Monday, June 20, 2016

Slow, Steady, and Losing: Weight Loss Update and My Easiest Healthy Salad

I hereby declare, in a most unofficial way, that the last day of school shall officially launch the first day of summer. 

   It is day one and there is a comfortably barefoot little boy, knee high corn, open windows, and all the good that comes with a time of year that I hold to be esteemed right up there with Christmas. It all feels relaxed in a way that is new again.

   We've finally reached the phase in our home renovation where landscaping has become a priority, and along with it, a major upgrade to our garden. Since it is too taxing for someone we'll call One Woman to keep up with the summer entertainment, growing, canning, traveling, and all that life holds in the hottest months, I decided raised beds might be an improvement. A better use of space and hopes for less weeding. The Mister built a number of raised beds for our vegetables and Little Mister's watermelon patch. For almost two weeks I hauled compost and filled boxes, hauled mulch for the walkways, hauling and lifting and shoveling. My kind of exercise, the kind that has a determined end with immediate results.

   When it was all done, seeded and transplanted, it was slightly more appealing. I guess when I count up my canning jars in September I'll better be able to quantify the success of this experiment.
Blackberry flowers
   Meanwhile, I drive by my neighbor's perfectly manicured truck patch. Their enormous garden, which feeds a family of ten, is so well maintained you can probably see it as a neatly defined rectangle from outer space. Mine never looked like that, at least not for long if it ever did. My ragtag assortment of rusty old gates that serve as berry trellises and tomato twine make for an interesting and rustic jungle that finishes the race a little worse for the wear.

   I know what my neighbor would say if I complimented her garden. "That weedy thing?" She would mean it, too. 

   I give a similar response when someone mentions the now 45 pounds I have taken off, and kept off, over the past 15 months. "Oh, but I've still got ten more pounds to go! Maybe 20! If only I could get rid of my..." (If you read my previous weight loss post from a year ago, I was then at a loss of 35 pounds. I slowly lost ten more.)

   Losing 45 pounds, something my doctor called "amazing", didn't seem like enough when I ran the comparisons. Surely I could lose just ten more quickly if I gave up bread, potatoes, corn. But, for what? I didn't want to start eliminating food groups for faster results, making meal times needlessly complicated. I don't need to lose ten pounds fast in order to fit into my gown for Miss Universe, and praise the Lord for that. Instead, I'll continue to shun the comparisons and will keep doing what's right for me, a slow and steady path. Like I've said before, I don't think there is a one-size fits all formula for health or anything else. We know for a fact there is no single way to grow a bountiful garden. Some fundamentals, but a lot of variation. If I lose another ten pounds over the next year, that would be great, but whether it's reshaping your body or your garden, it reminds me of the most valuable advice I ever read: You have to do what's right for your family. That might mean not jumping on the bandwagons, fulfilling the expectations of others. There is grace in doing your own thing, not to mention a higher comfort level.

   Also, you have to decide at some point whether a life without grilled cheese is a life worth living. 

   Would you like a recipe for a fast, healthy, and extremely versatile salad that always gets sincere compliments at potlucks? Of course you would! This easy corn and black bean salad is one of my go-to side dishes for summer and is indispensable for something to bring when there is a last minute invite to a backyard cook out. As a side dish for the family, I cut the recipe in half and put it on my table at home at least once a week during summer. 

My Super Easy Healthy Black Bean & Corn Potluck Salsa-Salad

2 cans black beans, rinsed a drained
2 cans whole kernel corn, rinsed and drained
1 red sweet pepper, diced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup loosely packed chopped cilantro

In a two quart bowl, combine all ingredients.

2 T Red wine vinegar
2 T Extra Virgin Olive oil
salt and pepper

Options: This recipe can easily be halved. It is also delicious served as salsa with tortilla chips. 

Substitute two tablespoons of red onion for the red pepper. 
Instead of the red wine vinegar, you can dress it with 3 Tablespoons balsamic vinaigrette

So fresh and fast!

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Creation Inspiration

 Something amazing happened today. I got cleaned up, took extra pains to corral my strubbly hair, and put on a halfway decent outfit to go to the store. Then, before my cart even hit the entrance, I ran into someone I know and was able to have a nice chat while feeling okay about my appearance. I'm telling you, ten times out of ten, I can go to the store perfectly presentable and never see a familiar soul. It's that one or two or TEN other times that I step out while look like I've just been cleaning out the garage that I meet every long lost friend and acquaintance. I guess once in a while you are thrown a curve ball and you actually catch it.

