Monday, October 31, 2016

Happy Halloween




 


Mouse by the GB

Bat by the LB

Owl by the Bear, with bonus cobra (scroll up to jack-o-lantern group photo to see)


The jack-o-lanterns are carved, the costumes are ready, and the pumpkin bucket full of Halloween pencils is ready for trick-or-treat time (yes, I am that neighbor who gives away pencils, but you should see how popular they are!). Yesterday, we carved the pumpkins on the back patio, leaving them on the edge of the raised planter bed with tea lights inside for the whole evening so we could look at them from inside. Tonight, we'll eat Papa Murphy's jack-o-lantern pizza for dinner, move the jack-o-lanterns to the front walk, don our costumes, and set off for another Halloween in our lovely neighborhood with friendly faces and sweetly spooky sights.

Happy Halloween wishes from our haunted house to yours!
Signed,
A mountain man, a black cat, a spider and a 50's girl.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Fading glory









Autumn, even a weirdly warm one like we've been having, is simply my favorite. I find myself drawn to the yard just as much as in springtime, only instead of watching the plants grow and bloom, now I watch them dry and decay. I think this end of the process is just as beautiful; some colors become more nuanced, while surprising new colors appear - my scarlet roses fade to burgundy, my puce-pink geraniums deepen to lavender and plum.

Inside, apples and mini pumpkins adorn my dining room sideboard and my living room coffee table, bright, seasonal food as decoration. There are no more flowers to bring inside but bright fruits and vegetables are just as pretty, I think. Soon, I'll buy cheap bunches in the grocery store - mums, carnations, alstroemeria - but right now, with all this swan-song splendor outside, warty little squashes and blemished homegrown apples are all the indoor color I need.

********* 


Thank you for your comments about our refinished front doors. I wanted to wait a bit before taking a full-view photo of them, to be sure we were really finished, but here they are. We're very happy with them. The color is really pretty and they look so shiny and smooth. I have to admit that I was really apprehensive about doing this job ourselves, and they aren't perfect, but I think we did alright for first-time door-rehabbers.

I hope you have a good weekend! We've got the usual here - music lessons, housework, yardwork, homework - but we plan to carve pumpkins and we've got costume prep to do. Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

In my autumn kitchen


We haven't been experiencing the cool, crisp days I dream about all year, not yet. Fall has made a few brief visits here and there, while most days have been much warmer than average for this time of year. I'm not really complaining; I love cool weather and I do hope it arrives soon, but a prolonged period of warmth isn't such a bad thing. We're saving on heating, for one thing. The small Bears are still mostly wearing shorts and t-shirts, which makes them happy. I can leave the doors open all day for fresh air and never have to worry about heat escaping, or heat coming in, for that matter. So I'm making the best of it. They say the weather is likely to turn in the first week of November and I'm looking forward to that. In the meantime, I've certainly started living like we're in the middle of autumn, even if it doesn't always feel like it. My cooking is probably the place it shows up most so far, as I've been busy making all the autumnal things we enjoy.


We've enjoyed an apple pie and a pumpkin pie so far, in addition to an apple crisp, to which I added a handful of dried cranberries. It's just a basic recipe from my trusty Betty Crocker cookbook, but it's an old favorite. We've had a huge number of apples given to us by a neighbor (ours were spent by the end of September), so I've been looking for ways to use them. Baked apples, apple pancakes and apple muffins, along with applesauce, have all been on the menu chez Thistlebear this fall.


I started roasting chickens again a few weeks ago. It's one of our favorite meals. Easy and plentiful too; there are always leftovers for soup or casseroles later in the week. It's my go-to Sunday dinner in the cold months, probably twice a month.


Lately, we've enjoyed an occasional change of pace with our chickens: the Bear smokes a whole chicken, cut into serving pieces, in our backyard smoker. He did this one on Sunday. He used applewood chips and the chicken was perfect - juicy and just smoky enough. He loosely follows a recipe from Steven Raichlen's Project Smoke.


Has there been some kind of asparagus renaissance over the past couple of years? I swear, asparagus is nicer, and cheaper, than it ever used to be. It's available all year now too; I always used to think of it as a spring-only vegetable. I've been buying it almost every week lately. We all like it but I think I could easily eat a whole one-pound bunch, just steamed or boiled lightly. Yum.


