Monday, August 24

Summer Pictures

Just a few quick pictures to share today... 

We have pumpkins actually growing in our garden! They're either cheese pumpkins or sugar pumpkins... the seeds got all mixed together, so I don't actually know which is which any more. It doesn't matter though. Having any kind of pumpkins makes me unreasonably happy!  : )

The pumpkins may still have a couple months to go, but apples are unexpectedly coming ripe early. Check out the two buckets I collected the other day, waiting to be made into pie filling, sauce, and other goodies!

Since we (finally) got a good apple crop this year (after several years of nothing thanks to wonky weather patterns), I allowed myself to experiment with making sparkling (but not hard) cider. The process seemed simple enough - freshly pressed apple juice and champagne yeast, mixed in a fermentation-appropriate bottle and left on the counter for a couple days.

Apparently I will need to practice some of the finer points, because when I opened the bottles they all but exploded! A wee bit over-carbonated... oops. On the bright side, what remained post explosion was very yummy! Seeing as it was experimental, I only made a couple small bottles. Hopefully I'll get a chance to try again before the season is out. 

Somehow it is the last week of August already, so there's plenty to do and I won't linger and ramble today. Just wanted to share a few pics since I actually remembered to take them! 

Wednesday, August 19

Experimental Canning

Between getting fruit in our CSA share each week and actually having an apple harvest this year, I've been working with an entirely different flow of food into my kitchen this year than has been the case the last couple summers. 

In particular, I've been finding myself with just a few of this or that needing to be used
before they go bad - pears, peaches, nectarines, apples.

Enter Preserving by the Pint, the new book by Marisa McClellan - the author/blogger behind Food in Jars. I grabbed a copy from my library out of curiosity and knew I'd found exactly what I needed. Each PbtP recipe is small batch - usually resulting in only 1 or 2 pints of finished product - and therefore calls for very small amounts of ingredients. It's the perfect solution to effectively putting up that handful of miscellaneous produce that always seems to come ripe out of sync with everything else, or that randomly shows up in a CSA box.

I very much enjoyed having both the excuse and opportunity to experiment, and picked two recipes to start with: Rosemary Apple Jam and Pear Caramel Sauce. 

The jam was quick and stupid easy to make, but smells and tastes amazing! It's one of those concoctions that begs to be dumped over pork or chicken in a crockpot on a cold, blustery day with the promise of making your house smell delectable for hours and an easy dinner. (I am a huge fan of dump-it-in-the-crockpot-and-call-it-done dinners during the winter!) You can find the recipe neatly written out here.

The pear caramel was far too intriguing an idea not to try, and the end result left me seriously tempted to run out, grab a bushel of pears, and make a dozen or so more batches! It's a beautiful color, it stores neatly on your shelf (as opposed to so many caramel sauces that require refrigeration), and it contains no gluten, dairy, or other allergens - another giant bonus for those of us used to being frustrated by the ingredients in commercial sauces! Moreover, I can testify that it is amazing over both ice cream and crisp. [Supposedly you can do this with any fruit, and I look forward to experimenting with that further.] Note: I used less than the called for amount of sugar in my batch, and it turned out just fine.

Experimental canning has been tremendous fun thus far this summer, and I look forward to trying a few more new-to-me recipes if I find myself with the right combination of ingredients on hand. If you tend to find yourself with just a handful of this or that laying around, check out Food in Jars or grab Preserving by the Pint from your library!

Tuesday, August 18

Planning for Fall

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to in the last couple weeks has said the same thing: where did the summer go? No matter what they’ve been occupied with, everyone agrees that time is going by much too quickly.

Very aware of the fleeting days myself, I dedicated a morning recently to planning for Fall. Fall is my favorite season, especially now that we have a house and are immersed in the glorious colors and scents of the season. At the same time, Fall tends to be an incredibly stressful for me if I am not careful; summer canning season too easily barrels straight into winter prep, and then the holidays are upon us. I do not enjoy the holidays if I am not prepared for them… which is kind of terrible, considering many people I know and love consider Christmas their favorite time of year!

Starting last year, I made a new Simple Rule for myself: by September every year, I will make complete lists of the cards and gifts I will need for the holidays. Shopping will be done by Thanksgiving, and cards written and mailed the weekend after Thanksgiving.

Following that rule last year completely changed my experience of the holidays. This year, I decided to build on that success by sitting down early with my calendar and a loose Fall Bucket List to address the things we always want to do but never are on top of ahead of time (and therefore usually miss). Now I'm looking ahead to Fall with anticipation. The days will continue to be busy, but I have a good view of what’s coming and feel like I’m diving in with intention and potential – not being thrown in headlong and scattered.

