Sunday, August 19, 2018

Guitars and gelato

This weekend, we've been celebrating the Bear's birthday. We had a nice time! His birthday kicks off our "birthday season" here, with both kids' birthdays coming in September and my own in November. We have all the birthdays packed into just over three months' time, which is fun and just a little bit crazy.

We started celebrating on his actual birthday, Thursday, with little chocolate cakes baked in ramekins (the recipe is from a blog called Dessert For Two, which I love!). I've made these chocolate cakes several times already and they always come out delicious. I doubled the recipe to make four ramekin cakes. We have made some recent dietary changes in our household, so to account for that, I substitute Eggbeaters for the eggs (I used 1/3 cup because that's what the carton recommends for baking, and it seemed like a good equivalency for the two egg yolks that doubling the recipe would require), and I substitute almond milk for dairy milk in both the cake and the icing. I haven't noted any difference to the flavor or structure with these changes, so I'd call them a success. We had our cakes, then he opened his presents, which included an Epiphone electric guitar and a small amplifier. He's wanted one for a long time and we decided this was the year for it, especially since both small Bears are becoming quite accomplished players themselves (the LB is in his eighth year of lessons, the GB is in her fifth). All three of them have spent the weekend trying out the new gear. In fact, right now, I can hear the distant strains of "Iron Man" from the living room.

Our celebrations continued on Friday night with a trip to PF Chang's (his choice) for a birthday dinner out. Later, we went to Uptown, a local upscale outdoor "lifestyle center" to walk around, look in store windows, and eat gelato. I had my favorite flavor, gianduia (chocolate hazelnut). We only go out for gelato a couple of times a year, and I pretty much always have the same flavor, but it's such a wonderful treat, perfect for a birthday celebration. We're so glad he had a nice birthday.

We've spent the rest of the weekend doing things around the house, including delivery of a new mattress set for us. Our old one was pretty much a pancake with springs sticking out of it. We bought a memory foam mattress this time around, and though we still have 29 more nights of our 30-night trial, I think it will be a keeper. Before the delivery men came, we took the old mattress and box spring off the frame and vacuumed and dusted our room. Then the vacuum cleaner started making a horrible sound and we found that the beater-bar belt was shredded. Yay! No more vacuuming! Ha. We ordered a set of two new ones for like, five dollars, and have no fear, I'll be back to vacuuming by Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest. This morning, I helped the Bear go through his closet and weed out old clothes. I offered helpful insights until he told me to stop. In particular, I pointed out that his wardrobe made him look exactly like Chandler Bing. The good news is that we don't need to buy much of anything new; the black hole of that closet yielded plenty of options.

I hope you're having a good weekend and that you'll have a good week ahead! Here, we'll have our second week back at school (the first went very well, thank you for the well-wishes!), and some of our extracurricular activities will start up again. I'm looking forward to some more quiet mornings at home and I'm also planning to get back to regular walking now that I have a little more time to myself. I'm glad to be back in the swing of things.

I just had to share these two photos of faint rainbows that we saw when we were out and about on Friday night for the Bear's birthday meal and gelato. A storm was starting up just as we went into the restaurant for dinner and by the time we came out, the rain was letting up and there was a rainbow across the whole sky, but broken up into small sections. I didn't have my big camera with me, just my phone, and I took these photos from inside the car, but you get the idea. The Bear has had rainbows on his birthday most years; I know it's really a function of his birthday falling during the monsoon season, when we have lots of storms and plenty of chances for a rainbow, but I like to think it's a little more special than just the weather.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Back to school

Hello! How are you? Today was the first day of the new school year! We were so ready. It was a good summer, but sort of a long one (they always are; summer break goes on for close to three months here), and I think everyone was ready to get back to the daily routines of the school year. This year, I sent back a fourth-grader and a seventh-grader, which is really kind of staggering when I think about it. I mean, seventh grade? Wasn't I just in seventh grade myself? It feels like yesterday. He will be thirteen next month, it's hard to believe. And my little GB will be ten, also next month, which is also amazing. They're growing up fast, which is bittersweet but mostly really good. I love having big kids. They get to do so many cool things, including - as of this summer - occasionally staying home together without a parent for very brief periods. I can't believe we've reached that milestone! They were ready. I was a nervous wreck the first time, but it's all good now.

