What a Difference a Week Makes

Last weekend, when we celebrated Shannon’s birthday, the backyard was muddy, and the outside faucet  was blocked by a small bank of snow. The driveway and yard were a mess of twigs, branches, and the last of the leaves that had come down after the fall raking had been done. I blush to admit that the front porch still had Christmas greenery in pots. To top it all off, the edge of the front yard had enough sand for a small beach. It was a hard winter, and the road crew frequently sanded the slippery roads.

Last Sunday, Clif and I tucked to. We cleaned out our little shed. I swept the driveway and chucked the Christmas greenery into the woods. It was a good start, and even though the front lawn was still a sight to behold, the yard already looked better.

Over the course of the week, I raked the front yard, and Clif worked on the sand at the edge of the lawn.

The newly-raked front yard
The newly-raked front yard

The last of the snow melted, and Clif turned on the outside faucet, which made my life ever so much easier. I have noted many times that our dog Liam, even at ten, is a very energetic dog. One of the things he especially loves to do is run around the backyard. You might even say he was born to run. He is, after all, a Sheltie. When the yard is dry, his running causes no problems. However, when the yard is muddy, his paws and legs become a mucky mess, and without the use of a hose, we have to resort what we call “bucketing the dog.”

We lug a bucket of warm water down cellar, and first dip his front paws and then his back paws into the bucket. Liam, to put it mildly, does not enjoy this process, and by the time we are done there is water everywhere, but his paws are significantly cleaner.

When the outside faucet is on, we can dispense with the bucketing. Liam doesn’t enjoy being hosed down any more than he enjoys being bucketed, but the process is easier and quicker—no heavy bucket to lug, no water on the cellar floor.

No more bucketing
No more bucketing

To add to our pleasure and the dog’s cleanliness, the mud, like the snow is nearly gone. A quick rinse of the the dog’s paws is all it takes to make him clean enough to come inside.

Yesterday, I raked nearly a third of the backyard, and unless there is a heavy rain, I will be out this afternoon to do some more raking. In a few days, all the raking will be done, and it will be time to remove leaves from the beds in the front yard.

A busy time of year, but a rewarding time, too, as we get the yard ready for summer and grilling and nights on the patio. I’m pleased as punch over the progress that has been made at the little house in the big woods.

And I am constantly amazed by what a difference a week makes.

Little Miss surveying the progress that has been made in the backyard
Little Miss surveying the progress that has been made in the backyard

Beyond Meat: A New Meatless Product

IMG_8365About a year ago, for environmental reasons, Clif and I decided to stop eating beef and pork. In addition, we don’t eat much fish or seafood—even though we love it—because we have come to believe that there is no way the oceans can sustainably feed so many people on this planet. (For more on this, watch Mission Blue, the terrific documentary about the oceanographer Sylvia Earle.) We do eat some chicken, often organic but at the very least antibiotic free.

We also eat some dairy and eggs, but mostly what we eat are plants, many of which are grown by our own Farmer Kev. Because I have long been interested in a plant-based diet, I have a repertoire of vegetarian dishes, some that I’ve developed on my own and some that come from other sources, including the inimitable Mark Bittman and his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. (America‘s Test Kitchen, the polar opposite of Mark Bittman but excellent in its own way, has recently come out with The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook. I don’t have it, but this book is on my wish list.)

Most of the time Clif and I are more than happy with our plant-based diet. He could eat my vegetarian fried rice once a week, and my bean burgers, based on a Mark Bittman recipe, are pretty darned good if I do say so myself. Nevertheless, at times we do miss the texture and taste that ground beef brings to such dishes as chili, spaghetti sauce, or tacos. We could certainly use ground turkey or chicken, but we don’t want to eat too much poultry, either. Besides, nothing can really compare with the umami of ground beef.

We’ve tried texturized vegetable protein (TVP), and it’s about as appealing as the name suggests. TVP has a blah flavor, and it brings nothing but, well, texture to chili and spaghetti sauce. We scratched that one from our list long ago.

More promising have been MorningStar Farms crumbles. While they don’t have the smooth and mellow taste of ground beef, these crumbles aren’t as tasteless as TVP. They are fairly expensive, and for those who live on a modest budget, the crumbles would have to be a once in a while kind of thing. Unless, of course, you can find coupons for them.

