All posts by Laurie Graves

I write about nature, food, the environment, home, family, community, and people.

Thanksgiving is over—onward to Christmas

IMG_7065Thanksgiving is over, and thanks to the snowstorm, how hectic it was. No power for twelve hours and a foot of heavy snow to shovel and throw on Thanksgiving morning. As I mentioned in a previous post, thank goodness Shannon was hosting this year.  After clean up, Clif and I were ready for a nap. We, of course, resisted the impulse and headed to South Portland in a timely manner.

But, our two travelers—our daughter Dee and Mike’s sister, Liz—made it safely to Maine. The table was lovely, the food was tasty, and the three dogs were good. (Shannon wisely bought the dogs big crunchy bones, which they got just before dinner. Those bones pretty much kept the dogs occupied for the entire meal.)

Now on to Christmas. My shopping is almost done, which is the way I like it. I hate running around at the last minute, trying to think of gifts for my family. Much better to plan ahead of time. The season is more enjoyable, and it is also better for the budget.

That leaves decorating and menu planning. Although I have a collection of Santas that I always display, I like to decorate primarily with greens and other natural items. Yesterday, in the woods by our house, I collected winter berries and bittersweet for the outside pots. Today, the dog and I will head into the woods to collect pine branches. The weather isn’t supposed to be good tomorrow, but the branches will be stored in our little shed, and they, along with the bittersweet and winter berries, will keep until the weather allows me to use them. (I like arranging the pots outside.)

For inside, pine branches and cranberries in vases are simple and pretty. I’ll have to make more than one trip into the woods for the branches, and this will please the dog.

As for cooking…I am not one who enjoys making lists, but I find I must do so for my Christmas cooking. There’s just too much for me to keep it straight without a list. This weekend, I’ll be making apple crisp for a dinner we’ve been invited to, and some kind of special muffin for friends who are coming over on Sunday. Next weekend, different friends are coming over for cheddar cheese soup, a holiday favorite in our house.

Add ice cream pies, gingersnaps, thumb print cookies, pie dough knots, peanut butter balls, and perhaps some toffee bars to the list. And yeast bread and pumpkin bread to freeze ahead.

No wonder I need a list.

Snowy Thanks

IMG_7055On this day of gratitude, I am thankful that my daughter Dee made it safely to Maine; that thanks to the crew at CMP our power was only out for twelve hours; that we had Little Green to help clean-up; that I woke up to a sunny day with a deep blue sky; and finally, that I am not hosting Thanksgiving this year. Between losing the power and cleaning over a foot of snow, Clif and I were tired by 11:00 a.m.

However, I did find time to take pictures. The day was just so pretty I couldn’t resist.

Big green and little green
Big green and little green
The backyard
The backyard
Birds and snow
Birds and snow
Snow owl
Snow owl

Thanksgiving approaches and so does the storm

Early afternoon at the little house in the big woods.  It is snowing. The storm started, ever so slowly, when the dog and I were on our walk, and by the time we came home, Liam’s back was wet with snow.

As far as preparations go, everything is right on track. The green bean casserole, minus the butter-crumb topping, is ready. (The butter-crumb topping will be sprinkled on top just before the casserole goes in the oven.)

Green bean casserole, made with Farmer Kev's frozen beans
Green bean casserole, made with Farmer Kev’s frozen beans

The sweet potato casserole—complete with a brown sugar, butter, flour, and nut topping—is ready.


And so is the gravy, cold and solid now from having been in the refrigerator. But it will heat up to a lovely consistency, and how nice to have this piece of Thanksgiving done ahead of time.


To further add to Thanksgiving convenience, Shannon has borrowed an electric roaster, which she will use for the turkey, thus freeing the oven for the various casseroles and dishes that need to stay warm. I’m not sure it would be worthwhile to buy an electric roaster—most meals during the year don’t include so many different side dishes—but the roaster certainly makes life easier on Thanksgiving.

I have several more items on my to-do list: make homemade bread, vaccuum the house, and make peanut butter balls—Clif will help with these when he gets home. Have I planned too much? I usually do.

Finally, Dee was unable to change her travel plans. She anticipates no problems on the train from New York to Boston. The touchy part will be with the bus from Boston to Portland.  To hedge her bets, she’s booked a seat on the Downeaster, which for some crazy reason doesn’t offer any trains between 5:40 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. What’s up with that?

Now, if only Dee can make it safely to Maine.

Happy Thanksgiving to all, and I hope those who are traveling reach their destinations safely.