I hadn't had any time alone all summer. I'm not even exaggerating. We were together literally all the time, the three of us. This is mostly a really good thing, don't get me wrong. But I don't think I had more than about an hour by myself since school ended in May, and I was more than ready to spend some quiet time alone in the house. I did a bunch of housework right away, to get it over with. I started a load of towels, cleaned up the kitchen, made my bed, folded and put away some laundry. Then I went outside and watered my barrel of geraniums (which have become massive) and took a look around the backyard. I noticed that the pyracantha berries are well on their way to changing over to their autumnal orange hue.

I came inside and showered, then I ate breakfast. Just raisin bran and tea, consumed in blissful silence.

Then I got my supplies together for a project I've been waiting to start. It's a birthday gift for the GB, and I can't very well crochet it while she's around and watching me, so I held off until they were back to school. I'm using Bernat Pop! self-striping cake yarn for this project. It's my first time using cake yarn, which I'd been wanting to do for a while. This colorway is called Blue Blaze, which I chose because she tells me her favorite color as of right now is seafoam green. This seems to come close, I think, and I know she likes periwinkles and teals as well.

This is what I'm making for her. She would really enjoy wearing a poncho, and the pattern is sized just right for her (though I think it could easily be scaled up or down). The pattern is printed on the ball band, but I first came across it here, as a free download, on the Yarnspirations site.

I settled in to watch The Staircase on Netflix (I'd wanted to watch it all summer, but like I said, I was never alone during the day and it's not for kids, plus the Bear doesn't share my enthusiasm for true crime, so I didn't have the chance to watch it at night either; it's good, by the way, strange but good). By the time I'd watched three episodes, I had a pretty good start to my poncho. It's a really easy pattern and it works up quickly; I should be able to finish it well before the GB's birthday in early September. I like working with the yarn too. And it's always fun to see what a self-striping yarn is going to do. I had a great morning! And they came home from school happy and excited, with talk of scavenger hunts and teachers in costume as historical figures (and books and tests, but not just yet - right now we're still floating on games and reunions with friends).

Here are the two scholars, by the way. He's taller than I am now. And she wanted to wear one of her summery dresses to school, which is fine with me because she's growing fast too. These huge, happy people. The first day was a success and I think it's going to be a great year.

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Granite scarf

What types of things do you find yourself making most often? This is something I've been thinking about lately. As a crafter, I usually find myself making things for my home, my daughter, friends or relatives, and myself, in that order. As a crocheter, I gravitate toward big projects - blankets, mainly - and I tend to think of myself as mostly a blanket-maker, though I enjoy branching out into home decor and wearable items, especially for gift-giving. I've been thinking that most wearable things I've made have been for girls and women, but there are plenty of things to crochet for male people when you look around. I've been doing that lately, as I'd like to make more things for the people in my life.

I went looking recently for ideas to make something for my dad, who has a birthday coming up. He's a man who has many different kinds of interests, a few of which really border on passions, so I've often tried to find books, games or music media to help with his collections on the topics he likes. I seem to have exhausted a couple of them lately through birthday and Father's Day presents; he's read all the books or owns all the CD's, you know how it is. So I decided to make him something instead. I thought about a scarf; he lives in a place with long, cold winters, and a scarf would be useful. And I owe him a scarf anyway. When I was still in college and living at home, I started crocheting a scarf for him and ran out of yarn before it was nearly long enough; I wasn't much of a crafter yet, but I liked the idea. That was about eighteen years ago, and it seemed like time to make it up to him. A do-over, if you will.

I searched Ravelry for something a little different, that would be nice for a man without being too bulky (I don't love crocheting with thick yarn, and he doesn't like bulky things). I came across The Granite Scarf from a blog called The Caped Crocheter (also found as a free Ravelry pattern here). It's categorized as a "men's scarf," but it would work for anyone. I loved the look of it and decided it was just what I wanted.

