Sunday, July 12, 2015

Change: the norm for now

Over the past four months, I've changed career tracks, taken a real live vacation and made some major changes in personal habits, acquired a new family member in the form of a puppy and as a result, blogging has, well, taken a backseat.

That's really the opposite of how it's supposed to work. In the blogging world, and today, in every medium, every change is wrought and written right out in the open for everyone to see. Instead of sharing as I go, I tend with withdraw when change arrives, dealing with it in private, and waiting to see how it plays out before saying much about it to anyone who isn't part of the situation.

While I don't get into where I work on this here blog, suffice to say I went from being a full-time writer/editor to a full-time project manager, with some proofing and little-to-no writing on the side. In addition to the usual new place, new folks and new schedule to learn about, there was a host of new software skills to master.

For the first couple weeks, I thought my brain was going to explode from cramming too much information in there. It was both exhilarating and painful, in the same way a casual jogger who finds herself in the middle of a marathon thinks she could run forever, but her legs might just fall off. Three months later, I'm finding my brain again, tired and shaky, but still kicking, and sort of unused to all the new ideas in there.

As a result of said gig, I had to rejigger my mornings, and began getting up a full hour earlier than I had been. I eat breakfast before arriving, most mornings, pack a lunch and am regularly early to work. I see dew on the grass, and birds singing and the early morning sun glinting off the river. I even work out after work. This is all a bit of a shock to the system, let alone people who know me.

In the middle of all this, I had the audacity to take a week's vacation. Granted, we'd been planning and paying for it since January, but it was hugely generous of the new gig to let us keep the dates. And so, we gallivanted around Mexico, wasted brain and all, and tried to revive ourselves by staring at palm trees. Which really kind of worked.

Perhaps the biggest shock of all this is finding I don't miss the writing as much. Instead, I miss the people who I worked with and the people I used to interview and write about. I miss hearing how business is going, how the family is, and hearing the passion for what they do in their voices. While I enjoyed doing the writing, the conversations were always the catalyst for me.

As a result of the past months, I'm rethinking all the things. My wardrobe has had an overhaul that was not entirely inexpensive. I went through my makeup and tossed stuff out. I've been reading new books rather than re-reading the old (I'm looking at you, overly addictive Outlander series.). I want to re-organize the entire house. And I'm rethinking this blog, considering all the things I want to write about, now that I'm not contracted to write about anything super-specific on the daily.

For instance, new farmers and their crops. And in the same breath, makeup, and outfits of the day. And typewriters. And health issues. Craft beer brewing in basements. Local restaurants. New recipes that don't use anything in a can. Book reviews. Fish-keeping. Raising dogs. Dealing with a new puppy. What constitutes cold-brew coffee. Making homemade bug spray. A review of our trip. I mean, is there a blog for all that?? It seems insane. Who would read one of those things, and then realize that the same blog had a post on cleaning and polishing hardwood the next day?

However, just a warning that you may want to prepare yourselves for some of it, all of it or none of it. Like the change over the past few months, this too, may pass. There may be recipes. I have a great one for strawberry jam, just in time for the season to be over. Or rhubarb mini-pies which were fabulous. And absolutely no photos for the pasta with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella that we ate as if it were our last meal. We did plant all those seeds, and while I could show you a photo of the overflowing garden, I'd have to take one first, probably.

So, we'll see. In the meantime, here's Livvy June, our new puppy as of July 4, and Augie's new best buddy. And of all the changes over the last few months, she's campaigning for No. 1. Well-played, Livvy.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Planting seeds at 29 degrees

It's planting time, finally! This year, we bought seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve and save heirloom seeds. What is so neat about their catalogue is they include a short history of the seed type and in some cases, the family that originated the plant.

I also calculated the time for sowing seeds indoors using Dave's Garden, a website for tips and advice on gardening. The site also has a frost calculator that determines average frost dates by zip code. We planted these today, which gives us a six- to eight-week start on the season for our area.

