Writing Christmas cards

Well, I’m not right now, because there is a certain Christmas card assembly line that isn’t so good to set up while the kids are up and about. But the point is that I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been doing Christmas-y things, and next week, I may not be blogging for the same reason, and then we go out of town and my computer access will probably be spotty. I hope to at least get a few book posts drafted before we go. In the meantime, here is our Christmas tree, along with all the low-hanging ornaments the kids helped put up, then almost immediately started taking down.

Tree in its glory.

Tree in its glory.

Low hanging ornaments.

Low hanging ornaments.

Hope everyone else’s December is going well, too.

 

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Cucumbers and Pickling

Thursday is our last CSA pick-up for the year. On the one hand, I’m always a little sad to say good-bye to the farm family and their employees, who we’ve gotten to know over the last 5 years. On the other, I am thankful that I will not have to brainstorm ways to use up the weekly bounty before it goes bad. Overall, I feel pretty good about how we’ve done this year. I’ve had to throw out some lettuce, a few cucumbers and squash, but I think we’ve gotten better about either eating up the produce or cooking and freezing it for later. Some appeals to friends on Facebook definitely helped–especially when we had a bumper crop of cabbage back in the summer.

Our last extreme bounty this years was cucumbers. I like cucumbers just fine, so does my husband. My kids range from indifferent to opposed. We don’t eat a whole lot of salad as a family, so while I used a few cucumbers in salads and even made a couple just-cucumber salads, that didn’t nearly take care of all the cucumbers we were getting. Since four out of the five of us like pickles, I finally decided to give pickling a try.

My experience in food preservation is pretty small. I will cook and freeze lots of things (my husband keeps joking about getting me a chest freezer for Christmas; part of the joke is that I would actually enjoy the gift even while laughing at it), and that includes having made freezer jam. I have never canned anything that requires processing in boiling water. Every time I think I will try that, I get a book out and start reading it and get scared off by the warnings that sounds something like “Follow the recipe exactly or you might die of botulism!!” Maybe next year I will be brave enough to try real canning. For now, I found a refrigerator pickle recipe here: http://spoonful.com/recipes/the-worlds-best-and-easiest-dill-pickles that sounded good, easy, and up for tinkering with amounts (since I didn’t know if I would have enough cucumbers to make a full recipe).

The recipe was as easy as it advertised, and it was a recipe that easily lent itself to small helpers. I made the brine, and then the kids helped me fill jars while we waited for it to cool. We are dill pickle fans–no sweet pickles or bread and butter here!–and the only ingredients besides the brine and cucumbers were fresh dill (which we had to buy special, but I managed to use it up just for pickles, so it wasn’t wasted), garlic cloves, and peppercorns. Then we just had to wait for a couple days while the pickles pickled.

They turned out wonderfully. I’ve ended up making these pickles three times: one half batch, one full batch, and one double batch (when the cucumbers just kept coming) and so far all the jars except one turned out great (that one turned out mushy). I had enough to give some away, and all the reports have been good. I may make one more batch if I can get to it in the next day or two, and then I will say so long to cucumbers for a very long time. At this point, I’ll probably discover a recipe I have to try that calls for 20 cucumbers or something. But such is life.

I did actually think to take pictures while making my first batch, so here they are:

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Filled pickle jar, waiting to add brine.

Jar from the side.

Jar from the side.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Cucumbers turning into pickles.

Pumpkin and Squash Seeds

Yikes, I have gotten behind in blogging. I guess that’s just life sometimes.

I actually started this post way back before Halloween, because we had several winter squash and a pie pumpkin from our CSA box. However, we actually carved a jack-o-lantern this year (the first time at least since the kids were born, and by “we” I mean my husband with an enthralled audience of 4), so it seemed a good time to finish up the post.

Many of you probably already know how to roast pumpkin seeds, and the process is the same for winter squash. From The Joy of Cooking, the instructions are basically to separate the seeds from the strings and gunk, don’t wash them, toss them with some vegetable oil, spread out on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 250° for a very long time (Joy suggests 1 1/2 hours, but basically until they are dried out). Then you can toss them with salt or other seasoning or, if you are really feeling like torturing yourself, break off the outer shells to use the seed kernels in fancy dessert recipes. (My sister makes an excellent pumpkin brittle, but I think she’s gone to buying pre-shelled seeds.)

