Thursday, September 25, 2014

Five Fall Moments

Those green fields are yellowing, the sunflowers have hung their heads in a sorrowful pose. That chill in the air has come too soon and whispers a warning of long, cold months ahead. I know how to make it all go away. Want to know a secret? I will just pull out the cool weather clothes for the seasonal clothing swap, and that will guarantee an eighty degree day. You just wait

The cooler days suited me just fine since I spent a few afternoons with the oven running non-stop in preparation for the bake sale at our church's community outreach day. I was packaging up a few dozen cookies when I saw that I was going to be late picking up Little Mister from a therapy appointment. I quickly grabbed my purse and jumped into the car. About halfway there, I made an awful realization. All of my packaged baked goods, including the previous day's work, were in a laundry basket left out in the open, in close proximity to a mischievous dog.

A dog who devours everything.  

A dog with super scent-tracking capabilities.

All of my hard work. Right there in that basket. The basket I had meant to put away somewhere before leaving, and then was forgotten. There was no time to turn around and run back home to save them, if it wasn't too late already.

I'm sure a tear or two sprang to my eyes. I started praying.

"....and dear Lord please protect the banana bread too..."

Almost a half hour later I pulled in the driveway, my heart heavy in my stomach. Would you believe I found a perfectly untouched basket, with all my goodies neatly wrapped and undisturbed? Buddy laid nearby, completely uninterested.

Exhale. Thankfulness. Laughter. 

Then, on the first official day of Fall, my true love gave to me....

A giant bucket of paw paws. I've never heard of these, and certainly had never tasted one. Years ago, The Mister planted a paw paw tree at his parent's farm and they are just now bearing fruit. In case you have never eaten one, I'll describe it. They are very fragrant with a sweet aroma. They are easy to peel and have a soft yellow texture inside that reminds me of a cross between an avocado and a mango. They are mildly sweet and kind of tropical tasting. Some say they taste a little like a banana. 

The last blooms before winter are the Montauk daisies. They bloom in a big shrub all through September.


It wouldn't be early Fall without applesauce.
Remember our big strawberry harvest? I pulled some berries out of the freezer and did one batch of strawberry applesauce, just for something different this year. It was five pounds of apples to three cups of frozen berries, simmer and sieve. It smelled wonderful cooking on the stove!


Finally, window washing. DO NOT be impressed by our housekeeping. We just happened to have the scaffolding up for a home repair, and I suggested we leave it up so we could clean off the picture window properly. Window washing occurs around here on an as-needed, as-is-convenient basis. It works out to once every other year in which there are fourteen full moons and two months with additional Wednesdays. Or something like that.

Not a bad start to the season. I hope you're enjoying it, too.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Small House Living

It happens all the time. I get excited about an article entitled something like "How We do X with a Small House" or "Maximize Your Space in a Small Kitchen". Living small is one of my pet topics. I click on the link. Maybe it has some useful tips.

Then, I see that the house in question has a basement for storage, the small kitchen is three times the size of mine, and the house has two, yes, TWO bathrooms. I get indignant. No, no, you do not have a small house. Get out of here, you can't even play this game, you are unqualified. 

We live in a tiny old tenant farm house which suffered a few random additions over the years, ultimately concluding with less than 1,000 square feet of total space. Far from a micro-home, it probably was closer to average just fifty years ago. We do not have a basement. We do not have a garage. My laundry room is a stacked washer and dryer in a corner of the kitchen. I know people with homes like ours who do it with six times as many children, and I pray they are richly blessed with creative storage solutions.

Do you want to know if your house is small? Here is a quiz I created to find out:

If someone gives you something you would really like to own, do you immediately have to consider where it will be stored in your home and what you may need to get rid of in order to keep it?

When you get chilly, is it viable to heat up a couple rooms by baking something in the oven or putting a load of laundry in the dryer?

Is your food preservation strategy to place an empty jar everywhere you can fit one, in all kinds of crazy places, and then fill as many as you can?

When it comes to family planning, are you concerned about the possible legal implications of a one child per square foot ratio?

If you answered yes to all four, then you are in the big little-house leagues. If you got two or three out of four, you are in the game. If you answered no to all three, then you are a spectator. Enjoy your indoor swimming pool.

No great honor comes with living in tight quarters. I am not more spiritual or virtuous because I live in a smaller than average one-story doll house. There are a few hidden blessings, which I've mentioned here in the past. In general, less cleaning, less clutter, smaller bills.

I also have no magical formula for living small with great ease. 

