...Growing, Building, Cooking, Preserving, Crafting...

2006 began our urban homestead when I broke ground on a garden, which now includes perennial fruits, flowers, & many vegetable varieties. We dream of solar panels, keeping bees and hens. Until then we'll continue growing and preserving our own fruits and vegetables, building what we can for our home, cooking from scratch, and crafting most days.


Keeping It Simple

I ended my last post with the lyrics to a favorite holiday tune reminding me of the value of simplicity.  The month of December (which is already TOMORROW!) will be a test of my intention.  I was corresponding with my cousin yesterday via e-mail.  She asked what our plans are for the holiday season and I began my response with "I'm hoping to keep it simple."  Yet I followed with a whole list of week-to-week activities that don't pause until the third week of the month and then pick up on the 23rd and go full force again until the new year.  As I punctuated my last sentence I thought "that doesn't sound simple."  Although a few of December's activities are more or less set in stone, there are a number of others scheduled simply to get us out of the house on a predictably cold day.  And of course, this is the time of year when so many events are planned citywide, especially happenings that attract the kiddies.  And who doesn't want to do it all?  Well, I really don't want to do it all, but will at least pencil in some of the more rare opportunities.  (Breathe, keep it simple.)

Ready to "host" her first dinner party
We began this week by having friends over for dinner on a "school night."  Originally we'd planned Sunday brunch then shifted the schedule because of an impending holiday party in a land south of the Wisconsin border.  But this was a great opportunity for me to put some of last week's feast's leftovers to good use--with full disclosure to our guests.  Roasted root vegetables and chickpeas were worked into a quinoa and mung bean entree, gravy was given new life as a base for a rich turnip gratin, cold broccoli and cauliflower salad was fluffed and re-served, and my homemade caramel decorated yet another apple dessert along with the rest of the Purple Door Ice Cream (made right here in Bay View.)  And you can bet that I sent food home with our lovely guests.  As I was planning last night's dinner, Ben, knowing how I can get carried away with the hors d'oeuvres spread, menu planning, table dressing, etc., reined me in a time or two and said, "remember this is a regular weeknight supper, keep it simple."  He's such a wise man and my perfect counterpart!  We had a wonderful time with our friends, even if all of us were up and down trying to keep track of the girls and make sure they had something on their plates at the "kiddie table."  The night wound down with dessert and simple conversation in the living room.  It was just right.  (Breathe, keep it simple.)

We're beginning to open up more about the Santa thing with Vera.  I talked to her a little bit this week and, after a short explanation, asked what she wanted Santa to bring her.  She was in the tub at the time when the fun-shaped soap we'd brought home from our hotel in Yellowstone finally disintegrated (actually, this was the second of the soaps recovered from our trip).  She said she wanted new bear soap.  I said "Anything else?" and she responded, "just bear soap."  How wonderfully simple.  A friend told me her son wanted only a jar of honey for one of his first Christmases and a former classmate recalled that she would have been satisfied receiving a single bunch of green grapes when she was the same age.  These confidantes went on to warn that things get a bit more complicated as the years go on--and the kids get wiser.  But I'm going to savor the moment for this year and hope that she always keeps her wants so simple.

On the topic of simple things: during an errand run the other day I finally made it to the local cobbler shop to pick up some red shoe polish to shine up my secondhand Dansko clogs.  Vera has a pair of thrifted red leather Mary Janes that also needed a new coat.  I'd polished a pair of her shoes with her before, but the task doesn't seem to lose its luster (no pun intended.)  Upon returning from the store, we excitedly rushed down to the basement box of old socks and other polishes set aside for shoe shining and I went to work.  I always think of my dad when I polish shoes because he taught me at a young age how important it is to take care of your shoes (repair, polish, etc.)  He had a fancy wooden box for his supplies that had a foot rest on it where you could settle while you or another polished your kicks.  I also recall having to line up all the male servers one Sunday morning at a nice restaurant I worked at in college to show them how (and why) to polish their shoes.  Hopefully Vera will carry on this tradition and care for her belongings to make them last.  A simple wish, but valuable lesson.

Amazing what a coat of polish and a shine can do to secondhand kicks!