I really enjoyed making this scarf! I used yarn from my stash, a basic worsted acrylic yarn for softness and ease of care, and I just kept crocheting until it was gone (I had about two feet left when I stopped). The pattern utilizes a stitch I'd never tried before - the extended single crochet. Have you tried this? It makes such an interesting design. I hope you can see about how the stitches sort of reach down into the row beneath them, almost like the Larksfoot stitch pattern I used in a blanket I named Hensfoot a couple of years ago. Another interesting thing about this stitch is that it almost makes a double-layered fabric, sort of like a thermal weave. I think it will be warm, soft and comfortable to wear.

I considering adding fringes, after seeing some nice examples in the pattern projects, but I don't think he's really a fringes kind of guy, so I just did the ends as the pattern suggested. I like the neatness of them, just a row of regular SC with an additional row of slip stitches to finish off, just simple and clean.

Even though it feels a little thicker due to the stitch pattern, it's still flexible, with a nice drape. It's not necessarily "manly" (whatever that would even mean), which I appreciate. It's just simple and tailored, anyone could wear it. If you look through the projects on Ravelry for this scarf, you'll see that people have made it with all kinds of yarns, both masculine and feminine in style, and it looks great no matter what they've used.

I'm really glad I found this pattern. I've long had a go-to scarf for women in my life - the fantastic One-Skein Chevron Scarf, of which I've made about nine. But I haven't made very many scarves for men, so this beautiful, easy Granite Scarf will definitely become another go-to pattern in my library. I hope he likes his scarf and that he will be glad I finally followed through!

Granite Scarf
Yarn: I Love This Yarn worsted-weight acrylic in Navy
Hook: Clover Amour J/10 (6.00mm)
Size: 64 inches long by 6 inches wide
Made: August 2018

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Apricot appreciation

We've reached the last weeks of summer break here, and I've been enjoying a slower pace these last few days. While I really value having lots of things to do in the long summer break, so as to keep people busy and have reasons to get up and get out of the house most days, it's also nice to have some time to do very little - just puttering around the house and yard, like I'm mostly doing this week (with trips out for an oil change, procurement of school supplies, and a guitar lesson). Yesterday, I finished a crocheted scarf to be given as a gift, baked Magic Bars to send to work with the Bear, and made a small batch of apricot jam for the pantry. Oh, and I did four loads of laundry, but I never mind laundry.

The apricot jam was kind of a long process in the making, but very little actual work. See, a few weeks ago, the Bear Trio came across a burgeoning apricot tree hanging over the arroyo while they were on an evening walk. It was totally covered with fruit. They checked with the homeowners whose yard it's in (their property backs up to the arroyo likes ours does, with a wall to separate them from the open space) to ask if they could pick the fruit on the arroyo side. They received an enthusiastic yes! Like a lot of people, they are not game for climbing over the wall to pick the fruit on the back of the tree. So the Bears came home for several nights in a row with bags and bags of ripe apricots, more than we could eat before they went overripe (and believe me, we tried).

I decided to prep one bag's worth for jam-making, to go in the freezer until I had some jam jars freed up from my last batch. In the meantime, we enjoyed a surprise pint jar of homemade apricot jam on our doorstep one morning, courtesy of our neighbor Carrie, who attached a note to the jar: "So that's where all the apricots went!" Ha. She was picking them too. I wonder how many other people in the neighborhood were enjoying these delicious apricots. I'm so glad to live in the kind of neighborhood where people are like this; we've had lovely fruit every year we've lived here from some generous soul or another, and now jam too.

This batch of apricots equaled about three cups of fruit after prepping. I quartered each fruit, peeling each piece after quartering because it was easier to remove the peel from a smaller piece. Then I chopped the fruit into 1/4-inch pieces. I wasn't sure if I should chop them any smaller for freezing; I was concerned that they would break down too much when they thawed. In hindsight, I'd have gone slightly smaller, but it was hard to know.

I put all the chopped fruit in a zippered freezer bag and froze it flat. When it came time to make the jam, I thawed the apricots in their bag inside a plastic container in the fridge.

I decided to use my low-sugar pectin for this jam, as I did for a batch of strawberry jam that I made recently. I have a lot of Ball brand low-sugar pectin that I picked up for a song at the end of the last canning season and I really want to use it up. I liked the way that strawberry jam came out - plenty sweet but not overly so, with a beautiful set. I followed the directions for peach jam on the bottle of pectin; they didn't mention apricots but I'd say they're close enough to peaches.

