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

Garden Dreams Part 2

While the smallish people headed to Maine to open their grandparent’s Moosehead Lake camp with Dad, I headed into the garden this weekend.  The ancient irises have started to bloom – they were a breathtaking surprise last year, in a color scheme I had never seen before, and I have been looking forward to them again since they faded out last July.  I’ve been working on cleaning up the trench bed where they and the peonies live, a task I didn’t get to last year.  It only takes about 6 months for a garden to get overtaken by weeds, and I am removing several years worth.  Reorganizing and restructuring the trench bed, which is a desperately needed task, like so many things here, probably has to be deferred to next year, but I am already starting to make plans.

Irises after the Rain

On Saturday, I also pulled out 4 wheelbarrows filled with debris, rocks, and weeds from the old garden in preparation to till.  Last year gardening season ran very late, with tomatoes, tomatillos and squash still ripening in early November, and I ran out of steam.  Instead of pulling out the old vines, I just opened one side of the wire fence and let the wildlife have at it.  It l left a mess though, and was pretty overdue to clean it up.

My next door neighbor and friend Melissa and I co-garden, share chickens, ducks, and frequent meals and glasses of wine.   Last year we started the garden together somewhat organically, with an offer of help from her father to rototill.  Somehow that became a shared garden space to both of our delight, and this year we sat down to make a plan to make the garden more permanent. Melissa’s husband Jay weighed in to ensure we actually have a plan that will work – which is a critical check on our enthusiasm to just get started and figure things out as we go along –  and helps out when our skills are exceeded by our excitement, which is with reasonable regularity.  Jay has a sixth sense about when to step in and when to let us get on with it.

Because we want this garden to last for many years, we decided to till the space, removing any noticeable  grass, myrtle and weeds, as well as roots and rocks,  before leveling it with added compost – 8 yards of it will arrive on Tuesday.  Pulling out clumps of grass as Melissa tilled in the rain left me with the realization that I was now living that line from Monty Python’s The Holy Grail “Denis, There’s some lovely filth over here.”

Melissa’s father once again loaned his rototiller, which he bought in 1971 and is still going strong – I have an immense fondness for this particular piece of garden equipment, having created the area where I plant now twice.  It took a while for us to get the hang of it without Melissa’s Dad around to supervise, but eventually we figured out the 47-year- old tiller and got to work.

Melissa and the 47 year old rototiller.jpg

It took just under 3 hours to till and clean out the new garden area, which is now ready for the added dirt, and a fence later this week.

Garden Prime.jpg

It’s a chilly day here, and we were both grateful when it was time to go inside, but so proud of our accomplishment.  It’s getting real, and I can’t wait to see it when it is finished.

Garden Dreams Part 1

It is one of those beautiful not-quite-summer days today.   The last of the lilacs are in full bloom, the air is filled with the perfume of springtime, and the world is verdant and lovely.

Late season Lilacs May 2018

The asparagus is coming to an end, with me letting more and more stalks grow into feathery trees to sustain itself for next year.  Bolted asparagus always reminds me of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree at first, although eventually they feather out like giant ferns.  Asparagus is beautiful long after it is edible.

Asparagus ready to propigateThis week brought another pleasant surprise – my Easter pansies, left out on a few too-cold nights,  have miraculously come back to life.

Pansies.jpg

My neighbor Melissa and I stole out this afternoon for a few hours of work on the garden expansion.  The seedlings are growing out of their trays, and the threat of frost is past, so now we are racing against time.  We had planned to have the new garden built by now, but between weather and life, we’re trying to get everything done before Flag Day.  Even with a child-free long weekend while my kids are away with Dad in Maine, it’s going to be close.   But a fun kind of cutting it close, with a really neat garden at the end of the process.  I have long dreamed of a potager, and it’s within a week or two of becoming a reality.

What’s left of the old garden, minus the gate, was pulled down and we began to measure the new space:

old garden

The new garden will be 42’L by 19’W, with cedar fencing backed in wire fencing to keep out the wildlife.  The wire fencing from last year is likely the only reusable component, but we kept it very simple, knowing we were going to reconfigure.  In width, we are only adding about a foot, although we’re moving the start of it closer to the trench bed, which you can just see the edge of below.  We’re adding about 12′ in length, and more formal beds to make it easier to navigate and weed.  It should look better as well.

