Monday, April 29, 2013

52 Weeks of Happy - 17/52

Joining in with Jen at little birdie, here are my four photos of happiness for the past week.


I played with the small Bears' Lite-Brite this weekend, while drinking a bottle of hard cider. Yes, it's a wild and crazy life for me. Really, though, I enjoyed it a lot! Today's Lite-Brite toy is completely different from the one I had as a child, but mostly in really good ways. You can't burn yourself, for one thing. And four children could work on it at the same time, because it's a square, whereas mine was wedge-shaped with only one screen. Given the way my two squabble over it when they work on it at the same time, I have trouble picturing four kids doing this in harmony but I like the idea. On Sunday morning, the small Bears seemed slightly annoyed with my temerity, but I did reuse an old sheet which had already been punctured by pegs. Hey, Mommy likes to play too.


On Saturday, we ate lunch at a brew pub. We love to eat there; the food is good and the beer selection is excellent, though only the Bear imbibed (I drove). We ate on the outdoor patio this time, under a big umbrella, since the weather was perfect. This was my lunch - a club sandwich (turkey, ham, bacon, cheese) on toast with lettuce and tomato and fresh guacamole on the side. Oh, so good. I took half the sandwich home with me and ate it for lunch on Sunday. I ate all the fries then and there because who takes home fries? They're too good not to eat right away.


Swimming towels and bathing suits on the clothesline! Hard to believe it's that time already. The little boy next door invited my small Bears to play on his Slip 'N Slide on Saturday afternoon. It was nice out but not terribly hot, maybe 80 degrees. They had a great time, though; everyone got slathered up with sunscreen and they were excited to dig out their swimsuits. The GB's little suit is new, I bought it on clearance last year and put it away for her to grow into; the LB is growing more slowly these days and is wearing his suit for the third year in a row. They made me laugh when they put them on; each came out of their respective bedroom doing a different type of modeling walk to show off their beach bods. They are silly little people who make me very happy.


It doesn't get much better than quiet time alone with a juicy book and some chocolate. During the week, I enjoyed this experience while both children were in school. I relaxed on my bed, reading and eating chocolate. This is far more luxurious chocolate than I would usually eat; it was Valrhona Le Lait 29% Cacao - in other words, very light milk chocolate. I like dark chocolate, but I really love milk chocolate. Cadbury's Dairy Milk is just fine, but I enjoyed this special treat very much. The book is Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll, a memoir written by the sisters who front the rock band Heart, one of my favorite groups. I'm loving the book; they are really interesting women and I'm an avid reader of memoir and autobiography, especially about lives very different from my own.

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Those towels and bathing suits are the real deal - summer is so close now! The small Bears will be done with school by May 22. This past weekend was the mass registration for swimming lessons at all the city pools; I have signed them up for two sessions, each running for two weeks, at our local pool, which is just up the road from us. I chose sessions which are not consecutive, to spread it out over the summer. Both will have musical performances and picnic or potluck lunches with their classes in the last few days; there has been much rehearsal singing going on around here! We're really in the wind-down time now. All the teacher gifts are done; I'll share them soon!

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Hello and welcome, new readers and followers! I'm so happy you are here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Garden, grow












This weekend we set out to a local plant nursery for our annuals. We often go to Lowe's or Home Depot for our plants but this year we went to a locally-owned place instead. The Bear's parents had generously given us a gift card to this nursery for our joint Christmas gift this past year. We decided to use the gift card toward our annual plants.

I had been to this nursery before but it's always surprisingly beautiful whenever I go. It's a great place to shop for plants and the employees are extremely knowledgeable, especially about planting in a desert climate. The greenhouses and outdoor rows are full of fantastic plants, all very healthy. There are lots of bubbling fountains and water features which are enjoyed by the small Bears. We all love to walk up and down the lanes between potted trees. The garden supply shop has lots of decorative items, much of it in the Talavera style like my beloved birdbath. I was especially taken with the pig statue.

I have been on a quest to find good plants for my pots in the front yard. I have tried so many different kinds of flowering annuals - pansies, petunias, geraniums, alyssum, marigolds and dianthus, among others - and they all do poorly. The front yard faces due south and gets full sun all day long. My poor plants just can't handle it, even with frequent watering. I got some good help from an employee at the nursery, though, and I'm feeling hopeful: she suggested verbenas and lantanas. These never even occurred to me, though I have always liked them. So now I have a big planter near the entry to the courtyard with a spiky purple salvia, and two verbenas, a lavender and a bright pinky-red. In smaller pots nearby, I planted a white verbena and a yellow lantana.