I'm pleased to report that I'm getting really fast with jam now, especially since I'd already prepped this fruit for the freezer and only had to thaw it and get it into the pot with a few ingredients. I had three full jars and a nearly-full one made up and ready for the canning bath in about ten minutes. I felt like the Jam Master, let me tell you.

I had already tried Carrie's jam, so I had an idea of what mine might be like. Like Carrie's, it's absolutely delicious. The apricot flavor is strong; I think this may be more flavorful than most jams I've made, but I'm not sure why. I have to wonder if it's because the fruit is basically wild - the tree's owners don't do anything at all to it, they just let it flower and fruit naturally. My jam is sweet enough without being cloying. I'm actually beginning to love low-sugar pectin. I started using it just to finish it up, because it was taking up space in my pantry, but now I'm starting to really enjoy it - maybe even prefer it because I know the jam is a little healthier and because it doesn't use up pounds of sugar like traditional jam. I don't know if I will switch entirely, but it's great to know that this works and makes a good product. I loved making this jam, which was almost free, and has friendship and neighborly goodwill all tied in up in the process.

Low-Sugar Apricot Jam
makes about four half-pint jars

3 cups peeled, chopped apricots
1/3 cup water or fruit juice (I used water)
2 tablespoons powdered low-sugar pectin (I used Ball brand)
1 cup granulated sugar

Prepare jars, lids and bands as desired.

Mix apricots, water and pectin in a large saucepan. Stir thoroughly to dissolve pectin. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly until mixture reaches a full, rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.

Add sugar all at once, stirring thoroughly. Bring mixture back to a full, roiling boil. Allow to boil for exactly one minute. Remove from heat.

Ladle jam into prepared jars, wiping rims and adding lids quickly. Process jars as desired (I follow USDA Guidelines for safe home canning).

Friday, July 27, 2018

Proper camping

Last weekend, we spent several days camping in the Jemez Mountains, within the Santa Fe National Forest, at the San Antonio Campground. We camped there for the first time last summer and just adored it, so we were very excited to camp there again this year. It's a really popular and well-loved campground and reservations need to be made well in advance. I made ours in March or April, to be safe, but was then very disappointed when the National Forest was closed for fire safety by early summer. It was looking like we wouldn't be able to camp there unless the monsoon got off to a good start, lowering the fire danger in the forest.

As luck would have it, this is exactly what happened and the forest was re-opened by early July, meaning that our trip, planned for later in the month, could go forward as planned. This was very happy news indeed. We spent three nights in the campground and it was the nicest camping trip we've had in a while, just because it felt like real, live camping. We'd camped elsewhere in June, where we couldn't have a fire and it was hot and miserable the whole time, which just didn't feel like camping to me. I want a campfire, hot dogs and s'mores, chilly nights. Well, we got all of this at San Antonio, and it was a wonderful time.

We didn't get off to the best start. We arrived at the campsite just moments before the skies opened and rain dumped down for a couple of hours. It really poured. We had just started pitching our tent when the rain began, and it was too late to turn back because the inside would have gotten wet too, so we threw a tarp over it and hoped for the best. As soon as the rain stopped, we rigged up clothesline ropes all over the site for drying our clothes and towels that we ended up using to dry some of our stuff that had gotten wet. This was an inauspicious beginning, needless to say, but it worked out. By late afternoon, everything was drying out - even, happily, the tent.

Generally, we have been camping with two tents for the past year or two, giving the kids their own space. We brought both tents with us this time, but we found that the layout of the campsite didn't lend well to two tents, so we all shared our bigger tent. We slept sardine-style, like we did when the kids were little. It wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either. They're still smaller than we are, and they don't take up all that much room. I think the GB actually preferred it; she and I slept in the middle next to each other and she snuggled right up next to me in her sleeping bag the whole night. I would have preferred to stretch out a little bit, but I appreciated knowing she was warm.

