Wednesday, May 29, 2013

First posy







The flowers in our backyard are finally mature, and plentiful, enough to clip for a bouquet. I cut these flowers this morning and placed them in a small pickle-relish jar I've been saving. I love flowers in simple glass jars. The greenery inside is almost as pretty to me as the blooms are.

My posy includes a clipping of white buds from one of our Nandina (Heavenly Bamboo) bushes, a red rose from my large bush, a golden yellow Coreopsis blossom, deep pink Sedum, pale pink primroses and a fuschia Sweet William flower. I love the pinks and reds together.

This might not be the kind of bouquet you'd find in a florist's shop, but it makes me happy. We grew these flowers ourselves, tended them all spring from the first shoots. We will prune and water and fertilize them all summer long. If the weather cooperates, we'll have blooms into November.

I placed the jar on the kitchen table so that we can enjoy the posy while we eat. It's bright and cheery. Pretty posy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Homemade strawberry jam


The women in my husband's family are consummate homemakers, every last one of them. They grow their own fruits and vegetables and can or preserve everything. My mother-in-law tells of canning the sour-cherry harvest days before she was due to give birth to my husband, nine months pregnant in the heat of mid-August in Colorado, working so hard she sent herself into labor. She started working again as soon as she got home from the hospital. Country people!

These days, she lives in a climate where she can grow citrus fruit, as well as berries and stone fruit, and she makes curds and marmalades and jams and jellies galore. I've long admired these skills and wanted to try it myself, but I lacked confidence. In my family, the women buy a jar of Welch's grape jelly and call it done. This is fine, but I wanted to expand my horizons, so last week I made a batch of strawberry jam all by myself. I would mostly call it a success, but I still have plenty to learn.

I do not own a canner. I really can't justify yet another piece of cooking equipment in a kitchen already bursting with too many, so I set out to find a method that does not require a canner. I have numerous old cookbooks which belonged to my mother-in-law and others in that part of the family, but they may be too old; they want you to "paraffin" the jars and such. I turned to the internet, of course, and there was a lot of information there (I mean, look at this). I read a lot about strawberries themselves, my favorite fruit, which it turns out I knew very little about.

In my research, I came across an interesting blog called Three Hobbits and a Giant, which contains a post all about making strawberry jam without a canner. In this detailed, photo-heavy post, the author and her sister make a batch of strawberry jam without using a canner and they swear it works. They use the dishwasher to heat the jars and they boil the jar lids, then they work very fast to spoon the hot jam into the hot jars and clamp on the hot lids with jar rings. Hmm...it sounded a little weird, but I was willing to try it.

I put eight half-pint jars in the dishwasher on the "sterilize" cycle and placed an equal number of lids in a shallow skillet of water and set it to boil on the stove. I started working on four pounds of berries, which I washed, hulled and sliced into quarters (or halves, or eighths, depending on the size of the berry). Then I mashed them by hand, sometimes with a stainless steel potato masher, sometimes with a wire pastry blender from the 1940's, an artifact passed down to me by my husband's family (I love this thing). I mashed them until they were mostly liquified, but still had a lot of good-sized chunks. For pectin, I chose Certo liquid; it was a better deal at Walmart than the powdered type.


Once the berries were prepared, I transferred them to a big stockpot and let them come to a boil on the stove, stirring often. Then I measured the sugar using the ratios specified in the Certo box insert (which is actually a beautiful, full-color guide with tons of information; I'll be saving it). I stirred the sugar in, let it boil again and then added the pectin (which I had left standing up inside a cup, to make sure it had settled into the pouch completely before cutting off the top to pour it out). I cooked it for precisely one minute after adding the pectin, as per the Certo guide, then took the pot off the heat.


You can see that the mixture became very foamy after I cooked it with the pectin. I realized later that I had forgotten to skim the foam; apparently, you can also add a small amount of butter during the cooking process to reduce the foaming. Next time, I will do something to cut down on the foam. It's not a problem, but it doesn't look as nice as non-foamy jam does.

Next, I started filling my jars. I took them out of the dishwasher (using a pot-holder because they were HOT), and filled them one by one, very quickly, and put the hot, boiled lids on with their rings. When they were screwed on tightly, I turned all the jars upside down on the counter, which is what the blogger said to do. My husband, accustomed to women who make jam in more orthodox ways, looked at me like I was crazy. "But a blogger said to do it like this! And you know how I feel about bloggers!" I said. "Okey-dokey," he said.


