In Search of Thanksgiving

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I used to think that the  endless proclamations of gratitude and blessings around this time of year were a bit disingenuous.  I was cynical at best, and not terribly convinced of the goodness of humanity at worst.  Why today, and only today?  But something changed – maybe it was my children’s arrival in the world.  Maybe it was the recognition that cynicism is the worst of all things, creating a false sense of superiority that prevents us from really enjoying what’s in front of us.  Maybe it was the return of an eternal sense of wonder when I took up gardening.  I don’t know – but whatever it was, it was a gift.

Thanksgiving is a funny holiday – like many things, the stuff we celebrate and what actually happened are kind of different.  A bunch of white people – including a couple ancestors of mine – arrived after a long boat ride to a place they had never been, getting here too late to plant anything to feed themselves.  They assumed that the land was theirs for the taking without, you know, ever asking.  Turns out that was the gift of a smallpox epidemic arriving in advance of said boat full of people, which left the land empty.  A lot of the boat people starved.  Also turns out that lack of food leads to tragedy – half of them died, and only 5 women were left at the end.  You would think we could have held on to that lesson and made feeding the hungry our top priority going forward, but humanity has short memories.

In 1621, the first full year of the Mayflower settlers, there was a successful harvest in Plymouth, and the settlers did feast.  Whether this was the first Thanksgiving or not is in question – other players include Virginia in 1619 and 1623, or when, in 1637 Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop did declare a day of Thanksgiving after colonists slaughtered 700 Pequot men, women and children.  I’m not sure killing people is much to be thankful for, but that is what happened.  While the colonists would have starved some more if not for their native neighbors, the goodwill between the parties didn’t last long, and it’s never really returned.

All that history aside though, I still think Thanksgiving is a thing to celebrate.  First, it’s our one holiday here that revolves around family and food, rather than gift giving or candy.  It’s literally a celebration of coming together with those different from you, which has a lot of good lessons for all of us about building bigger tables, and the discussion about who belongs at them.  It’s a message to stop and take stock of what you have, not what you are missing, and who you have.   It’s a reminder that some folks are lonely and have nowhere to go, and you can help with that.  It’s a reminder that the sharing of food is one of the building blocks of human society.  And it’s a reminder that most of us in modern society need to stop and make a list not of the things to acquire on Black Friday, but of the things that make our lives full and rich and blessed.

And for me, one day out of 365 days each year isn’t quite enough for that, but it’s a good start.  I think today should be for remembering and acknowledging that American history isn’t just red, white, blue and success, but also one of tragedy and oppression – and a commitment to doing better.  Let’s not just pardon some turkeys here, let’s actually figure out how to pardon – literally and figuratively – some of our fellow humans.  The ones with less than us.  The ones who said or did something cruel.  The ones we have no emotional charity for on a typical day, whomever those are.

I try to remember at least one thing I am grateful for, every day.  Whenever the litany of life’s annoyances take over, I make a list – my children, my husband, my home, my family, that I am warm and safe and well-fed, when so many aren’t, the sunset after the rain, my wonderful friends who make my life so much more beautiful and colorful.  And it works.  Whatever it is, whatever is on my mind, slowly becomes less powerful.  Gratitude, thankfulness – they have huge power to change the human perspective from what you lack to what you have, and to find strength to bring that gratitude into the world.  Thanksgiving becomes an action rather than a single day of the year.

For all the people and possibilities that have brought me to where I am in life, I’m so grateful.  For all of it, thanksgiving.

And to you and yours as well.  Whether you are eating turkey and stuffing or just sleeping in, may it be a wonderful day for you and yours.

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In-Between Days

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Like most of the northern United States, we got whacked with bitter cold temperatures for a couple days this week.  I have never been more grateful for the time I spent tearing out the remnants of the garden last weekend before the freeze set in, and for the help with yard cleanup that Eli and I had.  Other than a few things that need to be put away here and there, and obviously the shoveling that’s to come, our work outside is done for the next several months.