If you’re looking to hit your Fall/Holiday season with similar intention, here are a few tips and resources I use that might help you get started:

1    Coffee Date with Your Calendar
Make a coffee date with yourself (and your spouse if appropriate) and your planner (whatever kind/method you use) to sit down and double check that everything you already know about is in there - appointments, work projects, travel, etc. Block out date nights, girls/guys nights out, project time, mandatory “down days”, and anything else that is a priority so that it’s locked in before things get crazy. (If you're a visual learner, use colors!)

Bonus Tip: Don't forget to include your favorites from this list of Geek Holidays, because things like Eat Like a Hobbit Day will definitely make your Fall more fun!

2    Bucket List
Though I never make a formal bucket list, I’ve always got a mental list of things we either did last year and loved, or wanted to do but missed. Make time in your scheduling session to make a list of things you loved/wanted to do but missed and then follow up on them! Think OctoberFest, Harvest Festivals, Christmas Lights displays,family movie nights, walks in crisp autumn air - big or little, if the idea sparks joy in you, make sure you include it!

Bonus Tip: Start a list/folder/envelope for tracking events or bucket list ideas you want to remember for next Fall to put yourself ahead of the game in 2016.
3    Christmas Card & Gift Lists
Scattered Squirrel offers free downloadable planning lists for tracking Christmas cards and gifts, including helpful check boxes that let you track when things were purchased, sent, and received, as well as columns for retailer and cost that help you organize your shopping and plan your budget. (You could also easily make something like this in excel, which would do the math for you.) Don't forget to include hostess gifts on your list if you expect to attend dinners and parties where you'll need to bring some!

Bonus Tip: Consider selecting/ordering Christmas cards (or scheduling the family photo shoot for them) while you're making your list. This is also a great time to update/double check any addresses you'll need before cards can be mailed.

4    Backup Meals & Snacks
I consider backup meals and snacks one of the absolute best ways to build some grace into busy weeks. Whether that means (clean) boxed mac & cheese tucked in the pantry or pre-prepped homemade meals dropped in the freezer ready for a quick reheat, having  good, clean, comforting foods ready to go at a moment’s notice can be a life-saver. A generous stock of healthy, shelf-stable snacks can be equally appreciated amidst busy days.

Bonus Tip: Give yourself some extra grace by keeping a fool-proof go-to option on hand for last-minute get togethers. Make and freeze pies or cookies, stock fruit and oatmeal (frozen or canned) for almost-instant crisp, or find a great recipe you can reliably whip up with little time and no fuss. (My go-to is 20 minute chocolate mousse!) 

Are you still firmly in summer mode, or are you planning for Fall already too?

Monday, August 17

KonMarie Method

Marie Kondo’s book on organizing has been all over the blogger realm in the last few month and getting lots of positive reviews, so I finally decided to check it out myself. It’s a pretty slim little volume, and a quick read, but for its modest size it certainly contained plenty to think about.

Having been forewarned by other reviewers, I approached the book with a grain of (sea) salt. (Other readers have told stories of being so caught up in the process that they tossed all of their ratty old pajamas in one fell swoop… only to get to bedtime and realize they literally had nothing to wear! Many also expressed horror towards the author’s approach to books.)  

Not surprisingly, I found some things that made a lot of sense and others that didn’t seem practical to me. Although I will never be on board with Kondo’s suggestion to completely empty one’s purse every night, I did come away with three key ideas that totally made the book worth reading for me:

1     Organizing by Category (Not Place)
I loved the suggestion to organize by category rather than place (i.e. clothes, toiletries, tools vs. closet, bathroom, garage). Kondo’s insightful point that we often end up with clutter and too many of things simply because we don’t realize what we have (because we store similar things is a wide variety of places) made a ton of sense to me. (For example, people end up with two dozen toothbrushes because they keep a couple in each bathroom, a few more in a toiletry cabinet somewhere, etc., and forget about most of them.) I haven’t seen this idea in other organizing books or resources, but it is definitely something I will be keeping in mind as I continue to refine the organization systems around here (for both home and work materials).