Just in Time for Thanksgiving—a Winter Storm

For now, all is calm at the little house in the big woods
For now, all is calm at the little house in the big woods

Ah, the holidays. Yesterday I was brooding about the sheared bottoms of my pumpkin bread. Today I am worrying about a winter storm forecasted for Wednesday, when our daughter Dee will be traveling from New York to Maine. Last night, the prediction for snow was three to five inches, enough to make the roads a little slippery, but not enough for Mainers to worry about. However, overnight the prediction changed, and I woke up to hear Lou McNally, on Maine Public Radio, warn that we might get a foot of snow. Just what a mother wants to hear when her daughter will be traveling up the East Coast.

Our family has gone over all sorts of contingency plans, from Dee leaving early on Wednesday, if her work allows, to having Thanksgiving later in the afternoon, which would be better for those of us who will have to clean our driveways and drive to Portland. What fun!

From now until late March, the weather in the Northeast will be unpredictable, and over the years this has remained constant, despite climate change. When I was young, there were plenty of storms and slippery roads between November and March. I should be used to this uncertainty, but I’m not. Somehow, I expect the weather to cooperate during the holidays. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. (Last year our holiday treat was a mini-ice storm that knocked out our power during Christmas.) The weather does what it will.

Right now, the weather is calm, and the backyard looks deceptively peaceful. In addition, it is so warm that I haven’t started a fire yet in our wood furnace, and I am perfectly comfortable without the heat.

But all that can change in a day, and the sky’s hazy look portends that something is brewing, that something is ready to blow up the East Coast.

Good luck to all travelers who will be out and about during this storm. I know I won’t rest easy until Dee is safe in Portland with her sister.


The Pumpkin Bread Debacle

Last week, I baked two of Farmer Kev’s pie pumpkins, which made the richest, sweetest mash that I have ever tasted. Part of the mash went into a soup—thanks, Beth Clark, for the recipe—and the rest was saved for pumpkin bread.

The pumpkin bread unexpectedly turned out to be quite a project.  I started last Friday, with everything at the ready and just enough sugar for the bread. (You can be sure sugar was on my grocery list.) I creamed the shortening and sugar, and as I cracked the first egg into the mixture, I noticed that the yolk was gelatinous, sticking to the shell.

“Oh, oh,” I muttered, sniffing the shell.

Sure enough, there was a slightly sour smell, and I saw a pin-prick hole at one end of the shell.

I surveyed the sugar, shortening, and bad egg, and for one crazy moment, I considered scooping the egg out of the mixture. Right. Eggs—even a bad one—ooze into everything, making it impossible to scoop them out entirely. I would have to get rid of the whole mess, which I did by throwing it into the woods. (Last time I looked, the creamed mixture was still there. No animal has wanted to touch it. Clever creatures!)

There was not enough sugar for another batch of pumpkin bread, which meant there was nothing that could be done until the next day, when I would buy more sugar.

This I did, thus beginning batch two on Saturday afternoon. You can be sure that this time each egg—the recipe calls for four—was cracked into a little bowl so that I could sniff and examine it before dumping into it the creamed mixture. Naturally, all the eggs were good, and the batter went together without a hitch.

Next there were the bread pans to consider. Last year, the pumpkin bread stuck to the pans, but I’ve been making yeast bread with those same pans, and there is never a problem. I figured last year I hadn’t done a good enough job greasing the pans, and for this batch of pumpkin bread, I spent extra time greasing the pans.

Unfortunately, the pumpkin bread again stuck to the pans—both loaves did this—shearing off the bottom of each loaf of bread. The loaves look a little clipped, but they are edible. (Clif and I ate the parts stuck to the pan.)

“Once the loaves are sliced no one will notice,” Clif said.

True enough. But how irritating, especially after the rotten egg incident.

“I think the nonstick surface of the bread pans has worn out,” Clif said. “And yeast bread dough is not as sticky as pumpkin bread.”

Clif is probably right. “We should buy some new pans,” he added.

Not so fast. I don’t like getting rid of things wily-nilly, and I’m going to give those pans one more try when I make pumpkin bread for Christmas. I’ll line them with either parchment paper or waxed paper. (I remember my mother lining pans with waxed paper.) If that doesn’t work, then out with those pans.

Now, onward to the gravy. Yesterday, I cooked the chicken legs and made the stock, which is very tasty indeed. Today, I’ll thicken it with flour and butter, and pop the gravy into the freezer.