There's a framed original John and Yoko print hanging in V's room that says "A Small Pig is a Happy Pig."  Our interpretation is that small is beautiful, less is more, simple is better...  I refer to this idea frequently and was reminded of it again as we read from the library book The Biggest House in the World whose synopsis follows:
"A young snail dreams of having the biggest house—or shell—in the world. Then one day, his wise father tells him the story of another snail with the same dream. He grew and grew, adding bright colors and beautiful designs, until he found that his house came at a terrible cost. The young snail decides that a small, easy-to-carry shell might be best for a life of adventure and exploration."
The Biggest House in the World Cover
This was a pretty good find for a book randomly pulled off the shelf.  It perfectly sums up my current goal for life and could provide inspiration for this typically "insane" season as well.  My simple vision for December (as I wake up earlier than my little one each morning--even if just by 20-30 minutes): I intend to savor the still warm coffee my wonderful husband has left insulated in the French Press before heading out the door.  I may sit quietly and sip, I may pick up a little knitting, I may do some reading, but it's going to be something for myself in the tiny quiet space I have alone in the partial darkness.  (Breathe, keep it simple.)

What will you do this season to keep your life simple?


All I Want for Christmas...

Holiday Lights in downtown Milwaukee
It seems as though our family of three (or at least Mommy and Daddy) is still batting around ideas about how we want to celebrate this holiday season in terms of traditions, meaning, and activities.  I grew up enjoying what seemed like fairly traditional American Christmas celebrations with a balance of religion (the story of the Christ child's birth) and Santa (the story of the rosy-cheeked jolly old elf and his workshop).  My husband's childhood probably wasn't as gift-focused around the holidays, but there was still a good combination of both holiday figures.

City of Milwaukee Holiday Tree Lighting
Presently, I find myself balking at both of these traditions.  As Unitarian Universalists--and individuals for that matter--we choose not to base our celebration so much on faith and salvation, though we feel the Christmas story is a good one...just as much as the legend of Hanukkah is symbolic, Dickens' A Christmas Carol teaches compassion, and tales of St. Nick shed light on the reason for the season.  This year so far, Vera seems to be understanding and delighting in the holidays more than ever as Halloween and Thanksgiving demonstrated.  That means she may finally take note of "the man in the red suit" as well as the lights, sparkle, and glow all around.  As you might imagine, because of my connection to nature, I'm more interested in celebrating the Winter Solstice, or "Yule," and the rebirth of the Sun.  I suppose many of these feelings come from the disillusionment I feel with the commercialism of "Christmas."  We all (or at least many Americans) sit at our Thanksgiving tables showing gratitude for what we have only to hit the stores the very next morning (or in the middle of the night) for Black Friday shopping madness.  To spend money we don't have and possibly throw down so that we may put gifts under the tree that show our kids and loved ones that we'd go to any length (even physical harm) to give them what they "want" all while pouring money into the accounts of national chains.  For what?!  (For the record, I observed "Buy Nothing Day" the Friday after Thanksgiving.)

Now more than ever, our society craves meaning and community.  I see this as the perfect time to reconnect, relax, sit quietly, share a meal, volunteer, enjoy the tiny lights through all the darkness, and reflect on the previous year.  Though we're still deciding how to present the Santa Claus idea, we are almost certain that we will encourage Vera to believe, at least in her heart.  Thanks to a friend's recent recommendation, we checked out The Polar Express from the library, which opened my mind a bit and made me remember that no matter what you believe, this is a magical season.  And how better to view it than through a child's eyes. I may add a little extra sparkle to our home this year--hopefully with Vera's help as we craft a special garland, wreath, or gift for a neighbor or friend.

On the topic of gifts, my homemade offerings are well underway and I'm enjoying every minute of crafting them, hoping for smiles on the kids' faces when the packages are unwrapped.  I received a treat myself the other day when my father-in-law unloaded a box of vintage canning jars that he'd acquired from a friend and antique-collector who'd recently down-sized.  They're not suitable for heat processing, but will make beautiful additions to my dry storage of nuts, seeds, noodles, and grains in the pantry.  There was also an interesting glass funnel type piece that I've decided must be a jar filler.  I really am easy to please and I want nothing more this season than to be safe and healthy with family and friends.

Beautiful, shining, old canning jars
Drey brand, hard to find these days
Interesting shapes and sizes
A very large, unique "jar filler," I think
I wish all of you a simple season starting yesterday.  To recall a favorite song from a high school holiday dinner theatre performance, "'Tis the gift to be simple..."  I hope you find joy in simplicity, meaning in the season, and hope in the new year.  Peace to you all through December and this winter.


