30 September 2015

Snow day

Cast iron cookware has vaulted to the top of my Christmas wish list, and wood heat—fireplace or wood stove—has been elevated from our househunting would-be-nice list to the not-buying-without list. I was so thankful for the fireplace today!

At 1:42 this morning, we (re)joined the ranks of the majority of people living outside of the city proper: the power went out. (As of noon today, at least 15,000 people were estimated to be without power.) Little Bear woke up twice, disoriented and upset because it was so dark, but we all stayed plenty warm through the night thanks to Matt's fire Tuesday evening. I got another fire started first thing this morning, and kept it burning until 3:30 or so this afternoon to keep the house warm as the walls slowly lost their retained heat; we lit another at bedtime tonight. It's only in the 30s outside, so it's not cooling down too quickly; we're sure thankful that's a positive 30 instead of a negative! All things considered, this definitely isn't the worst time to have lost power.

Work doesn't stop for a little thing like 12 to 15 inches of snow, so since the university is on its own power plant, Matt headed in to the office this morning. Thank goodness for a jeep with four-wheel drive! It really is beautiful outside, since someone else plows the driveway so I don't have to shovel. That's something else we will have to keep in mind, looking for a house: how long of a driveway are we (Matt + kids if I'm pregnant) willing to clear each time it snows?

So much snow. So so much snow. At least 12 inches fell here between Tuesday morning and first thing this morning, and it started up again later today... And we know other people who got more than we did, 16 inches or more in the same time frame!

The fireplace for heat, the sun for light; Matt went to the store on his lunch break today for extra batteries for flashlights, but it's bright enough in the daytime with the shades open. It's an odd thought that in situations like this, we're probably actually more comfortable than people whose lives are normally more convenient: we heat primarily with wood, so losing power doesn't affect that much at all; we aren't going to get too cold with three cords of split wood outside. We already haul our own drinking water, so we are okay on that, and we have quite the abundance of snow to melt and heat for washwater, flushing toilets, etc. I have found myself thinking wistfully of gas ranges and ovens, but I'm not incapable of making hot meals:

Chicken noodle soup for lunch today.

As exciting as cooking soup in the fireplace was, I'm suddenly developing a preference for wood stoves... it did work just fine, though. My parents' power came back on this afternoon, so we joined them for supper instead of trying something more ambitious in a skillet perched atop the coals, but if the power is out tomorrow morning I fully intend to make fireplace oatmeal. It might be a good idea to invest in a good unglazed cast iron Dutch oven that can sit right in the middle of the coals before the next big winter storm, just in case; that pot was big enough for soup for Little Bear and me, but it couldn't handle a full meal for the family.

Our power has been on and off since 5, on steadily since 9:30 or so; we'll pray that it stays that way now! It's been an exciting couple of days. If we lose power again by morning, though: oatmeal. We'll keep on making this an adventure.

29 September 2015

A snowy Michaelmas

Happy Michaelmas! St Michael sure heard from me frequently today; it was a good day to be asking his intercession, asking him to "be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil," what with more than ten inches of snow fallen so far, four power outages, and one downed tree (and more leaning) in the yard. I was so glad to finally have Matt safely home tonight! This probably isn't what Michaelmas looks like in most places:

That's our road. It's currently only navigable by sled or on foot—thank goodness we have another driveway joining a different, larger road! Even just pulling the sled, I had to keep going off into the ditch to get around or under leaning trees on our way to the mailbox this afternoon. Little Bear loved our walk; he very quickly learned to listen right away when I told him to "duck and cover," and he kept pointing out the bent-over trees, laughing when I walked into them because I was looking back at him, and going on excitedly about our "adventure." Kit was less than thrilled, but I was carrying her instead of sticking her in the sled, so she just buried her face in my shoulder and grumbled occasionally.

Today was my first really intentional, planning-ahead celebration of Michaelmas. When the power came back on after the first outage of close to an hour this morning, I decided to put non-electricity-requiring tasks on hold until I finished making dinner. I felt a little silly roasting the evening's chicken and baking the squash before noon, but when the power went back out around 2 and stayed out until 5:30, I was sure glad I'd done it.

Our feast day dinner:

Roast chicken with apples and onions, the Michaelmas recipe from Feast! Real Food Reflections and Simple Living for the Christian Year, by Daniel and Haley Stewart; my mother's butternut squash bake; and a blackberry cobbler. I've definitely never cooked with blackberries before, and I'm not actually sure if I've ever eaten them cooked at all; they don't grow here, but I bought a bag of frozen ones yesterday so that I could tell Little Bear the story about them that goes with Michaelmas.

Apparently it was common, once upon a time in places where blackberries grow, to make sure you picked your blackberries before Michaelmas lest they turn bitter. Sour? Bitter? One of those. Anyway. They would turn bitter, so the story goes, because when St Michael cast the devil out of heaven, the devil landed in a blackberry patch, which hurt, and in anger he spat on the bushes. Little Bear thought it a great story; Matt did a passable job of hiding his amusement at my attempt to explain the battle in heaven at a three year old's level.

