Sunday, June 30, 2013

A summer salad for friends

Gene is gone to a motorcycle rally this week to show off the electric motorcycle he has his partner have been developing.  Gene hasn't seen it in person yet so he's pretty stoked. 

This is make-or-break time for the company, as both of the partners have taken a year off to make this happen.  Keep your fingers crossed for us, please!
Follow their progress and see more pics of the bike at the facebook page.

With Kaelen going to bed around 6, it was looking to be a lonely few days until I decided to extend invitations to friends to join me for dinners.  Not only would their company provide us the chance to catch up, it also give me a reason to make real meals.

Then the weather forecast came:

It's going to be hot.  Being a true native of Western Washington, we don't have air-conditioning.  I love cooking... until it's 90 degrees.


My girlfriend who's coming tonight requested pasta.  Given today's high of nearly 90, that seemed really heavy and not worth heating up the house.  My other friend who's joining us - after I bailed on going to see tractors with her because I'm a heat wimp - is a vegetarian.  A pasta salad seemed the perfect compromise.

A quick internet search and BOOM I'm on one of my favorite pages: Smitten Kitchen.   Summer pea and roasted red pepper salad?  Oh yeah!  Deb never lets me down. 

I had a jar of pickled red peppers languishing in my canning cupboard.  I made it... well, let's just say a while back... and then didn't know what to do with it.  Here was my answer.  I tossed all this with some feta and a generous helping of freshly ground black pepper.  It is going to hit just the right combination of sweet, tangy, peppery, pea-y, salty, and cold.  A chilled, dry rose and we'll all be kicking up our feet in the backyard and enjoying a hot summer evening among friends.

You can find the recipe here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Overrun by vines

The house next door to us has been a rental for about five years.  The former owners moved into a house two doors the other way.  They love to garden and left behind a mature landscape that had been lovingly tended.

Since becoming a rental, what remains of the garden has gotten out of control.  The various tenants mowed the lawn, and one even had a vegetable garden for a season, but the vines on the arbor along the property line really went wild. Last winter, the most recent batch tenants moved out very quickly.  It turns out that the landlord had been pocketing the rent rather than paying the mortgage.  While I wasn't particularly sad to see these tenants go, it does mean that we are next to a vacant house for now.

This was the view from our side.  Honeysuckle, grapes, climbing roses, and something else I don't know have completely overrun the arbor.  Gene and I figure that the vegetation weighs in the hundreds of pounds.  The grapes are a destructive menace, having reached across and pulled our gutters down on that side of the house during a particularly intense growing spell.  It's infuriating.

Here's the after picture.  I cut all this down by hand with hand pruners.  Seriously.  It was tedious and filthy work.

I've since cleaned up the raspberries and cut back the hydrangea and currant on the left.  I plan to remove the two shrubs in the middle on my side, and transplant raspberries along the fence.


Became this:

The hummingbirds are NOT happy with me for having cut back the honeysuckle.  They'll return as the plant regrows but in the meantime I will miss them.

Since the house is vacant I went over and cut back the laurel hedges on the property line.  Those hedges, too, are very invasive and destructive to our side of the property line.  Less than an hour later I heard Gene talking to someone: potential buyers!  The wife looked at the laurel and asked when it had been cut back because it had all been there the previous morning.  Ummmm.... [whistling]

Finally, I salvaged my flower bed from the grass that had overtaken it last summer.

Wow.  I am starting to remember what it's like to have a yard that is attractive and purposeful, not overrun with weeds and regret.

The best part, though is having a spot for Kaelen to be.  We've been spending more time outside.  He's getting more comfortable with and interested in the chickens.  The girls are normally in their run but we sometimes let them out for some supervised time in the yard.  With a toddler who will step in and pick up poop, and a dog who treats it like her personal smorgasbord, it's best to leave the girls in their run most of the time.

But ya gotta admit that seeing a toddler with chickens is pretty dang cute.

This aligns with my 2013 goal of simplifying the yard.  I'm eliminating and reducing garden beds that have proven too hard to manage.  I wanted more space for Kaelen and for the dog, which is well on its way to being done.

Next up I'm going to reduce the size of a bed on the other side of the yard, give away several of the larger shrubs to a friend who just bought an acre, and then transplant some things from the front yard into the back.  My flower beds that are on the front slope of my yard are going to revert to grass for the sake of my sanity.  I know that we're supposed to plant gardens, not grass, but I just can't manage the yard in its current state.  At least I don't water grass in the summer, right?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Be a bag lady to save money

Unless your employer offers free lunches to employees, chances are that you have to bring or buy lunch for yourself every day.

I work downtown.  Depending upon how close to payday it is, a forgotten lunch could mean foraging in the office closets for expired granola bars.  Fresh food will cost at least $4.40 for a Subway cardboard sandwich.  A couple of times a year, when I'm feeling particularly self indulgent, I might splurge for sushi.  But at $14-15 for a bento box, I'm spending nearly as much on one lunch as I would on take-out at our favorite restaurant.

When Marius was living with us last year, he so often ate every morsel of dinner that I rarely had leftovers to take to work the next day.  I probably spent as much on lunches out as I did on our dinners.

More often than not, however, you'll see me with my lunch bag, a Goodwill find for around $2, and perhaps a coffee mug.  If it's hot I'll have a mason jar with cold coffee.

What did I have today?  For breakfast I had a mocha and fresh strawberries with homemade yogurt.  At noon I heated up leftover salmon frittata.  And when the 3:00 munchies hit, I ate the rest of the strawberries with angel food cake and whipped cream.