The lack of weeding, harvesting and preserving leaves empty space that wasn’t there before.  This time, of course, will be filled with other projects,  but the space is one of the key joys of winter.  By spring I’ll be antsy to get outside, but for now, after 7 months of work out of doors, the peace is pleasant.  This is that in-between time, before the busyness of the holidays and the relatively pleasant desire to be busy that comes of post-holiday winter boredom, that few weeks where we have no plans, few commitments, and very little desire to add either.

Of course there’s still stuff to do.  Important stuff.  Like making Gingerbread Turkeys.

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Photo by Eli 5 Stone

Or rushing outside to capture the breathtaking sunset that came with the colder temperatures.

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Making popcorn and chocolate chip cookies also hit the list of necessary things.  Wood stove fires, warm soups, and reading cookbooks as we plan some upcoming meals.  I never stop being grateful for the moments where we pause and center ourselves again around home.  Here’s to many more in-between days to come!

Early Holiday Preview

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Garden Gate at Dusk – Photo by Eli 5 Stone

November arrived, and with it the cold.  The other night it rained, and in the morning I found ice pockets in the downed leaves in the front yard.  The chickens seemed confused by the cold when we let them out to roam, and the heat lamp in their coop is on full-time now.

There’s nothing left to do outside other than tidy up the garden and yard for next year and prepare for the winter holidays, which are my favorites.  It’s time for a pot of chili and a fire in the wood stove.

It’s almost time to start baking for the holidays.  Maybe it feels early, but this is the time to start thinking about it.  There’s a few things that we always make – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookies, sugar cookie cutouts, and others that I’ll blog about, but most important is our very simple Peppermint Bark.  This is a great thing to make early and store in the refrigerator until it’s time to give gifts.  And it’s SO easy, and even small kids can do it with a little supervision

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Here’s what you need:

A double boiler or two pans, one with about an inch of water placed below one that is absolutely dry.  If water hits melting chocolate, it will make it grainy, but the water in the pan below will keep it from burning.

3 cups milk chocolate chips
3 cups white chocolate chips
Crushed candy canes
Sheet pan
Wax paper

Cover the sheet pan in wax paper.  In the double-boiler, over low heat, melt the chocolate chips.  Spread onto the wax paper-covered sheet pan, and wash out the chocolate pan.  Dry it completely either using an oven burner or a towel.  Repeat with the white chocolate chips, spreading carefully on top of the milk chocolate so they don’t combine.

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While still warm and soft, sprinkle in crushed candy canes.  Place in the fridge to chill.  When ready, break up into 2-3″ chunks and put in goody bags or boxes.   Let the kids eat the scraps and shards that aren’t big enough to give away.

 

Final Harvest

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November arrived with a huge windstorm that both postponed Trick-or-Treating until Saturday and brought down the leaves in volume from the maple, oak and ash trees.  Their final display of gold and red regularly causes me to catch my breath, but the weather is turning cold this weekend, with our first frost, so that beauty will turn into the beginnings of winter, more stark than lush.

Our lawn has a leaf coat on it now, but I don’t really like to rake, and honestly leaving it until spring is the environmentally sound thing to do, so I’m considering whether to leave it messy or not.  I try not to trade environmental soundness for appearances, but I hate being the only messy lawn on the block.  Still, I’m working on living with my discomfort.

The last pumpkin is out of the garden, and I pulled the last batch of Tomatillos, plus a few ripening tomatoes this morning in advance of the upcoming cold.  Tomorrow, we’ll wrap our fledgling fruit trees in their winter fleece coats, and next weekend I’ll be pulling up all the plants and vines, spreading a layer of compost on the beds and calling it a day until next spring.

I feel like a squirrel at this time of year, stocking up for the winter.  A bushel of apples from our local orchard is in the fridge, while I wait for the delivery of my new dehydrator, bought with a wedding gift card.  I love dried apple chips, on salads and just to munch on, and I will make a batch of apple sauce, which we mostly use for baking.