I used a combination of peat moss and potting soil to fill up the containers. This year, we're using a combination of 3-in. and 4-in. pots left over from last year, as well as a seed starter set. We're hoping the larger pots will encourage more growth for the tomato plants.

Most of the seed packets recommended sowing in soil 1/4 in. deep, but the white sage called for surface sowing. I use a pencil to mark the soil for sowing.

I mark each pot and seeding area with a wooden plant stake, then water each one lightly. Hopefully in a few weeks, we will see the start of tomatoes, peppers and kale, along with some warmer temps outside!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Chocolate oat muffins

So far, I've made these muffins about four times in the past month. As a result, when I went to make chocolate chip cookies the other day, we were out of chocolate chips and flour. I was stunned. A house without chocolate chips?? How does this happen?

For starters, this recipe. Initially found on Half Baked Harvest, I tweaked ever so slightly it to what we had on hand, and added, well, more chocolate. Shocking.

Not only are they healthy(er) than your average muffin (lots of oats!), they are easy to eat any time of day and keep well.

I used dark brown sugar because I bought some for Christmas cookies, and still have some left.

Also, when I specify vanilla, it's usually not correct, because I just sort of pour. And I'm not sure what all the Earl Gray does for the recipe, but I think it adds something. Even so, I might try coffee next time. Food for thought.

I use a large scoop to portion the batter into the muffin papers evenly, and you'll want to fill it fairly high, as it doesn't rise a whole lot.

I keep whole bananas in the freezer in copious quantities. When they thaw, you can just remove the peel and use the rest without having to mash it up very much. So, if you're using just-beyond-the-pale bananas, be sure to mash the bejeezus out of them. Depending on your banana mushiness and milk ratio, this makes 16-18 muffins. Or more.

Chocolate oat muffins

All you need:

1 c. coconut or almond milk (I've used a combination of both)
3 Earl Gray teabags
2 T. canola oil
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
Pinch salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4-1/2 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 egg
3 bananas
6 oz. mini semisweet chocolate chips

All you need to do:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and line muffin tins with papers.

Heat the milk to a simmer, and steep the tea ten minutes. Then press the teabags agains the side before discarding, and stir. Let cool. Add 2 T. oil.

Mash bananas in small bowl, and add egg and vanilla. Set aside.

To a large bowl, add and whisk together all dry ingredients.

Pour milk mixture into bananas, and whisk well. Add wet ingredients to dry, and fold in. Add chocolate chips and mix to distribute.

Portion batter into muffin papers, and bake for 15 to 18 minutes. Mine sometimes take as long as 20 minutes.

Enjoy while rushing out the door in the morning, after a workout in the afternoon, or at night for dessert! Also, try to share with others. It will be difficult, I promise. :)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Seeds for the new year

It's seed time!! It snowed again today, so we are battling the dropping temps by ordering seeds.

So, we have seeds for beets, beans, kale (brave choice), peppers and tomatoes on the way. We had trouble with beets and leeks last year, so that will be a gamble, but the kale, you might remember, went gangbusters. Peppers and tomatoes will be rotated this year, so we will see... 

We have bags of soil at the ready...

And our seed containers are collected, so now it's just a matter of getting the seeds. It's a fun occupation for the new year, a time when everything seems possible ... even beets from seed. :)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Good ol' chicken strips: a healthier version

I make a lot of different things, but I sort of draw the line at frying, aside from corn shells for tacos. So, I prefer to bake things when possible. Such is the case with these chicken strips.

The keys to good oven-baked chicken strips are in the spices and application. Other than that, it's time.

We have these when we have appetizer nights, and usually serve them with ranch dressing.

All you need:

Two large boneless skinless chicken breasts
A large ziploc bag
1/2 t. cayenne pepper
1/2 t. garlic salt
1 t. kosher salt
1/2-1 t. black pepper
1/2 t. white pepper
paper towels
a sharp knife or kitchen shears
8 oz. low-fat buttermilk
1-2 cups Italian bread crumbs

All you need to do:

Dry chicken well with paper towels. Cut into 1 to 2-in. strips against the grain with a sharp knife or kitchen shears.