Not long ago, I learned about other meatless meat products made by a company called Beyond Meat. On a recent show, Tom Ashbrook, of On Point radio, featured Ethan Brown, the CEO and founder of Beyond Meat, which manufactures fake chicken and beef  made from pea protein and soy.  While doing the show, Tom Ashbrook munched on one of Beyond Meat’s burgers, and he indicated that he liked it pretty well.

Naturally, Clif and I were curious about Beyond Meat, and we were eager to try it, too. We had a coupon for the product and a very good thing as Beyond Meat is not cheap—an 11 ounce package costs $4.99 at Target. Therefore, with coupon in hand, Clif duly picked up a package of Beefy Crumble, and last night I used it with a jar of spaghetti sauce.

The results? So-so as far as I was concerned, and I thought the MorningStar Farms crumbles had a better flavor. While the Beefy Crumble wasn’t as bland as the TVP, it was certainly bland enough. The texture was good—I’ll give it that—and the Beefy Crumble had a satisfying chew. But other than that, it didn’t bring much to the sauce, and I would rather have mushrooms, peppers, and zucchini to add taste and texture. Clif understood my point of view, but, to him, the pleasing texture more than compensated for the bland taste, which he said he liked.

What next? As long as I have some coupons, which I do, I would be willing to try some of Beyond Meat’s other products—the chicken, the meatballs, maybe even the Feisty Crumble. However, after eating the Beefy Crumble, my expectations are not high.

In the end, I expect Clif and I will stick with our simple homemade meals made directly from vegetables.

 

Song Birds, Loons, and Hawks and the Struggle for Life

IMG_8352The longueurs of winter are over, and every nice day is a race against time—raking the lawn, removing leaves from the gardens, putting compost, ashes, and organic fertilizer on the beds, planting. The list is long, and the window of opportunity is short. By the beginning of June, everything that must be done should be done.

Rain is also a complicating factor. Yes, it is necessary, and, yes, it gives the tired gardener a much-needed day of rest. But too many rainy days in a row interfere with outside work, and this time of year, I scan the skies as anxiously as a sailor. Will I be able to work outside today? Even more important, will I be able to hang laundry on the line? Oh, the daily dilemmas at the little house in the big woods.

This morning, the weather forecast on the radio was not good, but when I lifted the shade to peek out the window, the sun was shining, and the sky was blue. A load of towels immediately went into the machine, and as soon as I am done writing this post, they will go on the line. If worse comes to worst, and it starts to rain, then I can whisk in the towels and put them on racks. (We don’t have a dryer.)

I am hoping to have lunch on the patio, as I did yesterday. With the birds fluttering from the trees to the feeders and the sun warm on my face, what a splendid way to celebrate Earth Day. I thought I heard a loon calling—we only live a quarter of a mile from the Narrows—but I could be wrong about that. As of two days ago, there was still ice on the Narrows, and the loons might not be back yet. Still, they will be soon, and their haunting calls will echo from the Narrows, especially at night, as Clif and I sit on the patio.

As I ate, I heard shrill calls overhead, and this time there was no doubt about what I had heard. Two hawks circled just over the tree tops, and I watched them as they flew over the yard. Suddenly, the fluttering in the woods stopped. No birds called or came to the feeders. The only sounds were the calls of the hawks. After a few minutes, the hawks flew away, and the woods were still for a few minutes longer.

Then, the chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, and gold finches all came back, and the yard was again filled with their songs and fluttering. I like to joke about how not much happens at the little house in the big woods, but daily, right outside, is the struggle for survival—for those that hunt and for those that are hunted. There is courtship—several days ago I saw two mourning doves dancing around each other—and new life as spring babies are born.

In fact, a lot goes on at the little house in the big woods. Some of it I see, but I know I miss a lot, too. However, I look and notice as much as I can, with my little camera at the ready and my notebook within easy reach.

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A Birthday Weekend with Shannon, in which We Had Fish Tacos and the First Grilled Bread of the Season

Shannon on the patio at the little house in the big woods
Shannon, the birthday girl, on the patio at the little house in the big woods

Last weekend was what might called a very Shannon weekend. Her birthday is April 22—Earth Day—and as is the tradition in our family, we had a little party where we cooked what the birthday girl wanted. In this case, fish tacos, which Clif and I had never made.

