Monday, April 16, 2018

Around and about

Hello from our place, where we're doing everything and nothing at all. It's the time of year when life starts getting a little hectic, with only six weeks of school left before summer break. We have class plays and music and dance performances coming up. Everyone is beavering away at their parts. But at the same time, it's calm and collected, which is nice. The weather has mostly been very cooperative, apart from several very windy days and an abrupt cool-down that lasted for precisely two days, and brought weird little ice showers, before the weather warmed right back up again. When it isn't windy, with all the dust and grit that implies, it has been very pleasant.

We're spending a lot of time in the yard, getting things ready for summer. I think I'll buy my annuals this coming weekend, along with our vegetables, to let them have plenty of time to settle in before it gets really hot. I plan to buy geraniums for my barrel on the back patio; after several summers of geraniums in the barrel, I feel like I have a handle on it, and I don't want to play around anymore. Geraniums do just fine there. My main concern is getting to the plant nursery before all the nice colors are gone. I would really like an assortment of reds and pinks, as well as white. I can usually only get coral or red. It's always a balance between getting them early enough to have a nice selection, and planting them late enough to avoid a late freeze. I know this seems like something silly to feel stressed about, but I kind of do; I'm such a low-skill gardener that I need the stars to align as perfectly as possible.

Over the past few weeks, we've been having fun with a rock tumbler given to us by a beloved neighbor who is about to retire and move away after a long career as an elementary school teacher and principal. The small Bears love her - we all do - and we're sad to see her go. She gave the small Bears the rock tumbler a few weeks ago; she's trying to clear out for her move. They walked by her house at the right moment and she offered it to them. It's really fun! (And grumble, grumble educational). We put all kinds of rocks into it, just random ones we collected from our own yard (most areas are xeriscaped, with various types of gravel and rocks covering the ground). We also put in some pieces of obsidian collected in the wild, on hikes and visits to various outdoor locales. Everything came out so interesting, shiny and colorful. We tried different things too, like adding a sprinkle of Comet into the tumbler and putting the rocks into our ultrasonic jewelry cleaner after all the tumbling for a good cleaning. I don't know if any of that really had an effect, but it was fun to experiment. Meanwhile, we're learning a lot about rocks and I'm looking at them with new eyes - anything could turn out to be a beautiful specimen with enough tumbling and polishing!

I've spent a lot of time lately straightening up my bedroom and closet. It's amazing how much clothing I had been hanging onto that I just didn't want or need anymore. Kind of ridiculous, really. I'm happy to keep things like college sweatshirts and my old, comfy robe, but I was pretty ruthless otherwise: if I hadn't worn it in two years, it was a goner. This was actually a really effective metric. I filled two kitchen trash bags with things to donate to my favorite charity-based thrift store. I also have some winter things the small Bears won't be able to wear next year, and the Bear plans to add some shorts that are now too big after recent weight loss. I'm happy to see it all go. The rest of the bedroom got a deep clean and better organization in the closet aside from just the clothes. I want to get some bins for my side, which I plan to look for at the Container Store (now there's a fun place to shop). I love the feeling of de-cluttering! What a rush.

I'm getting close to finishing my hexagon blanket - just a couple more rows left. I've been working on it almost exclusively when I have crafting time. I'd like to get back to cross-stitch soon, though. I miss working on my little teapot, which I started over the winter. I've been happy to watch some of my PBS shows back for new seasons, like Call the Midwife and The Doctor Blake Mysteries. We started watching Unforgotten, which is really good and suspenseful. I also started watching, by myself because the Bear would hate it, the show Doctor Foster on Netflix. Yikes...that's all I can say. We're still plugging away with Midsomer Murders at the rate of one episode per week; the Bear likes it too but doesn't have as much time for TV-watching as I do, so I try to wait for him. I think this is very nice of me, don't you? We just finally got to the point where Tom Barnaby decides to retire and his cousin John takes over. It feels like a watershed moment. I loved Tom and I like John so far too. I enjoy his dog as well. I hope the show stays good; I have a lot invested in it at this point, what with these piecemeal viewing habits.