People here tell stories about the September of '92, which was the only year in many people's memory that we got more snow at once (let alone in September!) than we have so far this year; in '92, we got 24 inches over three days, and much of the area lost power. I remember that timespan from a kid's perspective: snow far above my waist, digging huge tunnels that lasted all winter, a huge kerosene heater in the living room... As an adult and parent this time, my reaction is a little less "yay, adventure!", but I'm working on being as excited about it as I can for Little Bear. I'm glad that it's happening today, of all days, as an extra thing to make our first Michaelmas memorable.

So far tonight our power is still on, but from what we've heard it is out all over the area, even places closer in to town than we are. Looking out the window this evening, we could see one tree resting on the power line coming to our house and another larger one leaning over the line, so we will see if the power stays on all night! It flickered again here just now; we might wind up having a more "adventurous" night after all. The snow is supposed to keep coming until 6 am.

25 September 2015

Seven Quick Takes

Okay, so I said I'd tackle the encyclical Laudato Si this week and have thoughts today for you... Ha. Clearly, I hadn't attempted to read an encyclical since I was a college student. There is no such thing as "time to read a document requiring actual concentration" when I'm taking care of these munchkins all day every day. By the time they're both asleep for the night, there's usually something more time sensitive, like washing dishes or keeping the fire going, to drain the last remaining brain cells. So after two and a half days of picking it up whenever I had a spare minute, I've just now finished reading the introduction...

Keeping the fire going, time sensitive in September? 

Yes. That snow is to his knees, and it all fell today! I got stuck in the driveway this afternoon, arrogantly assuming that the jeep and I could easily handle 8-plus inches of snow despite not having the snow tires on yet... the undercarriage was plowing up snow, we slid into a trough when I tried to go from reverse to drive, and it took 4 Low just to get back into the garage. One of Matt's coworkers dropped him off at the end of the driveway, since I couldn't go get him from work; I guess we'll be taking turns with the snow shovel tomorrow. Hopefully the snow is done falling for a while! We've been waking up to low 20s outside, right around 65 inside as long as we had a decent fire going the night before. I'm pretty sure we've managed to keep the baseboards off so far, though I'll admit I bumped our bedroom thermostat down another notch this evening when it was getting too close. Matt had a fire going after supper, and I canned applesauce, so the apartment should be plenty warm.

Oops, rabbit trails. Very little brain. Back to the encyclical. My very first realization: this isn't new. So many of the people I've heard reacting, whether they agree or disagree, have been talking like Pope Francis is saying something radically new and different and no other pope ever has ever said anything ever about ecology, ever. The mainstream media, I can understand that from, but not educated Catholics; he begins by quoting four recent popes (Pope St John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope St John Paul II, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) who all repeatedly expressed that humanity is failing at our responsibility to care for God's creation, and that serious changes need to be made in order to reverse the damage being done. Pope Francis is joining his voice with his predecessors; he's certainly not unique in expressing serious concern about the environment, humanity's role in shaping it, and the connection between our relationship with the earth and that with the poor, those most directly affected by negative environmental changes. I'll be interested to see if he continues quoting the other pontiffs.

Matt was expecting to be out of town for work all weekend, but the trip got cancelled. I'm super grateful to have him at home, with the kids and the snow and what all. Everything goes so much more smoothly with him here. But there would have been one tiny thing that his trip would have made a little easier: making meatless suppers both Friday and Saturday. We always do meatless on Friday, but because we're in the fall ember days, I've added Wednesday and Saturday this week. And he doesn't not want me to cook meatless, exactly, but putting together good satisfying meals with what I have around the house, since it's the end of the month and I'd love to wait until October to go shopping again? Well, it's definitely doable, but making grilled cheese or peanut butter and jelly with Little Bear would be a lot easier. :-) So far it's been fine: cod, baked beans, and broccoli on Wednesday; a Dutch puffed pancake, scrambled eggs, and applesauce tonight... Tomorrow could get interesting, but the puffed pancake tonight was a gamble and they both wound up loving it, so hopefully I can come up with something that will be equally well received.

The fact that it looked rather like an octopus was trying to climb out of the pancake may have had something to do with its enthusiastic reception.

So distractible. Okay. So (still in the introduction), Pope Francis is listing off reasons why past efforts to find a solution haven't worked, and it's so easy to think that all of these other people have these problematic attitudes, but not me, and then boom, I'm reminded that yeah, he's talking to me too. He gives examples like powerful opposition, denial that there is a problem—I'm reminded of the 'Alaskans for Global Warming' bumper stickers you see around town—or indifference, resignation, "blind confidence" that technology will solve the problem. Wait. What? I had to read that last one over. What was wrong with looking for a technological solution? (I missed the "blind" the first few times, ironically). 