I'm So Thankful

Vera's hand and foot turkey (w/ added flowers)
will grace our table tomorrow.
Wishing everyone a "Happy Turkey Day"--my dream is that some day everyone (who eats turkey) will enjoy a bird that's led a happy, humane life.

I'm thankful for...

  • Being able to put food on our Thanksgiving table and having people to share it with us.
  • The local farmers, producers, winemakers, cheesemakers, etc. who work tirelessly to craft food worthy of eating.
  • The growing number of farmers' markets in our city.
  • A warm home in which to eat and live.
  • A loving husband and bright, energetic child.
  • Our family's health.
  • Grandparents near and far.
  • Having a good relationship with both my parents and my in-laws.
  • Siblings who have managed to stay in touch no matter the physical distance between us.
  • People who have faith in me.
  • Reuniting (whether in-person or via social networking) with "old friends," especially those who can pick up where we left off.
  • Friends who are amazingly persistent at pulling me out of the shell of my home--especially in the depths of winter--to hang out, bond, laugh.
  • The amazing, supportive group of mamas I trust and admire within the Holistic Moms Network.
  • Options for alternative healthcare and wellness.
  • Having been healthy enough for a homebirth--the most empowering experience of my life thus far.
  • My husband's opportunity to spend Fridays at home with our daughter nearly ever week.
  • My talents that make it easier and more fun to maintain an urban homestead.  
  • Knowing how to cook and bake.
  • My love for reading and a mother who instilled that in me.
  • My love for writing and a mother who reads all my stories.
  • Growing up in a creative family.
  • My growing (albeit little by little) patience.
  • My employer for job flexibility, my co-workers for weekly camaraderie and occasional therapy.
  • The people who've let me share my passion for preserving with them over the past several years of teaching classes.
  • Friends who have given me opportunities for side gigs.
  • Friends who have watched my child in exchange for preserves.
  • Our spiritual community.
  • The ability to be productive (...though still on my goals list is learning how to relax and unwind more easily.)
  • Train travel.
  • Bicycles.
  • Living in a walkable neighborhood.
  • Coffee!
  • Chocolate!
  • Vices that regularly get me through the day (see previous two bullet points) without doing too much damage to my body.
  • A sweet child who likes to cuddle once in a while.  
  • An honest husband, the realist to my idealist, who gives amazing advice and often brings me back down to Earth.
...and so much more.  I will think about all of these gifts in my life, especially tomorrow!  Peace be with you all this holiday.


The Busiest Week of My Year

Our lonely bird waiting for his brine
The days leading up to Thanksgiving always make for the busiest week of my year.  The local food round-up last Saturday--with all of its intricate choreography--turned out pretty well and no one (neither Mommy nor Vera) spontaneously combusted even though we didn't return to the homestead until well after normal nap time.  Whew!  This week I made my traditional stop at the conventional grocery store--you may recall that this is one of my favorite "guilty pleasures" before the Thanksgiving holiday (call me weird for thinking of it that way.)  We are more or less ready to go with the food preparations for Thursday.  I will begin this afternoon by bringing back the "turkey bucket," our name for the 5-gallon bucket where we brine our bird until cook-time on Thursday.  Vera's first Thanksgiving week found her carefully guarding the bucket.  Last year when she was already stringing a few words together and repeating anything we suggested, the slightest utterance of "turkey bucket" in her sweet little voice would have Ben and I in stitches.

I crossed a cooking class off my list last night, realizing after shopping for my class that it wasn't the best timing because where was I going to put the food until prep. time?  I crammed and jammed it into the fridge, but I will tell you that by National Restaurant Association standards, they should have revoked my Safe Food Handler certificate late Saturday night. (For the record, there was no cross-contamination, but my limited options for food placement in the fridge might have been given a second glance from an inspector.)  Anyway...