I left them there until they were completely cooled, then I tentatively turned them over and inspected their lids. Every last one of them had sealed. Be still my heart! That was literally the last thing I expected them to do. Explode, leak all over the counter, turn moldy in a couple of hours - all of these seemed far more likely than sealing properly did. Holy cow. I transferred them to the buffet in the dining room to give them a peaceful, out-of-the-way place to set. By the next morning, all had thickened rather nicely.

I sterilized too few jars and ended up with about 2-3 jars' worth left over after portioning out the strawberry mixture, so I placed the leftovers in a plastic container and refrigerated it, planning to eat it all over the next couple of weeks so it wouldn't go to waste. This is the only part of my jam that I've actually tasted so far, but it's delicious. We've been eating it almost every day, for breakfast or lunch. It makes an especially good PB&J sandwich. It's a little runny, but not terribly so.


When I saw my mother-in-law over the weekend, I told her all about my jam-making experiment and she was impressed with the way I did it. She was probably also a little surprised that they had sealed but she didn't really show it. She graciously accepted a jar of my jam to take home with them. With any luck, they will survive. Ha...I'm just kidding (mostly). I really enjoyed my first attempt at jam-making and I'm going to do it again. I want to get good at this. It seems like a very good skill to have and I actually found it to be really fun. I'm getting more domestic all the time.

Monday, May 27, 2013

52 Weeks of Happy - 21/52

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


My roses are blooming. This rose is on one of my two miniature rosebushes, both in the backyard. They both produce tiny, perfect red roses throughout the summer and into the fall. I love the intricacy of these little roses; they seem impossibly small yet they have an incredible number of petals and a surprisingly strong scent. They're cheerful, sweet and plentiful - both bushes are absolutely covered with delicate little blooms. I have enjoyed getting to know my roses.


The Bear and I celebrated our anniversary with a child-free restaurant meal. We really needed it. We had not been out without the children in almost a year. We did miss them, and talked about them a little, but we were very happy for the break. The photo quality is not great, being a darkish restaurant in the evening, but we really enjoyed our dinners. This was mine - broiled stuffed shrimp, rice pilaf and steamed broccoli. It was delicious, if not exactly decadent. Don't worry, we stopped by a coffee shop for huge slabs of cake on the way home.


The Bear made this card for me in honor of our anniversary. It's a thistle and a bear, get it? If you've ever wondered about the name of my blog, here's where it came from: my husband's parents call him "the Bear," and have since he was a baby. He has called me "Thistle" since we met, after a song by the band Cracker. Thistles, and bears, have been integral to our relationship. The word "Thistle" is engraved inside my wedding band. Our children are also Bears; I actually do often call them Little Bear and Girl Bear, and have since they were born. He wrote some beautiful things inside the card, but the illustration makes me grin.


Lastly, I was given two very special gifts this weekend. My in-laws brought these lockets from New Zealand when they came this week. They were both gifts to my mother-in-law, from her mother-in-law, the Bear's grandmother, to whom she was very close. She didn't wear the smaller gold one much and it had been empty a long time. The larger one was one of her favorite items of costume jewelry when she was younger. The Bear was actually in on this, though I had no idea. See the tiny photos in the small locket? Those are my small Bears, in portraits taken recently. The Bear sent to them my in-laws and they took them to a photo lab to be made miniscule, smaller in diameter than a US dime, then they put them inside the locket. I didn't expect the photos to be inside; it took my breath away when I opened it.

The larger locket is really interesting; it has metal "pages" inside it you can flip through, to hold multiple photos. That's the Bear as a baby. The other "pages" have photos of his family when he was a baby and young child. My mother-in-law encouraged me to remove them and put my own photos in, but I think I will keep his baby photo and add one of the rest of us, so that it holds all four of us as babies. My in-laws are very thoughtful, generous people. I am their only daughter-in-law (sadly, they lost their other son when he was young). They have given me many very special family items. I appreciate them so much and I love that my husband helped keep this wonderful gift a surprise.

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Hello and welcome, new readers and followers! I'm so glad you're here. I hope you enjoy your visits to my blog. If you have a blog, please let me know so I can visit you too.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Tiny dancer




Our petite ballerina had a dance recital on Friday. It was adorable and she did a great job. As recitals go, it was pretty simple; the children showed us what they have learned since class resumed in January, after the Christmas holidays. The GB attends a pre-ballet class, which is really a fundamentals-of-dance kind of class. I have no dance training whatsoever, but I would have enjoyed it as a child. I offered her the opportunity because she has been dancing since she learned to stand. So far, she is doing well, and more importantly, she's having a lot of fun.

