Better Than Nature, With String Lights & Inflatables

Better Than Nature, With String Lights & Inflatables

THINKING THURSDAY: SOMETHING TO PONDER IN THE WORLD OF FOOD AND FARMING.

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Hey there!  Another Holiday steps to the plate…Are you Excited?

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When I was a kid, we had a few rituals that added freshness and magic to the relentless succession of days and nights. Since we were suburban folk, and apartment dwellers at that, putting away the shorts and breaking out the sweaters was our only nature-driven seasonal chore.

Each year before Christmas we would do what we called Christmas cleaning, which I hated, dreaded and avoided. But, when we were finished, it was the nicest feeling ever. Christmas cleaning was more rigorous than everyday cleaning because you washed down walls & baseboards, emptied cabinets and wiped them clean and tossed lots of unwanted clutter away.

Then I’d rearrange my bedroom furniture and swap the comforter and sheets for the winter ones.  And, when the cleaning was done, we put up the holiday decorations.  We decorated for other holidays, but nothing was close to the once-a-year splendor of Christmas.  Add some crunchy, sparkly snow and it was pure magic.

Marking time with rituals is something people have done for a long, long time and is shared by many  cultures. But over time, even within the same culture, the meaning evolves from generation to generation.  Back when America was more anchored by farm life, we didn’t need to buy artificial decorations to celebrate a holiday or season. Nature provided all that and more.

I especially enjoy Edna Lewis’ description of  seasonal markers in her book The Taste of Country Cooking.  One of my favorite books, her descriptions of the festivals and seasonal events in her small, turn of the century rural Virginia town are vivid.

Especially this one following hog killing day which would take place in December:

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 “My father would remove the liver and the bladder, which he would present to us [kids]. We would blow the bladders up with straws cut from reeds and hang them in the house to dry.  By Christmas they would have turned transparent like beautiful balloons.  We always handled them with care and made them part of our Christmas decorations.”

And:

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“Just before Christmas a green lacy vine called running cedar appeared in the woods around Freetown and we would gather yards and yards of it.  We draped everything in the house with it: windows, doors, even the large gilded frames that held the pictures of each of my aunts and uncles.”

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Can I entertain myself for one minute by imagining the joy on their faces when you hand your loved ones a fresh pig’s bladder? Got those reed straws ready?

As we become more distant from Nature, does the scope of our holiday decorating seem to grow?   Is there an inverse connection?  Christmas is no longer so special;  there’s an inflatable lawn ornament or string of lights to mark every Hallmark holiday now. 

American life rolls from New Year’s confetti through the red hearts of Valentine’s Day, the shiny green of St. Patrick’s Day, and the pastels of Easter.  Then we get a break because apparently summer requires enough purchases that it doesn’t really need another holiday consumer stimulus package. Whoops – did I just forget the 4th of July??

Then it’s back to school followed by the black and orange of Halloween, the painted hand turkeys and pilgrim hats and horns-of-richly-colored plenty for Thanksgiving, and wrapping up the year with the spruce and holly filled reds and greens of Christmas / blue and silver filled Hanukkah/richly multi-hued Kwanza. Rinse, lather, repeat.

What should we think of this? Charming or depressing or maybe a bit of both?  Are we savoring the sacred unique quality of each holiday and welcoming a new season, or mindlessly obeying the call to buy a bunch of plastic crap?  Have Nature’s seasonal joys and our spiritual observances been shoved aside by the retail display season?

Remember: the candy’s half off the day after ….

Honestly, I can’t think of a single decoration to top the excitement I feel at the sight of the first Robin and the early crocuses pushing through the slushy spring snow. Easter eggs are nice, a ham and a baking ritual something to enjoy, but do we need to rob Christmas of it’s extra-special once a year only sparkle?

I’m content to watch the rhubarb unfold, smell the spring earth, meet new babies, harvest dandelions and watch the seedlings for Summer’s garden push their tiny green heads towards the sun (OK, grow light, but STILL).

