Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

If I'm going to record the rest of this year's Christmas decorating, this seems like the day to do it!

These swags were a lot cheaper than wreathes, especially considering that I need two since we have a double door in the front, and I think I like them just as well. For us, the most important aspect of the door decoration is that it have that wonderful evergreen smell. I have allergies so our tree is artificial -- this is the place where we sneak in the real stuff. Perhaps, I'll put a bow on them next year for a bit more color.

The nativity scene has a story to go with it. My mother said for years that she was going to get a nativity set when she could afford to buy a good one. The family ignored this comment and assumed she’d get around to it one day. But my fiance (now, husband), when he heard that the first time, saw an opportunity. The next Christmas he bought her the basic pieces of a nativity set and for years after added more and more pieces until she had a very large scene. Mother died in 2005, so now it’s mine. This year is the first time since then that I’ve had the time and space to set it out.

Next year, I think I'll try putting a piece of fabric under it so it's not quite so brown on brown. And I'm still trying to decide if I like the Christmas cards around it or not. That was mostly accidental (I put the first couple of cards on the edge of the buffet and then it just grew), but visitors have paid attention to both together and the cards have certainly added some color to the mix.
Merry Christmas! And God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Indoor Christmas tree

Last year at Christmas, we didn't have any furniture in the living room, so we plopped the Christmas tree in the middle and appreciated having something to fill the space for awhile.
This year, we have our furniture and there's really no room for a Christmas tree. So, Rick had the idea to put the tree in the sunroom and it's been quite wonderful. We can see it, or its reflection in windows, in nearly every room of the house.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Outdoor Christmas trees

We may never be able to replicate this year's outdoor trees, but I thought I would make record of it. There are three evergreen trees in the part of the landscape design that we're ready to implement. We bought them, potted, early in December so that we can use them as Christmas trees for the season, then plant them.

We put a thuja at the bottom of the driveway. It wasn't stable so Rick buried the pot partway.

He did the same for the one by the garage. We put multi-colored lights on both of the thujas and appreciate them when we come home after dark. We can also see the one at the bottom of the driveway from a couple of windows in the house.

The weather didn't cooperate for us to get lights on the juniper that we put near the front door. But it had pretty natural decoration after our snowstorm.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Little Wishes

This Christmas season, I'm volunteering for the Foster and Adoptive Care Coalition. The Little Wishes campaign allows people to buy Christmas gifts that have been requested by children in foster care. I'm doing some of the work to make sure that those gifts arrive in time for Christmas at the homes where the children are living. There are lots of good gifts left on the site -- you could give 10 year old Andrea a membership to the Science Center, 1 year old Jeredin a Funtime Tractor, or 8 year old Rahab a gift certificate to a book store.

And, if you have some time in the next couple of weeks, I think they will still take on volunteers. Getting Christmas gifts to foster kids is a really great gig this time of year--it's a lot of fun in a busy, friendly environment. There is volunteer information at the bottom of the Little Wishes web page.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Pumpkin bread with maple syrup spread

Yogurt cheese has been my favorite "miracle" diet food for the last couple of months. I mix it half-and-half with things like peanut butter and mayo. I like my lighter spreads better than the original product--they are creamier and less oily. Yogurt cheese is also great as a potato topping, a spread on rye crackers, and an ingredient in creamy salad dressings.

Yogurt cheese is simple to make--just dump a carton of plain, nonfat yogurt into a colander lined with a coffee filter or a couple of paper towels. Let it sit in the fridge for 8 to 24 hours. The yogurt cheese will be about the texture of whipped cream cheese with a tangy flavor more like sour cream. The whey that ends up in the bowl can be used in place of water in bread or soup.

Yogurt cheese allowed me to transform a treat that I used to eat this time of year: pumpkin bagels topped with cinnamon-brown sugar cream cheese. This fall, I'm making pumpkin bread with maple syrup spread. Maple syrup spread is simply maple syrup whisked into yogurt cheese. My recipe for pumpkin bread is below.

Joy's Pumpkin Bread for the Bread Machine
makes 2lb loaf

2/3 cup warm water
1 1/2 Tbl canola oil
2 Tbl molasses
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup pumpkin
1 tsp salt
1 1/2 cup bread flour
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 Tbl brown sugar
2 Tbl vital wheat gluten
1/8 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp dry yeast

Stir the wet ingredients and salt together. Stir the dry ingredients together. Pour the wet ingredients into the bread pan. Spoon the dry ingredients on top of the wet. Add the yeast to the bread pan.

Set the bread machine for Fruit and Nut bread (or whatever gives the longest rise time) and 2 lb loaf.

Check partway through the first kneading cycle to see if the dough is too wet (add flour by tablespoons) or too dry (add water by teaspoons).

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Fall salad

Our favorite salad the last couple of months has been Radicchio, Pear, and Fennel salad with Anise Orange Dressing, although we've made a couple of changes to the recipe. This was our first introduction to radicchio -- it's bitter but adds a sophisticated element to the salad. We needed to tip the balance to the sweet side, so we use three pears (instead of two) and one head of radicchio (instead of two). We also added a tablespoon of rice vinegar to the dressing to brighten it up a bit.

Give it a try -- fennel won't be on our grocery shelves much longer this year!


The last basil harvest occurred just before Halloween, shortly before our first freeze. I got two cups from my three surviving plants even after an aggressive harvest in late September (when the first freeze was predicted but didn't materialize).

I like this Fresh Basil Pesto Recipe but leave out the cheese and the salt because I would rather add them, if I want them, to the final dish. Two cups of basil yields a little less than one ice cube tray (I made two batches at a time in the summer and used what wouldn't fit into the ice cube tray over the next several days).

