Well, this was inevitable.

Hazel turned six on May 21, as COVID-19 isolation ground through its third month. She was bummed about not having a party with her friends, but we made it up to her by procuring exactly what she requested.

Chickens.

We know several people with chickens, so I pumped them for information. I gathered information on the internet and checked books out of the library (because of course I did). I narrowed down our preferred breeds and found a source for chicks one county south of here. I even came up with a clever brooder setup – I turned an unused shower/closet into the perfect chick nursery. We bought a heat lamp, feeder, waterer, and a bag of food for about $36. We lined the shower with paper from our home office shredder (best use of old tax returns ever!).

We were as ready as we were ever going to be.

Last Thursday we took a field trip to Woodville to pick up the babies. Hazel selected two Buff Orpingtons, two Ameraucanas, and two Barred Rocks. These are all breeds known for their docile characters and pet-ability.

That’s what they’ll look like when they’re grown. Now, they’re just ITTY BITTY FLOOF BALLS.

The best part of our brooder setup is that we can keep an eye on the chicks at all times through the glass shower door.

It’s been a week since we picked the ladies up, and they’ve already changed so much! Their wings are getting feathers, and they’re developing tiny personalities. We have finally decided on names for everyone, as well.

My initial impression is very favorable. They’re chill little animals, and seem very content to do their chicken thing. Hazel has been put in charge of “chicken chores” and now knows how to feed, water, and clean up after them. She’s also appointed herself Chief Chicken Snuggler.

They’ll be in the brooder for another 2-4 weeks, so we’d better get cracking on building a coop for them. We plan to use Hazel’s abandoned playhouse as the foundation of the coop. Wish us luck!

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Meatless Lent: Wrapping Up

Lent, like everything else in the month of March, seemed to last three years. My experiment with largely meatless eating was a success, although by the end I’ve been racking my brains (and Pinterest) for new recipes.

I was curious to see how a mostly-meatless diet would affect my grocery budget. To my surprise, our grocery bill did not decrease over the month that included Lent. There are a few explanations for this – purchasing our spring stock of allergy medication was expensive, for example. I have also noticed that, at least at my grocery store, vegetables are never on sale the way meat is. My Publix runs a BOGO on chicken every month or so, which brings the cost for boneless skinless breasts down to $2.50 a pound. Thighs and bone-in chicken are even cheaper. Mushrooms, a favorite meat-replacement, are usually $3.99 for 8 oz. Occasionally they will go on sale, but never BOGO. Bags of salad are frequently BOGO, but there’s only so much lettuce a person can eat.

Despite that, I enjoyed adding variety to our menus with meatless dishes, and I hope to continue doing so in the future. So, let’s see how the last couple of weeks went:

Kale, Mushroom & Ricotta Pizza

I love pizza and make it probably once a week. This is a variation on Budget Byte’s Garlicky Kale and Ricotta Pizza, but I added mushrooms and goat cheese (all good decisions).

Orange Rolls

These sweet babies were featured in this month’s Southern Living, and I was intrigued by their nontraditional baking method (in a cupcake pan instead of smooshed together). When I’ve made cinnamon rolls in the past, in a casserole dish or pie plate, they tend to be done at the edges and near-raw in the middle. This solved that problem AND cut down on baking time – genius! Plus, they were delicious.

Healing Bowls with Sweet Potatoes, Greens, and Lemony Herb Dressing

This is a recipe from Pinch of Yum, with several variations. Instead of mashing, I like to cut my sweet potatoes in chunks and roast them with olive oil, salt, pepper, turmeric, and chili powder. I used cracked bulgur for my base grain, spinach for my greens, and made the dressing as written in the recipe. Because I was making eggs for five people, I simply used my method for ramen eggs – put 1/4″ water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, then add eggs. Steam for six minutes, then put eggs in an ice bath. They come out with set whites and runny/fudgy yolks, and they are awesome.

Tuscan White Bean Skillet

I spied this on Pinterest and threw it on the meal plan, not expecting to be that impressed. It’s from Nourish & Fete, a blog I’d never heard of, and involved many cans of foods. It was surprisingly awesome! The flavors were incredible, and it was very filling. I served it with homemade bread, to the thunderous applause of my family. The leftovers were great, too.

Tomato Bisque and Grilled Cheese Sandwiches

With the leftover bread, I made grilled cheese sandwiches with fresh mozzarella and provolone cheeses, for lots of gooey, stringy cheese. I made a tomato bisque to go with it. It’s a recipe I made up years ago, and every iteration is slightly different.

