Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Then & Now

Just for fun, let's look at the difference between Bert's first week at home, and life after week 30.

Week One...

Week Thirty+...

Quite a difference, huh?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Stewing Over It

Keith has never been a big fan of soup, but I think I've managed to convert him over the course of this winter. The trick is to tend towards stews, the heartier the better, for my meat-and-potatoes man. And if it goes in the crock pot, all the better for me. That's why this recipe was an all-around winner.

White Bean and Kielbasa Stew
Real Simple

1 pound dried white beans (such as Northern or navy)
14 ounces kielbasa, halved lengthwise and sliced 1/2-inch thick
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes (I used a jar of our chunky tomato sauce)
1 large onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon dried rosemary (I used a few sprigs of fresh rosemary)
5 ounces baby spinach (6 cups)

In a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker, combine the beans, kielbasa, broth, tomatoes (and their juices), onion, garlic, rosemary, and 1 cup water.

Cover and cook until the beans are tender, on low 7 to 8 hours or on high for 5 to 6 hours.

Just before serving, stir in the spinach. Serve with bread.

This recipe, besides being delicious, did a couple things for us: made use of our chicken stock, used up some of the spinach we froze raw, and prompted me to give the rosemary a little trim. Our rosemary plant came from my Grammy when we were still renting a townhouse and just had a few plants on the patio out back. It moved with us and in the spring, is transferred to our herb tub outside and then every fall before things freeze, put in a pot to spend the winter on top of the dryer in our sunny laundry room. It seems to thrive anywhere, which is a relief since most of my houseplants get a little scraggly. And that little pot of oregano on the right lives despite having dried up several times in the summer sun. Hearty herbs, I guess.

Funny and Fast

Why My Third Husband Will Be a Dog
The Amazing Adventures of an Ordinary Woman
by Lisa Scottoline

Having been the recipient of several of Lisa Scottoline's columns, clipped from The Philadelphia Inquirer and mailed to me by my Mom-mom, I figured that it was a safe bet that I would enjoy this collection of her columns. I was right on the money. Her witty observations and fast delivery made this a quick and fun read. She reminds me of Seinfeld, only based in the suburbs, Italian, and with estrogen. And she talks about her estrogen quite a bit. Scottoline is funny and frank, often mining her family, friends, and pets for humor and not above trawling her own quirks for material. I have never read any of her novels, but I think I might check them out just to see if she brings the same off-the-cuff humor and heartfelt prose to fiction as she uses to recount her life.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Hearty Tart

Once again, a visit from my mom spurred me on to try a new recipe. Verdict? It's a keeper. And I think it could be pretty versatile, adding some vegetables when they are in season or scrambled eggs to breakfastize it.

Potato, Cheese, and Onion Tart
Cook's Country

2 (9 1/2 x 9-inch) sheets puff pastry, thawed overnight in refrigerator (or in a couple hours on the counter if you have only skimmed over the recipe like me) 
1 1/2 cups shredded Gruyére cheese
4 cups frozen shredded hash brown potatoes, thawed
6 slices bacon, chopped
3 shallots (I used 1 1/2 small white onions)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon (I didn't have it so I skipped it)

1. Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 450 degrees. Line large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Place puff pastry on prepared baking sheet and press sheets together at short ends. Brush perimeter with water and fold over to create 3/4-inch border. Poke interior with fork and make shallow horizontal cuts around outer perimeter. Top with 1 cup cheese and bake until golden, about 15 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, pat the potatoes dry with paper towels. Cook bacon in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat from pan. Add shallots and cook until softened, about 1 minutes. Stir in potatoes, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Chop bacon and stir into potatoes.

3. Combine sour cream and tarragon in small bowl. Top prebaked pastry with potato mixture. Cover with remaining cheese and dollops of sour cream mixture. Bake until cheese is melted, about 5 minutes. Serve.

I say I cooked for my mom, but she came into the kitchen and asked, "What can I do?" and since I hate cooking bacon, she pretty much took care of step 2. Which means yes, she did the bulk of the cooking on this one.

I have two very minor complaints about this recipe: 1) they called it a potato, cheese, and onion tart and then listed shallots which I know are similar to onions but why not just say shallot tart? and 2) they labeled it as a "30-Minute Supper" which is misleading when the ingredients require thawing, and 30 minutes would be optimistic even when everything is thawed and ready to go. But it tasted good, so I'll let all that slide.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Where's da Beef, Mon?