Well, okay. I've picked up a few reliable tips:

For instance, try to make the most out of storage space underneath large furniture. For instance, here are some things we store under the couch:

Likewise, you should try to utilize overhead space above doors and windows. For example, I hung an organic insect control device on the kitchen ceiling. No one but me has noticed it, and I hope it will help with the late summer fruit fly problem.

Alright. It's a spider, and it moved there on its own. Who can blame it? It must enjoy a cozy habitat where every room smells of a freshly baked pie, a warm fire heats even the farthest nook on the coldest day, and the family living space is always full of life.

Even though we'll likely build a modest addition in the future, I'm choosing contentment for now. You can never have too much of it, and it's a good fit for any home. Sometimes I lose it, grow discontent, and have to find it again. When that happens next time I'll just look under the couch. 

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Late Summer Love

Have you ever had one of those days where it felt like you got nothing done? It was the most unproductive day, ever. Maybe you had a headache and every time you thought to start a project, calamity broke out, followed by organized chaos and a complete memory loss of what it was you were trying to start ten minutes ago. 

Then, at the end of the day you realized that although you did nothing, someone managed to do two loads of laundry, served three meals, answered the phone, changed the dead batteries in two toys, volunteered for the church bake sale, cleaned up the kitchen, and gave the dog a bath? I guess someone might have done something after all. Sometimes summer feels like that. It flies by and you think it went so fast and didn't get a chance to do it all, but you find that somehow, you did even more.

 I've been blessed with some lovely summer moments these past few weeks. The freezer corn is all in, the last pickle has been picked, and we were able to enjoy a few days in PA visiting and enjoying some family time together. One day I even got to fly solo and do a little shopping. It felt a little decadent to take my time browsing in a bookstore while, all around me, women were pulling wagons of empty jars and peach bushels.

 I adore windmills and don't see them very often anymore. There are other ways of pumping water now, but I hope they don't disappear altogether. 

One of these things is not like the other...

We enjoyed a day with some extended family at one of our favorite antique tractor events in mid-August. Last year, Little Mister fell asleep in his stroller and I dashed out for a quick trip to the fruit farm. No such luck this year! His plan was to start his own parade of power while the others fell asleep at the wheel.

The field corn is starting to brown a little bit on the edges now, but did you know it is still fun to run through and hide while mom chases you and visions of helicopters and search teams dance in her head? True story. Someone save me.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Recipe: Spaghetti Pie

The Mister actually spotted this recipe while reading one of his farm newspapers. I was skeptical because we've eaten baked spaghetti ten different ways, but this one looked a little different than my other stand-by pizza casserole dishes. I think it's the layer of herbed cream cheese that  makes it extra delicious. As an added bonus, there was plenty left over for a second meal.

I like that anything right now that's easy to put together because, most days, I'm all about just getting some kind of nutritious food on the table. 

It was definitely a winner.

12 oz. cooked spaghetti
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 eggs, beaten
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 tsp. salt (I just sprinkled)
2 T. butter 

Combine crust ingredients and spread into a 9x13-inch pan. 

Herb layer:
8 oz. softened cream cheese
1/2 tsp. salt (Again, I just gave it a few shakes)
1/4 tsp. thyme
1 tsp. basil
1 tsp. oregano
1/3 tsp. pepper
1 cup sour cream

Combine herb layer ingredients and spread over crust.

Meat layer:
1 pound ground beef
24 oz. spaghetti sauce

Brown and drain ground beef and combine with spaghetti sauce; pour over herb layer. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. Top with:

Mozzarella cheese
Parmesan cheese (I omitted the extra parm and it was still delicious)

Heat until melted.

Picnic, anyone?    

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Summer Delights

So far this summer I've encountered  more than one blessing in disguise, and I sure needed some. 

For one thing, I just could not keep up with our garden this year. As Little Mister's therapy schedule grew more demanding in June, I had to make a calculated decision to just focus on saving a few of our crops that we really count on and enjoy. That meant corn, pickles, berries, and a tiny watermelon patch. I had to say good bye to beans and peppers. It was a sound strategy. As I'm fond of saying, I can't do everything, I'm already doing too much.

Here are five little unexpected delights:

Free tomatoes! 
I only planted three tomato plants this year, and planned to buy tomatoes for canning projects. As it turned out, I didn't have to buy anything! This bushel came from my brother-in-law, and a neighbor gave us a box for free.

Help in the garden. Little Mister is a champion berry picker. Just forget that he sometimes eats them all before they ever make it into the house. 