Each season has its projects,  cooking rituals, clothing, joys and hardships. Who needs a yard inflatable when real live trees are in bloom? 

Don’t mind my crotchety self if you live for a good American consumer holiday.  I have no desire to dampen your joy if you truly love that stuff.  But I have a suspicion that many of us don’t really love it or hate it, but do it because that’s just what we’re taught to do.

Sprite wants me to tell you to have a great holiday.  Slow it down and enjoy the sunshine. Make sure to chew your cud thoroughly and mindfully.  She says your holiday will be more fun if you don’t run to Target ten times. Sprite thinks you should spend an afternoon laying on a sunny spot of grass, closing your eyes and turning your face to the sun for a few hours.  I’m not kidding. That’s exactly what Sprite said.  She said that always makes her feel better… and Target will still be there tomorrow.

That Sprite’s wiser than she looks.  Easter Blessings Everyone…

This post is part of Simple Lives Thursday. What’s that you ask? It’s an ambitious and enlightening collection of posts from bloggers all over about issues near and dear to my heart: real food and natural living. Check it out!

The St. Patrick’s Day Party Never Ends: Creamy Corned Beef Spread

The St. Patrick’s Day Party Never Ends: Creamy Corned Beef Spread

Have I told you yet about my other mother,  Darina Allen?  Of course, Darina Allen doesn’t know we’re related, so shhhh; let’s keep it right here.  But really, who better to eat with on St. Patrick’s Day weekend than “the Julia Child of Ireland” herself?

It pains me to imagine, but if I could only have one cookbook, I think it would have to be hers.  Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Time-Honored Ways are the Best – Over 700 Recipes Show You Why;  well, the ridiculously long title tells the whole tale.

The Allens live on a beautiful 100 acre Irish farm with a herd of Kerry & Jersey cattle, laying hens, a kitchen garden, plenty to forage, and a famous cooking school. Darina can teach you all about foraging, how to amaze your friends by making stuff like butter, ham, rose syrup, separating cream after you’ve milked the cow yourself and a gazillion beautiful things made with eggs warm from the hens. It is the real, old school, farmstead deal.

Of course, I’m looking at my menu, and have to laugh because while the meal (and my life) is totally inspired by Darina Allen, the corned beef recipe is actually from Michael Ruhlman and my favorite cabbage recipe is from Tyler Florence.   I know. But the traditional Irish boiled potatoes and the Irish Soda Bread are straight from Darina’s book.

Corned beef with mustard sauce, traditional Irish boiled potatoes, braised cabbage & Irish soda bread...

A good Irish meal is one that is not particularly cheffed up.  It is more about the very fresh, very flavorful ingredients, prepared simply but with care.  And the dairy products need to be first rate. I’m not kidding – go for the really good butter like Double Devon if you can find it, or Kerrygold, Organic Valley Pasture Butter, or Plugra. One or all will surely be found at most modern grocery stores these days. Even better, if you have some local farmstead butter, well, lucky you.

Don’t balk at the price if you’re not in the habit of buying good butter. The rest of the ingredients in this meal are pretty cheap so go ahead and splurge; you’ll still come out ahead. You owe it to yourself to at least know what butter is supposed to be.

Then, if you think it’s overrated and that you’d rather have some soda or Cap’n Crunch instead, at least I can rest knowing you’ve made an informed choice.

I know that while my meal was lovely and the day beautiful, you’ve been pounded with corned beef, cabbage and green stuff all week. It’s a new week now, and time to move on to something else.  Except for one thing; all that leftover corned beef.

Last year, for St. Patrick’s day I made corned beef tongue and corned beef hash.  This year, I went the tongue route again, but still, while the flavor is great, I just don’t enjoy the texture. The hash worked well because the meat was cubed & crisped with potatoes and carrots.  But that’s so last year.  This year, I decided to go for corned beef spread. Click here for a printable recipe.

The unmistakable taste of corned beef and grainy mustard in a creamy spread.

