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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.


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.


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.

When, What to My Wondering Eyes Should Appear…But Snow, Snow, and More Snow

IMG_8216Last night, as a plane flew overhead, I could tell from the sound that it was snowing outside. It’s hard to describe exactly what this sound is, but I would have to say that it has a muffled quality that is missing during  clear weather.

A little later, Clif let the dog out, noted the snow, and confirmed my suspicions. Unconcerned, we went to bed. This is April, after all.

Imagine our surprise, then, the next morning when we looked out the window and saw that at least four inches of heavy snow had fallen during the night. It was enough so that Clif had to haul out Little Green and clean the driveway before he went to work. And here we were thinking that it was just about time to bring Little Green down cellar for the season and time to bring out the bikes. Not yet, that’s for sure.


A little while ago, the plow went by, and the road is a mucky mess. No walk for the dog today. He’ll have to make do in the backyard. However, as I write, the snow is sliding off the branches of the trees. A few days of mild weather will bring us back to where we were before this mess, and the dog and I can walk on dry roads.

It has been a cold, hard winter in Maine, with lots of snow. Spring is officially here, but it is coming oh so slowly in fits and starts. Meanwhile, California suffers the worst drought in recorded history, and yesterday the temperature in Georgia was 90 degrees, which must be hot even for Georgia in April.

In Maine Lakes Tell Tale of Climate Change, a recent piece on MPBN, Susan Sharon addresses the issue  of global warming and writes, “While the Northeast may have experienced a bitterly cold and snowy winter in 2015, the average temperature on the planet last year was the warmest in 135 years of record keeping. In Maine the state climatologist’s research indicates that by 2050 the annual temperature in Maine will rise another 3 to 5 degrees.”

But what bothers Zach Wozich, an Ice fisherman interviewed in Sharon’s piece, is the extreme unpredictability of the weather over the past ten years, “the big variations in temperatures and snowfall.” This year, he’ll probably have two more weeks than usual to fish. A few years ago, the ice was out before the end of March. That year Clif and I actually went for an anniversary bike ride—on March 19—and Maranacook Lake looked like a huge, gray slushy. Not long after, there was open water.

There is some indication that as the Arctic melts, the jet stream is affected, bringing colder weather to the North East and warmer weather, along with drought, to the West. Only time and observation will tell if this is true. One or two cold winters do not a trend make, and there are other factors that affect the jet stream.

Nevertheless, for next winter, Clif and I will be sure to have a good supply of wood. (We ran out midwinter.) We will have a stockpile of food in our pantry as well as plenty of propane cannisters for our camp stove. Lamp oil is also a necessity and so is stored water in big buckets. For us, no power means no water.

Being prepared cannot change the weather, but it can certainly make fierce storms and power outages easier to deal with.



April 1, 2015: My Garden in Bloom

Last night, when I went to bed, there was snow on the ground. But when I woke up, everything had changed.

In front, the elegant irises were in bloom.


The hostas were bright and green, with an errant daisy right in the middle.


The little ferns had unfurled.


In my backyard, the bee balm was bright and tall.


And the daylilies looked as fetching as only daylilies can.


Could all of this have happened overnight? No, it couldn’t. This is what my front yard really looked like this morning.


And my backyard.


Happy April Fools’ Day!

March Doldrums

Last Wednesday, I made granola bars, and I forgot to add salt. I also forgot to turn down the oven after I roasted the oats. On Saturday, I made chocolate cream pie in honor of pie day, and I didn’t add enough sugar or cornstarch. Clif has been sick, and the dog is so restless that he constantly runs down the cellar stairs so that he can wait by the bulkhead, which leads to the backyard. I let him out, and a few minutes later, he barks to come in.

I chalk it all up to the March doldrums. Yesterday, here was the view from my front porch.


More snow. Enough to shovel. Enough to make the road a mucky mess, yet again.

However—and I always like to look on the bright side whenever I can—even though they were overcooked and didn’t have any salt in them, Clif loved the granola bars. I was able to salvage the chocolate cream pie by adding more sugar, and Clif is feeling a little better. (Liam, on the other hand, still longs to be outside.)

March marches on, as it always does. But we are half way through.

April is just around the corner, and in Maine, it is definitely not the cruelest month. Not by a long shot.

A Wall of Dirty Snow, a Flash of Red

When I look out my front window, this is what I see:

IMG_7843Across the road, a wall o’snow, mixed with dirt, sand, and gravel. Not exactly the most beautiful sight, that’s for sure, but oh so typical of early March in Maine.