I hope April is being good to you so far and that you have a good week ahead! Take care and enjoy, my friends.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Quickle pickle

For the past few months, the Bear has been on a quest for the perfect homemade sauerkraut recipe, and I'm sorry to report that he hasn't achieved it yet. I'm not much of a sauerkraut fan even when it's the best possible example of the food, but these attempts have been...unimpressive. The first batches went bad altogether - right past the safely-fermented stage - and the most recent doesn't seem fermented at all, just watery, salty cabbage in a jar no matter how long it sits there. He wants to keep trying; he certainly has my support. Cabbage and salt are cheap and he can try as many times as he likes, as far as I'm concerned. He's the one who loves sauerkraut, after all. His attempts at sauerkraut have made me interested in pickling again, as I was a couple of years ago. I made pickled carrots and cucumber slices using recipes I'd torn out of Sunset magazine years before. I really liked them, and had been keeping the idea of making more quick pickle recipes in the back of my mind.

Let me backtrack...a couple of weeks ago, the Bear borrowed a Mark Bittman cookbook from the library (How to Cook Everything: The Basics) and we've both been thumbing through it in our spare time. It's a nice cookbook, full of really simple, well...basic, recipes for things that are truly everyday foods. I've been needing more recipes like this in my life lately. I'm always eager to try new things, but I'm also striving to develop a better set of simple meals to keep in the rotation. As our kids get older and life gets busier, I'm feeling less inclined toward really experimental cooking and more drawn to getting simple cooking right, such that everyone likes and wants to eat the things I'm cooking. They're less likely to do so when I'm trying to branch out and do fancier things, it turns out. I'd rather see them eat the meals and enjoy them, and if it's easier for me to churn the meals out, even better.

So the pickles...Bittman has a section on appetizers and snacks where he includes a recipe for quick-pickled cucumber spears, along with suggestions for other quick-pickled vegetables such as carrots and cauliflower. These pickles are not fermented; they might be better described as marinated. You're making a simple vinegar-based liquid for them to rest in, as opposed to leaving them to nature's special microbial process. I decided to start with cucumbers, as in the main recipe, because they were two for a dollar in the grocery store, and gigantic.

Quick Pickle Spears
adapted from How to Cook Everything: The Basics, by Mark Bittman

1/2 cup white wine vinegar
2 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
2 large cucumbers

I peeled my cucumbers because I used the kind with tough skins and an added wax coating. If you have nicer cucumbers, such as the English variety, you don't need to peel them. I used the regular kind because English cucumbers cost more than four times as much as they do in my grocery store - hardly the kind of expense I want to undertake for homemade quick pickles. You can remove the seeds, but I didn't bother because I like the seeds.

Cut the pickles in half crosswise, then cut each half lengthwise. Then cut each piece into three spears, for a total of a dozen spears from each cucumber.  

In a medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, oil, garlic, salt and bay leaf with 2 cups of water. Bring this mixture to a boil on the stove.

Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and add the cucumbers. Leave them in the mixture for 30 minutes, stirring the cucumbers occasionally so that they all get some time submerged in the mixture while it cools.

Transfer the cucumbers to a container that has a lid, adding the liquid from the pot. I chose to use quart-capacity mason jars with two-piece lids, just because I had some handy. You can eat the pickles right away, or refrigerate them overnight, as I did, to allow the flavors to develop. Bittman says they should stay fresh for at least a week in the fridge.

We tried our pickle spears the next day with our lunch, chicken salad on English muffins. They were good! I liked the surprising crispness of them, but I would have liked a bit more flavor. I could try adding mustard seeds or dill to the recipe next time; these were more like eating cucumbers with oil-and-vinegar dressing, but I suppose that's what you get with quick pickling. Also, having oil on a pickle is a new experience for me; I made sure we ate our pickles over our plates to avoid oily drops everywhere. I would like to try other vegetables as suggested. I think a mixture would be nice. Maybe next time, I'll try carrots or cauliflower, or a mixture of both.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Apple blossom

It's Friday afternoon and I'm just relaxing here in my family room after a long, tiring week. Nothing specific, just a lot to do and plenty of running around. This morning, I had errands to run and ended up at Target, walking around and browsing without buying much of anything. I don't really need much, clothing-wise, aside from a new bathing suit. Mine is about five years old now and it shows. I also need new bras and underwear, but I didn't feel like trying things on today, which I have to do with bras. So I just walked around, and you know, it was really nice.

