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.

Adventurous Eating at Home – An Introduction to Asian Grocery Shopping

I really, really like Asian food.  All the kinds – I have yet to meet an Asian cultural specialty I didn’t want to try, not just to eat, but to cook as well.  I’m game to try almost everything, and my pantry reflects that.   I recently mastered Saag and Indian Butter Chicken.  I make my own Pad Thai, Bulgogi, Potstickers and other things pretty regularly.  I started cooking Asian at home in my 20s out of curiosity, and because it’s a whole lot cheaper than eating out.  I started with simple curries, and eventually ventured into more complex foods as my courage grew after successful meals, and the resulting expansion of my spice cabinet and pantry.

Not far from my house, close enough for a trip every month or two, is a giant grocery store called HMart.  Primarily Korean, but stocked with food from about every East Asian culture, it’s a really fun place to visit.  But it’s also intimidating, even for those of us who have been going regularly for a while – on a recent trip, my son found a sweet pancake mix that he wanted to try, but I had to confess that I had no ability to read the Kanji required to successfully prepare them.    The trick is to treat it like an adventure with some necessities for Asian cuisine tossed in.  I bring a list, but it is the one store where I allow us to go off script every time.  My goal is to try at least a couple new things each time. It helps that I love grocery stores – I try to visit at least one in every country I visit.

When I bring the kids, the new things end up being treats.   Asian candy, especially Japanese, is mesmerizing and the flavor combinations are both perplexing and near-endless.  Sure, some things end up being in the ‘not even good enough to compost’ pile, but then there’s Crispy Matcha-flavored Oreos, which, I kid you not, are a real thing and they are so, so good – I say this as someone basically without a sweet tooth.  I make an exception for these – even the box smells amazing.

Matcha Oreos.jpg

The key to Asian grocery store success is to be open-minded, and not to be afraid of a little failure.  And to ask lots and lots of questions – even of fellow shoppers if you feel comfortable.  Early in my kimchi-buying days, after I had discovered I loved it, I spent a lot of time asking people why they picked a certain type, because I was daunted by the veritable wall of available fermented pickled cabbages, radishes, carrots and other items.  I got an education, too – some because it’s the kind they grew up on.  Others were looking for the hottest, flavor-iest kimchi available, still others just bought the largest quantity they could, because it was a dietary staple they preferred not to make.  I still buy the same brand of coconut milk a woman standing next to me advised me on 15 years ago.  When I asked her why that one, she shrugged and said – ‘good and cheap’.  Hard to beat that input.

If you are going for the first time, pick a recipe you like to make, and then Google brands of the ingredients.  This will help you to a) know what you are looking for and b) help in the event that your only available venue lacks someone who can translate for you.   Be prepared to wander the aisles looking for things – until you get used to it, you need to allot yourself some time.

After you find your stuff for your recipe, go back and re-examine all the things that caught your eye.  Pick one or two to try – the internet is filled with friendly, helpful bloggers who can teach you how to use that thing you bought.  Groceries.jpg

Yesterday, I came home with rice vinegar (I buy it by the gallon), dumpling wrappers, seaweed salad, radish kimchi, coconut milk and lots of other things on my list, but also with Dragon Fruit, which has been on the household list to try for a while.  I also found Tapioca Starch, which is a key ingredient in a whole bunch of Paleo recipes, Acorn Starch, because a friend with a Korean husband sent me a recipe to use it in, and candy that my son picked out.  We know we generally love Pocky, but the Muscat-flavored Gummy Choco thingies were a surprise love for all of us.  They will definitely be reappearing in our vacation goodie bag this summer, after watching my daughter tentatively eat one, and then immediately try to chug them directly from the tube.

Even though we veer off the shopping list every time, I still would offer that I think that our willingness to expand our options is a part of living more frugally.  We don’t spend tons of extra money.  We often find things we really, really like – Black Tea Udon noodles have become a pantry staple for cold noodle salads that get rave reviews every time I serve one up – and I don’t need to order take out very often if I crave ethnic food.  I’ve crossed the line into the land of finding the food better at home a good deal of the time, and that saves me lots of money.