Still, I’m not complaining. All right, maybe I’m complaining a little bit. Nevertheless, despite the ugliness of the landscape, there are things to be glad about. The zero degree weather has given way to twenty, thirty, and even forty degrees. Yesterday, it was so warm—comparatively speaking—that when I went out to play ball with Liam, I didn’t even need a hat. I was perfectly fine without one.

There is also a softening in the air, which I can actually smell. Very cold weather has a particular smell, as does warmer weather. I noticed this on Monday, the second day of March. I was in the backyard, and I just stood there, breathing in this softening. (Later, when there is mud, the backyard won’t smell quite as good.) In the afternoon when I did errands, I spoke to various people about this softening smell, and they didn’t look at me as though I were crazy.  Instead, they nodded and said they had noticed it, too.

Even though we are still buried with snow at the little house in the big woods, and even though the snow has lost its glitter and fluff, a good change is coming. It doesn’t get dark now until 6:00 p.m., and on Sunday daylight savings time begins, which means the dark won’t come until 7:00 p.m. For me, early darkness feels oppressive, confining, and the longer days are a sweet relief. I don’t mind losing an hour to get extra light at the end of the day. Not at all.

As a contrast to the view out front, here is what I saw when I looked out back yesterday:


A flash of red, a male cardinal, an infrequent visitor as cardinals prefer a more open landscape. How wonderful it was to have him in my backyard. I just wish I had gotten a better shot of him with my little camera. For a good picture of him, I need a sunny day, and on clear days, I will be on the lookout for this little beauty.

So, in front—a wall of dirty snow. In back—a flash of red. Ugliness and beauty sit close to each other. I accept one and rejoice in the other.






Gather Around the Table

IMG_7836Not long ago, when I was having tea with my friends Mary Jane and Liz, the conversation turned to Marion Healey, a Winthrop resident who died a little over a year ago. Marion was one of Winthrop’s prominent residents. For forty years she worked as the treasurer/manager of the Mill Workers Credit Union, now the Winthrop Area Federal Credit Union. Indeed, the new building was named in her honor.

But what we spoke of were two traits that made Marion especially dear to the community—her hospitality and her intense interest in other people. Mary Jane said, “Being around Marion’s table was one of the best places to be. Once when I visited, I remember how she wanted to know all about my life before I came to Winthrop.”

I understood exactly what Mary Jane was getting at. When you talked to Marion, you felt as though she was giving you her complete attention, that you really mattered. A priceless gift and small wonder that she was so beloved in Winthrop.

When Liz and Mary Jane left, I thought more about Marion and her wonderful hospitality. I remembered my own parents and the many people they welcomed into their home. It was a rare week when someone didn’t come over. If the numbers allowed, we almost always gathered around the kitchen table. Coffee was served along with some kind of treat, often homemade. (My mother was a terrific baker and could bake almost anything.)  I come from a gregarious ethnic group—Franco American—and there were always lively discussions around that table.

At the little house in the big woods, we are blessed with a good size dining room. In the center is a dark round table my mother-in-law bought at an antique shop in Bangor. The original  chairs, stuffed with straw, wore out long ago, and it’s my guess the table was made sometime during the late 1800s. The table came with two leaves, which means ten people can be comfortably seated.

I have carried on my parents’ tradition of inviting people over and gathering around the table. Sometimes it’s for a meal, but sometimes it’s just for muffins and tea and coffee. Yesterday our friends Joel and Alice came over. I made French donuts, and we talked about the things we love to talk about—books, politics, and movies. I can’t think of a better way of spending a winter’s afternoon.

Next week, our friends Beth and John will be joining us for Sunday brunch. A couple of weeks later, other friends will be coming for tea, muffins, and talk.

These gatherings are not elaborate, and they are inexpensive. What Clif and I are giving are the gifts of time and hospitality. Marion valued these gifts as did my parents. In our hectic world, it is easy to become so caught up in busyness that we forget to give these gifts.

But these gifts are so worthwhile, and Clif and I will continue to gather people around our table for as long as we can. As Marion so beautifully illustrated, these gifts can ripple outward long after a person has passed.






A Tra-La-La Kind of Day

Last night I went to bed feeling kind of glum. My joints ached, the day had been flat and unproductive, and I was tired, tired of winter. I vowed to start the next day with a better attitude, to lean into the many tasks I had planned, and to take pleasure in them.

