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

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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

Simple Things – Pizza and a Movie Night

Our weeknights can get a bit chaotic here, like most people’s do. The nights my kids are with me I try to make sure dinner is cooked from scratch, although I do occasionally resort to Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken.   But every Friday, with the occasional exception for tacos or take out, is pizza and a movie night here.  I make pizza dough, which takes about 10 minutes to prep, and we pick something to watch.

The thing I like about pizza and a movie night is that it’s easy, and it’s a nice closeout to the week.  Everyone knows what to expect that evening, there’s almost no thought involved.  It’s relaxing.  And for me, it’s one of those tiny traditions that I think my kids will grow up remembering.

About once a month we invite people over – last night I had one of my oldest friends, her daughter and a bunch of neighbor kids and their parents here.  I may add in a little homemade guacamole, chips and some olives, but the basic formula doesn’t change when we have guests.  More kinds of pizza maybe.  More kid-friendly snacks.  Last night I experimented with a Paleo pizza crust for me – it wasn’t good enough to recommend, but it was good enough to continue to tweak and search for recipes.

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Homemade pizza doesn’t have to be hard.  Dough can be made in advance and frozen.  At most, it’s about 15 minutes of hands-on time to mix and knead the dough, and then rise time.  I make enough for 2 large pizzas and I make a pizza and freeze the leftover dough for the following week.  Toppings can be as simple as cheese and as complex as you want them to be.  Grownups got pizza with caramelized onions, fresh basil and ricotta yesterday on both Paleo and standard crusts.

Basic Pizza Dough

3 cups flour*
1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp yeast
1/2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/3 cup warm water

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl except water.  Add the water a little at a time until you have a dough-like consistency.  Knead by hand for 10 minutes or with a dough hook on your mixer until the dough is smooth and elastic to the touch.  Cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let sit in a warm place to rise for an hour.

The dough should triple in size.  Slice it in half and spread out on an oiled baking sheet or pizza stone.  Cover with sauce, cheese and toppings, and bake for 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven.  Let sit before slicing.

 

 

* I use about 2 1/2 cups of basic white flour and 1/2 cup of wheat or mixed flours to add a little bit of health to the dough, such as spelt or oat flour.  I recommend not more than half a cup of non-white flour, or the dough gets too heavy.

Happy eating!