Glamping, it ain't. We rigged up our tarps and poles, with rope guy lines for support, to give us shade as well as shelter in case of more rain (thankfully, it didn't rain again during our stay). We keep our firewood under the picnic table, which I think of as our staging area. I prepare and serve meals there (the fire ring is in the foreground, with the Coleman camp stove set on top of the campsite barbecue grill between the fire ring and the picnic table), wash dishes and faces, supervise dental care, you name it.

We cooked some things on the fire (hot dogs, marshmallows), and others on the camp stove (baked beans, boiled water). I brought one night's dinner, a cold pasta salad, pre-made at home for convenience. We made PB&J's for lunches, with fruit, carrots and hummus, string cheese, etc., at each meal for those who wanted them. Beer and cider for big people, water for everyone. Instant oatmeal for breakfast; tea, coffee and cocoa. Very simple and not particularly photogenic. We don't do anything beautiful when we're camping, but it's all organized and efficient.

Of course, there's plenty of time for leisure, including fishing, hiking, stick-collection in the woods (some people are really into this), reading and crafting. We always bring a guitar. The Bear has become a major fan of this hammock, which he bought last summer. We all take turns in it. On this trip, he was trying something new, where he staked out a rain fly over the hammock for shade. He's planning to try this while backpacking in the near future, as a relatively sheltered way to sleep in the woods. He normally takes a tiny tent, but a friend recently recommended this instead. He'll have to let me know how it goes; I love camping, but I have to draw the line somewhere.

As always, I took time to stroll around near the campsite to look at plants. There was a surprise right at the edge of the site: a peach tree! I don't know whether peach trees normally grow in the woods (I think probably not), but maybe it sprouted from a peach pit someone left behind. The tree was relatively small and young, but I counted at least 40 tiny, fuzzy green peaches on it. I have a feeling they won't get to ripen before the weather turns cold up there in the mountains, but it was nice to see, and I enjoyed having a fruit tree nearby; it fed right into my lifelong pioneering fantasies.

The wildflower growth was slightly disappointing. We had a dry winter and spring even in the mountains (hence the forest closure), which must have led to slower growth in the plants. I only came across about four types. I always try to match them up to a local wildflower guide when I get home (I like this website as one resource; this one is also great). I think what we have here, clockwise from top left, includes: swamp vervain, evening primrose, purple geranium, cinquefoil. There were wild roses everywhere, but we're past their blooming time by a few weeks so there were no flowers at all. I had expected to see more coneflowers, fleabane, larkspur and the like. Still, it was enjoyable to wander and look for wildflowers; that's one of my favorite things to do in the woods.

Evenings were spent around the firepit, making s'mores and talking. My favorite time in the camping day is evening, just before dark. It got chilly and a bit breezy, which felt wonderful after weeks of hot weather, and the company was great. We went to bed relatively early every night and slept surprisingly well (I think it was the cool air). It was a lovely camping trip, all the better for being proper and true - camping like I want it to be every time.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A cowl for Blais

I've just finished making a quick crocheted cowl for our neighbor, Blais, who helps look after our hens when we're away from home, as we will be from tomorrow for a few days while we go camping again. Blais is eleven years old and is friendly with our GB; in addition to living right up the street, the girls attend the same dance school. We pay Blais a little when she helps us, but I still wanted to make her something. I thought a simple wearable item would be a good idea; we don't often need hats or mittens, but a cowl can be a nice addition on a chilly morning.

My design is very basic. I chained 250 to start, then did single-crochet stitches in every chain for the first row. Through the body of the cowl, I mixed solid SC rows like this with rows consisting of double-crochet stitches alternated with chains (a DC in every other SC, with chains between each DC), to give a lacy, open look. I finished the top edge with another row of SC in the same color I started with, for a finished effect. I like the way the mixed rows look; it's interesting, and the solid SC rows give a little bit of structure in between the lacier DC-chain rows. Above, the cowl is wrapped twice around the hanger; it should fall at mid-chest level this way.

She can wear it straight too, it's up to her. Unwrapped, it should reach hip-level on a girl her size.

I joined the ends with slip stitches. I'm not thrilled with the center yellow and green rows where they're joined; I think I dropped a stitch at the same end of both of those rows, so I had to catch those rows a little clumsily in my slip-stitching. It's okay, though. I think this made a generally neat join and unless you flatten it out this way, it's barely noticeable.