And I’m glad I did.  Grinding meats to use in sauces, spreads, fillings, sausages and such is an invaluable way of stretching meat as far as it can possibly go. All while concentrating the meaty flavor exponentially.

Do you have an especially good way to put a bit of minced meat to work?

in which we come bearing gifts

in which we come bearing gifts

It came without ribbons! It came without tags! It came without packages, boxes, or bags! Come on, you know it, perfectly said by the King of Christmas Grinchiness himself, Dr. Seuss.

I’m not much in the mood for cookie baking, gift wrapping or braving the crowds this year. I’m a Holiday Dropout I suppose, feeling more introspective than extroverted.  Nevertheless, whatever my whim, it’s always impossible for me to be untouched by the solemn wonder of the holiday season.

Most holidays, my enjoyment comes as much from my preparations as from the generosity I receive from others. While addressing Christmas cards, I am washed with fond thoughts of the person I am writing to. Preparing gifts of baked goods, wrapping holiday gifts and finishing them all with personalized tags makes me feel the same warm appreciation for the intended and gratitude for the people in my life.

This year, it’s a different sort of holiday due to my relatively homeless state; one that is broader in its scope of giving and receiving. Without a house of my own for the holiday, the usual activities are not so usual and feel odd and impossible.

But I’m far from homeless – while I have no actual house, I surely have a home.  And, since my home lives in the realm of imagination this year, so also do my thoughts of holiday giving.  The gifts I want to share this year are not ones found in shopping malls or grocery stores, but ones that have expanded the boundaries of my heart.

I find it often happens that serendipity plays its part in delivering the very message or salve you need in mundane, unexpected ways. This year I have been fortunate to have received many such synchronistic gifts just when I needed them most.

Here’s a few I’m happy to share with you; I hope they bring the same pleasure to you as they did to me. But I expect it’s possible that what’s magic to me may not say much to you. Or me either when I encounter it later at a different time and place in life.

That’s OK and as should be.  When the student is ready, the teacher appears, isn’t that how it goes?  You get the idea – if my gifts don’t speak to you, maybe they will remind you of synchronistic gifts of your own that meant much to you this year. And maybe you can pass those on too – someone you don’t know somewhere you’ve never been is waiting to hear from you.

I love this authentic and special holiday CD produced by Pat Humphrey with her daughters Lynn and Amy. These old carols are from around the world, and their angelic, ancient harmonies are so soothing to me I listen to them all year. Click the arrow below to begin listening or click on the title to visit The Rosa Minstrels site and listen to the whole CD.

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The internet is such a mixed blessing. It steals as much as it gives, but what it gives can be a delicate thread of human connection when your world rotates on a slightly different axis.  This heartwarming advent calendar from a complete stranger  Gloria Nicol at The Laundry Etc. in the UK made me feel much less Grinch-ey this  year. Click here to enjoy the calendar yourself – there’s still a few new surprises to come.  A photographer, writer, jam maker and shop keeper, you can visit Gloria here.

A Special Jewel of an Advent Calendar from Gloria Nicol of The Laundry Etc.

In sustainable farming circles, Wendell Berry is all that and more. Don’t take this the wrong way – I’m a huge Wendell Berry fan. But let’s not forget another old friend of the farmer, E.B. White. Not often mentioned in sustainable farming circles these days, E.B. White’s gifts rest in the realm of childlike (but far from child-ish) wonder and observation. His writing about his lovely and simple life in rural Maine in One Man’s Meat is a quiet joy that leaves you with tidbits you’ll be mulling over for a long time.

A gift that keeps on giving. Enjoy the reading first, plenty of rumination sure to follow...

I think it’s time to re-introduce real, old-fashioned mail. Written on paper, by hand, smudges and all.  This hand-made holiday card was just the balm I needed at a moment it meant the most.

The prayer-like and devotional quality of farm chores makes this card so true for me. Caring for the land and God's creatures is most certainly a way to kneel and kiss the ground...