I'm glad we don't have any office lunch theft problems where I work.  Every night as we clear the kitchen I pack up my lunch for the next day.  I won't make something that doesn't have leftovers unless I already have a lunch planned for the following day.

Do you have a favorite brown-bag lunch item?  How are you managing your family budget with lunches?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Last supper

My energy lately has been going to keeping food, interesting and healthy food, on our table.  It's been a long haul.  I get paid twice monthly but because most of one paycheck goes toward our mortgage, it really only feels like I get paid once a month.  I feel like I've been a broken record lately with all my penny pinching.  In the past two weeks we've probably spent just $20, buying little other than some fresh produce and dairy. 

Tonight I was chopping, boiling, and dicing.  One more dinner.  I can do this.  I can make one more dinner with what's already in the house.  Fried rice will use up the leftover chicken, frozen peas, and the not-so-crisp carrots in the 'crisper.'  It'll be our "last supper," I thought wryly, imagining tomorrow's grocery shopping trip with its enticing promises of fresh lettuce, dishwasher detergent, and graham crackers.

During my meal preparation my mind cleared.  I had quiet time: Kaelen was asleep, Gene was working in the garage, the dog was no longer underfoot.  I was mulling over thoughts of a blog about this final meal before payday when my cell phone dinged the receipt of a text.

A girlfriend of mine who works for a fire department wrote to ask me to give Kaelen a hug for her.  Earlier in the day a little boy had fallen from the third floor window of an apartment building.  Amazingly, his injuries are not life-threatening but everyone was profoundly rattled. 

Suddenly, my melancholy self-talk about the "last supper," budgeting, and grousing about our lack of disposable income shifted to gratitude.  Gratitude for my son sleeping soundly and safely in his crib.  Gratitude for the responders who experience troubling personal trauma when they see events like this.  Gratitude for my dear friend for keeping Kaelen in her heart.  Gratitude that I have the knowledge and ability to create healthy and nourishing meals for my family.  Gratitude that I'm not being furloughed next week.

Gratitude that the family whose child fell did not unwittingly have a last supper yesterday.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Cooking up a storm

A family of three living on one person's salary is hard, especially when that one person works in higher education.

Angel food cake with orange zest

To manage our budget to the best of my abilities without compromising on quality, I cook.  I cook a lot.

I don't always stop to think about how much more I cook than other people but my friends assure me that my cooking exploits are far above & beyond what most people do.  It's totally normal for me to go home, play with Kaelen and Rosemary, catch up with Gene on the world's news, then start dinner.  After dinner is cleared, and Kaelen is down for the night, I'll relax for a bit then head into the kitchen to granola, yogurt, or to set up a casserole for the next day.

Here's our menu from last week:
  • Monday - broccoli and sausage with preserved lemons* (similar to this recipe), ice cream*
  • Tuesday - pizza* (toppings included leftover chicken skewers from work event, green onions, and a sliced leftover baked potato... surprisingly delicious)
  • Wednesday- another pizza*: ham and bell peppers
  • Thursday - there's a 1-pot spaghetti recipe making the rounds on facebook (like this one) so I made a modified version of it: canned tomatoes*, stock*, some have-to-eat-today fresh tomatoes, leftover marinara, pesto, garlic, seasonings, carrot slices, browned beef, and spaghetti in a pot, simmer 10 mins.  Toddler- and husband-approved.
  • Friday - salad, then to a retirement party
  • Saturday - spinach & sundried tomato* calzone, orange angel food cake* with local strawberries
  • Sunday - spinach & salmon frittata*

* homemade or home-canned

In the past week I've also made blueberry muffinshummus, scrambled eggs, ice cream, a veggie omelet, granolacookiesyogurt, and various espresso drinks.

Kaelen must have a hollow leg, judging by how much he can eat right now.  This was his serving of the salmon & spinach frittata.  He is 18 months old and keeps us very busy.

I guess that kind of explains why I haven't been blogging much lately.
My life as a mommy now includes homemade cake, shears moved out of reach of the ever-growing toddler, squirt guns, and bubbles.

Sometimes I forget which way is up.  Or that the cupboard is not the fridge.
Lucky for me, I found this within an hour of having done it.

If you, like me, somehow find yourself with a bevvy of egg whites leftover from having made ice cream, use them up by making something delightfully summery.  Now, if only I had time to work out in my yard.

Alton Brown's Angel Food Cake

1 3/4 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup cake flour, sifted
12 egg whites (the closer to room temperature the better)
1/3 cup warm water
Zest of 1 orange (or 1 teaspoon extract of your choice)
1 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a food processor spin sugar about 2 minutes until it is superfine. Sift half of the sugar with the salt the cake flour, setting the remaining sugar aside.

In a large bowl, use a balloon whisk to thoroughly combine egg whites, water, orange extract, and cream of tartar. After 2 minutes, switch to a hand mixer. Slowly sift the reserved sugar, beating continuously at medium speed. Once you have achieved medium peaks, sift enough of the flour mixture in to dust the top of the foam. Using a spatula fold in gently. Continue until all of the flour mixture is incorporated.

Carefully spoon mixture into an ungreased tube pan. Bake for 35 minutes before checking for doneness with a wooden skewer. (When inserted halfway between the inner and outer wall, the skewer should come out dry).

In a large bowl, use a balloon whisk to thoroughly combine egg whites, water, orange extract, and cream of tartar. After 2 minutes, switch to a hand mixer. Slowly sift the reserved sugar, beating continuously at medium speed. Once you have achieved medium peaks, sift enough of the flour mixture in to dust the top of the foam. Using a spatula fold in gently. Continue until all of the flour mixture is incorporated.

Cool upside down on cooling rack for at least an hour before removing from pan.