Backyard plantings have been a challenge for me as well; there are some parts of the back patio area which get intense sun all day long and other parts which get almost none at all. To a large degree, it has to do with the height of the garden wall but there are other features which contribute to making too much shade in some places. I decided to go with non-flowering plants this year. I did one planter full of multicolored coleus and the other with basil; I always have basil in a pot in the house and I end up moving it outdoors anyway, so we'll just start with potted basil outside right from the get-go this year.

The Bear has decided he would like to try to grow grapes. He chose two varieties, a green and a red, and planted them in the side yard where we have a narrow planter bed running the length of the house. This side gets western exposure so the sun won't be strong until afternoon but he wants to give it a shot; many people here do grow grapes successfully and we even have vineyards in the area. We'll see...I'll be sure to offer periodic grape reports. He also did hanging planters for strawberries and cherry tomatoes. It will be wonderful to have these growing in the yard! We already have some strawberry plants in the ground; they yield just a few very tasty berries every summer.

Last week we planted our seed packs in the beds around the water feature in the backyard. I've been watering daily but haven't noticed any seedlings yet. I have my fingers crossed; I sure would enjoy some wildflowers to pick for display in the house. I can already see them on my kitchen table, bright, cheery and homey. I know just the tablecloth to buy on Etsy should my flowers work out the way I am hoping they will...

If I sound like my gardening exploits are performed on a wing and a prayer...well, it's the truth. I really enjoy gardening but it is not my strong suit. It doesn't help that this climate is so harsh and unforgiving. I have invested countless hours into reading books, perusing websites, forcing neighbors and friends to divulge their gardening secrets, haranguing my mother-in-law who happens to be a doctor of botany - not to mention my long-time subscription to Sunset magazine - all to very little avail so far. But I am really hoping I have finally cracked the code with the front yard, at least. Time will tell and, for better or worse, my blog will bear the news.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Life lately...


Chocolate daisies bloomed in the planter beds of the front yard.


Trumpet vine, with great suddenness, created a verdant canopy over the courtyard.


Fresh melon was devoured with abandon.


Pleasing arrangements were created while I emptied the hutch to dust the shelves.


Afternoons were whiled away with bubble-blowing.


Scholars were hard at work.


Cinnamon crumb-cake was baked and enjoyed (also with a fair amount of abandon).


Apples, not to be outdone, had their chance at baking too.


Teachers' gifts were completed with gratitude and appreciation.


Wild asters continued to sprout, convincing me that they aren't weeds.


We were blessed with a sky like this, day after day.

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On Thursday morning, I did the shopping at Trader Joe's, as I do every week. I love shopping there; the people are nice and there's always a pleasant conversation to be had. This week, I was captivated by a little boy shopping with his mother. This little boy was about three years old; his mother said he was adopted from Ethiopia just a few weeks ago. He does not yet speak any English. He had an incredibly beautiful smile and he smiled all the time. The cashier gave him a strip of stickers, as the cashiers there usually do with small children. They happened to be scratch-and-sniff stickers so she showed him how to use them. He was so excited! He gave a great big belly laugh and kicked his feet and grinned from ear to ear. His happiness thrilled me.

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The scene: our family room couch, late afternoon. My small Bears and I are listening to the radio while we look at wildlife magazines. Roy Orbison's "Pretty Woman" is playing.

LB: "This song reminds me of you, Mommy."
Me: "Oh, thanks, that's nice."
GB: "I hope you'll always be a woman, Mommy."
Me: "Um...that's the plan..."

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Hello to my new readers and followers! Welcome to my little space. I'm so glad you're here.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Vegetable lasagna


Every few weeks, I make a large vegetable lasagna for dinner. I usually do it on Monday, as we are devotees of the Meatless Monday movement. I like to make this lasagna because it's healthy and hearty and gives us leftovers, enough for a couple of lunches for the Bear to take to work with him.