I love Target. I have a circuit: ladies' clothes, then shoes, then bed and bath, then housewares, then cleaning supplies, ending with kids' clothes. I do the same circuit every time, even when I don't need anything. I just like to see if there's anything new. I saw some cotton quilts I really liked, which made me wish I'd bought our new lightweight quilt there instead of ordering one from Amazon. The one I bought is microfiber, which is nice enough, but I'd rather have cotton. Next time. My main purchase was a new pack of cinnamon Trident (my favorite) for my purse. I ended my trip with a soda from the snack bar, which I drank while watching people go by. I played solitaire on my phone and listened to two old men at the next table discussing their favorite Simpsons episodes. Honestly, it was the best morning I've spent in a while.

Spring is in full swing here. The apple tree is covered in blossoms, which makes me hopeful for a good apple season this year. I have one lonely tulip almost ready to bloom in the backyard. Some creature ate my solitary hyacinth before it could bloom. For years, Miss GB picked that hyacinth as soon as it bloomed. It's pink, which was all it took for her to zero in on it and pluck it out of the ground. I think she did that every year between the ages of one and four. When she couldn't talk well, she also shouted "Pitty!" (pretty) as soon as she laid eyes on it. It didn't bloom for several years. It finally seemed ready to bloom again but I think it's just too beautiful for this world.

I'm about to make my afternoon cup of tea, get my yarn basket and crochet some more hexagons. I might watch Gilmore Girls. I started watching it on Netflix a few weeks ago. I'm actually enjoying it, to the astonishment of several. I never liked this show when it was on TV; I found the incessant snappy banter beyond annoying. But I was bored recently and decided to give it another chance. I like it now! The GB likes it too. I'm glad to have another long series to watch, having finished Switched at Birth last year. I like nicer shows all of a sudden. Not everything has to be a gritty drama or a scathing expose; gentle, uplifting television is okay too. Shocking news.

Speaking of which, I've been reading a wonderful book, Tell Me More: Stories about the 12 Hardest Things I'm Learning to Say by Kelly Corrigan. This is a collection of essays in the which the author explains why she needs to say a word or phrase more often, ranging from "yes" and "no" to "I was wrong" and "I know." Each story is very thought-provoking and they range from hilariously funny to heartbreaking. I'm enjoying this book so, so much.

I hope you have a terrific weekend. Here, we'll be working around the house, including preparing the swamp cooler for the upcoming season. I will not be joining the work crew on the roof, but I'm sure they'll find something for me to help with on the ground. I might have to break out a pair of shorts because it's going to be very warm tomorrow. Which means I need to shave my legs, I realize as I write this.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Happy Easter

Happy Easter from my family to yours! I hope you're having a lovely weekend with your loved ones.

These are just a few photos from our egg-dyeing this year. We love this tradition, it's an important part of our Easter holiday. I use the basic Paas egg-dye kit, the one they sell at Hobby Lobby. I like the basic colors best, just six bright colors that you mix up with vinegar and water. Sometimes I buy the more deluxe kits with nine or ten colors and more fancy stickers and all of that, but generally, I go for the simpler kit. I boiled 18 white store-bought eggs for dyeing. Between those, and our hens' eggs, plus the extra eggs I bought for our Easter morning breakfast casserole, we're going egg crazy here. Frittatas and omelets are on the menu for the coming week, and everyone is getting hard-boiled eggs in their lunchboxes!

Thanks for your supportive comments on my hexagon-joining tutorial. I'm relieved to know that it's understandable and that it may be helpful to someone out there. I'm having so much fun with these hexagons, I just have to tell you. It's just a little bit different from most things I've made, and the geometry of them is interesting; they're keeping my attention and I love working on them. I'm even enjoying bright, multi-colored crochet again; I'd been feeling bored, or maybe irritated, with that look for the past year or two, but lately, it's appealing to me again. It's all helping me to keep an open mind about my crochet. It's such a fulfilling hobby for me, and I'm enjoying the process of growing my skills and developing my tastes over time and with experience.