The Digital Library of the Sketchbook Project is a bottomless source of fascination. Enter this rabbit hole at your own risk – you may be gone a while! I am so in love with this project and am blown away by the submissions. True gifts from the heart from not so ordinary people all over the world.  A live exhibit too: what a treat it would be to be able to spend a quiet afternoon with my nose tucked into the real pages – one of these days I’ll be there!  (Video of artist Lauren Nash and her very personal experience with the Sketchbook Project. Shows there’s a bit of magic for giver and receiver.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4CAQFDEXMs?rel=0]

How do we find this stuff? Well, one way is by visiting our our friends at Sustainable Eats who host a wicked good blog hop called Simple Lives Thursday each week.

I hope the boundaries of your heart are expanded this holiday; after all isn’t that the true reason for the season?

The Merriest of Christmases from the Ladies of Auburn Meadow Farm

in which we say: BLAH HUMBUG!

in which we say: BLAH HUMBUG!

Sparrows in the brush looking their puffed-up cutest…

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Maybe I shouldn’t say this out loud, but I’m having a hard time mustering up the Christmas Love this year. Of course, the weather isn’t helping. Mud season is the only time I mind living in Pennsylvania, and this year we’ve got plenty of it. Boot-sucking, slippery, filthy mud that is.

Mud and sloppy rain makes everything I do twice as hard.  It’s hard on the animals, hard on the farmer, hard on the wardrobe, hard on the spirit, and vehicles get stuck making chores super frustrating. Give me frozen ground and a pretty snow carpet any day.

Today, it’s raining and mushy and actually pretty warm. It’s gray and lackluster and not nearly sparkly or crunchy enough to put me in the proper pre-Christmas spirit.

But the Ladies don’t seem to mind the drizzle one bit. The brook in the front pasture is babbling which is hard to not be charmed by, the birds are scuttling around in the brush looking their puffed up cutest and my spirits are lifted after a brisk walk to check the fences.

Even at her most drab, Nature and her creatures give my heart a lift. No tinsel or store-bought ornament can compete with her humble yet awe-inspiring beauty.

So, I exercise my womanly right to change my mind and now give thanks that my heart has been filled with love and gratitude.

It’s hard to not be enchanted by the sound of a babbling brook no matter what the weather…

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I’m pleased to find myself filled with Christmas Spirit after all.  What lifts your spirits when you need some holiday cheer?

in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

in which we ponder our American Thanksgiving Tradition

For a special holiday treat and insight into the hearts and traditions shared by our fellow Americans at Thanksgiving, visit www.thisibelieve.org and check out their special Thanksgiving features. What a great way to spend that long holiday drive....

As a kid (and an only child), I have to admit not feeling any special enthusiasm for holiday dinners. It was usually a long day of waiting, being polite,  car rides and lots of hanging around (I’m not a football or holiday parade fan).  Our tiny family didn’t have reunions of long missed cousins and relatives, so our holiday dinners were usually pretty much the same as our regular ones. Just with more food and a relish tray which was always a highlight for me.

Often the quiet day after Thanksgiving was the one I really enjoyed – a fridge full of holiday leftovers to graze from all day, no pressing business, a good book and the freedom to get lost in it.

I find myself wondering what Americans are really doing today? I know what we’re supposed to be doing and feeling, because TV tells me so. Frequently. And, probably not so accurately.

What Thanksgiving traditions are we passing on that actually have authenticity and significance? Most of us have cobbled together some hybrid of Norman Rockwell American mixed with the immigrant traditions from our own families. Throw in the latest features from popular magazines,  office water coolers, TV and internet and you have an American Thanksgiving.

Oh sure, if you have kids in elementary school there’s some dolled-up tales of Pilgrims and Indians and turkeys, but let’s face it – the holiday really has more to do with retail than with honoring our Pilgrim roots.