Mystery flowers! I must have thoughtfully scattered a pack of flower seeds and then promptly forgot about it.  A  row of these tall flowers  prompted me to wonder if they were wildflowers or what? I honestly don't recall planting them, but I have a whole row.

Butterflies! This year I planned on doing several batches of pickles and was a little worried when I saw these bugs systematically eating every ounce of my dill.  It turns out they become eastern swallowtail butterflies, and now we have butterflies everywhere. Oh, and the dill recovered. So far I've done three kinds of pickles and am planning for one more batch.

Oh, the view! I love when the farmer who works the land around us plants field corn. More often it's soybean, but I think this is so much nicer.

 And to think it's not over yet. How I love summer.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Smooth and Sweet Black Raspberry Jam

It's black raspberry season, my favorite harvest of the year. 

 A few years ago when we were visiting a friend in Ohio, she served the smoothest, most flavorful pie made from black raspberries. It was love at first bite. On that same trip I also found a delicious black raspberry jam, silky and seedless, a rarity in that type of jam. I started growing our own soon after that, but was never able to find good instructions on how to make a jam like the one I remember from a few years ago. Most of the recipes I found were either jellies, or they had instructions but no actual measurements. I read about a dozen recipes and created this one. If you have access to these delicious berries, this is a great way to stretch and preserve them so you can still enjoy them after the season is over.

This jam is equally delicious on breads or stirred into plain yogurt. It makes my morning!

There is one thing you can do to make this an even easier project: Cook the berries the night before, strain out the seeds by pressing the berries into a mesh strainer over a bowl with the back of a spoon, and let it the strainer continue to drip into the bowl overnight. The next day, you'll have your juice for jam making and can either freeze it for another day, or go ahead and cook your jam.

You will need 3 liquid cups of berry juice, which equals about 6 pints of berries.

1/4 cup lemon juice
1/2 tsp. butter
5 cups sugar
1/4 cup plus 1/2 Tablespoon pectin

Combine berry juice, lemon juice, and sugar in a stockpot. Add 1/2 tsp. butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to a full rolling boil over high heat that cannot be stirred down, while stirring frequently. Add pectin. Continue hard boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if needed.

Ladle into hot half pint jars leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Process in water bath canner for ten minutes.

Makes 6-7 half pints.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Strawberry Ministry

While the world stands in awe of box office beauties and other spotlight seekers, my intense admiration is aimed at two unlikely women. We shall call them Mary and Anna, and I came to know of them came from hastily digested news blurbs that I read late at night. Both in the ninth decade of their lives, Mary sewed something like ten dresses a week for the purpose of having them sent overseas for women who had little or none. Anna, in her lifetime, has sewn over 23,000  cloth bags which are then filled with donated school supplies or hygiene items and again, shipped out for relief efforts. I've actually sewn a few of those bags in my time, a very few, and if you had to sew even one thousand of them you would go mad.

Anna said something like, "Well, I'm home all day with a sewing machine, and people donate the fabric for free so it seemed like something to do...around here they call it my ministry."

And I was in awe, this time at her combined humility and sense of duty. She might have just as well declared that there was air, so she figured she better breathe it.

I find personal ministries fascinating, and am always interested in finding out what people consider to be their ministry. There's a lot of talk among wives and mothers about how our families are our ministries, and yes, a home ministry is important, too. Yet, it's always the unrecognized workers toiling in the fields that get really pique my interest. It's also a little frustrating. My imagination holds a hundred ministry ideas, everything from giving breaks to young mothers so they can get much needed showers, to animal therapy and organic farm co-op ideas. There can never be enough time on earth for all of my wonderfully under developed ministry concepts. 

The past two weeks have found me buried in berries. We had an enormous strawberry harvest this year. Every time I turned around, stainless steel bowls glimmered at me with juicy red jewels in need of processing. I did all my jams, and a pie, some strawberry bread, and stuck boxes in the freezer. I actually got tired of them pretty fast, and found joy in passing out quarts to friends and neighbors. That joy was multiplied when I found out the local berry farm was charging a whopping six dollars a quart this year. For about a week, it was fun to surprise our friends and family with strawberries, and while putting my bigger dreams of grand endowments for the greater good on hold, it was somewhat fulfilling to have a brief strawberry ministry. After all, there they were and we couldn't eat them all. It's comforting that I might have another fifty years to find my footing as a Marry or Anna. Until I do, I'll keep looking for more opportunities in small benevolence.

Do you have a ministry? I'd love to hear about it.


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