I grew up on Appleton's Tom Swift and the Asteroid Pirates, etc, Asimov's Foundation, watching Star Wars, Star Trek; in The Future (TM), technology can fix environmental problems, so what was wrong with looking for technological solutions to our present-day troubles?

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had my answer, calling Christians to "look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, 'learning to give, and not simply to give up.'" (Paragraph 9) Symptoms. That makes so much sense. You can't just ask "what is wrong?" without also asking "why?"; otherwise you aren't likely to find a real, permanent, working solution. I'm reminded of a photograph of an iceberg at my chiropractor's office: the part that you can see, the "symptoms," is only one small part of the whole chunk of ice. You can't get rid of an iceberg by chopping it off at the water line; the whole thing has to melt.

Moose season closed in our area this past Sunday. Matt had Monday off work, so since there weren't going to be any other hunters out, he took Little Bear out grouse hunting for the first time. It seemed like a pretty good bet that the grouse would all still be keeping to cover after the last few weeks of moose hunters tromping around, so Matt emphasized the "adventure" part over the "hunting" part as they were getting ready; coming home empty handed is certainly a part of learning to hunt, but 3 is pretty young to get all excited about hunting and then have to deal with the disappointment of not even seeing anything.

That didn't wind up being a problem.

They spotted a nice spruce grouse before they'd even made it all the way to the spot Matt had planned to hike, so that just made the hike that much lower stakes; the daily bag limit for grouse is 15, so if they got another, great! But they already had one to bring home, so Matt got to enjoy teaching Little Bear about hiking without caring quite so much about keeping a close eye out for grouse. He guessed they went a little over a mile, and Little Bear did great.

When they got home, Matt had Little Bear stay outside with him to watch as he cleaned the grouse; we talked about how God gives us animals for food, and we thank God for giving us good meat to eat and show God that we're thankful by eating it all and not wasting any. The following night, the grouse became a lovely pie for supper.

E is for... ember days. It worked out perfectly that Little Bear started working on the letter E this week, because I got to dovetail that lesson in nicely. E, 'eh,' egg; E, 'eh,' elephant; E, 'eh,' ember days.

Explaining ember days to the three year old was delightfully simple, and ridiculously complicated. "Ember days are for thanking God for the fall—"

"No, it's snowing. It's winter."

"You're right. Thanking God for the winter, and all of the good food He's given us to store up for the winter, and all of the other—"

"But not the grouse."

"Yes, God gave us the animals like grouse for food, remember? We show Him that we're thankful by not wasting any of the good meat."

"But we're not saving the grouse for winter. Because we eated it."

Have a good weekend. I'll keep working my way through Laudato Si, and most likely have more thoughts to share as I go. As always, you can find many more quick takes over at This Ain't The Lyceum; be sure to check out Kelly's rundown of the World Meeting of Families!

23 September 2015

Ember days and Laudato Si

It's that time of year again. On the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday following the third Sunday in September, we celebrate the fall ember days, when we mark the changing seasons by setting aside time to give thanks to God for His gift of the natural world, and to remember to use that gift wisely.

And oh my goodness, y'all, I think I finally 'get' ember days. We've been observing them for years, as far as the "marking the changing seasons" and "giving thanks to God for nature" goes. And four times a year, Matt and I go back and forth over why I'm making meatless suppers three nights in one week, and I eventually reach a point of "We're having meatless suppers because that's how you do ember days," logic which doesn't even satisfy the three year old. 

"And remember to use that gift wisely." Thundering herd of exclamation points. It makes sense now, having a penitential aspect to celebrating the change of seasons! If we were just thanking God for nature's bounty, logic would dictate a feast, not a fast. But it is in depriving ourselves of some of those good things that the ember days become a time of remembering to be careful stewards of what we've been entrusted with. Abstaining from meat provides us with the opportunity, each time we consider a meal or sit down to eat, to be reminded of what we're supposed to be reflecting on. Is it impossible to be mindful of responsible stewardship when sitting down to a meal with meat? Of course not! But the unusualness, in our house, of a meatless Wednesday and Saturday gives us pause: why are we eating this? Oh, right; ember days.

It's like the parable of the talents: use what you're given wisely and well, or you won't have it anymore. Each "wait, why is there no meat?" moment gives us a chance to remember that if we do not properly care for Creation, we are not going to continue to have all of the good things with which God endowed the earth. 

How appropriate that, on a day particularly set aside for thanking God for the bounty of nature and being mindful of how we make use of it, Pope Francis reminded us in his speech at the White House that "a serious and responsible recognition not only of the kind of world we may be leaving to our children, but also to the millions of people living under a system which has overlooked them" is demanded of us. He called Christians to "commit ourselves to the conscious and responsible care of our common home."

Coincidence? Maybe more like providence. I think this is an appropriate week for me to finally get my act together and actually read all of Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si, not just a snippet here and there.

Even if you're not doing anything else to mark these ember days (and they're totally optional nowadays), consider taking a few minutes at some point Friday or Saturday to listen to Pope Francis' words or think about what "responsible care of our common home" means for you. I'll hopefully get some reading done and have more thoughts by Friday, and I'd love to hear your reflections as well!