In a few weeks we’ll head to a farm near my sister in upstate New York and buy bushels of squash, sweet potatoes, and at least 20 lbs of onions, which should hold us until around February.  Our farm share ended last week, and the last of the kale, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, garlic and shallots are being used up.  In October, November and December the food bill spikes while we stockpile and fill the kitchen with holiday goodies, and then it winds down through February.  While I know the grocery store will still be there, I think this is the way we humans are supposed to live, storing and preserving our food.  I do it imperfectly.  We can’t live on what we put up and store, and we’ll never have enough land to grow it all.   And that’s ok, because part of the strategy is investment in local farms.   This year, Vermont cheese fills my fridge, my vegetables and apples vary between zero and 6 food miles, I haven’t actually purchased an egg in months, and my meats now come within a 150-mile radius, which while it sounds like a lot, is 1/10th of the average of transported food and vegetables.  That doesn’t necessarily outweigh the chips in the pantry or the other purchases, but I’d rather do this imperfectly and incrementally than all at once.  For the same reason that diets fail, so does massive lifestyle change.  My daughter and I spent some time at the local grocery store last weekend, and this weekend we are headed to HMart to stockpile some our Asian pantry and freezer staples.

The cold draws me to the kitchen, always.  With the onset of chill, I feel pulled into the warmth of the oven.  Last weekend it was cold and rainy, so I spent as much of my time in the kitchen as I could.  This weekend will be the same – one last batch of Salsa Verde for holiday gifts, homemade potstickers, maybe a pot of chili.

One thing that happens at this time of year is that my fridge is filled with root veggies. With the final CSA pickup, and me not cooking as much due to some back-to-back travel it was time to use some things up – leeks, a very large golden beet, red and yellow onions, parsnip, carrots, mushrooms, a fennel bulb and a couple sweet potatoes went into the oiled pan, got covered in more olive oil and balsamic vinegar and then into the oven at 400 degrees F under aluminum foil. Roasted veggies are simple and delicious, needing only time and just a tiny bit of seasoning.

After about an hour, I tossed them a little, but left them covered.  After hour two I uncover them, and then roast them for another hour or two more, until the veggies are soft and caramelized.

While they roasted, I moved on to the pint of Peppadew peppers I picked at the farm this week.  Marinated stuffed Peppadews are a favorite of mine, but they are expensive.  These, on the other hand, are not and it’s the same thing.  I used this recipe, and now they are in the garage fridge waiting to be seeded and stuffed with goat cheese.

None of these recipes are particularly complex, which is part of the appeal.  There’s a place for intricate food preparation, but during stocking up season, the key is to keep the food moving into it’s final form, so when winter comes, you still have a touch of spring and summer to sustain you, literally and figuratively.

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking From Scratch When You Have No Time

Most of the working parents I know are completely overtaxed.  A lot of non-parents too.  The sheer number of things to remember, stay on top of, clean, organize, send back to school, finish for work, do around the house…it’s sometimes amazing any of us manage to sleep at all.  And sleep we don’t – 30-and-40-somethings are some of the most sleep deprived people in history.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things to go by the wayside is homemade food.  Cooking is something I personally find pleasurable, but it’s not for everyone, and often the food you see on blogs and in cookbooks is full of expensive, Lentil Sausage Soup_Readysingle-use ingredients.  For someone who might get home at 6 and need to get food on the table for hungry kids, Frozen Pizza, Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken, take-out and all the simple things rule.  And even I, who loves to try new things, has to look askance at some things – who the hell wants squid ink on their pasta anyway?  Even if my kids would eat it (they won’t) I see no reason to, and I’m a cheerful consumer of calamari.

But here’s the thing, you can actually do healthy, homemade dinners at home and be a busy working parent.  You laugh, but it’s true.  Here’s the tricks of the trade:

  1. You prep food in bulk.  On a given Sunday afternoon, I might make 80 meatballs, and portion them out in meal-sized bags before I pop them in the freezer.  Beef Bulgogi is tasty and a huge hit amongst kids as well as adults, gets put in the freezer to marinate as it thaws, and when we  grill it, we might eat 2-3 meals off of the makings.  Whatever ‘it’ is, make a lot of it, and use your freezer.
  2. You meal plan.  Honestly, this is one of the things that will make your life so much easier, because part of the mental load at night is ‘what’s for dinner?’.  This way, you know what’s for dinner and you can do #3 to be ready.
  3. Prep the food in advance.  Early, early in the morning or the night before is your absolute best friend.  Screw cooking when you are tired, stressed from your day and everybody is eating Goldfish to fill the gap.  Put soup makings in the crockpot first thing in the morning and come home to dinner – just add bread.  If you don’t have a crockpot, you need one.  Trust me on this – even if you have only 5 recipes you know everyone will eat, that’s 5 times a month you aren’t stressed about dinner.