Since my parents raise beef cattle, we are always well-stocked with beef. We tend to use a lot of ground beef for all the typical things like hamburgers, meatloaf, meatballs, and chili. That's why I was excited to find this recipe using ground beef with some flavors that don't get on our plates very often.

Jamaican Beef Patties
(I think this came from Good Housekeeping or Better Homes & Gardens but I'm not sure.)

2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 teaspoons curry powder
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup low-sodium beef broth
1/2 cup dry bread crumbs
2 packages (8 ounces each) crescent dough sheets
1 large egg, lightly beaten

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add curry powder; cook 1 minute. Stir in ground beef, thyme, allspice, salt, and pepper. Cook 5 minutes, breaking meat apart with a wooden spoon. Stir in broth and bread crumbs; cook 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

2. Unroll crescent dough. Cut each piece crosswise into 3 (8 x 4-inch) pieces, for a total of 6. Roll each piece out slightly. Place 1/2 cup filling on on half of the piece. Fold dough over to enclose filling. Press edges to seal, using a fork. Transfer to a large baking sheet and brush with a little of the egg. Repeat with all the pieces of dough.

3. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes or until golden. Serve warm.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Seeing the Forest, and the Trees

Last Child in the Woods
Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder
by Richard Louv

I know, I know. I said I enjoy reading fiction more than non-fiction. But every once in awhile, a non-fiction, fact-loaded book blows me away. Last Child in the Woods did that. I was constantly dog-earing pages so I could read passages aloud to Keith when he got home. The subtitle, Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, goes a long way in explaining what this one is about. The author, Richard Louv, coined the term nature-deficit disorder for this book, not as a medical diagnoses, but as a way of identifying  the consequences of children's disconnect from nature. Louv meticulously details the profound effects of time spent in nature on the mental, physical, emotional, and even spiritual, health of children. He not only documents what we have lost by disconnecting from nature, but why we have lost it: stranger-danger fears, the regulations of new developments, over-scheduled childhoods, lack of natural history in public education, and indoor air-conditioning, among other things. There is hope, though, according to Louv, in the the way environmental groups and churches are re-engaging children to be stewards of the earth, in the creation of "pocket parks" in vacant urban areas, and a renewed interest in the back-to-the-land movement.

It is hard to sum up a book like this, packed with research and anecdotes that powerfully present what feels, to me, to be an essential truth: kids need nature. Most of you know I grew up on a farm. I know we played inside, I know we watched movies, and I definitely know I read books. I won't exaggerate and tell you that my brother Travis and I spent every available moment outside. But we spent a huge amount of our childhood, and adolescence, outdoors. We were incredibly fortunate to live on a hundred-plus acre farm, with woods, creeks, fields, and animals. Our cousins were nearby, and we spent hours traipsing around the woods between our houses in the summer and sledding in the winter. We were enthusiastic, if ineffective, builders of dams. We never tired of following the creek up through the hollow to the spring where it started, in a tangle of roots from a giant tree. It was dark back there and my dad had me convinced there was an alligator living there, but it didn't stop us from playing. I remember hauling ropes and boards up to a towering pine tree to build a fort. Travis was the tree climber; I don't think I ever made it more than about eight feet off the ground. This particular building adventure sticks in my mind because we were older then, probably in middle school. We were often stuck doing farm work together, so by that age, we spent most of our free time apart. But for whatever reason, that summer we would head up to the tree in the late afternoons or evenings, building and dragging branches around, Travis up in the tree with a rope, me below tying things onto it for him to haul up. The rope still hangs in that tree, and our dog Buck is buried beneath it.

Louv mentions in his book that those of us who grew up with direct, everyday access to nature tend to romanticize it, idealize it. That's probably true. I know that our time spent outside wasn't all play. We griped about making hay and fixing fences. We moaned about carrying water for the cows on ice-cold mornings. I'm sure my complaints about weeding the garden seemed endless to my mom and my dad probably wondered if I would ever learn to stack a woodpile so it wouldn't fall. Chopping thistles in the cow pastures seemed like some kind of torture. Now the farm has automatic frost-free waterers and high-tensile fences that the deer can't knock down. But it all built character, just like my dad said it would. We always knew where our food came from, and how our house stayed warm. And now we shake our heads when we drive by pastures full of thistles.

Somehow, I don't think my brother or cousins or I realized what we had until we grew up and left the farm. When I went to college, it took me months to get used to the light from lampposts coming through the window all night. The constant noise of the dorms made me wish for the solitude of a rainy afternoon at the top of the hay mow, listening to the patter of rain on the metal roof.