Stringing the new garden.jpg

Adventurous Eating at Home – Sunday Dinner

Sunday’s dinner was a modified version of a couple of recipes I jumbled together with really great results.  It is filled with lots of things you probably have in your pantry, and a couple you might not.  I try to add one or two new menu items a month, things I haven’t tried before but sound good.  I’m a huge fan of trying something and then modifying it to suit my taste buds, pantry and my wallet.  I’ve tried to call out all of the possible modifications.

On the menu was Turkey Meatballs and Asparagus in Lemongrass Broth over Cauliflower Rice.  It can just as easily be served with white or brown rice.  I make mine with Almond Meal (basically almonds ground to flour) but basic breadcrumbs will also do.  What shouldn’t be swapped is the flavoring.  The meatballs and broth can be made ahead and reheated for a busy weeknight, and while they reheat, the cauliflower rice takes about the same 5 minutes to saute.  This is an excellent make-ahead meal.  It’s filling and flavorful, and feeds about 3-4 people, depending on appetites.

Straight up double everything if you want more – extra meatballs can be frozen and served over rice noodles for an asian-esque take on pasta and meatballs another night too.

For the Meatballs:

  • 1 lb ground turkey
  • 1/3 cup Almond Meal (substitute bread crumbs if Paleo isn’t your bag)
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp dried cilantro or a small handful fresh
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp ground pepper

Mix everything together with a fork.  Form into 1.5″ meatballs and saute in a deep skillet with olive oil, about 8-10 minutes.  Drain on paper towels and set aside.

Make the Lemongrass Broth

  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 2-3 tablespoons of lemongrass paste 
  • 1/2 can diced tomatoes or 4 tablespoons crushed tomatoes
  • 1 shallot
  • Asparagus, cut into 1″ pieces

In the same pan used for the meatballs, saute the shallot until soft.  Add the broth, lemongrass paste and salt and pepper to taste.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and add the tomatoes, meatballs  and asparagus, and cook until the asparagus can be easily pierced with a fork.  If you don’t have asparagus, try bok choy, or even add spinach in just a minute before the food is ready instead.

Meatballs in Lemongrass Broth.jpg

While the asparagus is tenderizing, cook the Cauliflower Rice

In a skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil.  Add 1 bag of cauliflower rice (I buy mine at Trader Joe’s) or a head of cauliflower, chopped very small by hand or food processor.  Generously add salt and pepper, and stir, 8-10* minutes until softened.

Spoon cauliflower rice into a soup bowl and ladle broth and meatballs over.  Garnish with fresh cilantro if you have it.

* If using regular rice, start this step before the meatballs.

 

Farmlet Priorities

Spring here means everything needs to be done at once.  Weeding, taking care of baby animals, and preparing for gardening season absorb most of my energy, but there’s still all that basic life stuff that needs doing – family time, groceries must be bought, dishes, laundry, meal preparation, errands…none of that goes away.

I outsource 2 major to-dos in my life – summer lawn care, and the big housekeeping work.  While doing them both myself would save me about $3000 dollars a year, I invest in these items for a reason – my lawn is huge, my tractor is ancient and perpetually breaking down, my tractor skills are lacking, I don’t really enjoy mowing or weed whacking, and my weekend time is pretty compressed anyway.  As the only adult living on the premises, I have to make choices.  For me, it’s a spend that allows me to spend more time doing the things I want to do.

Same with having the house cleaned every 2 weeks.  It doesn’t last, and of course I end up wiping down surfaces and vacuuming in between, but it does mean that I don’t ever have to scrub the bathtub out, and for the most part, I don’t mop floors.  These are two areas I consider drudgery, and I pay to have them handled.

Everything else though, is either me, or my small army of amazing volunteers.  My neighbors plow me out in the winter.  I weed and plant incessantly, and feed and water animals twice a day (I also feed and water the smallish people, but not so much on chicken and duck feed).  My ex does major yard cleanup, leaf blowing, and the occasional assembly of things, as I am schematically challenged, to put it nicely.  One of the moms helps me prep and paint.  I’m so lucky to have a lot of support.