   Right now, the end of the school year activities and picnics are colliding with our booming strawberry harvest. I love this time of year. The beginning of the harvest, the preservation. The satisfaction. Even the exercise.

   It can be a little tiring. I am the night owl, not the early bird. Even the birds outside the window know this. I hear a bird trilling something that sounds like "Truuuuue, truuuue, truuuue!" When I think about what motivates and energizes me for such a time as this, it is the glory of creation. The fragrant honeysuckle blooms as the grass tickles my feet and I walk towards a field of corn stalks only a few inches high yet. The earth has burst forth in glorious new life. The warm sun, buttercups, and scenery that changes with new blooms before I even done admiring the old ones. Was it ever this good before? The newness is refreshing every year. I love bringing things into my home that are inspired by nature. Or just plain bringing in nature, in case of Little Mister's penchant for housing orphaned insects in various containers.

Inspired by the real deal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...

The real deal.
   I remember as a child finding my first hatched baby robin's egg on the ground. What a thrill! To think that a real live baby bird had hatched from there and left it behind. What must it be like to see such a thing? It was such a pleasure to experience that anew through my own son's eyes when we found a hatched robin's egg one evening. What a poignant reminder that God cares for the baby robin, and sparrow, and us. Another gift? His mercies are new every morning. 

   Back to picnics. While I could best be described as "ïn-doorsy" there is something special about sipping a cool drink outside on a warm day while sharing food with those you love. Extra points if the children are enjoying it. This dessert is a timeless classic and has probably been on the table at every church carry in meal (pot luck) that I've ever attended. You can make the top layer with any thickened fruit pie filling, but for this one I used strawberries.

Prepare your fruit filling and allow it to cool completely. For this recipe I used:
3 1/2-4 cups of fresh or thawed frozen strawberries
1/4 cup sugar
3 T corn starch

Combine and stir over medium heat until thickened. You can add more sugar according to your taste.

1 1/2 cup crushed graham crackers
1/3 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

Melt the butter and combine with the graham crackers and sugar in a small mixing bowl. Stir until crumbly, and then press into an 8x12 baking dish.

8 oz. cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsp. vanilla
8 oz. of whipped cream or whipped topping

In a mixer, use a paddle to thoroughly mix the cream cheese and sugar. Add in the vanilla while mixing. Next, use a whisk attachment to mix in the whipped cream or whipped topping until you have a light, creamy consistency.

Spread the cream cheese evenly layer over the graham crackers. Chill until set. Last, spread your fruit filling over top. After everything is chilled, cut into squares and serve. Finally, take your empty dish home from the picnic. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

For All the King's Daughters

  The past few years we've settled into a Mother's day tradition of having a small work frolic at my mother's house. We get her backyard set up for summer, bringing lawn furniture out of the shed. The Mister fixes any handyman tasks that need to be done. In return, she cooks the main dish for a picnic meal and it's a great day. I love this day of giving. My mother gives me the greatest gift all year long when I get to see her be a loving grandmother to our Little Mister and care for him him with all of her heart. It is truly the best thing she has ever given me. 

Better than all the help she gave me as I put myself through college.

Better than the time she wired me money because I got stranded in Eastern Europe. (Long story. Not my fault. Except for the part where I went there.)

Better than the help she gave me when I had to put myself through college AGAIN.

You get the idea. It's all of those things, plus more. What could be better than being thought of as loving?

 Little Mister's school holds an annual Mother's Day tea. This year I was presented with this fascinating fact sheet about myself! The teacher said it only took two days to get these insightful answers out of my son, during which time he consistently claimed that while he is at school I "light gummy bears on fire." I shouldn't have to say that this has never happened. Also, note that I am 7 years old. SO much younger and more spry than the mom sitting next to me who was 9 years old. It was also funny to find out that he doesn't know my real name. 

  I have a confession about that roast chicken he likes so much. It may or may not be mine. About twice a month I have a day where a whole lot of activities converge simultaneously in the span of an hour and I need help with putting a meal on the table. I sometimes hire a rotisserie chicken. I do it out of love, because I love staying sane. That pizza is mine, though.

  I've been calling this season The Great Rains. Dreary days that never stop and come in alternating sheets and droplets. Every day is a good day for soup, and every sale a mud sale. We must be on day eighty-something of it. I scrape the mud from the floor twice a week. A love of clean floors is my curse and I would not wish it on anyone.  It has made things feel mundane and rote, which reminds me of something thoughtful that I read recently: Everyone wants to change the world but no one wants to do the dishes.