21 September 2015

Salsa vibrante

The green tomatoes I picked up last Saturday were intended for mincemeat. Green tomato mincemeat. My mother and I love it... but we're the only ones in our families who do. Maybe I could have converted Little Bear; the boy did go through a phase of crying whenever there weren't pickled beets on the table for supper. But Matt isn't terribly fond of normal mincemeat, so a mincemeat made from green tomatoes was just too weird. After talking about it, and thinking about it, and getting busy and letting the green tomatoes sit on the counter all week and start turning yellowish, I gave up on mincemeat and turned to a more widely-accepted tomato use: salsa.

Salsa verde is supposed to be made with tomatillos, not sub-ripe tomatoes, but I don't think there's much risk of anyone mistaking my green tomato salsa for a proper salsa verde:

It's not exactly green!

Between the green-and-yellow tomatoes, the orange bell peppers, and the red onions, we turned out quite the colorful batch of salsa. About three pounds of tomatoes, two onions, and one and a half peppers yielded three pints to can, plus just about a fourth pint for the fridge. We kept it very mild so that Little Bear would enjoy it, and were fairly happy with how it turned out. It really isn't a tomatoey salsa, almost closer to a pico de gallo in texture and brightness (both in color and flavor!) Next time I will add at least one jalapeño, but we will still enjoy this batch. It turned out well for a first attempt!

Salsa vibrante 
6 1/2 cups cored and diced green tomatoes
1 1/2 orange bell peppers, diced
2 large red onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, diced
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
2 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon oregano 
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper 

If you're going to can it, get your boiling water canner ready before you start making the salsa, so that the water and jars can be heating while the salsa cooks. I wound up with not quite enough salsa for four full pint jars, but prep enough jars for four or four and a half pints, in case you wind up with more (your vegetables are bigger, etc.) The water in the canner should come one to two inches above the top of the jars, and be at least two inches below the rim of the pot. Otherwise your stovetop turns into a lake... which it might do anyway, but hopefully not.

Combine tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic and lime juice in a large pot and bring to a boil. Stir in cilantro, cumin, oregano, salt and pepper. Reduce heat and simmer five minutes. 

Using a canning funnel, ladle the hit salsa into the hot jars, making sure liquid covers the chunks and leaving 1/2 inch at the top. Wipe each rim clean before placing the lid on and screwing on the ring. Process jars in boiling water bath for 20 minutes (timing begins once the canner reaches a rolling boil; use these charts to adjust processing time if you're at a high altitude.) Remove jars and allow to cool undisturbed, checking to make sure they're sealed after 24 hours.

If you don't want to can it, you could certainly refrigerate and/or freeze the salsa instead. So far, we can vouch that it goes well with ham-and-egg breakfast burritos, chicken, and scooped up with tortilla chips!

(Recipe comes from this green tomato salsa by Ball.)

19 September 2015

Seven Quick Takes

What is this strangeness? Tonight I had to turn the living room light on before 8 pm to be able to read. It still looked bright enough outside, and I could try to be optimistic and say that maybe, if it wasn't overcast, I could have held off another hour, but the dark is definitely coming. We kept the headlights on more often than not this past week! And some of that was from it being overcast and rainy most of the week, but still, there's no question that we are losing light. Also warmth—highs were in the 40s this past week, and will be in the 30s this coming week—but I expect the colder weather once we hit September. Somehow I always forget how early the darkness begins encroaching.

We made bright, colorful salsa this afternoon. It's so pretty! What kind is it?

Pink and orange and yellow and green... It looks like one of those peach or mango salsas that's popular these days, or a chutney, doesn't it? But it's actually not sweet at all; it's made from... green (unripe) tomatoes. No, really! 

I'll have the recipe up in the next couple of days, after we've properly tried it with a meal, but I just had to share a photo because I love how colorfully it turned out!

Somebody pointed out that one of the past couple of days was exactly 100 days before Christmas. I had a momentary burst of panic: Christmas is already close enough to be counting down?!?, followed by restoration of sanity: 100 is a really big number—that's more than a quarter of the year!, followed by annoyance: what happened to waiting until Black Friday to blast us with Christmas marketing? Part of me appreciates the reminder, though; if I want to have a peaceful Advent without my customary panic at the very end because I've been peaceful-ing my way through the last three weeks and having nothing actually finished, taking some time in the next month or two to make sure I have a handle on the gifts I want to make for people, at least, probably isn't an awful idea.

Goodness, the three-year-old imagination sometimes...

"If you swing the [beanie] snake around very very fast, all of the beans will fly out into my mouth and eat me, and that will be disappointing."

"You can't tickle me! That will make me sleepy, and it's not bedtime yet."

And his chicken pot pie recipe, as explained at supper the other night: Three leaves of lettuce, seven pounds of chicken, three cups of sugar... and Piglet.