Still, this time of year requires ruthless prioritization.  Stuff has to get in the ground.  Weeds spring up overnight.  When the CSA kicks in come early June, Friday evenings post-pizza will be spent processing foods and planning meals based on what bounty was available.  I’m pushing to try to get my guest room painted and set up, as it’s been a storage hole for over a year, and I’m sick of looking at it.

And the smallish humans require attention too – generally, and for all of the end of school year activities that start up around this time.  This year both kids are transitioning to new schools, so graduations and celebrations abound.  There’s also a lot of daily mediation required, such as around the screaming fight that broke out over who sings ‘What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love‘ better on the ride to school yesterday.  At least the irony was amusing, if not the assault on my ears.

I employ a multi-step evaluation process at this time of year in order to figure out what I should be doing.  Like the old-fashioned structure pioneer women used to define their priorities, this decision tree is invaluable if you are not sure where to put your energy.  It’s perhaps not as simple as:

Wash on Monday,
Iron on Tuesday,
Bake on Wednesday,
Brew on Thursday,
Churn on Friday,
Mend on Saturday,
Go to meeting on Sunday

But it is clearly the modern equivalent.  I mean, I don’t have a butter churn or actually know how to make beer, and I don’t go to any meetings on Sunday, mostly preferring not actually interact with people on weekends.  Ironing is definitely a non-standard activity as well.  But otherwise, exactly the same.

decision tree

 

 

 

Journey’s End

In Florida, where I lived for a few years, most of the houses are in communities, gated or otherwise.  One, in West Palm Beach, was named ‘Journey’s End’.  Whether their target audience was simply the elder end of the snowbird set, or they helped people speed the path to their maker in order to ensure consistently available housing inventory was unclear to me, but I could never go by it without a giggle.

When I moved to Sithean, I had some goals set in my head.  At the top of the list, though, was ‘Never move again’.  After 5 moves in just over 2.5 years and some serious life transitions, the kids and I needed stability and predictability above all.  While a little updating couldn’t hurt, and it was definitely in need of basic maintenance, the house has stood for 168 years, and it will almost certainly outlast me.

Most financial advice around housing presupposes that you will, at some point, move, and therefore things like market value, financial return, and renovations with an eye towards selling are 99% of the commentary.  But when you buy a house to live in for 40+ years, it changes your perspective.  All of a sudden, the things ‘the market’ might prefer don’t really matter.  That isn’t to say that one should jettison good taste, but honestly, if you like something and want to do it, ‘what will the next owner think’ isn’t an issue.  When there is a next owner, I fully intend to have become compost for my peonies.

Hopefully not very soon.

To pay off the mortgage early or not is a debate in finance circles as old as time.  It’s true you may be able to grow that money faster in stocks, which is what most financial planners would say.  Most of the frugality-focused financial folks, on the other hand, loathe debt and recommend reducing housing costs by paying off the mortgage early.

I see both points of view, but it’s my take that there are those of us who are comfortable with mortgage debt, and there are those of us for whom outsized interest payments and owing someone the roof over our heads makes our skin crawl, and you should behave according to which type of person you are.  I am, without a doubt, the latter.

I hate debt, but my decision to work towards being mortgage free also has more specific reasons.  My oldest goes to college in 9 years, and my younger child will follow her a few years later.  I want to be able to help them, and without a mortgage payment, that should be comfortably possible.  I may not have it knocked off for my daughter’s turn, but by the time my son launches, I intend to have the house owned by me, outright.  This was number 2 on my goal list when I moved here.

Today I have no idea how that happens.

Ok, I do.  You toss money at it until it’s gone.  For a time when you take on a mortgage, you pay more interest than principal.  As the mortgage matures, that situation reverses, and you pay more principal than interest.  The quicker you reduce your unpaid principal balance, the less interest you pay, and the faster you pay your house off.

