Preparing for Spring

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February has settled in, and in the last few days brought with it breathtakingly cold weather.  When I got up this morning, the thermometer hung at 5 degrees F.  The bunnies took up residence last night in a rectangular bin in the dining room, because we had officially landed in rabbit hypothermia weather, and being responsible for our pets becoming rabbit popsicles is not part of my life plan at the moment.

Cold of this depth brings stillness.  No one other than the birds are out right now.  Keeping the feeders full is something that is going to have to wait another hour, but feeding the birds is part of our winter responsibilities too.  Plus it is wonderful to watch birds I hadn’t seen since my grandmother’s time, like goldfinches and bluebirds, make an appearance.  But the lack of humans and cars, and ambient noise of anything other than Mother Nature’s creatures is such a gift.  Even where we are, in a sleepy town on a quiet road, this kind of silence is rare.

Lately I’ve been so deep in family life and work I haven’t stopped to take a look around much, but this morning, as I look out the picture window I remember what a magical place I’ve come to.  Just a house, to be sure, but not just a house either.  Sanctuary, for birds, wildlife, and us.  When we arrived here, I had no sense of how it would all work out, just that we belonged here, that I belonged here.  It was like holding my nose while I stepped off a cliff, with not much but faith in….myself?  The universe?, and the knowledge I could never uproot my kids again and so had to make it work to sustain me.

And oh boy we have made it work.  I haven’t achieved all the goals by a long shot – I still have no idea how we’ll pay off the house before Connor goes to college.  I’ve improved on our local food, but have by no means cut the cord from the grocery store. We definitely managed a significant amount more food preservation last summer than I had in previous years, but can we live on it?  Nope.   We’ve managed to build out plans for the much-needed renovation for this place over the last 18 months, but still haven’t figured out that one either.  Still, we plan to break ground next spring, gulp.  The house needs to be more airtight, we have to deal with water issues, and with 2 of us working at home, we need better spaces to handle it.  I also could use a closet bigger than a shoebox.

But we have done so much, and we’re not just making it work, we are thriving.

Which is why last night, as the 4 of us sat down to a roast chicken dinner, complemented by our locally-retrieved sweet potatoes, onions and potatoes to have a Mario Kart competition (the kids absolutely trounced the adults) I took a minute to reflect on where we are.   Like seeds with enough water and light, we took root here, first the kids and I, and then Eli.  And while some of it is just that humans have a great capacity to get on with things, some of it is that this place tended to us, as we do to it.

Despite the cold, spring is starting to show it’s imminent arrival.  Connor and I potted seeds for Sweet Peas, taking inspiration from My Country Life, as well as Hollyhocks and lettuce last week, and the first of the lettuce seeds are already poking up.  We’ll start more in a couple weeks, as our last frost date isn’t until the beginning of May here.  The chickens are still laying, but less these days.  Still, we have plenty of eggs for cooking and eating, and lots to give away as well.

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Lettuce Seeds

I have a lot of seeds this year.  My plans are to complete the garden with Eli, finally!  And to finish turning the front of the house into an herb garden.  The kids want garden space too, and I’ve gotten a lot of flower to put in the front of the house, an oft-neglected spot.  After weeks of relaxing weekends, I feel ready.  While there’s still a long stretch of soups and curries, and cozy nights in front of the fire ahead, and putting the winter running gear away is a long time off, I’m getting excited about planting and harvesting again.

Spring preparations start slow, but pick up speed as we move into March.  It may be a little ways off, but soon enough the windows will be open and the flowers blooming.

 

 

Winter Daydreams

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Sithean’s landscape turns to frosted magic when the snow falls, as it did this weekend, before turning back to January levels of bitter cold again.  Our weekends have been unplanned and relaxed lately, and while we interrupted our spending freeze to go to the movies yesterday, it’s been mostly pleasant to be at home with little calling our attention other than the day to day chores around the house.

Sunday morning, after a great evening with an old friend and her daughter, complete with chicken parmesan and ice cream sandwiches made with Karen’s homemade chocolate chip cookies, I woke up to about 5 inches of snow on the ground and no where in particular to be.  I fed the bunnies, curled up on the couch, and enjoyed the lingering warmth from the last night’s fire in the wood stove.

Today is busier – the roads are clear enough for me to run, and I head to the airport in the afternoon.  But since it’s a holiday, it’s a quiet morning here, with a nice breakfast of bacon and eggs for everyone and no particularly pressing needs to be met.   That doesn’t mean there aren’t a million things we could be doing – house projects, decluttering, but January is also the time to remember that we are human beings, not human doings.  I’m a huge goal-setter, and I mostly measure a good day by how much I have accomplished, but there’s a very great deal to be said for just sitting and thinking.