Much fun bread was eaten here this week. My next-younger sister was in town, and had somehow convinced my youngest three siblings that they like mushrooms. So she baked them a wonderful loaf of bread stuffed with mushrooms, caramelized onions, and mozzarella that was so gooey and delicious hot out of the oven... mmmm. She sent some home with us, and I gave her a chunk of my braided pesto cross. Because the pesto bread, while delicious, was not quite the thing for sandwiches, Little Bear and I later made a loaf of Oktoberfest bread:

You just mix together 3 cups flour, 3 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 cup sugar in a bowl, then stir in 12 oz (1 bottle) room-temperature beer. Pour the soft dough into a well-greased loaf pan. Melt together 4 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon honey, and pour over top of the dough. Bake at 350 degrees F for an hour, and let the loaf cool in the pan for a while before trying to remove it. The butter and honey poured over top gives it a sweet, crunchy crust, but if you want a softer crust (or a dairy-free loaf), mix 1/4 cup of oil into the dough instead of pouring butter on top.

Last night Kit and I slept over at my family's house, so that I could bridge the gap between my sister flying out in the middle of the night and my parents flying back in first thing in the morning. Kit slept pretty well, though it took longer than usual to get her to sleep; she pretty clearly knew that this was not her bed. Once she was asleep, though, she stayed that way for most of the night. From what Matt said, Little Bear was much the same way—he took a long time going to sleep because he knew Kit and I were over at Grandma's, but when he finally fell asleep, he was out. 

I'm so thankful for kids who sleep through the night! I've had trouble sleeping for years, and it seemed logical that it would get worse with another baby rather than better, but since Kit was born I've been getting the best nights' sleep I've had in a long time!

Here's a happy baby photo, because it's late and I'm sleepy and can't think of anything else. Matt and Little Bear were entertaining her this evening as I finished cleaning up the kitchen after supper, and she was so smiley:

Check out more quick takes over at This Ain't The Lyceum!

16 September 2015

Food for the Winter: Freezing

Freezing is the quickest and easiest food-preservation method, as long as you have the freezer space. In another month or so, I'll have unlimited "freezer" space, but we're still getting into the mid-40s in the daytime so I can't just stick things outside to freeze yet. I'm definitely not in a huge hurry for the cold and snow to arrive, but when they do settle in, the unlimited cold storage space will be nice.

Our above-the-fridge freezer is just about full up with the summer's produce, which is a wonderful feeling going into winter! I'm hoping to make another trip or two to the farmers market before they're done for the year, so I can put up a few more pounds of carrots. In the freezer so far:

3 quarts of cranberries
2 quarts of blueberries
6 quarts of rhubarb 
4 quarts of shredded zucchini
6 quarts of carrots
4 pints of broccoli florets
15 cubes of pesto
A few quickbreads plus bananas waiting to become bread
And butter, because it's on the best sale I've seen all year this week, and butter freezes very well

It doesn't really sound like all that much, looking at those numbers and mentally comparing them to the six or seven months of snowy weather that could be arriving any day now! So obviously, we're not going to be living off of the food in the freezer all winter, although someday when we have our own house and a garden that's definitely something I'd like to try for... but that's years down the road, once Little Bear and Kit are old enough to be helpful either with gardening and preserving or with minding any younger siblings who might have joined us by then. 

Everything helps, though. The berries and rhubarb will be hoarded carefully, used a half-cup at a time to brighten up muffins, pancakes, and desserts all winter—I can't run out before the berries ripen next year! Yes, I learned this from my mother, and yes, Matt and my father both shake their heads at us... but they'll agree there's really no comparing domestic berries to our wild ones. And once I put up a few more pounds of carrots, maybe even some more broccoli or summer squash if I'm lucky, I will hopefully be able to pull out a bag of my frozen vegetables for supper at least one night a week through Easter, or even into April.

I freeze fruit and berries raw, but the vegetables get blanched. Blanching preserves the veggies' fresh flavor and color, and it's super easy. Fill a pot with enough water that it will cover the vegetables once you've added them, then bring the water to a full rolling boil. While it heats, set your colander in the sink and prepare another pot or a big bowl of cold water and ice, again full enough that all of the vegetables will be fully submerged. Once the water is boiling, the vegetables go in for just a few minutes—I gave the carrots four minutes, and the broccoli just two. Then they get dumped into the colander and poured from there into the ice water bath. When they have completely cooled, you can portion them out into freezer bags and put them directly into the freezer.

Look at that color! Fresh broccoli is so beautiful. I'm so excited to be able to look forward to pulling it out of the freezer for supper in a month or two and having it still that bright, fresh green.

14 September 2015

Basil for the Exultation of the Cross

Little Bear and I sat down this morning to talk about today's feast, and I guess he hadn't yet realized that when we make the Sign of the Cross we're literally making a cross, so I feel a little negligent on the faith-teaching, but at least he knows now... And he thought it was really neat, and kept tracing the cross and saying the words over and over again.