I have all the food I plan to cook tomorrow. The menu includes spiral ham, a potato side dish, asparagus, dinner rolls and a Marie Callender's coconut cream pie for dessert (I took the easy way out, yes I did). I'm looking forward to making the kids' Easter baskets tonight after they go to bed, and hiding some plastic eggs filled with jellybeans in the backyard. We do this every year, for them to find in the morning. They're getting big for it now, but they still enjoy it. I don't know how much longer we'll have an egg hunt, but I plan to keep making baskets for them indefinitely. Who doesn't love a basket of candy and fun trinkets? Nobody I know! I'll make them for our grandchildren someday too, and their parents if they still want one. I love Easter. What a lovely, happy holiday.

Have a wonderful celebration with your friends and family! Happy Easter and happy spring!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Join as you go, hexagon edition

Hey there! I hope you're having a good week. Our Spring Break is in progress now, and we're enjoying that very much. I've been crocheting up a storm; we've mostly stayed home and I've been able to get some much-needed rest and relaxation after a crazy few weeks. Yesterday was stormy and cold, which was perfect for staying in, eating soup and drinking tea, watching a movie and working on my blanket. Just wonderful. This morning, I went to the dentist for a check-up and cleaning (a good report, thankfully), and this afternoon, we'll go to the GB's ballet lesson. I was secretly hoping we'd get a week off, but they're staying open for classes during the break. Tomorrow, I'll go to the store for our Easter ham and white eggs for dyeing.

Today, I want to show you how I've been joining my hexagons. I've chosen to join them as I go, just because I really like to watch the progress as the blanket takes shape, and also because I don't enjoy sewing or crocheting them together later. Sewing motifs is particularly fraught for me; I never seem to be able to estimate the length of yarn I'll need to sew motifs together, and I end up with more ends to sew in. Crocheting them along the edges hurts my hands after a while. So JAYG works best for me. I looked for a tutorial on JAYG for hexagons, but I wasn't totally satisfied with what I found. This is how I've been doing it, which is not say it's my invention, just what is working well for me.

For the body of the hexagon, I'm following a basic six-round granny hexagon pattern from a blog called Novamade; Nova's hex pattern (click to see it) is simple and easy to follow. Following the pattern, I'm making one chain between clusters on the sides, but in the outer cream round, I've added a chain in the corners, for a total of two chains. This gives more space for joining at corners. I'm joining my hexagons in horizontal rows. As with any JAYG method, start by making the outer round on one hex, then join them one at a time in a strip, joining the left-hand side of each hex to the right-hand side of the one before.

Once you have the desired number of hexes joined in your first row strip, move on the next row. Hexagons will need to be arranged in a staggered way, like a honeycomb. You'll have long rows alternating with short rows. I'll show you how to make half-hexagons another time; these can be used to fill in the spaces along the sides created by the staggered rows. My blanket has eight hexes in the long rows and seven hexes in the short rows.

I'm going to show you how to join a motif to the ones above it, and if needed, the one to the left of it.

My instructions are in US terms:
double crochet = dc
slip stitch = sl st
chain = ch

Start with the right-hand corner above the straight edge. Chain 3, one double-crochet in the purple corner space, followed by one chain. (This would be the same way to add the first hexagon in a new long row; you'd just join it on this side and continue all the way around the hexagon to complete the border round. In a short row, you'd need to join both top angled sides).

Slip stitch into the corner space of the hexagon above, then make two more dc into the purple corner, to complete the corner clusters. Then sl st into the next ch above. Continue along the side of the hex being joined, making 2dc in each space and a sl st into each ch above, until you reach the next corner space.

This is actually where three corners will meet: the corner of the hex you're joining (purple), and two above it - one from the hex you've been joining to (red), as well as the one to the left of that hex (teal). Make 2dc in the purple corner.

Now sl st into both of the corner spaces above. I've numbered the spaces: first, do the right one (red), right above your hex being joined, then do the left one (teal). This is different from JAYG with squares, where you would join only to the square above and the square to the left, not the one diagonally above to the left. Do you know what I mean? Here, you're joining all three corners. Once you've sl st to both corners above, make 2dc into the purple corner. Then sl st into the ch space to the left of the teal hex's corner.

