Thursday, May 24, 2018

Preserves and precipitation

Well, we made it. Yesterday was the last day of school and we ran our butts off with pizza parties, candy and prizes and certificates by the armload, a school-wide ceremony and choral performance in honor of our principal, who has moved onto retirement, a trip to the park, the LB's guitar lesson and the GB's final ballet lesson and in-class end-of-semester demonstration (this is not a recital year, thankfully - the recital is a Very Big Deal but only happens every other year, so I've got a breather this time). Anyway, by the time we got home to eat our dinner of pasta salad that I'd made at 8:30 in the morning and a green salad I threw together so fast I thought I'd chop my fingers off, we all pretty much crashed. The Bear and I were asleep before 10 pm, that's how exhausted we both were. And now it's the first day of summer vacation. Hard to believe, but here we are.

This week, in between all the crazy, I managed to make strawberry jam. I'd been hoping to make a new batch of jam for weeks and I really wanted to make basic strawberry. I was watching for a good price on strawberries, which always makes me feel better about homemade jam because while I like the idea of jam as frugality, the fruit is almost never so cheap that I can say I'm just doing it to save money. Really, it's because I love to make jam.

I did something different this time, though. I had several containers of low-sugar pectin (Ball brand) in my pantry and really needed to use some of it. I'd picked them up last year at the end of the canning season for a song when they were clearanced at the grocery store. We'd recently done a big overhaul of the pantry to organize it better, and the pectin jars were taking up more space than I could justify. Time to give it a try.

Most of the process was exactly the same, but a few things were a little different. You have to add liquid to the fruit, for example, to create more juice. Some recipes will also require the addition of lemon juice, though not with strawberries. It did use much less sugar - a huge reduction. My normal recipe takes 6-7 cups of sugar, while this one required only two! Really! I was hesitant, thinking maybe the jam wouldn't be sweet enough (I don't need it to be sickly-sweet, but it's jam, you expect a certain sweetness). It was somewhat less sweet than the normal recipe, but still very good and the strawberry flavor came through very nicely.

I'm happy with my jam. I bought the low-sugar pectin mainly on impulse, but I think it's a good product and will use it again. It makes healthier jam, too, which is certainly a plus. I don't think I'll switch over to low-sugar pectin entirely - I'm okay with regular jam sometimes as well - but it's nice to know this type works well and makes a nice batch. You can also use this pectin to make no-sugar jam, if you want to avoid sugar altogether.

Low-Sugar Strawberry Jam
Makes 8 half-pint jars

3 pounds hulled, sliced strawberries (5 cups mashed)
1 1/3 cups water or unsweetened fruit juice
6 tablespoons low-sugar pectin
2 cups granulated sugar

Wash and heat (or sterilize) jars, lids and bands as desired.

Prepare the strawberries and mash them, one layer at a time, in a large bowl with a potato masher. Transfer the fruit to a large pot and stir in the water or juice.

Add the pectin and stir until dissolved. Heat the fruit mixture on high heat until it reaches a rolling boil that can't be stirred down.

Add the sugar all at once and return to a rolling boil. Cook for one minute, stirring constantly. Ladle jam into prepared jars, putting on lids as quickly as possible.

If desired, process the jars according to your preferred method (I follow USDA Home Canning Guidelines, adjusted for high altitude).

On Monday afternoon, we had a big thunderstorm! It was just like a monsoon day, and we acted accordingly (lots of running from one room to another to see what the storm was doing), but we're not in monsoon season yet (only another 5 or 6 weeks, know how much I love that time of year). Monday's storm came up really fast; the sky was very dark and there was a lot of wind and thunder. The rain was quite torrential for a little while, and there was lots of hail too. We measured six-tenths of an inch of rain here at our house, which is pretty impressive. Mark Ronchetti said on the evening news that it was our first measurable rainfall in 56 days. That's rather sobering, and we're all hoping for more, but for now, we're just glad to have had a good storm. We'll see what summer brings; our fingers and toes are crossed for a spectacular monsoon season.