Butternut Squash Risotto

The Pioneer Woman taught me to make risotto, and this is still my favorite recipe for it. I enjoy the time it takes to get the risotto done, especially if – say, for example – we’re under a stay-at-home order and I have hours to prepare dinner. I usually serve this as a side to meat, but it performed admirably as a main course. The role of side dish was played by massaged kale.

Roasted Cherry Tomato Carbonara

I saved this one for last, since it technically contains meat. However, I think the prosciutto could be omitted and it would be good – but adding the prosciutto takes it over the top. This is a recipe from Half Baked Harvest, who is the source for my go-to naan recipe. It was so, so, so good. There were no leftovers.

Thank you, meatless Lent, for making me think long(er) and hard(er) about the way I feed my family. I am grateful for the new recipes I tried, as well as for the recipes I dusted off from the archives. It was a good experiment that took place during a weird time.

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Meatless Lent: Week 4

Before all this, how many times did I yearn for more time at home with my family? How often did I fail to do something around the house because “I don’t have the time?”

I finally got what I asked for!

While isolation has been fine for me, Jason’s been working around the clock for the last two weeks. A big part of his job is helping employers navigate laws and regulations, and the government has rolled out a bunch of them in the last week or so. That means a big part of my job is supporting him – mostly by keeping him fed.

To that end…

Pesto Tortellini with Balsamic Roasted Vegetables

I had a couple of bags of BOGO tortellini hanging out in my freezer, so I made a simple weeknight dinner based on this recipe. I roasted some vegetables – zucchini, red bell pepper, red onion, and grape tomatoes – with olive oil, salt, pepper, and a splash of balsamic vinegar. I used prepackaged pesto because I also had some of that in my fridge.

Oatmeal

Since the kids don’t have to be at school in the mornings, breakfast is suddenly an enjoyable cooking opportunity, rather than a mad dash.

I did not learn how to make oatmeal (other than sad microwave pouches) until I was an adult. We are a grits people. But when I did, I learned a simple trick for making oatmeal delicious. Melt a couple TB of butter in a skillet, then add the dry oats (I used 1.5 cups) and a pinch of salt. Stir and toast the oats for a minute, then add 3 cups of liquid. I used milk. Cook until desired consistency is reached. I like my oatmeal very firm, but your mileage may vary. We topped ours with brown sugar (or maple syrup) and fresh berries. I usually include sliced almonds, but we were out.

French Toast

Continuing with breakfasts, I had half a loaf of homemade French Bread taking up space in my freezer. I used the recipe from the big Cook’s Illustrated’s cookbook, but a substantially similar online version can be found here. I’m not usually a fan of french toast, but I make an exception for this one. It is delicious. Can you tell that raspberries and blueberries were also on sale last week?

Coconut Curry Ramen

I heart ramen, and am always on the lookout for new variations. I based my ramen on this recipe, but (as you can tell by the egg) I didn’t make it vegan. In addition to the vegetables suggested in the recipe, I added a red bell pepper and doubled the sugar snap peas. I also usually cook my ramen noodles separately, so everyone can adjust their own noodle-to-broth ratio. Finally, I included sliced green onions and crushed peanuts as toppings.

I’ve been surprised at the number of other people who are finding this isolation tolerable, if not pleasant. Maybe it’s because we’re Floridians, and long school absences are usually accompanied by power outages and property damage. Having air conditioning and hot water and lights makes a huge difference in our contentment.

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Meatless Lent: Week 3

It’s still Lent, and planning meals (and eating meals, and thinking about meals) is still a stress reliever for me, so I’ve continued preparing meatless meals. There have been a few exceptions – like St. Patrick’s Day, when I always make corned beef and cabbage, and eating Sunday’s meaty leftovers on Monday.

Obviously it’s been more of a challenge to plan, cook, and eat when there are new and stricter requirements on stores every day. Over the weekend, I planned meals around everything in my fridge/freezer/pantry. I went to the grocery store first thing Monday morning to fill out my ingredient needs, and I will not have to go back to the grocery store again until next Tuesday.

Some highlights:

Curried Lentil Stew with Ginger Yogurt

This is another meatless dish that dates back to the days when we couldn’t afford furniture. It’s so old, in fact, that I have it printed out on a piece of paper – not even on Pinterest. I always have lentils on hand, so this was a no-brainer.

Baked Gnocchi in Vodka Sauce

My picture of my finished product looks super unappetizing, so I will share the photo that accompanies the recipe on Pinch of Yum’s web site. Last week, frozen gnocchi was BOGO at Publix, so all I had to purchase Monday was a can of tomato paste and some fresh mozzarella.