Continue down this side until you reach the next corner - 2dc in each space, sl st into the ch space above.

Just as you did at the previous three-way corner, sl st into the right (dark teal) corner, then the left (light teal) one, and then make 2dc into the purple corner. Sl st into the ch space above, and continue down the side (you're joining the left-hand straight side now), making 2dc into spaces and sl st into ch spaces above.

Now you've reached the lower corner of the left straight side, and you need to join this corner to the corner of the hex to the left. Make 2dc into the purple corner, followed by one ch.

Make a sl st into the ch space of the light teal corner, then 2dc into the purple corner. Don't sl st into the next space like you did before; now you're done joining this hex and you're going to crochet the rest of the round along the other three sides. Continue along the next side of your hex, making 2dc into each space with a ch between each 2dc cluster. For all of the remaining corners, add a ch in each, for a total of 2ch in each corner.

When you reach the original corner, sl st into the top of the ch3 from the first cluster, fasten off and weave in ends. Join the next hexagon in the same way, starting with the upper right-hand angled edge of the hexagon and continuing around all sides.

I hope this tutorial makes sense. Pattern-writing is not my forte, but I've been asked several times for tips on joining hexagons since I began sharing this blanket on my blog. I just want to help you visualize the method, but please feel free to ask questions or let me know if something is unclear. Joining hexes is really easy once you have the hang of it. Think of it this way: all you're doing is joining each side, and corner, that touches another hexagon. I've given a detailed description of joining hexes in the middle of a row, but end rows are even simpler: for the final hex in a long row, you'd start with the top point of the hex, since there's nothing to join the right side to. You'd be joining on just the top left angled side and the left straight side, continuing the border around the rest of the sides. Always make 2ch in the "free" corners so that there's space to join another hex, a half-hex, or add a blanket border.

Here's a simplified text version of what I just said, in case you'd find that helpful:

Start with right-hand corner above straight side.
In starting corner, ch3, 1dc, ch1. Sl st into corner above, 2dc into corner space, sl st into ch above.
First angled side: 2dc into next space, sl st into ch above, repeat until next corner.
Three-way corner: 2dc into next corner, sl st into corner space above (right corner), sl st into left corner, 2dc into joining corner, sl st into ch above.
Second angled side: 2dc into next space, sl st into ch above, repeat until next corner.
Three-way corner: 2dc into next corner, sl st into corner space above (right corner), sl st into left corner, 2dc into joining corner, sl st into ch above.
Straight side: 2dc into next space, sl st into ch above, repeat until next corner.
Next corner: 2dc into corner, ch1, sl st into corner to the left.
Remaining sides: 2dc into each space, ch1 between clusters, 2dc, ch2, 2dc in each remaining corner. Continue until starting corner, sl st into original ch3, fasten off and weave in ends.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Spring back

Hello! It's been a little while since I blogged, and I've been missing this space. It seemed like my feet never touched the ground for the past couple of weeks, what with another mild illness through the house, lots of school and work commitments, and a general sense of exhaustion and irritation leading up to our first school break since Christmastime. The weeks just seemed to drag on and on; gosh, it was really starting to feel stressful. But we're officially on Spring Break as of today, and so far, I've spent most of the day doing virtually nothing, which has been fantastic. I did sort some pajamas and other clothes for the children, as I'm in the process of changing their drawers over to warm-weather clothes. I also emptied the dishwasher, and straightened up my desk and my yarn bins in the office closet. But that's it - today is my day off. I only have to drive somebody somewhere once today, and it isn't until late afternoon. The weather is beautiful today and the small Bears have been outside since they finished breakfast. I'm reading and crocheting, mostly. Sometimes, mild lassitude is the only right answer.

Are you ready for Easter and/or Passover? I think I am. I've acquired the basket candy, and I have the other small trinkets ready. I know what I'll be cooking, but haven't bought any food yet; I'll do that toward the end of next week. We may have some guests for Easter dinner, unusual for us. I've invited my friend and her daughter, who is friends with the GB, to join us. I'm always happy to have extra people over for holiday meals. The coming week will see us mostly relaxing at home and getting the yard finished up for spring and summer. There are some sprinkler-system repairs to do, and plenty of pruning and raking. We've worked all winter on various things, but it's never done. I'm looking forward to spending time outside and taking walks and going to the park.