I'm still using pesto cubes from this batch once or twice a week, most commonly in a dish that starts with roasting a whole eggplant and red pepper on the grill and ends with stirring those chopped vegetables, pesto, toasted pine nuts, and a bit of cheese into bulgur wheat.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Autumn Entry

It still doesn't feel like fall here, but they're promising colder weather later in the week so we got motivated to decorate the bottom of the driveway for the season.

Here is Rick artfully messing up the straw:

And, here is our final design:

Monday, September 10, 2007

Back to School

I'm not going back to school this year in any form. Which feels a bit odd. Last year I went "back to school" as a staff member at a university. For three years previous to that, I went back to library school in late August or early September.

I needed to find a new way to employ my back to school energy this year. So, I decided to make my study functional. It's not beautiful, but this old desk and new chair are way more useful than the deck chair and two TV tables I've been using.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Summer Breads

With my particular blend of allergies, August tends to be my most miserable month and I'm glad it's over. Not that my allergies can read the calendar. They didn't improve dramatically on September 1, but I know that the worst is over and that, in itself, makes me feel better.

One thing that helped (and I want to remember this for next year) is home made bread. Now, I know that is no one's idea of health food, but as comfort food goes it's on the healthy side and it prevented me from eating worse things.

It all started on August 1 which is Lammas, the loaf mass, to celebrate the first of the wheat harvest. In August, I baked two kinds of bread: Whole Wheat Zucchini Herb Bread and Pesto Bread. Both recipes have a seasonal aspect -- one uses a cup of a grated zucchini to use up the surplus I got from the Farmer's Market; the other uses pesto made using basil from my garden and garlic from my sister-in-law's garden.

The zucchini bread recipe came in the booklet with my bread machine, but it's up on the web here. My favorite thing about this bread: it's so light that I can eat more than I think I should but the scale won't chide me the next morning.

I made up the recipe for the pesto bread. It could use some tweaking to rise a bit better but it tastes so good that I'm afraid to mess with.

Joy's Pesto Bread for the Bread Machine

2/3 cup warm water
1/3 cup pesto
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup bread flour
2 tsp. dry yeast

Stir the pesto and salt into the warm water. Combine the salt, sugar, and flours in a bowl. Pour the wet ingredients in the bread machine and then dump the dry ingredients on top. Make a "bowl" in the flour for the yeast and put it in.

I set the machine for the longest rise times I can get (for my machine that's the "Fruit & Nut" setting) and turn it on. Check the dough in the middle of the first cycle of kneading and add more water if too dry, more flour if too wet.

My favorite way to eat pesto bread is topped with heirloom tomato and a little grated cheese and popped under the broiler in the toaster oven until the cheese melts.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mint Tea Smackdown

We got carried away with herb-planting in the spring, particularly mints. Our new kitchen has a bay window begging for herbs. Naturally, we overfilled it with one of everything we liked and more of the things we thought we could move outside. The final mint tally was six plants of four different varieties. They ultimately ended up in great big pots on our deck where they are happily producing large quantities of fragrant leaves.

It turns out, we only use mints in three ways: tabbouleh, cocktails, and tea. Mostly tea. Thinking ahead to next year -- I don't need this much mint! I want maybe two to four pots of mint in one or two varieties. Our enthusiasm this spring, however, gives me a splendid opportunity to choose exactly which mints I want growing in my summer garden by taste testing the different mint teas.

Here's how I make mint tea:

  1. Cut enough 4-8 inch stems with leaves to fill a big stainless steel bowl.
  2. Wash the stems in the bowl three times.

  3. Boil water in my 4-cup measuring cup in the microwave (this takes 6 to 8 minutes).

  4. Using tongs (yes, I learned the hard way that fingers were not a proper tool for this job), shove the mint leaves and stems, even flowers, into the hot water.

  5. Cover the measuring cup with an inverted dinner plate.

  6. Let steep for twenty minutes (or until I remember that I need to rescue my tea).
  7. Strain through a metal colander back into the original bowl (which I've rinsed and dried).

  8. Let cool in the bowl until safe for my nice glass pitcher -- I pour the tea back into my big measuring cup and then into a glass pitcher because it's easier.

  9. Put the glass pitcher in the fridge.

  10. Drink the next day in a glass with ice and a slice of lemon. I usually drink the whole quart in the afternoon and will go through the whole process again in the evening.

Most of the time, I harvest mint from several of the plants (generally trying, desperately, to keep ahead of the flowering) and mix them all up in one brew. That's been quite satisfying but has told me nothing of my preference for the different types of mint. To do my taste test, I made four pure teas, one from each variety of mint. I let them chill overnight, and then it was time for the competition -- the Mint Tea Smackdown commences!

And the winner is....peppermint! For being the mintiest. Second was apple mint for having a nice hint of sweetness. Spearmint came in third and ginger mint took last place. To be fair to ginger mint fans, we did let that one bolt (go to flower before we could cut it back), so the off-taste may have less to do with the attributes of the plant and more to do with our lack of gardening skills.

Stay tuned for my next mint adventure: mint cloning! I'll take cuttings from my peppermint and apple mint and see if I can get new plants to grow in the bay window over the winter.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Spiral of Seasons

The seasons of the year are often represented as a spinning circle or wheel, each season coming around again in its turn. But, that's not quite right because it's not the same summer again, rather a new manifestation of summer -- a spiraling up, season layered on season. With a little luck and learning, my next summer can be better than this one, just as this summer was better than last summer. For me the seasons are a spiral, each season's abundance building on the experiences of that season in the year before and the year before that, all the way back to childhood. I hope that keeping a blog of successes, failures, and ideas for next year will help me make that spiral-building process more conscious and effective.