Awhile back, I went to Mary Jane’s house for lunch, and she served fish tacos that were utterly delectable. I wrote about it for this blog, and Shannon read the post.

“Fish tacos!” she told me. “I love fish tacos.”

“Would you like them for your birthday?” I asked. “I bet Mary Jane would give me the recipe.”

Shannon said yes to the tacos, and Mary Jane did indeed agree to give me the recipe. Or rather talk me through it.

“I used tilapia,” she said. “But catfish would be fine, too.” Good. Unlike most fish, both tilapia and catfish are sustainable fish that we don’t have to feel guilty about eating. “All you do is cut the fish in strips, dip the strips in beaten eggs, roll them in crushed cornflakes, and pan fry them. You’ll have to do it in batches and keep the fish warm in the oven on a low heat.”

Not too hard. But what about the delicious chipotle mayonnaise Mary Jane served with the tacos? “Buy a can of chipotle chilis in adobo sauce. Cut up a few of the chilis, removing most of the seeds. Add them to some mayonnaise along with a little of the adobo sauce.”

Easy enough.

“Cole slaw is also good with the tacos,” Mary Jane added. “And so is salsa verde. And sliced limes.”

With these directions I felt more than confidant that Clif and I could make good fish tacos for Shannon’s birthday. As Mike doesn’t care for fish, we would make chicken strips as well, using egg and cornflakes and pan frying them the same way we would for the fish.

I am someone who likes to plan and have things ready ahead of time—last minute rushing leaves me flustered and prone to making mistakes. The fish tacos were not difficult to make, but there was a certain amount of prep work that needed to be done: cutting the fish and chicken, crushing the corn flakes, slicing the limes, and and making the chipotle mayonnaise.

Fortunately, Clif and I work well together in the kitchen, and we had everything ready before Shannon, Mike, and the dogs—Holly and Samara—arrived for the afternoon.  The day was nice enough so that we could have appetizers on the patio. It was so fine that we could have the first grilled bread of the season, and Clif grilled the dough to perfection. (As I’ve written many times, Clif’s grilled bread is legendary among family and friends.)

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After appetizers, it was time for fish tacos. Mike and Shannon sat in the dining room where they could still talk to us. Clif used the big electric frying pan for the chicken, and I used the cast iron for the fish. Everything went just the way it should, and how gratifying it is when that happens. I also cooked some rice to go with the tacos.

A plate of pan-fried tilapia
A plate of pan-fried tilapia

Both the fish and the chicken were pretty darned good, as Clif put it, and we all agreed that this was a make-again meal. In fact, you might even say that Mary Jane started a tradition for us.

Thank you Mary Jane, and happy birthday Shannon!

A fish taco, ready to be eaten
A fish taco, ready to be eaten

 

 

 

A Gray Spring Day: Perfect for a Tomato Soup with Farmer Kev’s Vegetables

IMG_8281Today is a gray day, but I am not sorry for the misty weather because truth be told, I am a little achy from the sudden burst of outdoor activity. Over the past few days I have been sweeping, removing leaves from flower beds, picking up sticks from the backyard, and hauling outside furniture up from the cellar.

Even though I regularly ride the exercise bike and take the dog for a walk almost every day, my body was, ahem, unprepared for all the outside work. So a day of rest is a good thing. When the next nice day comes, I’ll be ready for more outside work, which I really do enjoy. It’s funny how working in the garden is so much more satisfying than, say, dusting or vacuuming. I suppose it’s because I’m outside, with the sun on my face and the birds fluttering and singing in the trees overhead.

On this cool day, homemade tomato soup is on the menu for supper tonight. I made the soup on Monday, and we’ll be eating the last of it this evening. In fact, we’ve pretty much been eating it all week, but it’s such a good soup that Clif and I haven’t minded the repetition one bit.

Basically, as is the case with so many of my soups, this tomato soup is a variation on a theme, and I’ve made many a minestrone following this template: tomatoes, water, onion, garlic, vegetables, chicken sausage, chickpeas or white beans, spices, and some kind of pasta added to the bottom of each bowl before the soup is ladled on top. (Pasta added directly to the soup tends to swell and swell until it becomes truly alarming.)