All the yarns are Stylecraft Special DK (see color names below). I used a small amount of each in my cowl, probably about 10-15 grams depending on the color. Miss GB was a big help to me in choosing the colors and they were a lot of fun to work with. We think of them as juicy colors! They remind me of Fruit Stripe Gum - do you remember that? Yipes! Stripes! :)

Blais's Cowl
Yarn: Stylecraft Special DK in the following colors: Candyfloss, Fondant, Fuchsia Purple, Shrimp, Saffron, Lime
Hook: Clover Amour G/6 (4.00mm)
Length: about 58 inches (29 inches joined)
Width: about 6 inches
Made: July 2018

Monday, July 16, 2018

July five

Just a few things I'm really enjoying in mid-July...

Homegrown tomatoes! Our tomatoes are better than ever (by a lot!) this year. We tried some new things, such a better soil amendment and fertilization, along with more conscientious watering, but we also tried new plant varieties, which are making a huge difference. We have a "Patio" tomato plant, in a bucket, which is just wonderful. We bought it at Lowe's. It's the first one of this kind we've had, and it outshines our other plants ("Early Girl," "Sweet 100" and "Park's Whopper") by quite a lot. We bought the larger size plant (there were large and small available), and we bought one with fruit already starting (in late April). Something about all of this was magical because we have gooood tomatoes this summer. I'm using them all the time, as in the family-size tomato-basil salad dressed with oil and balsamic vinegar, above...

And tomato sandwiches for my lunch as often as possible. I can think of few lunches I enjoy more than a tomato sandwich. I eat mine very simply: mayonnaise, salt, pepper and tomatoes on toast. Even better when the tomatoes are freshly harvested and still warm from the sun.

Speaking of sun, our sunflowers have done really well this summer. These are volunteers that grew from old seeds in the ground. I haven't planted any seeds in a couple of years but we still get sunflowers from all the years we did plant them. I'm not even sure what kind these are - they were probably in one of those assortment seed packs - but they sure are beautiful, especially on a bright, sunny day.

One of the best things about sunflowers is how they last and last. Each of these big blooms lasts for about two weeks before the petals start dropping. The sunflowers are in a straight line out of my kitchen window and I love to see them out there when I'm standing by the sink. They draw your eye right to them with their height and color. I love to watch them sway in the breeze.

Less beautiful, but oh so beloved already is my new rice cooker, which I've just started using in the past few days. My old Zojirushi, at least 22 years old, finally gave up the ghost. I used the heck out of it, as did the Bear before me (he owned it in college, from before I even knew him). This new one is a little more complex, but I'm figuring it out. It makes terrific rice and it's almost silent, which is a big improvement over the old sputtering, juddering Zojirushi.

As always, I'm enjoying strawberries almost every day. They are my favorite food, after all. I like them best just plain, but not straight out of the fridge. I like to let them warm up on the counter for a while before I eat them. It takes a little planning, but not much, and they taste so much better.

We're in the thick of monsoon season right now. We've had a few really good storms. On Saturday, we received more than an inch of rain in a late-afternoon downpour. I sure do love this time of year.

Every storm is exciting. The water pours from the canales and floods the patios and our tiny patch of grass. We had vivid lightning and very loud thunder with this storm. As I tried to take these photos out the kitchen door, a crack of thunder made me jump back into the house! It was intense. I love being at home during this kind of weather, especially on a Saturday when we're all home together. I cooked egg fried rice (with rice from the new cooker!) for dinner and made a fruit salad while the lightning carried on all around the house. The next day, Sunday, we had light showers on and off all afternoon and into early evening. The rain was light, and intermittent, and didn't stop us from grilling outside or picking up the yard, but it was nice to have it going on in the background. We're all weather-lovers here (maybe me, especially), and it's very exciting to us when the weather is doing interesting things. In every season, we read the forecasters' scientific discussions every day on, we listen to the weather radio (which is surprisingly interesting for reports read by a robot), we watch the sky and try to figure out if that dark patch over the mountain is going to amount to anything. It's fun! And educational, yes, but totally fun.
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