And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; (1 Thessalonians 4:11)

  That was a reminder to me that our identity isn't sown from scraps of achievements or the accolades of man, but from a loving and powerful God who holds a much different standard of what constitutes greatness. It wouldn't hurt us while, in the middle of scrubbing the tub or chopping vegetables in the kitchen, to stop and yell out "I am the daughter of a King!" to remind ourselves of a greater truth. Go ahead, I dare you.

  Even if we can't get a homemade roasted chicken on the table every time. Even if we can't get every errand done, every nose wiped, every weed pulled.

  It's enough to make a mean pizza, with love, and then wash the dishes. For what's done in love unseen is still done in love. 

 This is my garden veggie pizza made with homemade basil pesto for those years I grow it in our garden. Recently I found that Aldi is selling pesto quite cheaply, so it might be false economy for me to keep making and freezing my own. Anyway, here is the assembly:

Rub the crust with crushed garlic. Discard 

Spread crust with basil pesto.
Top with your favorite cheese.
Add thin slices of tomatoes, green peppers, 
and mushrooms. I enjoy red onion, too. 
Also, spinach. 
Sprinkle on your pizza seasoning. 
Bake at 450 for 10-15 minutes.

Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. 
2 Thessalonians 3:12

Friday, April 15, 2016

Times Such as These

 It started with a drizzle, the drops weren't rain, but ice. The wind picked up and the ice droplets poured fast and faster, raining down on me in my heaviest coat as I crossed the empty lot next door with two of our dogs. Had it been a different year, we could have patronized the water ice stand. Now, all we had to do was open our mouths and look at the sky.  It went on like that all night, and of course I forgot to cover the ornamental shrubs that hadn't even had a chance to grow yet. 

 Over the next few days there were whispers, rumors, and outright truths. Fruit farmers to the north were setting controlled fires in their orchards on twenty degree nights to keep the trees warm. Some crops were already in trouble, apples in some places, peaches in others. No one mentioned the rumor we all used to believe about an early spring. Whatever happened to that groundhog anyway? 

 Fresh out of my recovery from the winter blues (oh yes, I got them this year and it was awful) I am ready to inhabit my natural environment of t-shirts and flip flops. I'm thinking about summer, and have made discounted pre-season ticket purchases to Little Boy Fun Land, Mother Goose Land, and Milk-A-Fake-Cow Land. Then I commit to a bigger one: For the first time years we might be able to take a break away from home for just a little while. When I attempt to reserve a hotel online, my credit card rejects it. 

That's strange. 

 I try again, and it goes through, but within minutes the bank is contacting me because someone is trying to use my card on a travel website, and surely, that can't be me.  I assure them that the impostor is me, we, we' are actually trying to do something this year, and it's a little bit insulting when the bank tells you that it's unusual for you to have that much fun. 

I was like...

 In times such as these, we need a sense of humor. When the laughter dies down, and the wind picks up again, you can hear it whisper God is in control.  

 How about an easy and hearty side dish to stretch out any meal? While my favorite red-skinned mashed potato recipe of all time is this one here, some days I just need something tasty and exciting to happen with minimal fuss. I like that in this recipe the potatoes are a little crisp on the outside and creamy inside.

Loaded Red Potatoes

5-6 Red potatoes (about 2.5 pounds) cooked AND diced

6 Tablespoons of butter, melted
Seasoned salt
3/4 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
Bacon pieces, cut up

Side note: I use a potato bag to make this dish even easier. In case you don't know what a potato bag is, it's a cloth bag that allows you to quickly cook potatoes in the microwave. You can find them sold for around $8-10 at most Amish markets or housewares stores. I always include one with wedding shower gifts and the thank you notes always mention how "it actually works!" Maybe sometime I'll do a potato bag giveaway. 

Place potatoes on bottom of an 8x8 inch pan or 2 quart casserole dish. Pour butter over top and sprinkle with with seasoned salt. Top with cheese and bacon. Bake uncovered at 350 for 30 minutes. (I added chives for garnish because we have some in the herb garden right now.

  This comes on the heels of being told by my doctor that if I want to reach my next weight loss goal quickly, I should give up potatoes.

Once again...

Friday, April 8, 2016

Five Ways to Make the Most Out of Your Small House (That Work in Any House!)

   One of my favorite themes to talk about is small and tiny house living. As you know, our house is definitely small and may even fall in the tiny house category. It currently consists of:
  • 2 bedrooms
  • 1 bathroom
  • Kitchen
  • Open living room/dining area 
  • small mudroom/storage area by the back door
   We have plans for an expansion some day, but we'll probably never get past a thousand square feet. We like our big backyard too much.

I told you it was small. No, we're not elves. Thanks for asking.