Place into ziploc bag. Add all spices and close bag. Shake to distribute spices evenly on chicken.

Add 8 oz. buttermilk, and refrigerate for at least an hour.

Heat oven to 400 degrees.

Take chicken out of fridge. Line a cookie sheet or two with parchment paper. Pour one cup of breadcrumbs into a shallow bowl.

Using a tongs, take a piece of chicken out of the bag. Dredge it into the crumbs, making sure all sides are covered well. Place onto parchment covered cookie sheet. Repeat with remaining pieces.

Bake for 26-28 min., making sure to rotate sheets half-way through. Let cool five minutes. Serve with ranch dressing.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The tiny counter gets a facelift

I don't even recognize my counter right now, and it's kind of awesome.

We have been cooking all sorts of things - stew, turkey, cookies. But the thing is, the counter has been getting a facelift, and as a result, everything was put on hold.

You might remember the old green countertop.

This fine color came with the house, and matched the fabulous ivy wallpaper, which we battled with and won.

At some point, I read what I'm sure was a well-intentioned tutorial on painting one's countertops with chalkboard paint. As our counter had no finish to speak of anyway.... you guessed it...

... I painted it. Oh, for a time machine.

At first, it looked all right. But then it started to chip. And no repainting could fix it. And no Christmas cookies could make it better.

Check out the scuffing in the right-hand corner there. Super attractive!

If I had it to do over again, I'd find an all-purpose primer, and use an epoxy for a topcoat. However, when I was considering redoing it, I looked into the materials and it was hard to ensure that all of them would be food-safe. After that, I was a little skeeved out, and proceeded to do all mixing, etc., with towels covering the counter. Not ideal.

Either way, the counter was going to have to to be replaced. The paint just hastened it by a bit. Luckily, the countertop is indeed tiny, making certain materials less costly as a result. Namely, granite.

To misquote Ferris, granite is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking it up. It is beauteous.

Here's a few things we learned about granite. One, because ours is dark, it's also very dense? Which apparently is good, because it's strong. It also came sealed, but if it doesn't, you have to seal it. You also have to use a granite cleaner or windex, and avoid all acidic cleansers. As a result, my homemade lavender vinegar cleaner has been relegated to the bathroom.

The countertop included a stainless undermount sink. It's hard to communicate the excitement I had when I learned this. I was without speech.

So, the counter included a sink, but did not include a backsplash, which I hadn't thought about, really, until it was installed. That began the process of looking at all types of tile for the backsplash. And I mean all. Here's a fun fact - most backsplashes either come in 3-in. or 5- to 6-in. heights, but not usually 4-plus inches. Then there's something called a pencil which is a super expensive backsplash tile border thing.

I decided to go with a mosaic, figuring it would fit most areas, without the need for a border, and I could cut it apart to fit the space. A lot of mosaic 12-in. square tiles on netting ran around $10 to $14 per square, which was a bit rich for my blood. I did find good deals at Menards, and they also had some super helpful people.

I used this tutorial from Amy Matthews on DIY Network to figure out how to put it together. That was really helpful, as she does a mosaic tile in the video. The total haul included the tile, a trowel, a rubber float, powdered unsanded grout, spacers and a sponge. We already had ceramic thinset at home. So, this is the tile, ungrouted.

Every time I see it, I feel like I'm in someone else's kitchen. It's like a magazine photo. I don't even know what to do with myself.

So, the next step is to grout, but I can't do that for a few days. Then I'll have to caulk the top and bottom, and seal the grout. So in about a week or so, we'll be done! 

I should mention that there was a ton of stuff on this countertop which went to live on the living room table while this was going on over Christmas. My goal is now to fit everything in the cabinets, rather than disturb the peaceful wonderland that is the counter. If the cabinets look fit for company afterwards, I will show them to you, because that will be yet another miracle.

Back soon with an update!