As always, when fall comes I want to make all the soups. I use the crockpot a lot, like when I make this chicken tortilla soup, from my own recipe (here, if you want to have a look). This is one of my favorite things to make with leftover roast chicken.


I discovered a wonderful tomato soup recipe recently, from the New York Times. It's really simple and easy to make and the soup is hearty and delicious. I've made it twice in the past two weeks!


I've been making one of my old standbys again, veggie lasagna. This one had spinach and carrot. I like to throw in whatever I have in the produce drawer and it's always a little different, but some of my favorite veggies to use are zucchini, carrots, spinach and mushrooms. I'm beginning to think I need to make two of them at a time - what used to feed all four us with a few leftover lunches isn't quite doing it anymore!

There's lots of other fall-ish dishes I love, of course, including other soups. Soup is just my thing. I make soup at least once a week, sometimes two or three times! I haven't been doing as much baking lately as I usually do when the weather turns cooler. I need some new ideas, actually; I'm starting to look ahead to Christmas cookies already and wouldn't mind trying something new. If you know one I might enjoy, please pass it on.

What have you been cooking lately? How does your cooking change with the seasons?

Friday, October 21, 2016

The stitching cure




It's been a week around here. We refinished our double front doors, which were looking fairly shabby for the past year or two, as the old finish wore off and the wood started to dry out. The doors are not fancy - they're the original builder's-grade doors from when the house was built in the early 1980's - but they're pretty, fully paneled with a carved floral section in the center. They are meant to look like old-fashioned Spanish-style doors (our house's exterior is designed in the pueblo style, with Spanish touches; the interior is standard four-bed, two-bath ranch with two living areas). We looked into having the doors professionally refinished but the contractors' quotes made me cry, so we did it ourselves. Basically, there were many phases of sanding interspersed with many phases of varnishing, all to the local 80's-only radio station because it gets you going. The doors stayed open all day long, which was actually nice, but we needed to finish the job while we're in the window of good weather for leaving double doors wide open all day (tediously, the deadbolt and doorknob had to be reattached every night before bed). It was a lot of work but the doors look much better now and they'll have better sun protection. Oh, that relentless high-desert sun. It's lovely, especially right now, but it can really do a number on your stuff. 

Meanwhile, regular life continued - work, school and homeschool, doctor's appointments, minor medical-insurance struggles (ugh), school meetings, kids' lessons, the odd cat on the roof late at night (yes, it kept me awake for hours; I think it was having trouble finding a way down). I meant to blog days ago but I never got around to it. Today is my day "off." I went grocery shopping, put all the food away and repackaged the meat into smaller portions for dinners. I washed and dried a load of towels. I cleaned the kitchen and the bathrooms. I don't have to do any school driving today, luckily. The Bear is doing it both ways. Whoop! We're a good team.

I've had very little downtime lately, but when I have had some, I'm finding myself working on the My Sweetiepie ABC's sampler by Alicia Paulson, which I began stitching in September. It's meant for my sweetiepie GB as a Christmas present. I'm trying not to put too much pressure on myself to get it done in time (I plan to have it framed, so I'll need to leave time for that as well). I do hope to finish it in time, though. I think it will be a nice gift. 


For me, the preparations for a stitching project are part of the fun. Alicia's cross-stitch kit comes very neatly organized with the flosses separated into three labeled groups, A, B and C. There are a lot of colors, so this makes it easier to figure out which is which as you make your floss organizers (using a piece of chipboard included in the kit). There's something about a craft kit that makes me feel really on top of things - all the supplies at my fingertips, ready to make something pretty. I stitch lots of pieces without a premade kit, but when I have one, it feels special.


Just look how neat and tidy...I love seeing the flosses laid out like this. I used my best handwriting, too. Always important. The colors in this sampler are really pretty. I like the way they range from neutrals and pastels through brighter, more saturated tones. The fabric is 28-count Cashel linen in a putty-beige color, I'd call it, but to me it also has a pinkish tone. I think the colors look really good against it. I'd expect nothing less than beautiful color sense from Alicia, though.


I really like how the sampler pattern is broken down into quadrants. Alicia says in the instructions that you can start with the apple for A if you measure so much down from the top and in from the left side, so you don't really have to start in the center of the design. This is a new approach for me; I've never started a cross-stitch project, even a tiny one, anywhere but dead-center. I like this a lot. I'm almost finished with the upper left quadrant. I hope the motifs are self-explanatory.