Irish Car Bomb Cupcakes

Not all my meatless cooking has been dinners. Because we’ve been home more, I’ve had more time to cook fun things, like these Irish Car Bomb cupcakes I made for St. Patrick’s Day. I did not make the ganache, because I did not have heavy cream or bittersweet chocolate on hand. They were still really, really good.

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins

I had a lonely can of pumpkin lingering in my pantry from Thanksgiving, so I put it to good use this morning in the form of Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins. I froze half of them.

And now, an obligatory toilet paper story: As some of you know, my mother was notoriously frugal, occasionally in ways that made no sense. For example, she always bought exactly $10 of gasoline, no matter how empty her tank was. And she was fanatical about not wasting toilet paper. She bought one pack at a time and kept it under her bathroom sink, where it was rationed like butter in wartime. If the pack was empty, we’d resort to pilfering half-used rolls from other bathrooms. As a result, I make sure to always have pah-lenty of TP on hand. I hoarded toilet paper before it was cool.

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Meatless Lent: Week 2

This week I soldiered on with my meatless meals, and the complaints from my family grew quieter and quieter.

Garlicky Kale and Ricotta Pizza

This recipe is from the outstanding Budget Bytes, and it is one of my favorite meatless pizzas. I say that as someone who could eat pizza every day.

Seriously. Every day.

Orecchiette con Salsiccia

I first tried this pasta in pistachio sauce at an Italian restaurant in Edinburgh this summer, and as soon as I got home I tried to re-create it. “Orecchiette” means “little ears,” and the pasta shape creates tiny cups for all that saucy goodness. Many recipes call for including broccoli in the dish, but I like to roast it and serve it on the side.

Pane Bianco

BOOM. Look at all this fancy.

I made this to accompany two kinds of lasagna (Cook’s Illustrated’s Spinach Lasagna and a regular red lasagna) for a dinner gathering on Monday night. It looks amazing, but was pretty easy to create. It’s basically a big, savory cinnamon roll, filled with sun-dried tomatoes, basil, garlic, and cheese. I doubled the cheese. Okay, tripled.

Have a delicious week!

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Lent 2020: Meatless

For the last several years, I have eschewed giving something up for Lent in favor of adding a practice. For several years, I did guided photo-a-day projects. I added devotionals and added quiet reflection and added generosity.

This year, I wanted to feel an absence. After some thought, I decided to stop eating meat at home.

I say this because I’d feel like a jerk for making other people conform to my temporary vegetarianism. If I am choosing the food, I will choose a meatless option, but I was raised to be polite and eat what you’re served.

It’s been a whole week of eating (mostly) vegetarian, and so far so good. Well, for me. My family is deeply disappointed in my choice. Jason asked, in all seriousness, if we could pretty please give up alcohol instead.

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAno.

I’ve been making some of my favorite meatless dishes and altering others to conform. I thought I’d share a few highlights:

Vegetarian Bibimbap

This recipe is adapted from Fine Cooking’s Korean Bibimbap with Sesame Chicken, which I have been making for years. I omitted the chicken and sauteed a bunch of sliced baby bell peppers with the mushrooms, then threw a sunny-side-up egg on top along with a sprinkling of Trader Joe’s Chili Onion Crunch. Fun trick: instead of grating the carrots, I use my vegetable peeler to make long, noodley strips.

Mushroom Bourgignon

Just before Lent, I cemented my status as an adult by preparing Julia Child’s iconic Boeuf Bourgignon over one long weekend afternoon. It was perfect, and I had been dreaming about repeating it every weekend for the rest of my life….until Lent came along. I used Smitten Kitchen’s Mushroom Bourgignon recipe, and it was very good. There’s no way to replicate the meaty deliciousness of the original, but this was a very acceptable compromise.

Avocado Kale Caesar Salad + Sweet Potato Fries

This is another recipe I’ve made a bunch of times. It’s from Pinch of Yum, and is one of my favorite weeknight meals.

Tune in next week for more meatless recipes! That is, if my family does not throw me to the lions first!

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Voyages of the Dawn Treader: Reed Bingham State Park

This past weekend, we took our pop-up camper on its first solo voyage. In December, on the Dawn Treader’s maiden voyage, we camped with a large and experienced group. This time, we were on our own.

I chose Reed Bingham State Park, which is 60 miles away in southeast Georgia. That way, if things went horribly awry, we were not far from home. The park was surprisingly lovely, with a big lake, miles of trails, several playgrounds, and a miniature golf course.