This morning I had the pleasure of hosting a new interest group at our home.  After all of our talk over the last couple of years, we finally pulled together a small group (four of us so far) of like-minded folks who essentially want to "save the world"...or at least get started preparing our little corner of it to withstand whatever the Earth, economy, or other powers-that-be throw at us.  We are calling ourselves the "South Shore Resilience Circle," and I'm flattered and honored to be a part of this group of experienced men with specialities, knowledge, and interest in permaculture, gardening, rainwater management, forest gardens, alternative energy, peak oil, and community living, just to name a few.  The gentleman who so generously let me pick elderberries at his impressive South Milwaukee homestead last season, a self-proclaimed "urban camper" and dedicated Power-downer, and the founder of Bay View's Eco-Village are my team members in this endeavor.  We're also planning to recruit a gentleman who has electrical engineering experience, which could come in tremendously handy in setting up alternative energy systems.  We've chosen to limit the size of our group, not because we want to be exclusive and only "save ourselves," but because through other similarly focused organizations around the city we've found that working in smaller groups can often be a better way to more quickly get to work on important projects versus continuing to meet, talk, meet, talk, meet, talk, but never set out on a task.  Not to mention, it's nice to be able to fit everyone around a dining room table to solve the world's problems.  Many of which have been sorted out when a small group of people pull up a chair.  I was asked to be part of this circle for my culinary, preservation, and solar cooking experience.  I am excited to share that skill set, but am also hoping to gain a better knowledge of the more technical details--exercising the other hemisphere of my brain--to learn about solar energy, bio-swales, and alternatively-fueled transportation just to name a few projects that have already been mentioned.  I am hoping to inherit four inspiring mentors through this group and finally get somewhere with ideas that have thus far just been dreams in my urban homesteading journal.

Gorgeous label artwork by the
winemaker's wife/tasting room host
So it's two days before the big feast and once again I have most likely disappointed my blog followers by not posting more Thanksgiving recipes.  Let me at least offer you a cocktail [recipe.]  There's a great article in my current issue of Mother Earth News about hard cider.  I just bought a couple bottles from Aeppeltreow Winery near Burlington. (You may recall, this was the orchard trip where a friend and I with the kiddos nearly got kicked out of the winery.)  Never imagined Butterscotch Schnapps would be on my holiday shopping list, but, alas, it is now part of my "liquor cabinet" as I will be pouring this cocktail on Thursday--possibly at 10:00 AM sharp (official Wegner Family "beer-thirty") depending on how the day starts.

Cheers to you and yours this week.  Stay tuned for my "List of Gratitude" in the next post.


The End of the Garden

Ground Cherries still in their husks
Peeled Ground Cherries
The lone golden raspberry.  I assure you, it was delicious.
It looks like the garden finally bit it as of last night.  The Swiss chard and kale may still have a little oomph left in them to spring back from the cold, but otherwise I'm fairly sure it's about time to call it quits.  I actually harvested lots of fresh herbs last night to put into a dinner entree (see below).  I will likely be able to get at the parsley, oregano, thyme, and kohlrabi for a couple of weeks still, but the fennel and delicate radish leaves are toast.  Last week we were still pulling so much from the ground.  The tomatoes and tomatillos had the last bit of life wrung out of them on Saturday as I scoured the plants to harvest enough for one more small batch of salsa.  Picked the remaining ground cherries as well--a small handful--and need to find some way to utilize such a small amount while still enjoying their flavor.  Our golden raspberry harvest rolled in last week with--count it--ONE berry (which I ate in secrecy quickly after snapping the photo so as not to deal with dividing it three ways with my family!  Shameful, I know, but one of those completely selfish acts that busy moms occasionally commit.)  Still in the ground are the parsnips and salsify.  It's the first year I've grown salsify and, honestly, haven't much researched what I need to be doing with it.  The parsnips, on the other hand, can stay in the ground all winter.  I ran into our CSA farmer the other day at the co-op (I love when that happens...he and his wife are "local celebs" to me...but also good friends) and he said I should/could just leave them in the ground covered with a thick layer of leaf mulch.  Perfect, because right about now I have an endless supply of leaves blowing around my backyard and much less energy for gardening.

We're still hitting the farmers' markets and, in fact, plan to double or triple it up this weekend to collect all the goods before the Thanksgiving holiday a week from today (what!).  I have a 4-lb. jar of raw honey to collect at the St. Ann Center Winter Farmers' Market, our heritage turkey to pick up at the West Allis Farmers' Market (it sounds like JenEhr still has a handful of these organic birds available for purchase...might want to call now!) and People's Market Day to support at the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers' Market.  The latter is a special day at State Fair Park's Tommy Thompson Center.  This market runs through spring, but Saturday's event will be brought to you by the people.  In the spirit of the  Occupy Movement, the farmers and producers have raised funds so that this weekend's market is sponsored by the people, not by deep-pocketed corporations.  Please check it out.  Show your support.  And pick up some delicious locally-grown and produced foods to fill your holiday table or the table of someone else.

