garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaves, oregano, and fresh tarragon.  I also save onion peels and other bits of vegetables in a bag in the freezer and add them to the broth to flavor it.  Drop it all in a slow cooker for 6 hours on low, and strain into another pot.  What’s left is chicken broth, really good stuff.

chicken soup starts with chicken broth

Crock pot chicken broth, 6 hours in the making.jpg

Once the remaining chicken has cooled, strip the meat from the bones, chop up whatever veggies you like (carrot, celery, onion, etc) into the broth and cook for 15 minutes.  Salt and pepper to taste.  After 15 minutes, toss in a cup or so of rice and let cook until soft, about 20 minutes.

It’s really that easy.  It’s also cheap – it’s from chicken you already ate.  And honestly, it’s a truly good meal.

I usually add popovers to it, because they are a personal favorite.  If you like them, I recommend investing in a good quality popover pan, because the cheap ones scratch up easily and muffin tins are too small.

Popovers are as simple as it gets.  Mix together in a small bowl:

  • 1 cup flour
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Oil the popover pan well.  Fill each well to half full, and bake for about 20-25 minutes starting from a cold oven at 400 degrees.  The cold oven is critical, they won’t rise if you start preheating.  I cover mine with tinfoil until the oven hits 400 to ensure the tops don’t burn.

Popovers are easy and quick and look pretty impressive right out of the oven.  They collapse almost right away, but they still taste great.  You can substitute up to 1/4 cup of Paleo flours (I like Cassava Flour) and they will taste just as good, but they won’t rise as well.  If you make them frequently, expect to replace your pan every few years – eventually they go from non-stick to ‘everything sticks’.

I love to grill, but last night’s dinner was the perfect recipe for a cool, grey day Monday.

Popovers