I also told him the story of St Helena traveling to Jerusalem in search of the true cross; she noticed a patch of sweet basil growing on an otherwise-barren hill, dug beneath it, and found the Cross of Christ. "And that's why we're going to use basil in a special bread for supper," the story ended.

Last night, I decided that a basil bread would be a good way to tie in to the feast day, and would go well with the pork loin on the menu. It was going to be super easy: my usual French bread recipe, with a scattering of dried basil kneaded in. If I was feeling really fancy, maybe I'd even braid the loaf. Idly googling "braided basil bread", I stumbled upon this recipe. That's so beautiful! I thought. Ha, there's no way I'm even attempting something so fancy. Then I showed the picture to my half-Italian husband.


"That looks wonderful! That's what you're making tomorrow? Great!" 

Onto the shopping list went fresh basil. Since I was getting the food processor dirty anyway, I figured I'd take advantage of it to make a bunch of pesto, so I got two packages of basil instead of one. It didn't quite all fit in the food processor at once, but after two-thirds of the leaves were chopped up, I was able to fit the rest in. The whole kitchen smelled very basily! After measuring out the two-thirds cup that I needed for the bread, I still had enough pesto to fill 15 ice cube tray slots. I popped the tray into the freezer, and tomorrow or so I'll dump my nice little pesto cubes into a freezer bag.

For some unknown reason, I wasn't content to make this already-too-hard-looking bread exactly as the original recipe showed; I decided to one-up the original and braid my loaf into a cross. Because basil and the true cross and the feast day... And I'm maybe a little nuts. But it worked! No one was probably more shocked than I was with how it turned out, honestly. It really, truly, was much easier than it looks!

Braided Basil Cross Bread

4 oz (about 2 cups lightly packed) fresh basil
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup pine nuts or walnuts

Pulse together basil and cheese in the food processor. Drizzle in olive oil. Add garlic and nuts, pulsing until pretty smooth.

*This will make more than you need for the bread, so measure out 2/3 cup and freeze the rest in small amounts; to use later, thaw and dilute with olive oil.

1 cup warm water
2 teaspoons yeast
2 pinches sugar
2 1/2 to 3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt 
2 tablespoons olive oil

Grated Parmesan for on top

Stir yeast and sugar into water and proof. In a mixing bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups flour and salt (I used 1 cup spelt flour, the rest white flour). When yeast is bubbly, pour into flour along with olive oil. Mix together and knead for at least five minutes, adding more flour if it's too sticky. You should end up with a soft, very slightly sticky ball of dough. Cover and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Lay down parchment paper on the counter, and lightly sprinkle with flour. Turn out the dough onto the parchment paper. [I had actually never used parchment paper before today, because I always figured it was a silly extra thing that you didn't really need; oh. my. goodness. did it ever make this easier! Totally worth it.] Stretch dough into a rectangle, rolling out to about 18"X12". If your pesto is very thick, dilute with 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil. Spread pesto over dough, leaving about half an inch border.

Roll the dough up like you're making sweet rolls, long side over, and pinch the seam closed. Cut the rope into two pieces, one slightly longer than the other.

Pinch the cut ends closed. With a sharp knife, slice each rope in half lengthwise.

Keeping the cut sides up, position the four pieces in a cross such that the four strands weave together, each over one and under one.

Twist each section of the cross together, being careful to keep the cut sides facing up. Pinch the two strands together at  each end.

Slide the parchment paper with the cross on it onto a sheet pan. Allow bread to rest about a half hour. While it rests, preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Just before putting in the oven, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown. Slide the loaf off of the parchment paper onto a wire rack to cool.

12 September 2015

Jam dreams

Matt laughed and shook his head this evening. "You're in squirrel mode, storing up food for the winter." Being a mature adult, obviously I stuck my tongue out at him... but it's kind of true.

I'd been flipping through the grocery store's sale flyer for the coming week, and peaches, nectarines and plums will be at the lowest price I've seen all summer, low enough that I can't not load up on them. I'm entertaining visions of bright, beautiful jars of canned fruit, as well as a cupboard full of jam to last us through the winter. Buying jam makes me crazy, because jam is so easy to make, but I have been awful about finding time to make it these past few years. Also awful at following recipes, so when I have set aside time to make jam, it's most often turned out syrupy. But not this time. No more playing fast and loose with quantities and seeing how little sugar I can get away with using; I'm doing it right.

My mom made an amazing spiced plum jam recently with anise, cinnamon and vanilla. I don't think I'd ever had a spiced jam before; I might have to make a batch myself! I've also been seeing a bunch of recipes for savory peach jams lately, like a rosemary-peach or this peach-thyme-black pepper jam. To use as a glaze for pork or chicken, maybe? Mm. We will see. Growing up we often made "blushing peach" jam with raspberries, which is good, but I don't love raspberry seeds in my jam... Peaches and strawberries might be a good combination, though, and I already have strawberries in the freezer.