I promised I'd try to get my Thanksgiving act together in order to post some recipes for anyone interested (ahem...my sister-in-law who was seeking ideas last year and I thoroughly disappointed...)  One thing I know for sure that's on our menu besides the turkey and Ben's Gramma Kate's cranberry salad are some Brussels sprouts.  I picked up our Wellspring Thanksgiving share last night and was overwhelmed by the amount of produce, which will partially be worked into next week's meal.

Crispy Sesame Brussels Sprouts
Serves 4-6

In case this sounds too "Asian-infused" for you, I guarantee the sesame oil flavor is not overwhelming.  As I was enjoying some of these leftovers today I was realizing that one could substitute bacon fat, beef fat, or another mild oil/fat along with the butter (gotta keep the butter!) and still have a lovely crispy texture.  Also, I used gomashio ("goma" being the Japanese word for sesame seed) in place of the sesame seeds.  Sesame seeds are also a source of calcium, surprisingly, so what's not to like?

6 T. butter
3 T. toasted sesame oil
3 T. grapeseed oil
1 1/2 lbs. Brussels sprouts, halved
1/2 t. crushed red pepper (optional)
Salt and pepper
3 T. sesame seeds

In a large skillet, melt the butter in the sesame oil and grapeseed oil over medium heat.  Add the Brussels sprouts and crushed red pepper and season with salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, about 25 min.  Sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and cook until the Brussels sprouts are dark brown and crunchy, about 10-15 min.  Season with salt and pepper and serve hot.

And, though this is not a Thanksgiving recipe per se, I promised (above) that I would include this recipe from last night's dinner.

Broccoli, Mushroom, and Mozzarella Noodle Strata
Serves 6-8

Adapted from The Homesteader's Kitchen: Recipes From Farm to Table by Robin Burnside.  This began as a more "traditional" strata with chunks of bread in it.  I didn't want to sacrifice my precious gluten-free bread for such a dish so I used gluten-free pasta in its place.  One could use regular pasta or regular cubed bread in place of the noodles here.

2 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 c. finally chopped onion
1 T. minced garlic
1 c. sliced button mushrooms
1 c. sliced shiitake mushrooms (I used dried shiitakes and added them to the pasta water to "rehydrate")
4 c. cooked noodles--elbow macaroni, penne, mini shells...whatever you want (approx. 2 c. dry)
2 c. broccoli florets and tender stems, sliced
1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
1 T. chopped fresh oregano
1 T. chopped fresh basil (I used 1/2 T. dried)
1 t. chopped fresh thyme
1 1/2 c. shredded mozzarella or provolone cheese
1/2 c. grated Parmesan
4 eggs
4 c. whole milk
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 t. sea salt
1/8 t. freshly ground pepper

In a large skillet, heat oil and saute onions, garlic for 2 min., stirring occasionally.  Add mushrooms and continue cooking until they begin to brown.  Remove mushrooms from heat and set aside.  Place cooked noodles in a large mixing bowl.  Add mushrooms, broccoli, herbs, and cheeses and toss to combine.  In a medium-size mixing bowl, whisk eggs.  Add milk, mustard, salt and pepper and blend well.  Evenly distribute noodle/vegetable mixture in a well-greased 9x13-inch baking dish.  Slowly pour the egg mixture over top and wiggle the custard into the rest of the ingredients until evenly saturated.  Bake uncovered in a 350F preheated oven for 50-60 min. until top is golden brown and center is set.  Let cool slightly then cut and serve.


Such a Thing as Fashion on the Urban Homestead?