I've been working on this recipe for a long time. Early in our marriage, we traveled to New Zealand for a vacation and visit with the Bear's parents; they live most of the year there. We spent some time in the small town of Taupo, near Rotarua, and ate dinner one night at an Italian restaurant where I ordered vegetable lasagna. This was my first experience with it; I have a partly Italian background and ate lots of lasagna all of my life but it was so different with the addition of veggies. It was very moist, fresher and lighter than lasagna made with just cheese, or cheese and meat. I went home and started trying to replicate what I had eaten in Taupo; over the years, I've tried numerous recipes, altering them in my own way, and I think I'm finally getting it right.

My recipe is actually very simple. I use "no-boil" pasta, a mixture of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, marinara sauce and assorted vegetables. I also add an egg to the cheese mixture to help bind it all together. For vegetables, I really like zucchini, carrot and broccoli but you could use almost anything in your lasagna: eggplant, yellow squash, greens such as spinach or kale, mushrooms. As long as it can be sliced or cut finely and layered between the pasta sheets, it's all good.

Ingredients

12-15 lasagna noodles (I prefer the "no-boil" type; notes to follow)
3-4 cups marinara sauce (I like Trader Joe's version; homemade is obviously most authentic)
16 oz. ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
1-2 small zucchini squash
1-2 carrots
About a cup of chopped broccoli florets
1 egg
1-2 tablespoons milk
Boiling water

Method

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Pasta notes: I really love to use "no-boil" lasagna noodles; you don't need a huge pot of boiling water and you don't have to fish out the hot noodles. I always burned myself when I tried to do it. I started using the "no-boil" type a few years ago and it is easier, but "no-boil" is a bit of a misnomer, in my experience. I found that the noodles never got completely cooked if used in their dry form; at best, they'd be rubbery and sometimes they were even crunchy. This is not a good lasagna experience.

I learned a great technique from America's Test Kitchen, which is one of my favorite technical resources for cooking. They suggested soaking the dry noodles in boiling water for fifteen minutes before using them; this gives them time to soften and the water will be cooled after that time, making them easier to handle. It's a great technique and I really recommend it.

I start by placing two 9x13 Pyrex dishes on the counter, spraying one with Pam. This will be your lasagna pan. The other will be your noodle-soaking pan. I fill my electric kettle with water and bring it to a boil, then fill the noodle pan about 2/3 of the way. Then I drop the noodles into the water one by one, taking care not to press them against each other at all; this will make them stick. If you drop them in and let them float, they rarely stick.


While the pasta is soaking, you can prepare your cheese mixture. Beat the egg in a large bowl. Add the ricotta and milk and stir to combine. You can add seasonings to the cheese at this point if you wish; I usually add salt and pepper and sometimes dried herbs like basil or oregano. Then stir in about 1 1/2 cups of the mozzarella cheese. I personally prefer to use whole-milk ricotta and part-skim mozzarella; I feel this gives the lasagna richness without being too heavy. But you can use whichever fat contents you prefer, it's fairly hard to go wrong with cheese.


Next, prepare the vegetables. With carrots and zucchini, I use a vegetable peeler to create long, thin strips. These work well for layering between the noodles and cheese. They will also cook better if they are thin. Be careful with the peeler, especially as you get down to thin slivers of the squash or carrot; it can get a little slippery when there's not much left to hold onto.


The pasta should be cool enough to handle by this point, so start preparing the sprayed baking pan. Place about three tablespoons of sauce in the pan and spread it around to coat the bottom of the pan.


Now you can start building the layers. Place a layer of pasta over the sauce and then spoon some of the cheese mixture over that. I like to use a small off-set spatula to spread the cheese evenly over the pasta. Once the cheese is spread, add some sauce to cover it.



Now you can add vegetables. I start with the zucchini strips because they are so flat and easy to fit into a neat arrangement. Then I'll place some carrot and broccoli on top of that. Make sure the veggies are laying nice and flat so that the next layer of noodles isn't lumpy; the cheese is harder to spread that way.



Keep working in this fashion; the final layer should be just pasta with sauce spread over it.


Cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Bake for about 45 minutes. The lasagna will be bubbly when you remove it from the oven. Carefully remove the foil; there will be a lot of steam. Spread the remaining half-cup of shredded mozzarella over the lasagna and place it back in the oven for 5-10 minutes, to allow the cheese to melt.