However, this time when making the soup, I did something a little different. In my pantry, I had a can of crushed tomatoes with basil—Muir Glenn, a little more expensive but worth it. I also had a can of Muir Glenn diced tomatoes. I often buy fresh basil for my minestrone soup, and I thought, why not try the crushed tomatoes with basil? Somehow, I had never done this before. I’d always just used diced tomatoes.

After tasting the finished soup, I wondered why in the world I hadn’t used the crushed tomatoes sooner. This definitely comes under the category of an old dog learning a new trick. Not only did the basil give the soup a lovely taste, but the crushed tomatoes also gave it a smooth, rich texture. (The diced tomatoes are important, too. They add a satisfying chunk to the soup.)

For vegetables, I used Farmer Kev’s frozen string beans and yellow squash, perfect for this kind of soup and for many other kinds, too. I had two cups of chickpeas in the freezer, so out those came to thaw and go into the soup.

This type of soup is perfect for the slow cooker. Basically, just chop, add, and stir everything in. Bring the ingredients to a simmer, and let them bubble until the flavors have mingled.

Biscuits are always a nice addition to soup. They are quick and easy to put together, and I plan on making some tonight, using a recipe of my mother’s. (Oh, she was quite the biscuit maker.)

As we Mainers might say, biscuits and soup on a cool, rainy spring night make the finest kind of meal.

 

Smooth and Chunky Tomato Soup

(Note: This makes a lot of soup—10 or 12 generous servings. My large slow cooker was filled to the brim. To make a smaller batch, use small cans of tomatoes and cut back accordingly on the other ingredients.)

1 (28) ounce can of diced tomatoes
1 (28) ounce can of crushed tomatoes with basil
42 ounces of water. (I used the empty cans—1 1/2 cans of water.)
4 cloves of minced garlic
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup of summer squash, chopped
1 cup of string beans, chopped
1 (12) ounce package of chicken sausage, cut in rounds and then cut in half
2 cups of chickpeas (White beans would work well, too.)
1 teaspoon of dried oregano
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon of red pepper flakes (or more, to taste)
Salt, to taste

Put all the ingredients into your slow cooker, and let ‘er simmer until your house is fragrant with the smell of tomatoes and spices. On high, the soup will take about four hours. On low, seven or eight hours. Cook some pasta, if you like, to go in the bottom of each bowl and then ladle some soup over the pasta.

 

 

Patio Update: In Which Laurie Impatiently Waits for that Last Patch of Snow to Melt

In yesterday’s post, I wrote about how like magic the snow was melting from the yard at the little house in the big woods. I also told of how Clif and I each had made a prediction about when the patio would be snow free. He said Friday, April 17, and I said Wednesday, April 15. As it turned out, we were both wrong.

Late yesterday afternoon—Wednesday, April 15—as I was sweeping the patio, there was just a bit of snow, but the sun was behind the trees, and I knew that the melting was pretty much done for the day.

April 15, still a little bit of snow
April 15, still a little bit of snow on the patio

Did I want to take my broom and get rid of the last of that pesky snow so that my prediction would be right? You bet I did. I even grazed the clump of snow with my broom. It would have been so easy to push it over the edge of the patio, and I itched to do so. Clif would have been none the wiser. Indeed, he expected the snow to be gone when he came home from work.

But I didn’t. Somehow, even though nothing was really at stake—we had made predictions, not a bet—it didn’t seem fair to brush the snow away. Besides, I doubt I could have kept a straight face when Clif spotted the bare patio.

Today, then—Thursday, April 16—became a waiting game with the snow. At 10:45 a.m., there was just a smidge of snow.

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At noon, there was still a little spot. That stubborn snow! But I figured I might as well have my lunch and check when I was done.

Just as flowers unfurl when you’re not looking, so did this snow melt while I was at my desk. When I got up to check on the patio—at 12:55 p.m.—the snow was gone. There was only a wet spot where the snow had been.

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Soon, I will be having lunch on the patio. Soon, Clif will be making his legendary grilled bread for family and friends. Soon, we will spend evenings on the patio and listen to the night sounds, the loons and the owls.

Oh, the goings on at the little house in the big woods.

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