We arrived in a chilly drizzle Friday and set up camp. Here’s a brief rundown of our exterior configuration. We have a pop-up camper with an awning, and a pop-up tent that is the same height. We put them right next to each other and pulled the picnic table under the tent. Then we strung Christmas lights on the awning poles and in the tent braces, creating a dry, lighted space for cooking.

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If you know one thing about me, it’s that I’m a giant nerd. If you know two things about me, it’s that I’m a giant nerd who loves food. I was determined to eat well with a very limited kitchen. I did most of our cooking on this griddle, which I purchased years ago for pancakes. The camper also has a two-burner stove, which I also put to use.

The first order of business on Saturday morning was coffee. Some campers use a French press, some bring a regular plug-in coffeemaker, some use a Keurig. Before our first trip, I bought an inexpensive pour-over coffeemaker. We have a French press, but buying coarse ground coffee is – let’s be honest – kind of a pain. The pour-over has a permanent filter and uses drip grind coffee. It worked beautifully in December, so I was happy to use it again on this trip. That speckled enamel coffee pot is a relic from our days of primitive camping with the Cub Scouts. I use it to heat water.

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After breakfast we explored the lake. The day was cloudy and chilly, but it wasn’t raining any more, plus we could take extended reading breaks in the heated camper. Hooray.

After lunch, we walked some of the park’s Coastal Plain trails. Despite hiking for over an hour, our hands never warmed up!

Back in December, I organized our pop-up based on this article from Rain & Pine. I can’t get over how easy it is to set up camp with the stacking drawer units. I can pack them in the house, put them in the camper, and set them on the counters when we get to our destination. Genius!

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The white drawers hold all our clothes and toiletries (each person gets one drawer) and the blue bin on top holds the fruit bowl and the flashlight. Hazel and BB’s bed is behind them, so I didn’t store any food that the dog would be interested in (I’m looking at you, loaf of bread).

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On the other side of the camper, two smaller stacking drawer units hold all the kitchen/food prep gear, as well as the dog’s stuff and dry goods. The blue bin on top holds more fresh food, and the rest of the counter is taken up by a small trash can and a bin for dishes/silverware.

I am not the kind of person who is going to invest a ton of money in our camper, but I am interested in slowly acquiring things that make camping more enjoyable. After our trip in December, I ordered a memory foam mattress topper for our bed, and it made a HUGE difference in our comfort level. I also bought an inexpensive lamp with an LED bulb, because the camper’s overhead lights are harsh at night. It’s my favorite purchase so far.

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I have started a wish list of items we want to add to our camper (slowly!), but those are definitely “wants,” and not “needs.” I’d like to add curtains to the bunk ends, for example, and some floor mats. But for now, we have plenty of gear for a comfortable, enjoyable weekend away.

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Reclaiming my youth – one blister at a time

I am not an athlete. But sometimes, an indoorsy introvert meets an outdoorsy endeavor and falls in love.

What can you do?

In the mid-90s, this indoor kid fell in love with the sport of rowing. It was a pretty new program at my high school, so the bar to entry was low. Perfect!

I was drawn immediately to the more cerebral aspects of the sport. It’s all about balance, synchronized movement, and careful control of power. When done well, rowing is a thing of beauty – an impossibly slender shell knifing through the water, with only the clunk-clunk of the oars and the soft gurgle of bubbles under the boat for a soundtrack.

After high school, I rowed for a year in college before giving it up. I will always be baffled why crew is such A Thing in New England, where the rowing season is short and brutally cold, and much less of A Thing in Florida, where we can row all year long in the sunshine. Also, my college coach moved morning practice from 5:15 a.m. to 4:45 a.m., and that was a big NO MA’AM.

In 2014, fifteen years after I hung up my spandex, Tyler and Hollyn both started rowing and were immediately hooked.

For five years, we went to their races, enjoying the sport as spectators, cheering them on as they broke PRs on the erg and listening to tales of inter-team drama and triumph.

In December, the Tallahassee Rowing Club advertised a “learn-to-row” event for adults. I signed up, figuring that 20 years out of the boat probably put me all the way back to square one.

I was wrong, thank goodness.

The master rowers quickly booted me from the novice program and put me in boats with men and women who have been rowing for years, sometimes decades.

It’s been glorious. It’s been cold and early and I’m using muscles that haven’t seen action since Bill Clinton was president, but my shriveled grinch heart just sings to be out on the water again.