2    Selecting Representative Photos
I have never been good at organizing photos. I’m not much on taking pictures (or having my picture taken), and can’t remember the last time I intentionally sat down to go through a photo album that I wasn’t looking for something for a specific purpose. Thus, I’ve always been terrible about making time to sort and label photos, and prefer to keep them in a shoebox roughly by date rather than in an album. Kondo made some great remarks about this kind of behavior that really got me thinking. She made the point that we rarely need very many photos to remember an event, and that more is not better. A few, good representative photos can evoke the rich memories of a special day or event just as well – and often better than – a slew of less important ones. Moreover, if we let photos sit and linger unlabeled and unseen, what good are they? By the time anyone gets around to them, the names, dates and reasons why the photos mattered will largely be lost. And if that’s the case, why did we bother keeping them? That made a tremendous amount of sense to me, and inspired me to set aside time this winter (when we’re focused on inside projects) to go through our photos, selecting and properly notating the ones that are genuinely worthwhile and discarding the rest.

3     Thanking Things Before Discarding Them
The most useful take-away I got from Kondo’s book was the idea of thanking things that have served you well before you toss/donate them – even if the only way they “served you” was to show you what doesn’t work for you. (Examples include a top that never fit right or wasn’t a good color for you, an item you purchased on impulse that made you happy in the moment but then never got used, or a d├ęcor item that fit a previous period in your life but isn’t a good fit any longer.) 
I love this approach reinforces your current priorities and positive vision for the future instead of prompting guilt for past choices. It’s so easy to look at things we want to get rid of and feel bad about the money spent, or the purchase made in frustration or impatience even though we knew it wasn’t really what we wanted. Often it feels irresponsible, or like we’ve failed somehow, even when it is really just something that fit a previous phase of our lives but isn’t relevant any longer. But thanking things for their role forces us to focus instead on recognizing good aspects of ourselves – what we’ve learned, how we’ve grown, the goals we’re working toward. That kind of positive reinforcement not only builds positive momentum in the cleaning process, but strengthens the brain pathways that will help us make good decisions in the future.  

Have you read Kondo’s book? What did you think?

Sunday, August 16

Tough Mudder 1

After last year’s Tough Mudder, we decided to go big this year and sign up for two Tough Mudders and a Warrior Dash. Knowing that there would be three mud runs on the calendar was a big motivator, and we both worked out throughout the past year with the goal of being even more prepared for this year’s events. Naturally, the TM people met our effort with efforts of their own – they revamped a slew of obstacles, making them twice as hard!

The Funky Monkey Obstacle (photo credit)
Our first TM this year was August 1st at a site we’ve done before and enjoyed, and we were delighted to get an early start time on the first day of the (two-day) event. The earlier you start, the fewer people there are on the course and the less waiting you’re likely to face at each obstacle. As an added bonus, the water is still dyed electric orange! (By the end of the event, it has usually faded to murky brown on account of the sheer amount of mud participants have carried into and through it.)

They’d redone the course route and, in addition to a few obstacles we knew and loved, there were a selection of new and reworked challenges to face. For example, last year I aced the Funky Monkey (monkey bars); this year, I didn't make it. The new format - regular monkey bars for the 1st half, then a swinging bar to bridge the gap to a long pole running perpendicular to the monkey bars) - was beyond me. I didn't gather enough momentum to make the jump to the second half.

Coming off an obstacle - covered in mud!
Despite failing to conquer all the obstacles this round, I was immensely proud of myself for keeping a much better pace than I did last year. I'm pleased to know I still have one more Mudder this year - another shot at proving myself on the obstacles I couldn't do this time. And I'm grateful to the TM crew for upping the ante so that I have renewed motivation to train and push myself between now and next summer! 

The other thing that I really loved this year was the Fruit Shoot Mini Mudder - a mini TM course for kids/youth - and the "obstacles" in Mudder Village (open to participants and spectators alike). As someone who grew up hating sports and disliking my athletic classmates because they appeared uniformly snobby and clique-y, I am thrilled to see young people being introduced to physical fitness and challenging themselves in an environment that is 100% positive and encouraging. Tough Mudders are about working with others - whether they're on your team or you've never met them before - and about not leaving anyone behind. They're not about racing or competing, except against yourself. What better way could be possibly hope to introduce the next generation to taking care of their bodies and facing hard things than by offering them a shot to push themselves in a safe but exhilarating environment? 

It was amazing to watch a father lift his son (guessing the boy was about 9 years old) up to the Human Hamster Wheel and cheer him on as he screwed up his little face in determination and had at it! A friend and I were just talking the other day about how little the current generation of children gets taught (or allowed) to challenge themselves and work through hard things on their own. Kudos to you TM for creating a unique and awesome opportunity for both adults and youth alike to dig deep and rock out!

Saturday, August 15

Beautiful Bottle Crates

In my opinion, one of the best aspects of home brewing – aside from the drinking the yummy results of your work, of course – is that you collect beautiful bottles to store things in. It makes me quite happy to open the fridge or step into the pantry and see sleek flip-top bottles in amber, cobalt, and clear glass holding beer, wine, or kombucha. So much more lovely and satisfying to the soul than plastic jugs!