More than anything, I want Bert to have those experiences. We talk about someday moving back closer to the farm, but until that can happen, we are trying to carve out a little bit of that life right here. The garden, the park across the street, and lots and lots of trips to the farm should awaken in him curiosity and adventure and give him the room to roam I was fortunate enough to grow up with. I wish for him clear nights, full of endless stars, and soft new calves and fresh, warm eggs. I wish toads and salamanders and dirty knees and bare feet. I can only hope that I am patient enough to cook him wild mustard when he pulls it and wants to try eating it, to clean scraped knees and elbows, and to explain why baby mice and birds in shoeboxes won't survive. To me, these things are the essence of childhood, and every child is entitled to that.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Swedish and Symbolic

Astrid and Veronika
by Linda Olsson

Astrid is a reclusive older woman, living alone and known by the people nearby as the village witch, and Veronika is in her thirties and rents a house next to Astrid's in a rural area of Sweden. Each woman is struggling with the losses, disappointments, and fears of her past but their friendship, hesitant at first and later open and revealing, brings them into a new awareness of themselves and the life yet ahead of them. Astrid left the village only once as a child while Veronika travelled the world as the daughter of a diplomat, but both grew up without their mothers and that becomes a central theme in the book, as they offer comfort to one another as a mother would. Olsson uses strong elements like water and the seasons to enhance the reader's understanding of the depth of the women's emotions and experiences.

I finished Astrid and Veronika a week or more ago, but since it was a book club selection, I decided to wait to write about it until we had met and discussed it. Reactions to the book were mixed, which seems to make for better discussion.  Nearly everyone felt that we wanted more answers and explanations. We all wanted to know more about some of the things Astrid revealed to Veronika, and were left with questions about Veronika's relationships. I thought it was beautifully written, with incredible detail in the description of setting and the characters behaviors, but I was left feeling like I wanted all the loose ends tied up. It had poignant, revealing moments and a lyrical quality to it, but my overall opinion was that it was a bit unsettling and unfinished.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Why Men Don’t Follow Directions

If you read our Water Works post, you know that I faced my fears by fixing our leaky bathtub faucet and learned to fix problems when they appear, not when they get worse. With that in mind, I decided to fix another, unrelated problem occurring with that very same shower faucet. The shower faucet was leaking during showers because the plunger that diverts water to the shower nozzle was broken. And, I’m not talking a few drops over the course of a shower here. Of all the water going to that faucet, half went to the shower nozzle and half went into the tub and directly down the drain. We were running out of hot water very quickly.

Once again, I turned to my DIY book and the internet. Everything I came across suggested that the entire faucet would need to be replaced. So, after picking up a new faucet at our local hardware store for $16 – and turning off the water - I got to work.

I began by unscrewing the old faucet from the extension pipe. That is, until I realized that the extension pipe was stuck fast to the faucet and I was actually unscrewing the entire thing from the main pipe in the wall. Oh well, no real way around that because I couldn’t get to the extension pipe until the faucet was removed anyway. I just had to put the extension pipe back in place later.

Side note: I couldn’t believe the difference in how the old and new faucets are made. The old one is completely metal and easily weighs four times as much as the new one. It was made to last and I would guess it is already at least 30 years old. The new faucet is mostly plastic and I can’t imagine it will last more than 10 years, if we’re lucky.

To separate the old faucet from the extension pipe, I had to grip the pipe in a vice. Once the old faucet was off, I was able to wrap pipe tape around the end of the extension pipe and connect it to the pipe in the wall. All I had to do now was put the new faucet onto the extension pipe and problem solved. Now, you should know that I am the type of man who actually reads and follows directions. However, I now have a clear understanding of why most men decide instructions are useless.

The instructions on the package of the new faucet said not to use pipe tape on the end of the pipe that connects to the faucet. I figured it was because the faucet was plastic and the extra pressure could break it. So, I simply screwed on the new faucet and hooked up the hose for the shower. After turning on the water to the house, I went into the bathroom and tested the new faucet by running water for several minutes. I checked for leaks both in the tub and in the wall behind the faucet; dry as bone. I caulked around the faucet and packed up the tools. Another successful repair - or so I thought. Honestly, I should know better by now that nothing is ever that easy.

Some time later, Tara decided to take a shower. Once she was finished, I took a shower as well. While I was in the shower, Tara went into the basement for something and noticed water dripping. Uh oh. Keep in mind, the shower is on the second floor.