The problem with this process is that, as far as I can tell, there is really no quick and easy way to separate all those seeds, and the smaller the pumpkin/squash, the harder it takes. However, I’ve gotten a process down that seems to work fairly well, so I share it in case it proves useful to anyone else.

pumpkin_seeds_towelFirst, once I scoop the seeds out of the squash or pumpkin, I spread them out on a dishtowel–preferably a terrycloth towel over a tea towel. Then I use a spoon to sort of scrape the seeds away from the strings. It’s not fast, but it seems to go faster than using my hands to separate the seeds, since they are so darn slippery. I usually separate the seeds in small batches, and it took me about 40 minutes to get them all out when I did our pie pumpkin. My husband did the jack-o-lantern seeds, and he was a lot faster, which is normal for anything we both try to do, but I say he had the advantage of fewer strings in the bigger pumpkin.

The first picture shows them all spread out, while the second shows where a couple of the seeds have been pretty well separated.pumpkin_seeds_separated

After that, I just follow the recipe instructions and spread them out on a cookie sheet, bake, shake with salt, and enjoy!

pumpkin_seeds_sheet

 

Habits and To-Do Lists

I started this post about a month ago, and it was going to be about cutting blogging down to 2 entries a week (from a whopping 3) and trying to write more on other things. I have long since cut the blog post quantity back, and so far I have yet to do any more on the other writing front.

Some of this is due to life–we started our oldest in kindergarten, and adjusting to that schedule and homework (?!) has taken awhile. Also, my husband is in the middle of taking his doctoral qualifying exams (last big thing before writing a dissertation in his program), so he has been super busy at school, and I have been on my own with the kids a little more than usual.

The other thing that happened is that I realized my running to-do list (which I seem to have had some iteration of for about as long as I can remember) was completely stressing me out, so I threw it away. This may not seem completely related to writing more, but it actually is. My modus operandi thus far in life has been to make a list of things I need to do and then try to cross items off the list. I have most recently has 2 or 3 to-do lists going:

  • One “big life goals” or “big year goals” that I keep tucked away and only look at every so often.
  • One “monthly” list that has more concrete things that I would like to do in the next month or two.
  • Either a weekly, “next couple days”, or “this afternoon” list that usually pops up on a Post-It when I really need to prioritize what’s going on.

I can’t imagine why this would stress me out, would you? Oh, I also always have more things on the list than I can possibly get done in the timeframe. And, things like “writing” or “knitting” never seemed to be as important in a to-do list setting. So, as I continue to adjust to our most recent changes, I’m trying not to be so to-do list dependent. Instead, I want to work on cultivating habits. Some habits I have pretty well down:

  • Getting everyone out of the house on time. (This is a new accomplishment, but school is a great motivator!)
  • Making dinner every day.
  • Keeping up with laundry enough to ensure clean clothes all around.

None of these are surprising, I’m sure, as most adults have some form of these daily life habits well worked out. There are some other habits, however, that I haven’t really ingrained yet, and I want to focus more on them going forward:

  • Write something every day.
  • Pray and read the Bible every day.
  • Choose my activities intentionally:  There are still things that need to get done, after all, so I still need to choose some housework that needs doing each day and focus on the work at hand. This also means paying attention to how much time I spend on the computer (and doing what!), which is my real time waster these days, and deciding when I’m going to fit in things like writing and Bible study.
  • Rest better. (By which I mean, go to bed earlier when I need to, don’t make every minute frantic with “to-do” worry, and choose to spend some time in activities I enjoy.)

I’m hoping that moving from a “to do” list mindset to a “habit forming” mindset, I will be a little less stressed by the daily hustle and bustle that we all live with. I’m not completely giving up on lists–sometimes a short one is still the best way for me to organize my plan of action–but I’m trying not to let them rule me quite so much. And, who knows? Maybe I’ll get that extra writing time in eventually.

 

My life right now…

…is not very interesting if you are not actively leading it. Recently, it has included:

  • Sitting in the carpool line. (This is actually a great development of kindergarten…since the girls are in their carseats, as long as I make sure they also have books, I can get 15-25 minutes of reading time in!)
  • Checking a backpack each afternoon and morning for lunchbox, homework, notes to teacher, etc.
  • Getting up at a reasonable hour every single school day.
  • Teaching my first Sunday school class of the year.
  • Getting free dinner from my husband’s amazing advisor and his extremely gracious family.
  • Shopping for kids’ shoes and clothes.
  • Falling onto the couch around 9 and wasting my life on sitcoms until bedtime (although I am enjoying our new discovery time-waster of Parks and Recreation.)
  • Praying that the U.S. does not attack Syria.
  • Dishes and laundry.