I'm sure there are lots of other good jam recipes and spice combinations for peaches, nectarines and plums; what am I missing? I would love some more ideas!

Mark the calendar

First snowfall of the year: September 12, 2015.

Everything melted by the time it hit the ground, and it's more drizzling than snowing now, but for a couple of hours we had big fat flakes falling. Eighteen days earlier than last year! I now feel like much less of a wimp for complaining that my hands were cold when I got home from a rainy run to the farmers market this morning.

We woke up to a pretty chilly house, so Matt and Little Bear stayed home to build a fire while Kit and I made a quick trip to the market in search of more apples. The folks with the apples weren't there—hopefully they'll be back next week if we have more favorable weather!—but I did bring home a few finds:

Two pounds of broccoli florets, three and a half pounds of green tomatoes, and three good-sized zucchini.

The broccoli is beautiful! I'd been worried I was too late in the season to find any, and I definitely should have started blanching and freezing it a month ago, but there was one woman with two one-pound bags of florets, and I scooped up both. This afternoon I'll blanch the broccoli, shred the zucchini, and get them all in the freezer. What could be better than vegetables that have gone farm to freezer in less than a day? The green tomatoes, we'll have fun with in the next few days.

11 September 2015

Seven Quick Takes

The sun had just crested the ridge before ours as I was driving home from dropping Matt at work this morning, and I had to stop and take a photo. The hills are gilded right now, and I'm trying to enjoy it as much as I can because I know the leaves will be down soon.

We had a late night last night, Little Bear playing out in leaf piles with his youngest aunts and uncle while Matt and I lost track of time talking with my parents. We didn't get home until after 8:30, so I was expecting a rough night. "If the kids both have really good nights and I'm able to drive you in tomorrow," I told Matt, "then I'll go to Mass. Otherwise I'm staying home." Make a promise like that, and of course what happens? Both kids fell asleep quickly and slept through the night. Mass it was.

Little Bear was so well behaved in Mass today! Sitting next to his aunt certainly helped, as did having a priest with a strong Indian accent which kept him paying attention. Little Bear was good, Kit slept or was quiet on me, and for the first time ever, ever, that I can remember at this parish—and I've attended this parish pretty much all my life—the church was silent after Mass ended, with everyone either kneeling back down to pray or heading out quietly instead of starting up loud conversations. It was wonderful. Startling. But definitely wonderful.

Tonight we learned that our favorite ice cream place is closing by the end of September! It's a local place with the best ice cream in the world, and we're so disappointed. The owners plan to continue their seasonal open-air ice cream stand next summer, but the year-round ice cream parlor and their partnership with local restaurants are both ending. We have been saving up our "points" from buying ice cream there ever since we got married, and keep saying we'll redeem them for an ice cream cake when we have a reason to have a cake, but I suppose we'll have to pick one up before they close and just keep it in the freezer.

Little Bear has been amusing lately.

In the sunny parking lot: "Mom, I'm having trouble making the sun stop shining."

Getting into the food-preserving spirit: "We will make lemon blueberry popsicle salt granola bar jam!"

Offering suggestions: "Should we have another one more cookie now? Two cookies? Okay!"

Playing school is still fun. It doesn't happen every day, but most days we pull out at least one or two schoolbooks and spend some time with them.

Little Bear has clearly paid more attention than I'd realized when he's been at my mom's house during school time, because he surprised me by knowing the answers to several questions from the first two religion chapters: "Who made you?" "God!", as well as immediate Yes's to "Does God know and see all things?" and "Can God do all things?" We got a little sidetracked today on "Where is God?", because the concept of "everywhere" was astonishing; "In church? In our house? In the garage? In a tree?" 

He's known his alphabet for I don't know how long, more than six months now, but has really begun making the connection between letters, sounds and words. It is so great to watch him light up as he hears himself say a word, and realize that he knows what letter it starts with! He had a lot of fun the other day running around the apartment looking for things that started with T to feed to this tiger.

Science with Daddy is very possibly everyone's favorite subject. When we first started talking about homeschooling, Matt felt particularly strongly about making sure we did "all the experiments" in science courses. Since he's enthusiastic about it (and doesn't typically have a baby in his arms every waking moment), I've been very happy to get materials ready each week and then let Matt be in charge of "doing science" at some point over the weekend. Little Bear has been so excited about looking forward to their projects, and Matt has been enjoying them too. This semester they're going through a book of earth science projects; they've learned about the layers of the earth by frosting a big cookie, made crystals with gumdrops and toothpicks, and I think this weekend they're making a cross section of a volcano with salt dough.

Check out more quick takes at This Ain't The Lyceum!

10 September 2015

Food for the winter: Dehydrating

The blog silence recently hasn't been intentional, but it's actually not the kids' fault either: it's the fall's. Or maybe more accurately, the coming winter's. I know it's still summer in most of the country, but out my window?