The dance school is wonderful; family-owned and in business since the 1940's, this studio offers classes for ages three through adulthood. All year, there has been a ballet class for adults in one of the other practice studios at the same time as the GB's class, and the women in that class have performed for the little ones and vice versa at the recitals. The little ones watch in fascination, as do the parents; these ladies are really good dancers. The little girls (and boy) in the GB's class are good too.

They normally wear blue leotards (with their initials embroidered onto the right shoulder area) with pink tights and some will also wear a ballet skirt (we don't have one). They did part of their show in just the leotards, then they put on these yellow tutus for a dance where they pretended to be ducklings (the little boy wore a snazzy gold-sequined tunic over his usual t-shirt and tights). The GB is still working on her attention-span in class and sometimes does things that aren't part of the routine, but she's improving a lot. I have already signed her up for next year; we're done now for the summer and she'll go back in August, around the time school starts again. I know she's looking forward to it.

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Today is our eleventh wedding anniversary! We also became engaged 12 years ago today. As I've mentioned, May is an important month in our history together. I love that we start the month, on the first, with the anniversary of our meeting, and end it with our wedding anniversary. We are planning to have dinner out tonight, without the kids. The Bear's parents arrived from New Zealand earlier in the week and they will be staying with the small Bears. They're bringing pizza for the four of them to eat and they'll get them into bed afterward. We're really excited for our evening together. I'm just crazy about this guy; I've been in love with him since I was 20 years old, darn near half my life.

I'll leave with you a music video. We consider this to be "our" song. It was popular when we met and it's still one of our favorite songs. The lyrics are uncannily similar to what we were feeling like when we met and had to be separated a week later, only seeing each other once a month or so for the next two years. It was hard, but it was worth it.

Go on and close the curtains
Cause all we need is candle light
You and me and a bottle of wine
Going to hold you tonight
Well we know I'm going away
And how I wish, I wish it weren't so
So take this wine and drink with me
Let's delay our misery

Save tonight
And fight the break of dawn
Come tomorrow
Tomorrow I'll be gone...



Thursday, May 23, 2013

Officially summer break












That's all she wrote. Summer vacation commences today. Or maybe it commenced around noon yesterday when we left the LB's school after his class's musical performance and potluck luncheon. Either way, it's a little hard to believe we've got another school year in the books. When did I go from a student myself, to a young teacher, to a mother of babies, to the mother of a child going into his third year of school? He'll be a second-grader in the fall. The GB will have her final year of preschool. Meanwhile, I'm now finding that my gray hairs are the first thing I notice when I look at my reflection in the car window. They really glimmer in the sun. Time is kicking my butt.

This week has been busy and pretty exhausting, truth be told. The GB finished her school year last week, so she has been home with me every day and not especially happy about it. She loves her little school and she already misses her friends. I will have to make plans with their mothers this summer. The LB has been hard at work with his class, getting ready for their musical performance. It was really enjoyable. They did a little show called "Every Day is Earth Day," and sang songs related to recycling, conservation and caring for the earth.

I had hoped to take nice photos and video of the performance, but the lighting in the multi-purpose room was poor. They did a great job, though. After the performance, we went back to the classroom to eat and watch a slideshow prepared by one of the mothers; that's the LB's photo above, in the spider mask. He wore it at school on Halloween. The school's theme for the year was "bugs"; everyone was asked to come dressed as some type of bug. For Christmas, he presented me with a beautiful punched-tin wall decoration with the same photo glued in the center, which they made in school; I hung it in the hall outside our bedroom and my spider-boy-Bear is the first thing I see when I leave our room each morning.

The GB and I spent some time wandering in the school's courtyard before the show started; we had some time to kill even though I carefully planned several errands for the time between dropping him off and the start of the show. I photographed some of the plants. I love the way the courtyard reflects our state's biomes as well as the changing seasons. We gazed at the goldfish too. The goldfish pond is iffy; the filtration system has to be solar-powered, as per the LEED certification our school proudly holds. It doesn't always work well. The fish seem perfectly happy, though.

Did you catch the yarn-bombed statue? That's the front end of a three-piece dragon statue made of cast concrete; the dragon is the school's mascot. Some girls from the upper grades yarn-bombed the dragon earlier this spring. I watched them work one morning when I arrived early for pick-up. It was thrilling to watch these children confidently knitting and crocheting in the sunshine.