Monday, May 21, 2018


This weekend, I finished crocheting my latest blanket! I'm really excited because this blanket is pretty darn cool. It's not that I really needed another blanket - Lord, no - but I did want to use up some of my stash of worsted acrylic yarn, which was becoming a bit unmanageable. Back in February, I was looking around for ideas and remembered that I've had a design bookmarked (and saved to my Ravelry library) for years - the Ruby Hexagon Blanket from a blog called Novamade. I knew just what to do with my burgeoning yarn supply!

Nova, the maker, calls her blanket "the coolest thing [she's] ever made," and I totally get why. The geometry of a hexagon blanket is really interesting, and in fact, was a bit too complex for me to grok all by myself when trying to figure out how big I wanted my blanket to be, and what that translated to in numbers - how many hexagons, how to arrange them, how to estimate the length and width when the motifs are not the same size vertically and horizontally (I'd only crocheted square motifs before). I wanted it big, but not huge - larger than a couch blanket, but not unwieldy-enormous. I turned to my husband, the best mathematical mind I know, for help with these complicated calculations (I also promised him that it would be long enough for him to use comfortably - he's surprisingly easy to persuade when there are math and coziness in the offing). He spent a few nights working it out for me, creating some useful schematics and diagrams - not to mention mathematical equations - to help me figure out what I need to do. If you want to have a look, he posted them recently on his own blog, Ink of Park. You may find his work useful too.

I didn't have a specific home in mind for this blanket, but as I often do with works in progress, I periodically laid it out on my bed to see how it was shaping up. I started thinking that I really liked how it looked in my room, more and more as it grew. So in the end, I think it's going to be a bed blanket for now. I wasn't really into this look for my bedroom lately, but it feels right at the moment and I'm enjoying seeing it there. It's too warm to sleep with it now, and will be for about six more months, but that's okay. It looks nice during the day, on top of the coverlet. A few weeks ago, when I mentioned my blanket, I called it "folksy," which kind of stuck with me. I like that word; it reminds me of the librarian in my elementary school, who often used words like "folksy" and "cutesy" and "sweetsy," which I don't even think is a real word, but Mrs. Emsley was a character; she said whatever she liked. Anyway, I usually name my blankets and this one is Folksy.

I'll be honest about something else - I haven't been feeling as enthusiastic about Maybelle, the huge blanket I'd recently made expressly for my bed, as I'd hoped I would. I'm not exactly sure why, but I think it mostly has to do with the struggles I had in planning it - I love the blanket, but it makes me feel stressy at the same time. It isn't a big deal, though. There are lots of places to use it. I like the idea of interchangeability in my blankets. I tend to be unnecessarily rigid in my crafting (it's my famous easy-breezy personality), but maybe that's not such a good idea - I'm working on giving myself permission to just enjoy a project, not letting it consume my feelings, using it however I like. It's just a blanket, lady.

A hexagon blanket, by its very geometry, will have oddly-shaped sides. The hexagons are arranged in a honeycomb fashion, with short and long rows. This means that the sides will have sticking-out parts interspersed with recessed ones. I chose to crochet half-hexagons to fill in the recessed areas; I watched a couple of YouTube videos on half-hexagon techniques and blended the advice. I left the pointy hex ends alone - I like how they look. For my blanket's border, I just went with two rounds of granny clusters, trying to space them out at the joins between motifs, to prevent ruffling from excess stitches. The edges lie pretty flat, so I'm happy.

I'm very happy with my joining method. I did this via the hodgepodge method too, after perusing hexagon join-as-you-go methods and coming away not totally satisfied. So I blended a few things, including the square-joining method I used when I made Big Gulp over the winter. I wrote up my technique for the hexagons recently here on my blog, if you're interested. I like the way this join looks and behaves; it lies quite flat and looks neat and tidy.

Folksy looks pretty good with my warm-weather quilted coverlet set, the color of which is billed as "Steel Blue," but looks to me like a grayish-bluish-green, which may be due, in part, to my yellowish maple furniture. Whatever the color is called, it happens to be one of my favorites. There's a lot of similar color in Folksy, along with complementary ones.

There are 68 hexagons in this blanket, arranged in nine alternating rows of eight and seven motifs (40 in the eight-motif rows, 28 in the seven-motif rows). Each hexagon is different. I like them all, but some more than others, of course. These are a few I particularly like. I was shying away from such jumbled variety before I made Folksy, but I'm kind of warming up to it again. You just never know with crochet - it can surprise you.