I think that’s most of the highlights. I’ve cut back from an average of 3 blog posts a week to 2 anyway (to be explained in a future blog post I have only started drafting), but as you can see, this week is not much to write  home about. I’ll still have library books on Thursday, though!

Despite the lack of blog fodder, life is good, and I hope the same is true for you.

Cookbook Recommendation: The Mom 100

The Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back PocketThe Mom 100 Cookbook: 100 Recipes Every Mom Needs in Her Back Pocket by Katie Workman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received this cookbook as a Christmas gift last year, and it has been a good one. I have only made about 4-5 recipes so far (and one of those, I actually delegated to my husband…but hey, I found the recipe!), but they’ve all been well-received, and most of them have been either very easy or easy to make in large batches so I don’t have to cook as often.  Particular favorites so far include  her granola recipe, Mexican tortilla casserole (I’ve made similar recipes before, but this has been my favorite all-vegetarian version), and roasted potatoes (which has convinced my non-potato eating son to eat a potato or two). I have plans to make at least 3-4 more of the recipes in the near future.

Beyond the individual recipes, this is a cookbook that is both fun and useful to just sit down and read. I wouldn’t recommend it as next month’s book club selection or anything, but when I go searching through the recipes, I often lose half an hour just reading. Her comments about trying to feed healthy things to kids are both funny and helpful, and when I first looked through the book, I was laughing out loud at some of her chapter titles and tag lines. For example, there’s a chapter called “Let’s Call a Carb a Carb!” and her seafood chapter has the tagline, “Just eat the damn fish!” (This one could probably apply to me as well as my kids, so that might be why it tickled my funny bone. On the “useful” front, she includes many dishes that I already have recipes for, but with variations that are nice to keep in mind, and lots of the recipes include “Fork in the Road” suggestions to vary one dish for several picky palates.

If you are looking for a low-meat cookbook, this is not it. It has some great vegetarian recipes, but many of the meat dishes call for a lot of meat. I personally love meat, but it’s a good thing to know in advance, and that also means that some of the recipes are on the expensive side. One other criticism is that most the chicken recipes, including several roasting recipes, call for the chicken to be cut up before cooking. Not a problem if you remember to buy chicken parts; I was just a little disappointed because I expect a roast chicken recipe to involve sticking a whole chicken in the oven and moving on with the day.

Aside from these slight criticisms, I think this is a great book and I look forward to cooking from it more over the coming months.

Cabbage

Cabbage has been my CSA nemesis this year. This is mostly because we haven’t had any collards to contend with, but also because cabbage has never been a favorite of mine. It’s big, it’s very distinctive, it lasts forever. And this year, we have received LOTS of it (and very big heads sometimes, too). Oh, and I don’t really like coleslaw.

Thanks largely to suggestions of friends (hooray for Facebook recipe calls!) and my husband’s creativity, I have come to better appreciate cabbage this year. In case you are also not a cabbage fan, here are some ideas for your over-abundance of cabbage:

  • Obviously, stir-fry it. If you cook something with enough soy sauce, meat, and other veggies, it tends to taste better. I will put it in chicken stir-fry when I make it, and we also frequently make a recipe (from the cookbook More With Less) called Formosan Fried Cabbage, which is basically a stir-fry of sausage, cabbage, onions, and soy sauce.
  • Continuing in the Asian vein, a friend recommended this recipe: http://www.101cookbooks.com/archives/japanese-pizza-recipe.html. This was very easy and good (although my kids didn’t really love it, my husband and I liked it enough to eat all the leftovers quickly), and rose even more in my estimation when it got mentioned on The Splendid Table after we had already made it.
  • We turned to good old Joy of Cooking and found a couple other ideas, one of which was to boil potatoes with cooked bacon, then add cabbage until it’s cooked, and add parsley at the end. With a little butter also added (not in the recipe, but it tasted pretty darn good), this was a family success. Bacon is often a key point in getting our son to try things.
  • I also made creamed cabbage (also from Joy) for the first time…not too bad with a homey meal of chicken and mashed potatoes. I put in too much salt, so taste before you salt!

That’s about it for now. I don’t think I’ve seen the last of cabbage for the year, though, so I’ll update if I find more to share.