At home, we're getting into our summer groove. Outdoor lunches - the small Bears sit at the kid-sized picnic table and I sit nearby on the patio. Wading-pool time in the afternoons - I sit with them, preferably out of splashing range, and read. This week, I've been reading this fantastic cookbook/memoir, LudoBites. If you like to read about renegade culinary types, I recommend it highly.

I've also been finishing up the teacher-gifting that I started weeks ago. I appreciate teachers so much and I want to do nice things to show them my appreciation. I've been making cards for them; my cards are not going to win any awards but I deeply enjoy breaking out my shoebox full of washi tape and stamping supplies. I earned some raised eyebrows this year by not agreeing to go in with other parents on communal spa-day gift certificates for teachers but that's okay with me. I believe gifts should be from the heart whenever possible and my heart wants to make things for others.

The Bear has been away for his work this week, off to Washington DC to meet with military and government people. I'm holding down the fort pretty well. We had our customary McDonald's dinner and we have little activities each day to stay busy until he comes back. Saturday is our eleventh wedding anniversary and we're planning an evening out sans enfants. I can hardly contain my excitement!

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Thank you so much for your kind comments on my crocheted pillow cover. I am happy with it and glad it turned out as well as it did. I wasn't exactly sure what I was doing or whether it was going to work! I find so much fulfillment in my hobbies and it's really fun to share them with others through my blog, in such a helpful, supportive community.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A crocheted pillow cover


I just finished making a crocheted pillow cover and I'm really happy with it! This pillow cover is my own design, and I wasn't quite sure how it would turn out but I think it's pretty good for my first try. I have made fabric pillow covers before and I used the same basic techniques here, only with crocheted pieces.

The cover is made with Stylecraft Special DK acrylic yarn, my personal favorite acrylic these days, and a 4.00 mm hook (I use Susan Bates Silvalume hooks). I used leftover balls of Stylecraft in the same colors that I used for my giant granny square; since this pillow is to be used on our bed, I wanted to work with the same color palette. The main color in the pillow's front is Aster, with bits of all the colors in the "Lucy Pack" assortment from Deramores, plus Teal because I love it.

I made the front first, creating nine "circle-in-a-square" granny squares. For these squares, I used Solveig's tutorial, found on her blog, Sols(tr)ikke. I love this pattern. It's very well-written and easy to follow. I made one modification to her pattern - I added an additional round to each square to make it a little larger. Solveig simplifies the pattern and I'm looking forward to eventually trying a "flowers in the snow" blanket with these squares; I think it would be a perfect addition to my little lady's bedroom. Solveig offers instructions for joining-as-you go, but I didn't think mine looked right. So I sewed mine together instead, and I like the "window-pane" effect it gave them.

For the pillow's back, I made two pieces in Lucy (Attic 24)'s granny stripe pattern, using the same yarns again. I wanted the backing to be colorful and kind of crazy. The pillow insert is 14 by 14 inches square; I made the front piece 15 by 15, to give a little extra room. The back pieces are two different sizes, so that they can overlap. The bottom piece is 9 by 15 and the top one is 7 by 15. This way, there's about an inch to overlap.


I made the upper piece with a solid edging; I did an extra row of granny clusters, followed by a row of double crochet stitches straight across. Then I slip-stitched straight across in each DC, creating two button-loops as I went, about equally-spaced across the row. These were made with six chains each.


I sandwiched the three crocheted pieces, right sides together (my right side is everybody's else's "wrong" side; I just like it better). Then I sewed them together with Aster and a yarn needle, catching only the outer part of each stitch to create a nice, neat edging. At the sides, where all three pieces were layered to create the opening on the back, I sewed back and forth several times to reinforce the seam. This is how it looked sewn, but still inside-out.



I turned it right-side out and put the pillow inside, to be sure it worked. The pillow is a simple 14-inch square covered in unbleached muslin. I bought it on Etsy, from a very sweet lady named Nancy, whose shop, Fine Linen and Scarlett, has every kind of pillow insert you could ever want, at great prices. She ships fast and she's very nice to work with. I bought a few pillows from her because her prices were excellent, even with shipping.


It's really fun to try to translate what I know from sewing into a whole new medium. The back cover pieces overlapped by about an inch, just like I wanted them to. And the cover fit the pillow nice and snugly. I was glad I followed my instinct about creating room allowance; I know crochet can stretch quite a bit and I didn't want the cover to be baggy.