The house is my favorite so far. It took me about six hours altogether to stitch. It was so relaxing! I've said it before, but nothing soothes me like cross-stitch. Gosh, I love it so much. Look at the windows! And the red door! So sweet. I should have painted my doors red.


I still have an ice cream cone to stitch before I finish this first quadrant, but it's small. I'm excited for some other things later on. There's an octopus! Miss GB loves octopi, she draws them often and recently wrote and illustrated a story about an octopus family. They wore eight-legged jeans, which amuses me so. She doesn't know this sampler is for her, though she has commented several times that it would be "really nice for a girl's room." Perhaps she is dropping hints? Well, she is in luck because it IS for a girl's room - MY girl's room. I'm really glad to be making it, for her and for me.

What's new where you are? October shines and glows here. The weather here just won't quit - it's warm and sunny day after day after day lately, not a cloud in the sky, ever. It's lovely and slightly eerie. But the nights and mornings are nice and cold now, just the way I like them to be, and layering is easy. I'm pacing myself: when the wind is howling across the roof in January, I know I'll miss these balmy afternoons and sweater-worthy mornings.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Vista rosada








Autumn evenings are finally here. I wait all year for this short stretch - a week or two, no more - when the sunset happens at just such a time and in just such a way. Right now, it comes at a perfect moment, when I've finished cleaning up the kitchen and have just tucked the GB into bed. Suddenly, I'm free. The first thing I do is wash my face; it's my time-for-me ritual since I became a mother. I have always relished the feeling of a clean face and at the end of a long day, it's the one thing that truly refreshes me. I practically run to my bathroom after I shut her door.

If I get outside on time, I can watch the mountain take on the color of its namesake - Sandia, or watermelon in Spanish. The granite lights up orange-pink for just a few minutes and everything - sky, trees, my very skin while I stand there - glows a little. To the west, a fiery display as the sun sinks beneath the horizon. I look back and forth from mountain to mesa - it changes fast. By the time the moon rises over the garden wall, I feel calmer, ready to start the next round with the LB. He's been at the kitchen counter with the Bear, two sandy heads bent over a math textbook. Now it's time to supervise his evening rituals - chores, shower, last-minute backpack check - while I make something decaffeinated for me and the Bear to sip as we go about the rest of our evening. He works, I crochet or read. We watch mindless things on Netflix. Or smart-ish things, but not as much.

That's an autumn evening as we experience it. We're still waiting, as I write, for the weather to really turn. I haven't noticed the furnace to come on yet, as it will have once or twice by this time most years. This time of year is tricky, weather-wise; it can still be quite warm, as it was this past week. I felt disoriented; it was so dark, yet there was barely a hint of crispness. No sweater needed - no shoes, even. It's temporary, of course. By the end of the week, it's supposed to be chilly. The furnace will probably run. We'll kick off our covers in dusky early morning, waking to its familiar sounds, last year's dust toasting in the ducts. We'll eat our cereal in a pool of yellow light, talking about the fresh, new day ahead of us, and evening putters in the backyard will seem a million miles away.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Hawk in the yard


Do you see it?


This is a Cooper's hawk we spotted in the backyard last night while we were eating dinner. Our breakfast nook, where we have our kitchen table, looks out onto the back patio through a sliding glass door. We often watch the yard for squirrels and birds while we eat; we're all pretty enthusiastic about birds around here. We'd never seen a hawk right here in the yard before, though, so it was cause for excitement.

Have you seen a Cooper's hawk? It's a very common bird in North America, living year-round in many parts of the country. There has been something of a population explosion of Cooper's hawk in Albuquerque over the past few years. They say that if you live in the Northeast Heights quadrant of the city, as I do, then you probably live within a quarter-mile of a Cooper's hawk nest. Every park in the city has a mating pair, according to wildlife researchers. There are more nests here, in a fairly densely-populated urban area, than there are in the Bosque, the wooded area along the Rio Grande. The experts say that Cooper's hawk has been successful in the Northeast Heights because we've built an "urban forest" up here: the neighborhoods to the east of the Rio are older, therefore our trees are more mature, making good habitats for the hawks to nest. And not just hawks, but smaller birds like the pigeons, doves and sparrows that hawks want to eat. As the dove population increases, so does the hawk population.