Yellow. Yellow everywhere, especially on the ground. The rest of those leaves are going to be down before we know it, and then comes the cold. This morning was actually on the warmer side—51 degrees F when we brought Matt to work—but still chilly enough to not let us forget that "winter is on its way," as Little Bear reminds us ten times a day.

Fresh produce in Alaska in the winter is, as a general rule, tasteless and exorbitantly expensive. And with several feet of snow on the ground, you know it's not coming from anywhere remotely local! So I've been working on preserving the produce that's abundant now, hoping to really cut down on the produce I have to buy this winter.

We're borrowing a dehydrator from a friend, and I have a new favorite appliance: slice up the food, lay it out on the dehydrator trays, plug it in, and walk away. So far I've dried peaches, apples, and oregano, and they've all come out perfectly. The peaches took eight and a half hours, the oregano twelve, and the apples—miniature apples from branches grafted onto crabapple trees—were done in about four hours. We were disappointed to discover that dehydrating the peaches didn't heat them enough to denature the proteins that keep Matt from being able to eat most fruits raw, so when he learned from a coworker with the same allergy about the local orchard whose apples they could eat, we picked some up from the farmers market.

The apples are good raw, a little tangier than normal apples, but they seem sweeter dehydrated. Matt can have regular apples if they're cooked, but not fresh or dried, so these are perfect for drying to save for snacks, muesli, oatmeal, etc for him all winter.

I don't see myself dehydrating anything other than fruit and herbs, so I haven't quite decided yet whether buying one would be a worthwhile investment. I've sure been enjoying using it, though.

09 September 2015

Nativity of Mary

Yesterday was Our Lady's birthday! The feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin is one of those fixed-date feasts that ties in with another date; in this case, we celebrate Mary's birth exactly nine months after the Immaculate Conception (December 8). 

It's so much fun celebrating feast days with a project-loving preschooler. When I told him yesterday morning that it was Mary's birthday, he jumped up all excited and asked if he could make a birthday card for Mary. While I fed Kit, Little Bear found himself a blank card and went to work. I didn't even get to see the inside until he opened it after supper, because he sealed it in an envelope and set it up next to the statue of Mary.

I really wanted to make it to Mass for the feast day. We sort of shoot for attending daily Mass once a week, on Fridays, but it definitely doesn't always happen. Yesterday was a pretty average illustration of why... Kit woke up from a nap demanding to eat; when she was done and I'd just gotten shoes on, Little Bear needed to be changed; when that was done and both kids were buckled in, Kit needed to be changed; when I finally pulled out of the garage I noticed that Little Bear had snuck his breakup boots on instead of decent shoes; and halfway down our road I realized that I'd forgotten the ring sling and I couldn't manage the store post-Mass without it... Most days, I would have given up several steps previous; yesterday, we slipped into the back at the end of the general intercessions. Ugh. At least we got there?

Birthdays call for cake, and Little Bear was very excited to help me bake a blueberry coffee cake for dessert.

Nothing terribly fancy, but a good day of reminders that we celebrate Mary as our mother, as a member of our family, and give thanks on the day of her birth for her role in the plan of salvation through her "Yes" to God's will.

01 September 2015

Leftover rice

Friday night, my parents had a whole bunch of folks over for supper, including our family. To help my mom out, I brought over a crock pot of brown jasmine rice; counting up the expected guests, Mom and I figured that about eight cups cooked would be enough that we wouldn't run out.

Well, we didn't run out. I brought close to six cups of rice back home with us.

Saturday evening was the Catholic radio station's "crock pot cook-off", with a category for chili. I didn't have any ground meat thawed, really didn't want to grind up one of our last remaining caribou roasts... and my vegetarian chili just happens to go well over: cooked rice. Along came a big bowl of rice to the cook-off.

And along home most of it came again afterwards, as most of the attendees opted for meat-laden options instead.

We took a break from rice on Sunday. Yesterday Little Bear and I ate it for lunch, and tonight we had a big skillet of fried rice with chicken and random assorted vegetables (peas, corn and cauliflower, anyone?) for supper. As we were cleaning up after, Matt gestured to the crock pot basin that still held a fair bit of rice. "What do you want to do with that?" I rolled my eyes. "Leave it out. I'll make something."

Voilà, brown jasmine rice pudding:

Except, I underestimated how much rice I had left, so there's still a cup and a half or so in the fridge now, and I have no idea what to do with it. I'm so sick of rice at this point... Can I freeze it? Is that possible?

The pudding is pretty good, though—I wasn't in the mood for more rice tonight, but tomorrow morning I'll warm it up and it'll make a great breakfast.

Stovetop Rice Pudding

1 1/2 cups cooked rice
2 cups milk, divided 
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg, beaten*
1/2 cup raisins 
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine rice, 1 1/2 cups milk, and salt in a saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes, until thickening begins. Add remaining 1/2 cup milk, egg, raisins, sugar, and vanilla. Cook, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat and allow to cool; pudding will thicken more as it cools.

*If you don't care about the occasional little piece of cooked egg in your rice pudding, you don't have to pre-beat the egg.