Sunday, April 22, 2018

Fifty roses

You know the old saying about taking time to smell the roses? Well, today I stopped what I was doing and counted the buds on my big rosebush in the backyard. I'd seen buds just starting out maybe a week or two ago, then life got busy and I didn't pay much attention to the rosebush; I was watching the irises more carefully as they started sending up their buds and the first flowers began to open. Then I was in the backyard yesterday afternoon, sitting at the table on the patio and chatting with the Bear, when I noticed the rosebush. Holy cow! It was covered in buds, more than I'd ever seen on it in any previous spring. I don't know why it's so prolific this year, but I'm not really questioning it either - I'm just so excited!

We've had the best weather for good roses - no late freezes. In many years past, the roses are ready to bloom when a freak late cold snap happens and the buds freeze and drop off. Or a freeze is warned and I try to protect the bush with a tarp, which I don't take off soon enough the next morning and buds bake to death underneath. You see what an ordeal it can be to get good roses around here, and that doesn't even take into account the dearth of moisture. We've had the sprinklers on for a few weeks, though, and I think most things are getting enough water now. Certainly the rosebush is thriving.

There are only a few buds close to blooming; I predict open roses in the next week or so. In the meantime, feeling really ecstatic and proud and also kind of boggled at the sheer density of them, I counted all the buds I could see on the bush and I figure exactly fifty. Maybe there are some hidden ones too, but fifty! If they all bloom, the bush will have more flowers than I've ever seen on it at one time. Such promise. Soon, I'll be bringing in cut roses (and anything else in bloom) for kitchen-table bouquets, which to me are the essence of summer. And I'm not jumping the gun talking about summer - it will be just a few more weeks before we reach that stage of the year where spring and summer briefly blend into one short, sweet season of perfectly beautiful weather, before the scorching heat, the parching winds and - eventually - the crashing storms of true summertime.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Around and about

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Quickle pickle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 6, 2018

Apple blossom

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

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

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

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

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

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