Remove from oven and let the lasagna rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing; this resting time will help it to set and it will be easier to slice and serve. I will usually slice this into eight large servings but it can easily be slices into larger or smaller pieces as you desire.

I hope you like this delicious lasagna! It's one of my family's favorite dishes and everyone looks forward to veggie lasagna night. The small Bears don't even seem to notice that they're eating veggies. Everybody wins! Enjoy my lasagna recipe and let me know if you make it; I'd love to hear whether it worked well for you, especially the noodle-soaking method.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Very berry crochet hook roll


I recently finished a little project just for me. I often give away the things I make or create them for family use. This time, I made something that is for my use only and I designed it to suit me. It feels really good to do that sometimes.

I wanted something special for storing my crochet hooks. I have a set of six Susan Bates Silvalume hooks, sizes F-K. I had been keeping them in the little vinyl pouch they came in when I bought them in 2002. It works okay but is starting to get worn out. I'm also planning to acquire other sizes of hooks now that I'm crocheting seriously and learning more.

I began searching for ways to make myself a more durable storage system. And why not make it adorable at the same time? That's right, I knew you'd agree. There are so many different ways to make a hook case, and I considered crocheting one; a crocheted case for crochet hooks is very meta, isn't it? In the end I decided to sew it instead, because it seemed like it might be more durable if made from fabric.

My inspiration for this case, which is actually more of a roll, came from a few places. One person who inspired me is Sandra, of the blog Cherry Heart. Sandra recently created a couple of really gorgeous patchwork hook cases and I took a lot of style cues from her. Christina, of the blog Christina Lowry Designs, has an excellent tutorial on her blog for making a crochet hook roll. Her tutorial offered many of the technical details I needed.

I also drew inspiration from the Bear! Did you know that he sews? It's true. Most of what he sews is utilitarian, items he makes for shop or outdoor use. He sews by hand and sometimes with my sewing machine. He has lots of great design ideas too; he's a true renaissance man.

Sidebar: he brought his own sewing kit into the marriage and he impressed me beyond measure by showing up for our very first date in a shirt onto which he had sewn a new button that afternoon; it was from a thrift store (another brownie point from me) and was a very nice shirt, just in need of one replacement button. Our love was written in the stars.

The Bear had made a very nice storage roll for his chisels a few years ago; he used heavy canvas material and added tie-strings recycled from an army-surplus bag. His chisel roll is so neat and compact, I knew it would be a good design for my hooks.

I'm really happy with how it turned out. Want to see some more pictures? I'll offer some commentary as we go:


This is the front of my hook roll. As you can see, it's very berry-ful. This roll is mine, all mine - and I made it with my favorite motif, strawberries, to reflect that. This part is definitely Sandra-inspired; she did hers with patchwork and appliqued cherries.

My patchwork is made with a dozen different fabrics, some bearing strawberries, in pinks, blues, reds and whites. The solid off-white portion at the top is cotton linen from an old set of curtains; I've kept them as scrap material. A closer look at my patchwork:




I made felt strawberries to applique onto the white portion. These were fun to make. I created a little template with pencil and paper and used it to cut out berry and leaf shapes from sheets of felt. Then I hand-stitched them onto the linen.



I finished the front of the roll with a strip of pretty white cotton lace stitched over the seam between the linen portion and the patchwork portion. I made my ties from narrow red grosgrain ribbon; they were stitched into the edge between the front piece and the backing.



The backing is made from a scrap of blue pinpoint-oxford cloth; I used the same material for the hook pocket inside. I feel my pocket could use some improvement; it's about an inch too tall, making the pouches deeper than they ought to be. My hooks slide down to the bottom of the pouches. I could fix this by sewing a seam straight across but I think I'll leave it for now; it's not a big deal if the hooks slide down. If anything, it helps them stay inside the roll more securely.


The top folds down over the hooks before the case is rolled up, to help them stay inside.


I made a total of fifteen hook pouches (plenty of space for as many hooks as I might collect) and one larger one, at the left-hand side, which can hold a small pair of scissors or other implements. This was a great tip from Christina's tutorial.


The whole thing rolls from right to left in a neat tube and the ribbons tie around it to keep it closed. I purposely left the ribbons a bit too long so that they can still be tied when I have more items inside the roll.


It's neat, sweet and just my style - homespun, a little bit country, a little bit faux-vintage. Strawberry-riffic!

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