   Over the past nine years, I've picked up so many excellent space saving and micro-living tricks, including some I've never read anywhere else. I came up with a list of my FIVE BEST and quickly realized that these are things that would maximize living space in any home. I'm posting them here in hopes that they can help someone maximize their living space in any home. Simply put, more living, less stuff.


1) Move It Out Monthly. 

Since doing a complete de-cluttering of my home last year, I keep a box or large shopping bag in a corner of our bedroom for things that are no longer needed. I usually try to sell the item, but if it doesn't sell then I donate it to a non-profit thrift store. When the box is full of items that we no longer can use, I move it out. To keep the pile from growing, I do this once a month.

2) Reorganize Constantly. 

This is a big tip that I never see, but that saves my sanity every single day. I don't know how many times I got great deal on bulk baking supplies or a huge amount of paper towels and thought in the car, I have no idea where this will go. It always turns out that once I reorganize a cabinet, a closet, or move out something we no longer need, I can easily find the space to accommodate things that matter right now. This attitude works well for small stuff, like food, clothing, toys, books, and other daily living supplies. While every item in your house needs a "home", be flexible  about where that is and don't be afraid to move things around.

However, I must also add...

3) Don't Buy Big Stuff Unless You Know Where It Will Go.

This one seems like common sense, right?  But trust me, when you are confronted with a lovely and oversized piece of furniture, wall picture, or other home accessory that costs next to nothing, it can be hard to say "no". Trust me, you don't want to have a white elephant sitting in the garage or shed for a few years because it doesn't fit with your house. Send white elephants back to the zoo. 

4) Figure Out Where Your Space Is, and Use It.

Even if it's in an unusual place. I've seen high ceilings lined with shelves that hold books and extra high kitchen cabinets that stock empty canning jars on top, and all kinds of clever storage on the back of doors. When we realized we would never be able to fit large book cases in our living room, I eyed our wide hallway that leads to the back door and found plenty of space for an instant library. It wasn't what we would have planned, but it works perfectly. 

5) Keep Seasonal Decorations to a Minimum.

I love decorations! So does the rest of the world. My local yard sale page on Facebook is awash in gently used decorations for sale. Exercise equipment, too, but that's another post.  While seasonal decorations make your world brighter for just a few months, they take up space somewhere else in your house for the rest of the year. Then, people still get tired of them and want to change decorating schemes. For myself, it has worked better to invest in things that I can display and enjoy all year long, and accent them with a few selective seasonal or holiday items at certain times of the year. This way, instead of storing up treasures for most of the year, I can look at things I like all of the time and save the space for something more important. 

So, these are my biggest and best ideas ever when it comes to small space living, and I hope that in posting them that even the lady with the grandest home can find some inspiration in simplifying her surroundings. 

Most importantly, if you can think of anything that works for you, whether it's listed here or not, feel free to add it in the comments. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

The Quaker Connection

 It was cold and rainy on the day of the funeral. It always is, for me. I have never stood graveside without a coat or umbrella. Besides the awful weather, the clocks had been set back, making for a long and dark morning. The Mister did not wake up with the sun like he does most days, but with the clouds and an hour late. We scrambled to get out the door for the funeral of the Mister's great-aunt, who came from a branch of his family tree that I never met and who, it turned out, are Quaker.

 This distant aunt had spent the last ten years of her life in a haze of confusion. She did not recognize people, and often asked for those who had died long ago. It will warm the hearts of mothers of sons to know that she had been lovingly cared for in the last the last decade of her life by her son, in the home she always knew, right there on the farm.

 In survival mode, I pulled myself together and dressed Little Mister in his good shirt. We ate breakfast in the car on the way, giving me anxiety as little boy hands picked the chocolate off of a chocolate peanut butter protein bar, the closest thing to a travel-friendly breakfast I could provide under duress. When he decide that was too tedious, he unearthed a bag of chips from the back seat. I also noticed that we forgot his coat, and quietly gave thanks that he was wearing shoes.

 We arrived a few minutes late, as I always do when someone needs to be buried or married before noon.

 I saw a man with a long beard in bib overalls. He wasn't the only one. The service was reverent, but informal. People stood up to speak their heartfelt memories of a woman who I now wished I had been able to know in this life. There were many mentions of a life filled with honesty, integrity, and service. Also, cinnamon rolls, fourteen day pickles, and something called fruit cocktail cake. There were no admonishments, or the type of "As I am now, so shall you be!" warnings to repent. The message lay in the examples of her life, Scripture applications, and the demonstration of a quiet faith strengthened by serving others. "She taught me how to work," said a large, burly man wearing his best Carhart overalls. Quite a compliment, I imagined.