The best thing about this blanket - mathematical wonderment aside (and you know I'm really into that...yup), is how easily it came together. Once I realized I wanted to do this, it just fell into place. I didn't deliberate for very long, I didn't fret about colors or placement or anything else. I had lots of help, which I appreciate. It feels a bit like a group project because of that, which is nice. I have that same feeling I had when I made my first real crocheted blanket six or seven years ago - one of the best things in my day is the first time I walk by my bedroom door and see it on the bed. It's cool, like Nova said, and it's interesting. It taught me some things, used up lots of yarn, and makes me feel a little bit adventurous about crochet again.

Yarn: I Love This Yarn worsted acrylic in the following colors - Cranberry, Burnt Pumpkin, Old Rose*, Rosy Cheeks, Lavender Smoke*, Sea Blue, Glacier, Arctic, Antique Teal, Stonewash, Dark Denim, Graybeard, Light Gray, Graphite, Coffee, Linen, Sungold, Dark Olive, Mid Green, Ivory (*discontinued); Vanna's Choice worsted acrylic in the following colors: Dusty Blue, Dusty Green, Dusty Purple and Rose.
Hook: Clover Amour I/9 (5.5mm)
Size: approximately 80 inches by 60 inches
Started: February 2018
Finished: May 2018

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Flowers for me

I had a very nice Mother's Day, which really started on Saturday afternoon, when my in-laws gave me a large bouquet of lavender tulips with beargrass. I've never seen tulips this color before; they have white and blue in the very heart of them. Blue is such an unusual color in tulips. They really are special and so pretty. It's a lot of tulips, which is just lovely. I'm using my largest vase and it's still not big enough for all of them; the beargrass is jammed in rather artlessly.

On Sunday morning, I was presented with wonderful gifts by my Bear crew. The children made gifts for me in school; the GB created beautiful art in watercolor and crayon, depicting many kinds of flowers and leaves. The LB wrapped and glued yarn around a small glass vase and put flowers inside; his teacher bought several large bunches and gave each child several to take home. The painting now lives on the wall above our homeschool cart, where I keep art supplies, school books, papers and other learning tools like our base ten blocks, maps, rulers and calculators. I really like how it looks there; it brightens up the whole corner! I have children's art in every room of my house. I'll probably display it for the rest of my life; it's the best art in my house.

The Bear gave me two Mark Bittman cookbooks; we'd borrowed How to Cook Everything: The Basics from the library a month or two ago, renewing it several times while I pored over it and bookmarked numerous recipes with Post-Its. I've made four of them so far - one of them twice. I really love this cookbook; it has some great recipes made with simple ingredients, as well as excellent tips and advice for better cooking technique. I've enjoyed it so much that the Bear decided to buy me my own copy, as well as Bittman's earlier book, How to Cook Everything, which is more comprehensive and, in some ways, more complicated and aspirational, but also useful and interesting to read. I've always loved sitting down with a cookbook in my lap - I can get sunk into a well-written one as if it's a novel - and I find Bittman's writing about food to be really engaging and approachable. I'm only sorry I didn't discover his books sooner, but now I should have plenty of Bittman to keep me busy in the kitchen.

I hope you had a good day too, if it was Mother's Day where you are. I know it can be a complicated day for many people, and for many reasons, but I hope you found peace and happiness in it. Thank you for your comments on my most recent post; I appreciate them very much. Life has been busy lately but good too; we're all doing well and we're enjoying the busy season for the most part, if not always feeling calm and rested at the moment. But school will be finished by the middle of next week, then we'll have a blissful week of doing as little as we like before the summer activities start up in early June.