    Put a pot roast in there with some broth and seasonings as well as some root veggies, come home and make noodles with a little butter on them, and dinner is ready.

    Plus your house smells amazing, and most importantly, you don’t have to think at the end of your day.  Brilliant you did the thinking in advance.

  4. Keep it simple.   Eggs and toast are great for dinner.  If you have an instant pot, try this amazing Macaroni and Cheese recipe that gives any restaurant a run for it’s money.   And it’s going to be on the table in about 12 minutes from the point you prep it.  Cook time is, no joke, 4 minutes.  You can’t get through a take out line that fast, Mama.  And I promise, even your picky eaters will eat it.  And hey look, if you throw in some hot dogs or kielbasa for extra measure – we all do what we gotta do.  Quesadillas – tortillas and cheese – are very popular amongst the kid set.  Add some cooked chicken or something.  All done!
  5. Do keep some pre-made food on hand.  Trader Joe’s Orange Chicken is a staple here – add rice, a little broccoli, and dinner is served.  I got a rice cooker as a gift over 14 years ago and it’s still going strong, I put the rice in, add water, press a button and….I don’t burn the pot any more.  Put out the word, I bet someone has one they don’t use.
  6. You can honestly freeze almost anything.  Homemade pizza dough.  Homemade cookie dough.  Broth.  Leftovers put aside for another meal.  Even bread.  The key here is to have a bunch of things you can pull out and eat.

What you do have to do is some advance planning.  But a little bit of it goes a long way.

What are your tips and tricks for getting dinner on the table?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Preparing for Autumn

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The weather turned chilly at the end of last month, and the nights have stayed that way.  Slowly the trees are turning from green to orange and red.  The smallish people have started to adjust to school, the fall raspberries are ripening, and hoodies are becoming standard morning attire.

Fall is most definitely coming.  I see it in the way the vines and tomato plants are dying down, as I rush to harvest the last of the Sungold tomatoes, our favorites.  The San Marzano tomatoes are ripening as well, and they are the best for sauce.  Tickets for our fair are on sale, and extra blankets are back in use.

Now that the wedding is over, Eli and I have turned our attention to preparing for the cold weather.  The chimney sweeps come next week to make sure the wood stove is clean and safe, and wood needs to be ordered.  Tomatoes still need to be canned, the rest of the basil needs to be turned into Pesto and frozen, and there’s Tomatillos to turn into Salsa Verde, so this weekend, in and around our usual things, is a canning weekend.  I’ve got the first 2 batches done, and there’s more to come.

We have 4 pumpkins ripening in the garden,  plus one white one that has already taken up residence on the porch.  4 more is enough for Halloween and some roasted pumpkin dishes besides, although we’ll probably let the kids do the pumkin patch thing – the rule for us is that you can pick a pumpkin as big as you can carry.  One of ours will hopefully be put aside for my favorite Christmas side dish, the wildly indulgent Dorie Greenspan recipe for Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good.

Over the next few weeks, air conditioners need to be pulled out of windows, and we need to finally finish the garden fence and gate before we tuck the garden in for the winter.  All this work will allow us to settle into the holidays and then winter, and relax.

Which is good because we’re ready for the pace of things to slow down a bit.  This year has been a busy one, full of projects and changes, and when we take stock, Eli and I are both proud of what we’ve accomplished and also just, well, really tired.

Tonight is a repeat performance of Chicken Souvlaki Bowls – it’s grey, rainy and chilly out, so we’ll enjoy sitting inside, with some of the last of the season’s sunflowers to keep us company.  Summer has a few days yet, and we are going to relish them all, but look forward to more chilly nights and warm days to come.

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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.

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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.

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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