But logistically, today, my plan isn’t feasible based on the calculators I have run.  I’m not even a little worried about that.  I mean, in the dark of night when I wonder how it’s all going to work out, sure.  But generally, nope, not concerned.   What I have learned over the years is that calculators are one thing.  Deciding you are going to do a thing and then working towards it is quite another.  While ephemeral determination is not something you can take to the bank, making a plan and figuring out how to get there as you go along is absolutely critical to getting what you want.

A critical rule of goal-setting – first, decide what you want to do.  Then figure out how to do it, adapting as you go.  For long-haul goals, you have time to experiment.  For this particular goal I have 1 and 3 year plans that involve all ‘found money’,  unexpected windfalls, and a percentage of income going towards it.  Once I get through the next 36 months, I should have a good sense of how much I need to modify my goals to meet my target.  Or modify my target if I must.

Most critical though, is to listen to your gut.  My gut tells me that I am at my best when setting my sights on a few big goals, with some smaller ones along the way.  I’m focused and determined, and more often than not I get where I need to be, even if the route takes longer than I had hoped.

Should you pay off your mortgage?  Only you can answer that – no one else has to live your life, not your financial planner, not the money advice columnists, no one but you.  Your inner voice should guide you on the big things, and this is no exception.  But if you do decide to, don’t worry so much if the numbers aren’t clear when you get started.

“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.”

― Joseph Campbell

Sithean in flower

Cold Spring Nights

The weather here at Sithean continues to veer between summer-like warmth and chilly enough to light a fire in the wood stove.  Once, even, cold enough to turn on the heat, and usually I hold the line after May 1st pretty hard.  Sithean has oil heat, which isn’t cheap on the best of days.  Still, it’s starting to warm up generally, and the lilacs are finally starting to bloom.  The asparagus bed started producing about 2 weeks ago, and will go another 3-4 weeks.  I missed a few to bolting, but there’s still plenty for eating.

For most people, May probably doesn’t seem like a great time to recommend roasted vegetables.  But it’s an odd time for eating locally, barring making a few really delicious asparagus frittatas (asparagus, eggs, cheese, potatoes for the crust if you want one) from our eggs, and the occasional lettuce wraps. Farmers markets and CSAs haven’t started up yet, I’m basically out of everything I preserved last year, and it’s grocery store bounty until at least June 1.

I take advantage of the cooler nights to fill the freezer – come August when we go on vacation, I’ll take the meatballs I made tonight and froze, a couple pounds of pasta, and we’ll eat it for dinner our first night away with garlic bread and a salad – a tradition we have not broken in at least a decade.  I’ll be making Falafel for the freezer this week too, as well as Bulgogi , a house favorite, especially on the grill.  Food prep means there’s always something here to eat if I do it right, so no one (me) has to capitulate to the Takeout Gods.

There’s a few leftovers from my fall crops lying around too – a couple winter squashes that made it this far, and the last of the half-bushel of sweet potatoes to supplement what we are buying.  The squashes will be cooked down and the puree saved for soup, but the sweet potatoes are inevitably roasted.

I love sweet potatoes, and while there are lots of ways to prepare them, roasted with various spice coatings is my favorite.  It’s also the quickest and the simplest.  I keep spice mixtures on hand to toss them in, but salt, pepper and olive oil also works.

Roasting sweet potatoes is simple – preheat oven to 375 degrees, oil a pan, peel and slice the sweet potatoes into half moons or wedges, sprinkle salt, pepper, your favorite spice mixture and drizzle olive oil on top.  Bake until soft with crispy edges, 25 minutes or so.

My current favorite is Harissa seasonings, a mix of chili peppers and paprika.  I like the smokey flavor it adds.  I use Spice Road brand, but any will do.

Harissa_Silk Road

 

Harissa sweet potatoes.jpg

Another favorite here is Tumeric-roasted cauliflower.  When organic cauliflower goes on sale I always pick up a couple heads.  Cut the florets from the head (the bunnies get to eat the leftovers), put them in an oiled pan, sprinkle with salt, a generous amount of tumeric, and olive oil over the top.  Roast until tender, 45-50 minutes.

The great part of roasted veggies – aside from healthy, cheap and tasty –  is that the leftovers can be warmed in the oven repeatedly with no loss of taste or texture.

If you can’t have a warm spring night, at least you can have a warm spring meal.