 The flowers were few. We placed single spring blooms on the casket in the cemetery at the Quaker Meeting house, a small group of mourners such as you would expect when the deceased has outlived all others. 

 The experience was beautiful in its unabashed simplicity.

 Over the next two weeks we searched diligently for signs of new life. Snow encrusted daffodils don't count. Little Mister and I have taken to evening walks in the field where we examine deer tracks and construct make-believe campfires from old remnants of corn stalks. I'm reminded that we don't walk alone. As new life is breathed into our surroundings, we reflect on the joy of serving a risen Savior. He lives!

This old irrigation pump still works. 

 As the sun drops in the sky, we take our treasures of sticks, flowers, and a deer antler home for preservation. Negotiations for bath time and late night snacks will give way to a crescent moon and bedtime stories. Or maybe spilled milk and a forgotten laundry load. I'll remind myself again. I am not alone. 

And neither are you.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Homemaking Encouragement from the Farmhouse

 Driving home along the fields as the work season begins, I rejoiced in the new warmth and light. During this time of refreshment and renewal, the things I learn from others during my own personal season of busy family life fall like new rain on a dry garden. It's my prayer that these three memories will encourage you as we journey together. 

 Memory: It was an old style farmhouse, multi-story and planned for production, not aesthetic design. The front door opened into the living room which was tiny by today's standards. A third of it was dominated by a staircase, the rest of it cramped with furniture, laundry, and an old upright piano. Behind it was the kitchen, where the real living took place. Indeed, the couch was there and that made sense. It also held the dining set, and cluttered counters full of dishes and produce. It was summer, and the kitchen table was lovingly set with plates of tomato slices, watermelon, applesauce, bread and cheese. Because it was summer, the busiest time of the year, food splatters and preservation paraphernalia were bountiful. So were barefoot children with hard, blackened feet dressed in otherwise clean and tidy clothing. Among the domestic calamity there were excited chatter and smiles.

 That's where I learned that the best homemakers are not always the best housekeepers.

 Memory: It was a remodeled farmhouse, with a spacious new kitchen that doubled as the laundry room. Outside of the back door was a mountain of rag-tag children's bicycles in all sizes and colors. Just inside the back door, a large towel on the floor held a landscape of muddy boots and shoes. The footprint of the shoe pile was so large you could see it from space. Generic root beer sat on the counter awaiting a birthday party scheduled for later on the same day, and stainless steel bowls filled with fresh picked green beans sat on the table the kitchen table. It was suggested the oldest daughter put down her book and go outside to supervise the younger children, who were climbing a step ladder on top of a John Deere Gator for who knows what goal. She quietly set her book down and went outside, although I felt her lack of enthusiasm for the assignment. The mothers sat inside and enjoyed tea and conversation. We were too busy for this, but not too busy for one another. 

 That was how I learned that hospitality didn't have to be a perfectly clean house for a Sunday visit, but hat hospitality was a spirit, not always a distinct form.
 Memory: The swing set and trampoline just outside the back door were alive with laughter. Inside, the living room floor was strewn with toys, some of which were so old that the first children to enjoy them many very well be grandparents now.I was helping to pick them up when the screen door slammed and in a blur someone grabbed a banana off of the kitchen counter. "No, you can't ride the scooter down the slide!" The children's grandmother was sweeping up an upset houseplant, collateral damage from the fun. A bumped head and an escaped goat caused a moment of excitement before all was well again. As mothers arrived to collect their respective folds, a calm settled over the house. The vocal mirth gave way to the chirping of birds and the hum of a tractor in the distance. Grandma quietly exhaled and smiled as she sat down in an easy chair and took out a scrapbook page that she had been working on, and that was when I knew it won't always be like this. 

 We made these delicious peanut butter cup cookies one night as a special treat. They are baked in a muffin tin which makes them all the perfect size. At one point I had to leave the kitchen and the bag of candy was left unattended.
"Mom. Mom. I ate a few of these," came the guilty confession.

 Oh, that's okay. Most of us would have wiped out half the bag and blamed someone else. 

Peanut Butter Cup Temptations

1 cup butter
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 and 1/2 cups flour
1 package peanut butter cups

 Cream butter, peanut butter, and sugars. Add eggs, vanilla, salt, and baking powder. Gradually blend in flour. Form dough into one-inch balls and place in tart or muffin pans. 

 Bake at 350 for 8-10 minutes. Remove from oven and place 1 peanut butter cup in each center, pressing gently into the cookie. Cool for a couple minutes and remove from tins. Finish cooling on wire rack.


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