But most of all…it’s fun.  Trying new things, adventuring out of my comfort zone – these are things that make even the simplest of days entertaining.  So the next time you need an adventure, I highly recommend finding your neighborhood ethnic grocery store.  And trust me, it’s a great way to keep a 5 year old entertained for hours.

Connor and peach pop rocks

 

 

How (Not) to be a Homesteader

There’s that moment every morning here, when the kids are at school, and all the animals are fed and both they and the plants are watered when I sit down to my computer to get to work, and I take a breath.  Everyone’s taken care of for the moment.  There are always more chores, but they can wait until the income-producing work is done.

Life at Sithean might be called homesteading, if one stretched every definition of the word to transparent thinness like one of those giant latex bubbles that are sold on TV.  I view homesteading as increasing self-sufficiency.  I’d like that, but I haven’t noticed my trips to the grocery store dropping off, so I’m reluctant to evaluate it that way.  It probably couldn’t be considered a farm, although I do grow things in volume.  What it really should be considered is a teensy, tiny farmlet-style side hustle that keeps me in asparagus, salsa, pesto and eggs.

omelet

Which is not to say that’s the limit of it, or that I won’t become more self-sufficient here over time — definitely a goal, but for now realistically, it’s not a big money-saver to live here. Quite the opposite, most of the time.  It is though, an investment in the future.    Not just mine, but a protection of sorts for my children, a place of abundance in a rapidly changing world.  It’s a sanctuary, but a connected one.

In addition to the upcoming garden expansion, this year I added a cold-hardy cherry tree, bush apricots, blueberries and lots of perennial herbs.  Few of them will produce this year, and I still haven’t figured out where to put pear trees and cranberry bushes, but in the long haul, my goal is to grow and produce at least a large chunk of what fruit and vegetables we eat, supplemented by our local farm share.   To live a life where the apples we eat come from our trees, where the house is on route to paid for, and yet be within just a few miles of expansive civilization (read: Sushi and Thai food) is a gift.

As I read over blogs and books on sustainable living though, I find very few homesteader-types that seem like me.  I have not given up paid employment to go back to the land.  I still want to see Santorini someday.  I’d love to be off the grid, but every time I flick on a light I am grateful for it.  I am not planning for end times, although I am worried about the effects of climate change, effects I already see here, as spring comes later and summer lasts longer every year.  For me, this is a slow-burn process.

I was thinking about it as I was planting and weeding this week.  I’m not any of the things a typical homesteader might be.  I’m a single mom, a liberal who is a huge fan of the social safety net and more than willing to pay taxes for the betterment of society generally.  I’m not associated with any faith.  I drive more than I’d like to, I’m on planes a bunch, I color my hair, paint my toes, and I’m not giving up shaving any time soon.

In short, I don’t fit the profile of the back to the land movement.   I have no environmental moral authority, and I’m hardly an expert on much, except the stuff that I am.

For a long time, I assumed that due to this lack of street cred, I wasn’t the right person to write about the experiences of farmlet life.  But it finally occurred to me that I have a valuable perspective after another conversation with someone, who, like me, was an apologist for having 1.57 feet in modern society and the other .43 in a place not dissimilar from mine – that there are a lot of us.  People who want to live better and more lightly on the earth, but also cave to modern conveniences.  I’m doing things imperfectly, and learning as I go along, and figuring out what works for us.

One of the greatest gifts one can give oneself is acceptance.  An unexpected byproduct of me saying to myself, ‘hey self, you don’t have to be perfect at this to have something to offer’ is that the ways in which I had offerings expanded dramatically.  And the reception to those offerings has been equally dramatic.  I’m no longer an apologist for my life, which is something of a relief.   I may not get it right, or achieve a higher moral authority, but there’s a lot going on here that is worth a share.

 

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.

Paleo Pizza_Toppings.jpg

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!