My favorite handmade dress
I often feel guilty that I'm interested in "fashion." I don't want it to sound materialistic; it seems like quite a "luxury" these days.  But I allow myself to maintain this interest because it is a tremendously fun way for me to express myself.  I've never been a fashionista, watched "Project Runway," or raided the racks at Barney's for designer pieces, but I have had an interest in fashion for as long as I can remember.  In high school my sister had a subscription to Elle magazine, which, in my mind, has always been an example of cutting-edge, eccentric, over-the-top fashion.  As a small-town girl, I felt cultured as I pored over these glossy pages of haute couture.  And I may have mentioned once that as kids--even before Elle entered our home--my sister and I  used to draw our own clothing catalogs.  We would raid the paper tray of the Apple IIe printer and meticulously sketch outfits and accessories, then write descriptions and prices with correlating letters in a column to the right.  How I wish I could dig up those renderings now!  I considered my sister more of the fashion doll than me--afterall, she was the first one to make a pilgrimage to the then newly opened Mall of America.  One year of high school we never wore the same outfit twice.  Not necessarily because we had so many clothes, but because between the two of us--being only two years apart and roughly the same size--we were able to come up with enough combinations to keep 'em guessing.  My fashion interests have greatly changed over the years.  As kids we were dragged to secondhand stores and rummages regularly by our mom.  During higher times, as an adolescent and well into high school, we loved to hit the mall with whatever allowance money or summer job savings had accumulated before it burned holes in the pockets of our Guess jeans.  I gradually progressed to thrift stores in high school--before that was cool like it's become today--and would drive to the Goodwill across the state line so no one would see me.  In college and just post-college--during my "retail therapy" phase, which coincided with when I had the most disposable income--I was more into the discount designer stores that one could find in a strip mall.  Now I'm into rummage sales and back to thrift stores and have found a group of friends and fellow employees who enjoy scouring the racks and shelves at local charity shops just as much as me.  It's literally one of my favorite activities to hit the nearest thrift shop to find a few versatile pieces to add to my "fall collection" or "spring wardrobe."  Because of shifts in the economy, my personal values regarding material resources, and my dislike of chain stores and cookie cutter displays, I find that secondhand clothes shopping fits nicely into my lifestyle.  In fact, I was realizing that I could take the Ethical Clothing Pledge and probably remain very happy.

50-cent favorite circular scarf
Of course, there's also my love of sewing for myself and my daughter.  But even that has taken a thrifty twist.  I no longer buy new supplies at the fabric store--unless I need the occasional spool of thread, zipper, or knitting needle, but even those can sometimes be bought secondhand.  I'm excited when I find great patterns at thrift stores and flea markets, yards of fabric or large pieces of material (like sheets, tablecloths) that can be repurposed into garments or home decor.  I've found gobs of yarn at thrift stores and rummages and have kept myself perfectly entertained with these nearly new supplies.  Not only do I get to make and design quality clothing with my own hands, but I save a ton of cash.  One of the "circular" scarves that I wear most frequently was really a piece of knit "ribbing" I picked up at a widowed man's rummage two ears ago for 50-cents.  Strolling around American Apparel recently to get ideas I saw the exact same scarf for $28 (though I will give AA credit for showing me 17,000 different ways to wear it.)  I was recently wishing to spice up my "neck apparel" collection and today found a big piece of lime green fine sweater knit fabric in my basement cabinet, cut it in half, sewed it into one long circle, using the natural curl of the stockinette stitch as the "edging."  Et Voila!  I have a new scarf that's nearly my favorite shade of green.
My latest upcycled neckwear
Cool old tag from the green fabric (above)

Hands: Growing Up to Be an Artist Cover
On the topic of neckwear, I was admiring the intricate felt poppy necklace worn by author and illustrator Lois Ehlert when we went to hear her speak at Milwaukee's Central Library last week.  She's from Milwaukee and one of our favorite children's book authors so I couldn't resist meeting her.  She was a charming, patient woman and shared a bit with us about how she creates her illustrations using collage technique from the bits and pieces she gathers and collects through her daily life.  My favorite Lois Ehlert book is Hands: Growing Up to Be an Artist, which she revealed is about her childhood and what lead her to become an illustrator.  It reminded me so much of my own upbringing in a household with creative parents--a mother who sewed, sang, cooked, and played piano and a father who built everything from treehouses, decks, and patios to shelves, cabinets, and our own wedding trellis.  I only hope that Vera can gather some inspiration from our homestead and use it to become a creative person as well. In the meantime, she'll surely have an endless supply of fabric and yarns scraps as well as thrifted arts and crafts supplies with which to work.

