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May Gallops

In Maine, May is a month when everything gallops. Each day brings some kind of change—the grass is a little greener, the plants in the flower gardens are a little taller, the red buds on the trees are now tinged with green. Every year I think, “Slow down, slow down you lovely month.” And I wonder why oh why March couldn’t speed ahead the way May does. While May rushes headlong, March drags its mucky yet icy heels. It’s funny how two months with the same number of days can feel so different.

In two days, the hyacinths have bloomed. The blossoms are not fully opened, but in another day or two, they will be.

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In two days, new green leaves have begun to emerge on the trees, displacing the delicate flowers that preceded them.

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In two days, I have cleared half the gardens out front, and if all goes well, they will be three-quarters cleared today.

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And in two days time, the black flies have emerged. There is something in my body chemistry that draws them, and they swarm in a black cloud around my head. Any bit of exposed skin is fair game for those little bighters, and at times I resort to wearing a cap sprayed with insect repellent.

The black flies will be gone by June, and good riddance to them. Unlike the flowers on the trees, I don’t wish the black flies to stick around one day longer than they do.

It is good to have some things gallop by.

Sunday with the Birds

Beth's delectable blueberry cake
Beth’s delectable blueberry cake

Yesterday, Clif and I had the most delightful Sunday we’ve had in a very long time. Our friends Beth and John came over for brunch, and they brought their little dog Bernie with them. Clif made waffles, cooked fresh at the dining room table and then passed around on a plate. I had made a blueberry sauce and an apple sauce to go with the waffles, and there was, of course, real maple syrup. We also had homefries and scrambled eggs with smoked cheddar—from Pineland Farms.

Good as the brunch was—Clif’s waffles are pretty darned tasty—the best part came afterwards, when we had coffee, tea, and Beth’s delectable blueberry cake on the patio. The day was sunny and warm but not too hot. There were a few bugs but not enough to be a problem.

For several hours, we sat with the sun warm on our faces. We drank coffee and tea and ate cake. We talked about retirement—Beth is retired and John and Clif will be retiring soon—politics, and how hopeful we are that the millennial generation will continue with the course they have started. Although there are always exceptions, by and large this generation is tolerant, liberal, and concerned about the environment.  Many of them have eschewed the excessive consumerism that has characterized this country and are living a modest but comfortable and creative lifestyle. They are gardening in the cities and the suburbs. They are riding their bikes. They are building tiny houses. Kudos, kudos to them.

We are surrounded by trees—I don’t call our home the little house in the big woods for nothing—and this is perfect for the birds, who have secure places to perch as they fly back and forth to the bird feeders. The birds must have been particularly hungry yesterday afternoon because as we sat at the patio, we were treated to the visual delight of fluttering birds as they came to the feeders. We had the usual suspects: chickadees, nuthatches, tufted titmice, woodpeckers, and gold finches.

A goldfinch casing the yard
A goldfinch casing the yard

 

Little chicadees
Little chickadees

We also had a pair of cardinals—the first ever who have decided to take up residence in the woods by our house. It’s such a thrill to have them nearby.

Mr. Cardinal, in all his red glory
Mr. Cardinal, in all his red glory

“I wish I had brought my camera,” Beth said.

“Next time,” I said, taking picture after picture with my little Cannon, which is a wonder with food and flowers but not so much with birds. Still, I got a few decent shots.

At around 4:00, Beth said, “We need to leave.”

“Yes, we do,” John replied.

But we sat at the table for another half hour. They didn’t want to go, and we didn’t want them to leave. Finally, of course, they left, and we will see them again the end of May, at John’s retirement party.

What a Sunday! As we Mainers put it, it was the finest kind of afternoon filled with food, friends, birds, and dogs. Who could ask for anything more?

Cute-as-a button Bernie
Cute-as-a-button Bernie

 

The Lovely Month of May: C’est le Mois de Marie

IMG_8444This morning, I flipped my various calendars, and now it is the lovely month of May. Today, a French-Canadian friend wrote on Facebook, “C’est le mois de Marie…C’est le mois le plus beau.” The lyrics are from a French song: “It is the month of Mary…It is the most beautiful month.” Indeed it is, even with blackflies to plague us. (Luckily, they haven’t arrived in central Maine yet.)

For native Mainers, it goes like this: March is the cruelest month, April is a month of hope, and May is a month of such dazzling beauty that it almost makes you drunk just looking at all the flowers and budding trees and rich green grass. C’est le mois le plus beau.