With our primary workspace upstairs in the kitchen, and our main storage space downstairs in the basement, we need to be able to move bottles efficiently – whether full or empty. For a while we were using old cardboard 12-pack boxes, wine boxes, or plastic filing crates. They worked, but weren’t great.

Then I was on Pinterest and saw a photo of a wooden crate someone had made themselves… and I knew we needed some. I broached the subject to my handsome and talented Prince, and he agreed to think about it. We were busy, though, and the project sat on the back burner a while.

In the last couple months, while we were back and forth from the Toy Store (aka Lowes) getting supplies for other projects, my Prince found some wood he thought would do nicely. Then he disappeared into the basement. The babies sat at my feet upstairs, supervising my activities, but would periodically cock their heads and perk up their ears, staring curiously at the floor as the sounds of woodworking spiraled up from under our feet.

When he re-emerged, my Prince was holding a custom-made, custom-sized crate for our shiny bottles! It is both beautiful and rock solid – perfectly for carting bottles around and for storing them in style as their contents ages. He’s made a few more since then, each appropriately sized for a different style of bottle. I am very fortunate to have a husband who is creative and talented enough to design and create such awesome things for us! 

Friday, August 14

The Compleat Works of Wllm Shakespeare [Abridged] [Revised]

Image belongs to Glimmerglass and/or the Farmer's Museum

I have always been a judgmental reader with high standards. With the notable exception of Tolkien, I was almost never a fan of anything considered a “classic… which I’m sure you can imagine made me a joy in high school and college lit classes. I long harbored a particular dislike for both Shakespeare and Dickens. Frankly, I was quite convinced Dickens wouldn’t have ever written a single word if anti-depressants had been available to him.

Shakespeare largely fell victim to my high expectations for strong characters. Compared to the brave souls I was reading about in historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy novels at the time, the Bard’s cast simply wasn’t impressive. Romeo threw tantrums like a two-year old, MacBeth let his wife treat him like a doormat, and my tenth grade teacher essentially boiled the entire plot of Julius Ceasar down to “Brutus was an honorable man”… the fact that he killed his best friend apparently not withstanding.

This low opinion makes it all the more entertaining that I had such a fabulous time this past weekend at a show entitled “The Compleat Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] [Revised]”. Presented in partnership between a local theatre company and nearby living history museum, the show was billed as “three men hilariously try and fail to present all Shakespeare’s works in 90 minutes”.

The tickets were a good price, and we actually didn’t have anything scheduled that day, so scheduled an impromptu date to go check it out. It was a gorgeously sunny afternoon as we headed to the museum’s beautiful stone barn, which had been restored and turned into a giant multi-purpose space with enormous sliding doors, folding wooden shutters, wide plank floors, and a small stage.

From the show’s introduction by an ostensible “pre-eminent Shakepearian scholar” – complete with a certificate from – and the somewhat confused bio of the Bard which another actor read to us from Wikipedia via his phone (that somehow accidentally switched to Hitler’s bio halfway through), we knew we were in for a good time.

Highlights of the show included Titus Andronicus presented as a cooking show, all of Shakespeare’s histories condensed and presented as a football game (with two of the actors using a crown in place of a football, tackling and stabbing each other as the sportscaster style narration tracked the passing of the crown through kings John, Richard and Lear) and a neat compilation of nearly all of the comedies into a single, massive bacchanalian party.  Nearly every female character necessitated the donning of a stringy blonde wig and the swigging of poison, followed by subsequent profuse (faux) vomiting and dramatic death (despite insistence from the “Pre-Eminent Shakespearan Scholar” that no such vomiting actually happened in the plays).

The show ended with Hamlet, which was turned into an interactive experience for the audience as we recreated Ophelia’s deep inner turmoil. Yours truly was elected to go on stage to play the role of Ophelia’s id, screaming dramatically. (Because who else would you choose for such a job besides an introvert?) On the bright side, it gave me a perfect position from which to watch different sections of the audience get corralled into playing other parts of Ophelia’s psyche. My personal favorite was the section assigned to say “Cut the crap, Hamlet! My clock is ticking, and I want babies now!”  Seriously, if Shakespeare’s women had actually been that direct in the plays, think how differently things would have turned out!

Everything ended on a high note by the actors recapping Hamlet in 30 seconds, first in order… and then backwards! The entire show was a riot, and we had a wonderful time. If you ever get a chance to go see the show, I highly recommend it.