Vera having Lois sign our copy of Eating the Alphabet

Lois discussing Oodles of Animals
Book Covers from Lois Ehlert


Home for the Holiday

Yesterday I finally got busy planning my Thanksgiving dinner menu.  As you've heard me say before, I LOVE preparing the Thanksgiving meal.  The celebration will begin late next week when I pick up our Thanksgiving CSA share via Wellspring.  We are not season subscribers to their community-supported farm, but for the past three seasons or so, we've purchased their Thanksgiving share, which is even more AMAZING than the photo on their website shows.  It's worth every penny and this gorgeous box of certified organic vegetables usually seals the deal for my freezer, cellar rack, and pantry every fall.  Not to mention, at pickup time it allows me to connect with farmer Jeff for the one time each year that we meet.  So without further ado, order your share today.  Only a dozen or so remain!  Following the retrieval of that big box of love, which will take me a couple of days to sort, store, or minimally process, I will collect our heritage turkey via JenEhr Family Farm at the West Allis Farmers' Market next Saturday.  I pre-ordered in early September, but there's a chance you can still secure a certified organic bird if you contact them pronto!  A few days later I will spend another couple of days brining that lovely animal in a 5-gallon bucket in our garage.  Usually the weather cooperates and is nice and cold so that I don't have to worry about storing this tasty thing in my fridge for too long.  It's been unseasonably warm lately, which many people have enjoyed--and I have too as I've continued to harvest from my garden, but I don't have a second fridge for this tom so outdoors is the only option (just like Gramma Lucille used to do.)  I will likely start gathering tablecloths, napkins, table decor, dinner music, and serving dishes the week of the event.  Then my in-laws will roll into town on Wednesday night or Thursday morning (TBD).  I'll be cooking Wednesday night and well into the day on Thursday.  We'll hopefully have a leisurely day on Thanksgiving and a sloooow early evening meal.  This is just the proposal, of course.  We'll keep it loose.  At any rate, I am hoping to get some recipes posted before the holidays this year.  We'll see what happens.

The Big Snow CoverToday Vera and I read The Big Snow, a classic and Caldecott Medal winner.  It follows all the woodland animals as they stock their larders for cold weather and prepare to hibernate before a huge snowstorm.  Reminded me of our own adventures in local food storage and made me think--at least for a split second--bring on the SNOW!  I know we'll be reading this treasured book a few more times before the depths of the cold weather around here.  And I'm hoping I feel just as happy about the weather in January.

Scrap yarn that Vera picked out
In crafting news, it felt good to finish a knitting project on Sunday night.  After a close friend's wedding celebration on Saturday, it was nice to have a very slow Sunday where I could sit and knit as I listened to the football game.  As it turns out, I've been making a new winter cap for Vera each year and completed this one just in time for the weather to become a little more brisk.  I was thinking of wrapping it and putting it under the tree in December, but she watched me make the whole thing so hiding it would have generated more questions of "what happened to that hat you were making for me..." (and similar inquiries) than surprise and joy the day of gift opening.  I have two of six holiday craft projects underway and am determined to keep them in motion even if it means sewing just one or two seams in the evening before bed.  I began cutting out doll clothes from some brand-new patterns my aunt handed down along with a 15" baby doll (fingers crossed this is the closest we'll get to an American Girl).  After my aunt had purchased this doll and the patterns over a decade ago, my cousin's daughters specifically requested not be given any dolls.  So this baby has been sitting untouched and unloved since.  Vera was glad to scoop it up and adopt her, so to speak.  She's named her "Alice."  But Alice needs a wardrobe.  I'm doing my best to craft the essentials for the holidays--like a warm winter coat so this baby doesn't freeze.  It's a great way to use many of the small pieces of calicos and other remnants I have in my fabric cabinet, not to mention these little outfits sew up fast.  Reminds me of childhood when I would cut out Barbie doll clothes from patterns faster than my mom could sew them.  Some might call it cruel, but I call it practical that two or three doll outfits are all I plan to give Vera for the holidays.  Ben may pick out some building blocks to add to her collection.  We are truly determined not to let these celebrations turn into mainstream mall madness.  My theory is that it will cultivate appreciation and control, at least.  I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on how you keep the winter holidays (or any holidays) meaningful, low-key, and without all the credit card debt.  Here's to enjoying the season for all it truly should be.  Cheers!

Mine looks NOTHING like the pattern online.  Why???
I took the liberty of adding the I-cord "tassle" on top
Reading with Daddy, she wouldn't take it off!