Out the gravy will come on Thursday morning, ready for the big meal in the afternoon. And I’ll be sure to cut the pumpkin bread in small slices so that nobody will notice the sheared bottoms.




Flying Geese, Hard Lives, and Libraries

Blue sky, no geese
Blue sky, no geese

Yesterday, as I went into the backyard, I heard the unmistakable sound of geese calling as they flew. I looked up, hoping I would catch a glimpse of them—sometimes they fly off to one side where you can hear but not see them. Luck was with me. In two broad V formations, they flew right over the little house in the big woods. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. My camera is so small and simple that it wouldn’t have caught the geese.

I stood watching their dark silhouettes against the deep blue sky, and they flew low enough so that I could see the beating of their wings. Seeing them fly, hearing their call, and thinking of their long, perilous journey brought tears to my eyes, as it always does.

“Bon chance and bon voyage,” I called to them. I thought of how hard and dangerous life was for geese. I wondered, are they ever afraid? Do they dwell on their hard lives, the way we humans dwell on our own?  Or, flapping those strong wings, do the geese just push on,  guided by some mysterious instinct we can only dimly grasp? As we don’t speak or understand the language of geese, we can’t know, but perhaps someday we will.

The theme of a hard life threaded itself through my day. Later in the afternoon, two men came with a big truck and hose and pumped out our septic tank. The driver was a large, cheerful man and good for him because what a hard way to make living, removing excrement and waste from people’s yards. True, he has machines to help him, but he has to stand there and watch and smell. (I sure hope his sense of smell is muted.) Jobs such as this are often looked down on, but what would happen if the workers suddenly decided they had had enough of cleaning septic systems? Society would be thrown into a panic as everyone belatedly realized how vital these workers were to our well being.

That evening, I went to a library expansion meeting where I heard what we have come to call a “solicitation story.” A campaign member told of a recent conversation she had had with a man who has given a generous donation to the library. This man  lives out of town but was raised in Winthrop. He told the campaign member that when he was young, had it not been for Bailey Library,  he never would have read as much as he did. This was at a time when kids in high school  were put either on a college track or on a vocational track, and because his family was poor, he was not put on a college track. (This happened to my father, too.) Nevertheless, this man read and read and eventually went to college, got his PhD, and became a professor. (I want to make it clear that I think a vocational track is just fine. We need skilled workers who do practical things. But the choice should be based on temperament and interest, not income.)

Would he have done this without Bailey Library? Perhaps, but I’ve no doubt that the library gave him an important intellectual boost when he really needed it.

Life can be hard, for people as well as geese, and the older I get, the more convinced I am that libraries, large or small, can make life a little less hard.

Thank You, Farmer Kev

Frozen vegetables and a Farmer's Cookbook
Frozen vegetables and a Farmer’s Cookbook

Thanksgiving might not be here yet, but yesterday felt like Christmas at the little house in the big woods. Our own Farmer Kev has started a winter CSA (community supported agriculture) program, and we received our first delivery yesterday. Oh, the vegetables Farmer Kev brought—garlic; micro-greens and arugula; bean sprouts; romaine lettuce;  broccoli; squash; potatoes; frozen green beans as well as other frozen vegetables. He even included a Farmer Kev cookbook.

Such an abundance, and all grown in the Winthrop area, only miles from where I live. And, to top it off, Farmer Kev delivers.

Last night, Clif and I had fresh salads made with Farmer Kev’s greens. There was such a variety of greens that aside from the bean sprouts and some sunflower seeds, no other ingredients were needed.

I’m going to be honest—Clif and I had to scrape to come up with the money for the winter CSA, but yesterday’s delivery confirmed that this was money well spent. Not only are we getting vegetables that are fresh, fresh, fresh, but we are getting them close-by from a region not plagued by drought.

Best of all, perhaps, is that we are supporting a hard-working young farmer who is trying to make a go of it. Farming is not an easy way to make a living, and the high price of land makes it especially difficult for young farmers. With climate change bringing many, many challenges to this country, to this world, Maine needs a lot more farmers like Kevin.  In the years ahead, they might be instrumental in feeding the state.

Farms and farmers don’t spring up over night. They take years to develop, and along the way, those farmers need our support. Our own contribution may be small, but Clif and I are doing what we can to help local farmers.

This Thanksgiving my gratitude goes to Farmer Kev, to his parents,  and to everyone else who has picked, weeded, cleaned, and frozen.

Fresh lettuce and other veggies
Fresh lettuce and other veggies