When I woke up, I kept my promise to myself. Full of morning bustle, I made oatmeal, cranberry, and roasted walnut muffins—some for Clif and me and some to give to Pearl and George.

I delivered the muffins late morning. The sky was blue, and it was nearly thirty degrees, with no wind. I had brought my little camera with me, and what should I see at Pearl’s house, but turkeys by her bird  feeder. Had I learned my lesson from a couple days ago? I had not. I took pictures of the turkeys, but as I moved a little closer, these turkeys flew away, the way wild birds normally do.


On my way home, I stopped by Maranacook Lake, wanting to take pictures of the ice village that springs up every winter—fishing shacks that don’t come in until the spring thaw makes the ice unsafe. As I took pictures, the sun warmed my face, and I needed neither hat nor gloves to keep me warm.


Revitalized, I did more errands, stopping to take pictures of the ducks on Annabessacook Lake.  By the time I came home, all glum thoughts had been cast aside, and it felt like a tra-la-la kind of day.


I even started thinking that soon I would be able to hang laundry outside.


Well, all right. Maybe not in the next few days. But in a month or so, if the mud isn’t too bad in the backyard. I can start by hanging blankets and comforters on the line.

When that day comes, you’ll liable to find me rising like Mary Poppins over the rooftops of Winthrop.

A Day Off

IMG_7731When you work at home, there is really no time off. Somehow, even when I take a break from writing, chores find a way of insinuating themselves into the day, and there always seems to be just one more thing to do. However, every once in a while, I decide I need to have a personal Sabbath day and put chores on hold.

Yesterday was such a day. For various reasons, I was frazzled and yearned for a day of rest. So I took the day off, and the only chore I did was laundry.

When such days are rare, they are truly a treat. Yesterday, it was sheer bliss to take as much time as I wanted to read the various blogs I follow; to relax on the couch and read We took to the Woods, a book my friend Mary Jane let me borrow; to eat whatever junky snack I felt like having; to walk with the dog to the Narrows and take some pictures.



Supper was simple—scrambled eggs with smoked Gouda, toast, and fries. There was hardly any prep time involved.

By the end of my day off, I felt rested—joyful, even—and ready to tackle the various projects I had put on hold.

In truth, I love my busy schedule and wouldn’t want too many days off. But every now and then it is good to slow down, relax, and recharge.


A Sweet but Frugal Valentine’s Day

Keebler, eat your heart out
Keebler, eat your heart out

At the little house in the big woods, we love holidays. While it would be inaccurate to assert that we celebrate every single one, Clif and I certainly do what we can to bring mirth and merriment into our lives on many of those special days.

However, because of our green-bean ways and our modest budget, our celebrations are always frugal. With Valentine’s Day, it is no different.

To get us in the mood for this sweet holiday, I made some chocolate-covered graham crackers.  Yes, I know that I can buy  packaged chocolate-covered graham crackers at the store, but mine are so much better that all I can say is, Keebler, eat your heart out. (I use Ghiradelli chocolate and a name brand graham cracker.)

Tomorrow, before the blizzard—but let’s not talk about that—I’ll go to the store for smoked cheddar from Pineland Farms for a quiche I’m planning to make. I’ll also pick up  some kind of special nut, probably cashews, to go with drinks ahead of time. We’ll have homemade brownies for dessert.

While the blizzard swirls outside, I’ll set the table and light the candles. We’ll listen to music—probably some kind of alternative rock. When it comes to music, Clif and I are surprisingly and uncharacteristically hip. Afterwards, we’ll settle in the living room and watch either Strictly Ballroom or Room with a View or Enchanted April.

The whole meal, from drinks and nibbles to dessert will cost the two of us no more than $15. That comes to $7.50 each, about the price of a fast-food meal, but ever so much tastier. Not too bad, as my Yankee husband might say. In the end, holidays don’t have to be expensive to be fun. With every fête, Clif and I prove this point.

While Valentine’s Day has traditionally been for couples and school children, I like to extend it by sending a few cards to family and friends. There are many kinds of love, and all should be celebrated.

A very happy Valentine’s Day to all, and if you’re single, be sure to do something sweet (but frugal!) for yourself.

The photo I used for this years Valentine’s card. I froze my little fingers making that bird-seed heart in the backyard.
The photo I used for this years Valentine’s card. I froze my little fingers making that bird-seed heart in the backyard.