We hear them a lot more often than we see them, I think. They have a very loud, piercing cry, which I am sure I have heard in the backyard before yesterday, so chances are good this was not the first Cooper's hawk to visit our yard, and maybe not even this particular fellow's first visit. He stuck around for a while, enabling me to take a few photos.


When he first arrived in the yard, we could see that he had a meal in his beak. It was probably a lizard, most likely caught right here in the yard. We have a huge lizard population in our yard but it's tough out there for them; they have natural predators in hawks and road runners, and I swear I've seen one of the hens with a lizard in her mouth. The hawk took more time with his catch than the road runners do, to the delight and/or disgust of those dining on the other side of the glass.

I find the hens' reaction to hawks very interesting. Hawks are a huge threat to backyard hens around here, though bobcats, coyotes and skunks are major concerns, too. I've seen the hens go into what looks like survival mode when there is a hawk circling in the sky over the neighborhood. They freeze, look upward and let out a terrible, shrill warning cry. They see the hawks before we ever do, even when it's just a tiny, dark silhouette far away. I assume this is a very primitive thing built into their brains: the shape of the hawk against the sky, the sound of its cry. When we spot a hawk, we put the hens back in the coop immediately. The small Bears are trained for it and they both watch the sky warily when the hens are having free-range time. The LB is particularly watchful; I've seen him carry each hen across the yard, looking up and in every direction on the arroyo, before hand-delivering her to the grassy patch where they like to roost.


The hawk eventually flew up to our weather station, which is fixed to the back garden wall, abutting the arroyo. He perched on the anemometer, looking out over the wildlife-rich arroyo for a long time. It was fully dark when I last heard him calling. He must nest nearby, possibly in the large city park just east of here, an easy thousand yards away if you can fly straight up the arroyo. 

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mexican Hot-Chocolate Cookies


I had very few real plans for the first day of the fall break. I wanted to stay home, catch up on some cleaning, maybe fit in some reading, a little crochet or cross-stitching, if possible. I also wanted to bake cookies. I hadn't baked cookies since summer; cookies require a blank space of a few hours and a lot of room to spread out. I hadn't had any of this lately, so cookies weren't happening. Yesterday, though, cookies were going to happen. I tried a recipe I've had my eye on for months, Mexican Hot-Chocolate Cookies from Martha Stewart, and oh, boy, am I glad I did! These cookies have the perfect flavor combination - sweet, spicy and richly chocolatey, just like authentic Mexican-style hot chocolate, with a very satisfying crisp-crumbly texture and pretty, crinkly tops.

Mexican Hot-Chocolate Cookies (my batch made about 4 dozen cookies)
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon chile powder (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, with racks in upper and lower thirds. In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, cream of tartar, baking soda and salt.


In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat butter and 1 1/2 cups sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Scrape down side of bowl. Add eggs and beat to combine. With mixer on low, gradually add flour mixture and beat until combined.


An interjection from me: the recipe calls for chile powder, which is not the same thing as "chili powder," such as you might use in chili con carne or taco meat filling. That kind is typically a prepared mixture of ground chile peppers, garlic, onion, cumin and salt. The kind to use for these cookies is plain ground red chile peppers. Here in New Mexico, this is easy to find. I keep medium-heat red chile powder, shown above, in my pantry, to use in all sorts of savory recipes. I was concerned about the spiciness of my chile powder and originally planned to use half the amount in the recipe, but it was very mild when mixed with the sugar and cinnamon, so I used the full half-teaspoon.


In a small bowl, combine remaining 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon and chile powder (if using). Using heaping tablespoons, form balls of dough and roll in cinnamon-sugar mixture. Place, about 3 inches apart, on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until cookies are set in center and begin to crack, about 10 minutes, rotating halfway through.


Let cookies cool on sheets on wire racks 5 minutes, then transfer cookies to racks to cool completely. (Store in airtight container, up to 1 week).


These are the most interesting cookies I've made in a long time. I don't take these things lightly - I really love cookies. But these are very different from the types I'm usually drawn to. The flavors are quite complex, spicy without being hot, sweet but not cloyingly so. The heat is mild, a light but noticeable warmth in the back of the throat - even the most spice-averse member of the family enjoyed them. There's an autumnal air about them, and as I suspected, they're even more delicious with a cup of coffee. Why are you still sitting there? Go bake some!
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