Upon closer scrutiny, the water was running down the wall behind the shower and dripping into the basement. So, I shut the water off (again), dragged out all the tools (again) and started searching for the problem. It turns out that it was leaking from the connection between the pipe and the faucet. You know, the one where it said not to use pipe tape. Apparently, I didn’t notice the leak because it took some time for the wood in the wall to become saturated before it began dripping – I didn’t run water long enough while testing for that to happen. Fixing it meant taking off all the new caulk, unscrewing the faucet, wrapping pipe tape on the pipe (despite their highly accurate directions), putting the faucet back on and reapplying the caulk. Oh, and drying up the basement of course. Stupid directions.

The good news is that the faucet and shower work just fine and there are no leaks during showers. However, leaking between showers seems to be a problem (again). It would appear that my original repair (from the Water Works post) has failed. I have found the problem but that will have to wait for another post. Stay tuned…

Friday, February 10, 2012

Baby Talk

Hey everybody! Want to know what I'm up to these days? I can crawl all over the place and I am pulling myself up on things. On the bookshelves, the stairs, the couch, on Mom and Dad, on anything that stays put. I'm chasing the cat around a lot too. Yesterday I started clapping while sitting in the middle of a bunch of my books I pulled off the shelf. This morning I figured out there is a button that turns the tv off. I was tired of the news anyway, especially all the election stuff. It gets lonely in the middle of the night so I've been getting up and yelling until Mom comes and gets me. And then as long as she's around, I might as well get a snack, so I don't stop yelling until she feeds me. I don't think she minds. Just like she didn't mind my diaper this morning with poop almost to my shoulder blades. Major Poopy, reporting for doo-ty. That's me, every morning. I guess that's it from me. My new picture is up on the weekly photo page. Thanks for checking in!

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Snack Attack

I come from a long line of snackers. Does anybody on my mom's side of the family read or watch tv without something crunchy within arm's reach? Didn't think so.

One of the most addicting snacks for me is my grandpop's Chex mix. When we gather at his house for Thanxmas, I always pick a seat next to the Chex mix (if my brother doesn't get there first). This weekend, I made some to take to a gathering. Well, the gathering was an excuse to make a batch. I'm just glad to have it to munch on at home.

Chex Mix

Group 1:
1 box wheat Chex
16 oz. dry roasted peanuts
1 lb. garlic sesame sticks
1/2 lb. garlic bagel chips
1 lb. small pretzels (balls or alphabets work well)
1 can Chinese noodles

Group 2:
2 packages ranch dressing mix
1 tsp. seasoned salt
1 Tbsp. dill weed
1/2 tsp. lemon pepper seasoning
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 c. olive oil

Put items from Group 1 in large roaster and mix.

Mix dry seasonings (Group 2) in bowl, alternating adding and mixing. Add oil and Worcestershire to bowl; whisk together. Pour seasoning mix over ingredients in roaster, stirring and tossing. Place roaster in 200 degree oven for 15 minutes; stir and return to oven for 15 minutes longer. Spread mix on three large cookie sheets and return to oven for 30 minutes. (I left mine in the roaster for the whole hour, stirring it every 15 minutes and then several times as it cooled.) Allow to cool and store in air-tight containers.

Did I get all those directions right, Grandpop?

This recipe makes a lot, so be ready to get your snack on. I actually just ate a bowl of it while writing this post.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Can I Get a Hand Here?

Everybody could use a hand with chores around the house. Bert thought he was up to the task.

Check out all the socks and pjs he pulled out.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Winter Read

Winter Garden
by Kristin Hannah

I am a great fan of historical fiction, especially if it opens a window to a period of time I know little about. Winter Garden weaves together the story of a woman coming of age during the siege of Leningrad and the contemporary relationships of mothers, daughters, and sisters. Sisters Meredith and Nina know very little about their cold, distant mother and have resigned themselves to having only a semblance of a relationship with her. But just before their father passes away, he implores them to connect with their mother by getting her to finish telling them the fairy tales she started when they were children. Through these stories, Meredith and Nina discover a woman with a heartbreaking history who has spent a lifetime trying to atone for the mistakes she believes she made.

Kristin Hannah ties the two stories together seamlessly with the telling of the fairy tale. Sometimes when a book has two stories in one, I find myself skimming one part, eager to get back to the story I am enjoying more. With Winter Garden, I relished each woman's story and found transitioning from one to the other enjoyable, not choppy or forced in any way. The book was engaging and hard to put down, and I was awed by the circumstances and obstacles faced by the people of Leningrad during the siege and the things they endured. The contemporary story, dealing with marriages and relationships, was just as poignant and touching without slipping into cliches. I thought each part of the book served the other well, pulling the story along and allowing the reader to make connections between each character's past and the way she handled her present relationships.
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