Some things haven’t changed: the sting of freshly-ripped blisters, the silent screams when the boat isn’t set, the whole-body exhaustion after a good row. And some things have changed quite dramatically: this body has born two babies and twenty years of routine wear and tear. I no longer spring out of the boat, I beach myself upon the dock.

But I have discovered to my delight that true love, with all its aches and pains, lasts for a lifetime.

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Study Hall: From Bedroom to Office

The downstairs study has undergone some transformations in the three years we’ve lived here. First, we upgraded it to be Hollyn’s bedroom. That involved replacing the floor and light fixtures, and painting. Last year, Jason ingeniously solved The Awkward Toilet Problem, just in time for Hollyn to start at the University of North Florida.

As you may recall, this is how the study looked when we finished updating it:

Since Jason primarily works from home, I wanted to create an office space for him in the nook where Hollyn’s bed was. That meant bringing in a desk and eliminating the closet wall (you can see it in the photo above). I decided to replace the closet with some office-appropriate storage and shelving.

First, we removed all the closet hardware, which consisted of a skinny shelving unit and a couple of clothing rods. Then we added a pair of stock base cabinets from Home Depot. I installed hardware to match the kitchen cabinets.

Next, Jason built some sturdy floating shelves, similar to the ones he made for our master bathroom. Here they are in progress. Each one is constructed out of 1×2 boards covered in a thin plywood skin.

Once the shelves were built, he made a simple top for the cabinets out of 1×10 boards. We stained everything and then it was time to dress up the shelves.

And here’s the long view.

The base cabinets hold all the office detritus – files and printer paper and pens and whatnot. If we run out of space down below, we can migrate some things to the shelves. For example, the shallow baskets up there are for papers awaiting final disposition. And if we get to a point where we don’t need it as an office any more, it can easily hold books (booooooks!) or board games or even a bar.

I love the way the nook turned out. It’s useful without looking too office-y. The design allows it to continue being a flexible space we can adapt to our family’s needs.

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Looking Back, Looking Forward

As mentioned previously, this was a year of books, food, and travel. And if I fill a blog post with discourse on those topics, we can conveniently ignore the fact that I utterly failed at the word of the year, which was finish.

Books

I read 55 books this year, which is my lowest total since 2015. Only six were non-fiction. My top ten:

  1. The Starless Sea, by Erin Morgenstern
  2. Circe, by Madeline Miller
  3. Skeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian
  4. Window on the Square, by Phyllis Whitney
  5. Florida, by Lauren Groff
  6. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid
  7. The Passage, by Justin Cronin
  8. Educated, by Tara Westover
  9. World Without End, by Ken Follett
  10. Beneath a Scarlet Sky, by Mark Sullivan

Food

I expanded my baking repertoire, becoming competent at macarons, French bread, and several recipes from The Great British Baking Show. I also cooked dinner for my family almost every night. Here are 10 recipes that I enjoyed trying for the first time.

  1. Baked Gnocchi with Vodka Sauce
  2. Sweet Potato Biscuits
  3. Hyderabad-style Chicken Biryani
  4. Fig Rolls
  5. Chicken Vesuvio
  6. Melon Caprese Salad
  7. Spinach Basil Pesto
  8. Heirloom Tomato Pie
  9. English Muffins
  10. Homemade Pasta

The heirloom tomato pie deserves special mention; it was worth every minute of prep time.

Travel

We traveled a LOT in 2019.

I returned to some of my favorite places: Montreat (NC), England, New Orleans, Chicago, Ellijay (GA).
And I visited new places: Minnesota, Scotland, Auburn, Chattanooga.
Then there was all the crew travel – Jacksonville and Tampa and Sarasota, oh my.

All that travel means that I feel I am starting the new decade weighed down by the things I didn’t get done in 2019.

Finish

Last year, I chose finish as my word for 2019. Not only did I not finish some of the big items I hoped to tackle, I added several new endeavors to my already-full life.

Basically, I’m a moron.

Instead of finally cleaning out the storage unit that holds my mom’s things, we added more to it. Instead of finishing the novel I started in 2018, I pushed it to the back burner. Instead of making sure that this introvert got time to breathe, and read, and recharge, I crammed too much onto my calendar’s pages. I said yes when I should have said no.

It’s tempting to make NO my word of the year for 2020, but that seems excessively negative and unproductive. So I’m going to make my word Refine. I would like to refine my list of commitments. I would like to refine my priorities. I would like to refine the things with which I surround myself.

That’s the goal, at least.

Happy New Year!

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