Stocking Up

 a larger map
Milwaukee County Winter Farmers Market
Though the outdoor farmers' market season is nearly gone (except for the West Allis Farmers' MarketFondy Farmers' Market, and possibly a handful of others) the winter markets have begun.  Today marks the first day for both the Milwaukee County Winter Farmers' Market and the St. Ann Center Indoor Winter Farmers' Market).  Please patronize these venues now and throughout the winter and early spring where you can stock up on vegetables, meats, eggs, apples, honey, mushrooms, and much more.

Spiced Pickled Cauliflower
The past few weeks, even though our neighborhood farmer's market ended mid-October, I've been hitting the remaining markets around town.  It's time for me to finish stocking my freezer and pantry (though they would beg for me to stop!) and load up my cellar's wooden rack with squash, garlic, onions, potatoes, and nuts in the shell.  Believe it or not the canning kettle continues to boil around here.  I put up pickled cauliflower this week and still have some watermelon rinds (a "treat" my mom remembers from childhood) that I want to try pickling before the weekend disappears.  This past week was "use it or lose it" around here for a couple of days.  I had some potatoes from the summer that were badly sprouting, but I was determined to get what I could out of them.  I popped off the sprouts, boiled them all in highly salted water and have been adding them to soups, salads, and pizza(!) all week.  I put some into a breakfast casserole this morning and intend to make potato salad tomorrow.  One could also blanch and freeze cubed potatoes to fry up or use in a casserole, soup, or hash later in the season.  I also noticed that the couple bottom-of-the barrel winter squashes I bought at the market last month had developed a soft spot or two.  I peeled, seeded, and cubed these, steamed and pureed them before portioning in my mini-muffin pan.  These "cubes" will add a nutritious kick to a smoothie, muffin, cake, pasta dish, or soup this winter.

Crank it!
I'm also finally grinding the ornamental corn that was given to me by my mother to use as decoration this season.  I immediately saw it as food.  After a crop failure last year with my own ornamental corn, I never assembled the manual grain mill that I bought off eBay.  I finally dragged it out of the box and snapped it together (well, it wasn't quite a "snap," in fact, at one point, I thought I was going to break my sternum) and Vera helped me turn the crank as the corn ground between the plates.  Our operation was interrupted, as many of these projects are when a busy family is involved, but I plan to finish this coming week.  It will produce a fairly coarse meal that I could soak and use in baking or polenta.

Chippewa Wild Rice
Aside from stocking up at the market, I have acquired some other amazing seasonal foods from friends.  My husband's boss gave us a sample of wild rice--a different variety than I had seen before.  Apparently it's a single-source, hand-harvested wild lake rice from--appropriately--Rice Lake, MN that she acquired from the tribal rice buyer for the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.  It's non-GMO, giving it a tender hull and a lighter color than the wild rice we're used to seeing commercially.  It cooked up incredibly quickly and made a delicious base for a fall vegetable stir-fry.  I may have to get my hands on more of this for our Thanksgiving table.

In other news, the holiday gift crafting has been underway for a good month already.  Last year I got a little too excited purchasing gifts and felt it in the pocket months later, not to mention these store-bought or online-purchased items--though some were solidly made--didn't have nearly the meaning that I'm hoping my handmade presents will this go-round.  Every year--save 2010 and the aforementioned "crazy"--I try to set some guidelines for my husband.  This time the (loose) rules are that NEW gifts have to be handmade (by oneself or another individual).  One could also purchase a secondhand present or a "service" instead of something material.  Let's hope this pans out.  Of course, I'm dropping most unsubtle hints to Ben already for the one thing I would like (I love that I can create and share a "Favorites" list on Etsy.)  More stories later about what I'm actually crafting, but let's say the sewing machine's been abuzz and the knitting needles have been clicking away.  I'm sure I'll burn some midnight oil before it's all said and done.  I have fond memories of my mother doing this for us around the holidays.  Hopefully it will be worth it when I see the smiles on the kiddos faces when they receive these lovingly made gifts.  On that note, I finally convinced Vera to wear a sweater vest I'd finished for her recently.  I told her I put a lot of love into it just for her.  When she put it on she said sweetly in her 2 1/2-year old voice, "Ooh, it's fuzzy!  Must be all that love!"  My heart melted.