As I watch the bird feeder out the living room window and think about nothing in particular, it’s a great reminder that my life is particularly blessed.  I live in a place that takes my breath away.  I have a wonderful family, great friends and health.  Gratitude, something I practice actively, comes easily when the world is still and peaceful.

Still, my mind wanders to spring.  Will the bulbs Eli and I planted come up around the Seckel Pear?  Will the baby fruit trees survive the winter?  Should I try for 2 plantings in the garden this year, even though I only managed on last year?  I want to do more companion planting as well, and work on truly turning the front garden into a sea of herbs.  A plan is required, as it always is, and it’s never something that I come to quickly.

As I get older, I appreciate winter more.  I’ve come to realize the point of January is daydreams, sleeping in, plans, sitting with one’s thoughts.  Spring will arrive, as it always does, with a frenzy of planting and work, and I’ll be lost in it.   But for a few fleeting weeks, there’s a breath in the business of life, and while I may never enjoy being cold, I have learned gratitude for this necessary point in the year that reminds me that respite and rest are just as much a part of humanity as accomplishing things.

Holiday Traditions

 

IMG-2067The bitter cold that had followed repeated snowfall and settled over New England for a week or so finally broke here yesterday, just in time for Christmas.

At nearly 40 degrees yesterday, it felt positively balmy as I was out shopping with my Mom, getting us stocked on groceries for the holiday and after.

With just a couple days left, it’s finally feeling like I might be ready for this holiday.  My shopping is done, the packages and (most of) the cards are mailed, and while I’m still wrapping gifts, it’s getting there.  I have one more day of work and then I’m on vacation through New Year’s, which I’m so ready for.

Christmas dinner is at my house this year.  My former husband and I divide the day – someone gets morning, the kids waking up, and a leisurely breakfast, and someone gets the afternoon, Christmas dinner and a lazy December 26th. I like both, and I miss the kids for whatever part I don’t have, but I’m also at peace, knowing that they get a great day without either parent missing out on everything.  Technically it was my year to have the morning,  but seeing as my ex-husband just settled into his new house and is building traditions there, it seemed like the best thing.  Traditions are great, everyone should have some, and none should be so set in stone that you can’t flex for changing situations.

Dinner this year is turkey, one of my more favorite winter dishes.  I try to roast at least one a year.  Making a big meal while trying to pull off Christmas magic can mean one person spends most of their day in the kitchen, so I’ve spent a lot of time over the years trying to hone what can be done in advance.  And the answer is that a lot can be done.  My four-cheese mashed potatoes will be made tomorrow and refridgerated overnight, to be baked just before eating.  Sausage for the stuffing can be cooked tonight and left in the fridge to chill.  Vegetables can be chopped and prepped the night before, as the turkey brines.  Even stuffing bread can be cubed and bagged.  And then there’s the benefit of keeping things simple – this year, just a very nice cheese board, with lots of little snacks such as marinated cippolini onions and mushrooms, olives, and feta spread, will precede dinner.  Pretty, and easy to make, a cheese board is just the thing for a busy day.

But the simplest thing to prepare and serve, popular with even the kids, is my sister Sharon’s Cranberry-Raspberry sauce.  This is our family variation of the traditional jellied stuff, and let me just say – it blows the doors off it.  Not only is it beautiful, easy to make and delicious, the leftovers can be swirled into scones, muffins or quick breads, or used as a spread on toast instead of jam.  I’ve never tried it as a cake filling between layers, but I’ve been mulling it over.  In short, this is not a sauce that will sit and moulder in the back of the fridge, until it finally gets deposited in the trash (or in our case, the chicken coop) once it becomes a science experiment, complete with green fuzz.

You’ll want to eat this stuff, trust me.

And it couldn’t be easier.

You will need:

2 16-ounce bags of fresh cranberries
1 16 ounce package of fresh raspberries or the same amount frozen
2 ounces of water
Sprinkling of sugar
1/3 cup raspberry liqueur, such as Chambord

You put it in a pot.  You boil it for a while on low heat until the raspberries break apart and the cranberries are soft.

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Let it cool, give a whir with an immersion blender, and pop it in the fridge.  You can skip the sugar if you want, but I don’t recommend skipping the liqueur – it’s what gives it the depth of flavor, and the alcohol will cook off.  If it’s a little sweet, a dollop of lemon juice will help.

May you have a low stress and delicious holiday!

 

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.