I'm enjoying spring-ish cooking lately. I made a really good frittata recently, a variation on my standard recipe involving a little meat, a little cheese, and whatever veggies are on hand. This one had some leftover salmon we'd smoked ourselves, with some onion, chopped dill, and little dollops of cream cheese. It was delicious! I make a lot of frittatas, especially in warmer weather. We have been getting about two eggs a day from the hens for the last few weeks, so I'm always looking for ways to use eggs in our meals. When I make a frittata, I use a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet. I brush the bottom and sides with a little olive oil. I saute the vegetables, whatever they are, in about a tablespoon of butter in the skillet, add the (pre-cooked) meat, then I pour in six lightly beaten eggs, letting the eggs cook a little on the stove top, until the edges are set. Then I put the skillet in a 375 degree oven for about 20 minutes, until the center of the frittata is set and the top is lightly browned. I don't like to use the broiler for frittatas; my broiler is hard to control and the frittata will burn on top before it's cooked through. So I experimented with oven-baking and this is what works for me. I use all different combinations of ingredients. Frittatas are good hot or cold, and are especially nice with some boiled baby potatoes and a green salad.

We also made granola recently. I was looking for a low-sugar, low-fat recipe and came across Nutty Granola by Ellie Krieger, which turned out so nicely. I have made a few of her recipes before and always liked them. I've mostly made things I've seen on her Create TV show, Ellie's Real Good Food; her Forbidden Rice Bowls have been a particular hit around here. I like her recipes because they're healthy without being boring, and she uses very basic, easy-to-find ingredients (on the Create show, you can tell a lot of them come from Trader Joe's, which is one of my two main places to buy groceries, so usually easy-peasy for me to get whatever she's using). The granola was so nice; there's just a small amount of maple syrup for sweetening and structure, so it's really nice on yogurt or as cereal with milk and fruit. And the recipe was so simple - the small Bears did most of it themselves.

I've been feeling very self-conscious about my eyebrows lately. Surely, you've noticed the trend toward heavy eyebrows over the past few years. I haven't thought about my eyebrows much since I was about fifteen years old, when I started tweezing them in the style of the time. That style is way over now, though, so for the past year, I've been letting my eyebrows grow in. It's so hard to resist the temptation to pluck them after what, almost 25 years of it! It's been almost as hard as when I resolved to quit biting my nails. I don't think I'll ever have the luxuriant eyebrows of today's fashionable people, though; they were never naturally thick to begin with, and I'm sure all the years of plucking hasn't helped. I did buy an eyebrow brush, which makes a huge difference. I'm so not interested in using makeup on them. I'll just keep resisting the tweezers and using my brush. I never dreamed I would spend so much time thinking about my eyebrows, noticing other people's eyebrows, watching videos about eyebrows. I'm actually really sick of eyebrows.

My hexagon crocheting continues. I've made - and joined - about half of the hexes I want for this blanket. I think I may put it on our bed when we start using our lighter-weight quilt soon. I'm sad to report that Maybelle has seen very little use, but I'm actually less disappointed about that than I thought I would be by the end of this winter. When I finished Maybelle in November, I expected to use it on the bed with our new comforter, which is very thick and warm (honestly a bit too warm on many nights during the mild winter we just had). Maybelle was more than we needed, warmth-wise, and also a bit difficult to use because it's so large. Maybe it would be better used as a family blanket; three of us can sit under it with room to spare. If the hex blanket turns out nicely, I might make that the bed blanket instead. Or I'll move them around as needed. Really, it's hard to go wrong. I still love Maybelle, and have a lot of good associations with it from the eight months I spend crocheting it, but it may not be right for its intended purpose after all. It's totally okay, though, because we'll always have a home for a big blanket.

I probably should start thinking about lunch for me and the outdoorspeople, so I'll let you go. I hope you have a great weekend, and hopefully good weather to enjoy where you are. I know how tired of snow you must be in some parts of the country, and maybe elsewhere too. May the sun shine and springtime weather take over very soon.
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