It is also a month of much work for this home gardener. I am happy to report that at the little house in the big woods, the lawns are nearly raked, and that chore will be finished today. Then it will be on to the flower beds—removing the leaves, adding compost, organic fertilizer, and wood ash. With so many coniferous trees surrounding the house, the beds always need something to reduce the acidity in the soil.

Although my creaky knees complain at the end of the day, I so enjoy working in my yard. As I’ve noted before, it is amazing to me how yard work always trumps such inside chores as dusting and vacuuming. I even find it pleasurable to hang laundry on the line. In short, I love being outside, especially after a long, hard winter of being mostly inside. By March—and here we return to that charmless month in Maine—being inside so much comes to feel a little confining, to say the least.

The dog is now in his glory. I let him out mid-morning, and he spends most of his day by the gate that leads to and from the backyard. From this spot, he can survey the comings and goings on Narrows Pond Road. Nothing escapes Liam’s notice: walkers, bikers, other dogs, and they all get what they deserve—much barking and racing back and forth.

Liam by the gate
Liam by the gate

Liam is a Sheltie, a herding dog, and I expect he is guarding the yard. It is a job he takes seriously, and like most herding dogs, he is very intense about it. I hesitate to ascribe feelings to another creature—human or not—but if I had to guess, then I would say that Liam gets a lot of satisfaction from his job of guarding the yard. When Liam is inside, it is clear that he wants to be outside, ready to race and bark at a moment’s notice.

So at the little house in the big woods, both the dog and the human are happy. We each have our work to do, and while we take our jobs seriously, they give us great pleasure, too. (Alas, this is not true for all people with their jobs, but this will be a topic for another time.)

C’est le mois de Marie. For those who live in the northern New England, rejoice!

Sherlock doing his job
Sherlock doing his job

Cooking and Eating Together As a Family

On his blog Practicing Resurrection, Bill recently wrote “Too Busy to Cook,” a good piece that included suggestions for harried households where people feel too exhausted to cook after a long day at work. This is no small matter, and I know this from personal experience. Once upon time, both Clif and I worked outside the house, and we had two active teenagers who were involved with music, band, and other school activities.

Our lives were busy, busy, busy. Somehow, though, we always found time to cook and eat dinner together. The meals were not fancy—there was a lot of roasted chicken and baked potatoes and pasta and salads—but they were hearty and nutritious. For me—and I know each family is different—the key was to involve everyone in the prep work, the setting of the table, and the clean-up.

My daughters learned to chop and peel and dice at an early age. My mother-in-law, who lived with us, also helped. Not only did she peel and chop, but she washed lots and lots of dishes, and usually one of my daughters would help by drying them.

As I wrote in the comment section of Bill’s blog post, many hands make the task light. It was true in the good old days, and it is still true now. When cooking is a team effort, everybody wins. The chief cook—in this case me, but sometimes it is the husband—doesn’t feel resentful and overwhelmed. Let’s just say mealtimes are ever so much more pleasant if the cook doesn’t feel put upon. In addition, the meal comes together quicker when everyone is helping.

Home cooking is usually more nutritious than meals eaten out. Long before Michael Pollan came on the scene, we were eating real food and cooking with basic ingredients. My girls were not overweight and neither was my husband. (Alas, I’ve always struggled with my weight. My body is just so efficient at storing calories, and I am what might called a good eater. On the other hand, my husband loses weight when I diet. Do I feel bitter about this? You bet I do. But I digress.)

Then there is  gathering together around the table each night for dinner. To me, this is priceless.  When the girls lived at home, over dinner we talked about our day and what we did. We discussed politics and current events. Sometimes we argued, but I am convinced that time at the dinner table not only bonded us as a family but also set a tone  that has rippled forward many years latter. Even today, we still like to cook together and gather around the table and talk and sometimes argue. Now that our daughters have moved out and my mother-in-law has passed away, my husband helps with cooking for family gatherings. Truly, with my creaky knees, I couldn’t do it without him.

But perhaps the best thing of all was that my daughters learned to cook without knowing they were being taught. As my daughter Shannon has pointed out, helping me in the kitchen taught her the basics, and this put her at a real advantage when she and Mike got together. While Shannon had never planned meals, she knew how to chop, peel, and dice, how to get food ready.  A little advice from me along with a few good cookbooks, and she was ready to go.

The moral of this story? Teach those children to chop as soon as they can safely wield a knife.  Get the husband to help, too.  There is no reason why one person should do it all and thus feel even more harried at the end of a busy day.

 

 

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

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.