I'm reminded again how much I love our rhythms, the seasonal patterns and the way life unspools around them. I know my garden by heart; if the averages hold, there will be hibiscuses in about six and a half weeks. I pruned my roses for the first time, lopping off the first dead blooms, and I know there will be new ones in about four weeks. Every evening now, the tram cars on the mountain glitter in setting sun, the cables picked out like gleaming silver threads. Summer, for all I prickle at excessive heat and endless, aimless days, is a time of the year when I can count on certain things happening exactly when I expect them to, which feeds my deep need for settled, staid living, as much as it still surprises me every single year - the roses always come back, the storms always set in, the weeks at home together always seem a little too long, but I always miss them when they melt into autumn.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Hot and harried

Hello! Gosh, it's been a while since I've been here - almost three weeks! I'm not sure I've ever gone so long without blogging. It's been such a relentless whirlwind lately as the school year winds down. Every activity has an end-of-year program or performance or must-do festival, fair or get-together. It's all a bit much, really, and I have to admit that I'm completely exhausted. In addition, a member of our household has recently started having some issues with dairy products, so that's been a learning curve - and let's face it, kind of a hassle - when it comes to cooking and stocking the fridge. I'm happy to accommodate, but it hasn't been simple. Otherwise, when I'm at home, I'm pretty much vegging with a magazine or something lighthearted on TV.

It's quite hot outside now, so we're trying to keep as cool as we can. We've just started using the swamp cooler again. I underwent a rather frustrating repair to my car's air-conditioning system, which began failing last summer and totally died a couple of months ago. I thought I was being Mrs. Responsible by taking it for service in March, to beat the rush as well as the really hot weather. We paid a pretty penny for a new system, which I assumed was the end of the story until last week when the heat really set in and the A/C only blew roasting-hot air. Long story short, the new parts themselves were faulty and needed to be replaced too. Fortunately, the repair people saw their error and did not charge us extra for the second fix. I was thrilled because one more expensive repair on my twelve-year-old car, and I'm really going to need to consider buying a new one instead. I'm actually pretty excited about that because and I've never had a NEW car before and we do plan to buy it new. Even better if I can drive it for a couple of years before the LB is ready for his learner's permit. You can get one at 15 years, 6 months in our state. The countdown is on; he has just under three years left, so I may need to get on this soon.

We've done our spring planting, a couple of weeks ago, actually. I planted geraniums in my barrel on the back patio, as I've done for several years running. They really do well in the barrel, and aside from occasional dead-heading, need very little effort to look great. I got to Lowe's early enough in the season - and early enough on a Friday morning, it turns out, because they were going like hotcakes - to get four different colors of geraniums. They don't photograph as well as I'd like, but I have a fuchsia with reddish marks, a pale lavender-pink, a basic red, and a bright coral. The Bear and LB rigged up a great watering system for different parts of the backyard, including my barrel, so after the first week or so, when I watered daily in addition to the automatic watering, I haven't even needed to water them myself. Awesome. We also planted lettuces, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, watermelon and several herbs. Our grapes are putting on fruit, and our apple tree is absolutely loaded. I think it will be a decent produce year overall, especially if we ever get any rain.

I'm almost finished with my hexagon blanket, though I haven't taken any photos of it lately. I have one more row to add, then it will be plenty big for whatever we want to do with it. I still think I might put it on our bed; it's crazier and more colorful than I've lately wanted for my bedroom, but it's cute and folksy and it makes me really happy, it's just so cheerful. My warm-weather bedding is very plain, just a grayish-green coverlet which could use a little perking up. I haven't done much other crafting lately, but I'm really hoping to get back to cross-stitch when school is finished. Meanwhile, Miss GB is becoming quite the master of friendship bracelets. I wish I'd known her when I was a kid, I could have used some tips back in their heyday!

School will let out the week after next, and we're all ready for the break. It's been kind of a rough year, for various reasons. I'm very much looking forward to a slower pace, though it won't even be all that slow because I've got swimming and diving lessons scheduled (four weeks for each child), weekly "tween" events for both children at the library, summer ballet and continued guitar lessons, and a couple of weekend camping trips too. We'll have plenty to do, and I'm never one to enjoy toooo much downtime anyway. It's all good; I'm looking forward to library and pool trips, hopefully some good summer storms, and a general break from the hectic life of late. I'll be pulling my hair out by the end of June, probably, but for now, it's looking pretty good from here.

I hope you're doing well. I'm sorry to say that I'm quite behind on blog-reading, but I hope to get back in the swing of it soon. Have a good weekend! Here, we'll be continuing the yard management and doing things around the house. I'm thinking about making jam, maybe on Sunday, if the strawberries on sale at the store look good when I shop tomorrow morning. Hope you have happy, peaceful things going on where you are too. Happy Mother's Day!
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