Now it was time to think about the buttons. I wanted fairly big ones, to make a sturdy closure; I think the ones I chose are half an inch in diameter. I sewed them on with a needle and thread, with the pillow inside. This helped me be sure they were going in the right place. I find it a bit difficult to sew onto something crocheted, but I just make lots of stitches and that generally does the trick.



Nice and snug. It worked just the way I wanted it to. The seams looked pretty good too; I was glad I'd sewn into the outer loops of my crochet stitches because the seams came out neat and tidy.



I was ready to try it out on our bed. It looked good, pulling together the duvet set and my Giant Granny afghan. I'm so proud of the way our bed looks today; we waited a long time - ten whole years of marriage - to have a really nice bed that is a true piece of furniture, not just the cheap frame they throw in when you buy a mattress. Now I'm all about prettifying the new bed and giving it homespun, handmade charm. This pillow is just what I've been after, even if a certain jokester around here now refers to the bed as the "crochet museum." Whatever, I know he loves it too.





I'm proud of my pillow and happy with the way it turned out. I'm already thinking about the next one; I think I'll use a rectangular insert I ordered from Nancy, measuring 12 by 14 inches. I'm not sure of the pattern yet, but I'm thinking ripple. I love having a pretty bed and I am so glad to be developing the skills to make things like this myself. I'm so happy to walk past my bedroom and see these colorful items I've made. One's bedroom should be a homey, cozy haven, I think. I love that ours is taking shape this way and that I'm able to do it myself.

Monday, May 20, 2013

52 Weeks of Happy - 20/52

Joining in with Jen at little birdie, here are this week's happy photos. It's hard to believe I've completed 20 weeks of this project, it feels like I just started.


I got a really fun package in the mail. It's a jelly roll of 1930's reproduction quilting fabrics. I ordered it from an Etsy shop called The Fox and the Fable. I've never worked with jelly roll strips before but I've been really drawn to 1930's reproduction fabric lately and thought this would be a good way to build a little stash. I have a few other patterns, mostly in the form of fat quarters and quarter-yards, which I've picked up at fabric stores. This roll has 30 strips, each 44-45 inches long by 2.5 inches wide. There is plenty here for a few small projects. One that I have in mind is a small quilt to use as a picnic/park blanket...I'm still working out the particulars.


This is just a small slice of our backyard but it's making me so happy now that everything is blooming. This bed runs along the eastern side of the yard, and it's a raised bed edged with vertical railroad ties and filled with flowering plants. The roses are just about to bloom; that's my biggest rosebush and it's covered in buds. It should only be another week before I can start clipping a few to bring indoors. Gardening is a lot of work but we really love the results, and as I've discussed, we're learning new things all the time.


We used our little portable fire-pit for the first time this season; we had the fire in the afternoon so the small Bears could experience it too. Toward evening, when there were just a few embers left, we made toasted marshmallows. We use these long forks specially made for cooking food in the fire, which makes it a little safer. I usually hold my marshmallows too close to the fire anyway, and end up with charred marshmallows. The Bear does a much better job and he made me a delectable, lightly-toasted marshmallow which I really enjoyed.


The small Bears have been playing in their pool every day for the past week. It's hot in the afternoons, hitting 90 degrees some days. I fill the pool in the morning and by afternoon it's like a tepid bath. I fill it every couple of days, to conserve water; old water is collected in buckets and used for plants. This pool is brand-new, bought last weekend. The previous one finally gave up the ghost after three summers of use. I really think these little pools are one of the best investments I've made as a parent. I will miss the easy, cheap entertainment when they get older.

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

Friday, May 17, 2013

This week...and a winner!


Chartreuse daisies from the bargain floral cart at the grocery store, cheerful in a bright pink vase on my kitchen counter.


I'm working on a crocheted pillow cover. It isn't done, and the front is only draped over the pillow insert here, for effect. 


 I made mushroom risotto and it was really good.


I'm eating as much asparagus as humanly possible.


 Fruit salads are all the rage around here.


Leisurely afternoons in the backyard with two small Bears and their pool. And a funny, engaging new book from the library, Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir.


Dark skies most afternoons as storms roll through. This is summer in New Mexico. Sometimes we'll get a little rain, sometimes we'll get none. Sometimes we'll get a torrent with high winds. You just never know.

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I have drawn a winner for my giveaway! I assigned a number to each comment on my giveaway post, then drew a number at random. The winner of my giveaway, and the proud new owner of a blue chevron scarf is Christine. Please message me with your address, Christine! I will send the scarf to you as soon as I can. Thanks to everyone who participated in my giveaway. My readers and followers are wonderful and I appreciate all of you very much.
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