Sadly, I have no idea how my great-grandmother and grandfather went about shaping their Irish lives into American ones. My family hasn’t been one to dwell on the past, but instead to adopt the modern. The old ways, old dishes, and old stories of my ancestors have vanished without a trace. Today’s “old” ways are actually pretty new, compliments of Butterball, Pilsbury, Libby’s, Jell-O and Reddi-whip.

Magazines show in full color the traditional Thanksgiving we are all supposed to strive for; varnished oversized turkeys with lots of buttery, starchy side dishes and plenty of pie at the end. Now that was modern, stylish and sanitary and the inspiration for my modern career granny and her daughters as they set out to create their own version of Thanksgiving.

My mother and her two sisters are good cooks who started their adult lives with no binding holiday traditions. Each cooked somewhat similar meals, with a slightly different spin created by their different life experiences and magazine preferences. Three sisters, same childhood, different Thanksgiving tables. What could be more American?

I am not at all qualified to offer any factual sociological wisdom about the celebration of our national holiday, other than my fascination with people-watching and media.  I can’t help but see definite Thanksgiving variations that can now be considered actual traditions for many Americans.

A Menu of American Thanksgivings: pick one or mix & match

The Food Pantry Thanksgiving two ways: Volunteer or Guest: this tradition has lots of heart-warming variations and some sobering truths we prefer not to think about most of the year.

The All American Can & Jar Method: These traditions have been created by the marketing efforts of Big Food companies. Recipes featured in magazines, on the backs of cans and jars and now websites.  Canned green beans and cream of mushroom soup topped with dried onions and baked. Canned yams topped with brown sugar and mini marshmallows. Butterball turkey with the pop up hickey and prepared mashed potatoes and gravy from a jar. Prepared pastry crust filled with Libby’s prepared pumpkin pie filling and topped with Reddi-whip or Cool-whip. Pillsbury crescent rolls, jello salad, and please let me be wrong about this – Stove Top Stuffing?

The Store Bought All Inclusive Meal Method: all-inclusive, already cooked and ready to go. Does it come with plastic utensils too?? Am I really surprised to learn that this option is growing fast in popularity?

The Restaurant Method:  You don’t need me to explain this one do you? Family gets to meet in central location, split costs and no one is burdened with clean up. Beautiful in its simplicity??

Williams Sonoma Inspired: nostalgia for other people’s imagined &  staged traditions. Fun for cooks, expensive and guaranteed to be completely different next year. Requires storage space for the carcasses of never to be used again appliances and gadgets.

The Best of a Bad Deal Method: eating what you’ve got and feeling grateful to have it. Best when shared with upbeat friends and family and plenty of love. Can be bitter when seasoned with too much obligation and self-pity.

Black Friday Focus: this one may be extreme, but this girl has been camping outside of Best Buy for days now, and plans a picnic Thanksgiving dinner in her tent… I feel myself being a bit judgmental, but really, she seems pretty enthusiastic about her holiday. Maybe I’m the one who can use an attitude tweak….

A Long, Boring Day: don’t know what to do with self because everything’s closed. If this is your tradition, thanks to Target, things are looking up. Hopefully you have a strong internet connection and the biggest shopping day of the year starts earlier all the time.

A Prayerful Day of Gratitude: TV and holiday shopping don’t have much of a role in this spiritual friend and family oriented day. Menus vary.

Orphan Thanksgiving: You find yourself in a strange place with people you don’t know well who are also separated from their people and place.  Can be delightful and meaningful with a serendipitous pot luck menu…

The Anti-Consumer Thanksgiving: filled with buying nothing. It can be time-consuming to not shop, so it’s a good thing you don’t have to go anywhere. Do it yourself foods of varying quality and oddity and ranges from oddball to sublime.  Leads to either the ruination of America or her salvation depending on your source of news media.

Did I miss any? Am I delusional? I am pretty full having enjoyed a right sized meal made from things I either bought from local farms or grew and preserved myself.  Of course I still haven’t learned to make sugar yet, so I’m still leaning on the man a bit, but I’m working on it.

Wherever your Thanksgiving falls along the spectrum, the important thing is that it’s YOUR holiday to be celebrated however you most enjoy it. Deliberately and with intention. Best wishes for a true holiday that’s exactly that.

For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food, for love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

In Which Failures Turn to Valentines

In Which Failures Turn to Valentines

Oh, Valentine, Get in my Mouth!

I’ve failed a lot this month.  I think of this today, because yesterday I was really, really, REALLY frustrated. Like almost ready to quit frustrated.  This ice is starting to get me down; everything is twice as hard as usual in this weather and it bums me out even more to know that before it gets better, it’s going to get worse. But, I have mouths to feed so I pick myself up, scrape off the mud and trudge out there for another go.

I’m a believer in the character building value of a Big Fat Failure.  I see no shame in it, rather I applaud the attempt.  Something you never knew you needed:  a little guidance from Seth Godin about failure here. If you’re going to do it, you may as well do it right, don’t you think?

One of my big screw ups last year involved strawberry jam.  Lots of it.  Ironically, one of the highlights of my year was also strawberry jam.  Again, lots of it.

My favorite berries are from a nearby Amish pick your own farm. So, I’d get up early and head over there after chores and pick my own berries.  Then the three-day process of making the jam began immediately to preserve the freshness of the berries.

You’ll have to take my word for it, but these preserves were worth every back-breaking minute.  They were my Mona Lisa.

In my excitement over my preserves and my new Auburn Meadow Farm jars & labels, I decided to re-pot my best jam in the new jars.  Fast forward to the story of the Overcooked Rubber Strawberry Jam.

Now, being a farm focused on making the most from the least, I couldn’t bring myself to throw this rubber stuff away. In classic lemon to lemonade fashion, I now bring you homemade strawberry chocolate Pop-Tarts!

These tasty treats are a triple threat:

  1. Who doesn’t like chocolate with fruit?
  2. The novelty of homemade Pop-Tarts is fun & memorable
  3. This pastry is tender perfection -a truly special treat

I’ve used this dough recipe in regular tarts also and it is really tender, tasty and easy to handle. And, it works equally well for both sweet and savory.  My mind is revving with savory Pop-Tart options, but I still haven’t cracked the savory glaze code.  Suggestions anyone?

I’m sending you over to Smitten Kitchen for the perfect step-by-step photo tutorial of hardcore Pop-Tart making, but don’t forget to come right back.

The filling I used was actually pretty unscientific – I took my rubbery strawberry jam, warmed it in the microwave and mixed in Nutella until I really liked it. You’re probably using properly set jam; I would follow Smitten Kitchen’s instructions to add some corn starch & water, then add the Nutella.

The only improvement I can contribute to the Smitten Kitchen version is a perfect glaze recipe. You may not agree, but for me, an unglazed Pop-Tart isn’t worth eating.  And, the glaze needs to be a hardened shell, not soft icing.

Glaze Makes it Great!

This recipe for basic sugar glaze is from Tish Boyle’s The Good Cookie. It isn’t as rock hard as a commercial Pop–Tart’s and probably won’t stand up to toasting but the gently crisp shell is just perfect and doesn’t make the Pop-Tart pastry soften.  Trust me, you won’t miss the toasting one bit.

  • 1 cup confectioner’s sugar, sifted
  • 1 TBS unsalted butter, softened
  • 3 TBS heavy cream ( ½ & ½ works fine)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • Pinch of salt

In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle attachment (don’t worry if you don’t have one), beat the confectioner’s sugar, butter, heavy cream, vanilla extract, and salt at medium speed just until combined, about 30 seconds.  Cover the surface of the glaze with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until ready to use.

Store glaze in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days; bring to room temperature before using. Makes 1/2 cup. (It’s really good on oatmeal raisin cookies too.)

While the Pop-Tarts are still warm, brush with the glaze several times, allowing each coat to set before adding the next.

Failure turned sweet success!

Strawberry: The Official Fruit of Valentine's Day