...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.


Chipping Away at Projects

I'm looking back and laughing with great humility at my pre-school-year intentions of outlining my new day-to-day schedule that I thought I would stick to so rigidly: an hour or two of crafting on Mondays (which has been my standard "prep day" for a couple of years), work/gym on Tuesdays, yoga on Wed., housecleaning/gym on Thursdays, Friday work...you get the idea (and some of you who know me well know how highly organized I can truly be.)  I was slightly naive to think that it would fall into place this quickly or easily.  Although we're still finding our new groove with the school schedule, I do believe that a routine--though more flexible--will eventually develop.  Until then I've decided to just toss those intentions up into the air and let the universe sift through them and gradually help me drop them into place.

The bright side is that I have ever so slightly begun to chip away at a couple of projects on my rainy day list.  Actually, strike that.  I haven't even touched the rainy day list yet, let alone looked at it though I've begun to cross off small short-term goals and tie up loose ends on some craft project that have been hanging over my head for too long.

Pile of sweaters pre-yarn harvest--the top one was eventually turned into
the garment below.
V's ballet shrug
I bought a few secondhand sweaters way back when and unraveled them so I could reuse the yarn.  I would love to produce more knit garments for myself, but the cost of new yarn is prohibitive.  I'd been working on this ballet shrug for Vera since we thought she was taking a ballet class last spring.  Fortunately, that section of the class was cancelled which bought me more time to work on (read: procrastinate on) this project.  I ran into a little trouble with a new increase technique, but with the help of another knitter friend who has so graciously helped me sort through the language of knitting many times (in the spare time she has between keeping up with her four girls!) I was able to finally finish this project.  I managed to wrap it all up just a week after our first pre-ballet class this semester (and then this week's class was cancelled last minute).  So by week three hopefully she'll be ready to wear it.  It was a really simple pattern--and the faux-cable stitch made me feel super cool and capable--and I love how it folded up to turn into a sweet little vest.  Doesn't have to be just for ballet of course.  In fact, I'm already eyeing a purple turtleneck knit dress in V's closet to pair it with for winter.  I have one more knitting project sitting inside my knitting ottoman collecting dust--a gray sweater vest for myself--that I hope to finish this winter, but I'm also looking forward to knitting more warm socks and small accessories.

Back View
Don't know if you can appreciate the faux-cable with this dark yarn,
but I'm still excited about it
As you've likely gathered by now, we've been busy bees already this school year.  I'm still trying to figure out where my skills and time will be best utilized in volunteering at V's school.  For now we're trying to manage sitting down for a homemade family meal most nights in between the school Open House, Parent-Teacher Conferences, meetings for extracurriculars, my class series, and my husband's continued knee rehabilitation.  The slow cooker has been in full swing.

I'm well aware of how the price of meat has jumped up lately and since we're dedicated to buying and preparing "clean" meat in our household--which is more expensive--I will say that our meat consumption has decreased significantly in the last couple of years.  Fortunately my family either hasn't noticed or hasn't minded a more veggie-centric menu.  Our larder is packed full of dry beans, legumes, and heartier root and bulb vegetables as they roll in from the fall harvest.  Was in the mood to have a more carnivorous meal last week so I picked up some pork hocks from one of our farmer friends at the Tuesday afternoon farmers market just a few blocks from us.  She asked if I was planning to smoke them since smoked pork hocks are typically used in slow-cooking leafy greens like collards, turnips, or mustards.  Instead I was eager to try them in the slow cooker.  I'm still enjoying the library loaned slow cooker book I mentioned in a previous post.

Spicy Pork Hocks
Serves 4-6

Adapted from a recipe from 150 Best Indian, Thai, Vietnamese Slow Cooker Recipes, which called for lamb shanks.  I'd never prepared pork hocks this way before so was shocked at just how much great meat there was on these under-appreciated bones.  I served them with a warm-spiced Indian rice.  It was the perfect meal for a cool night as we crashed in from the school Open House at 7 PM.  (And subsequently had very few dishes to clean up as we turned right around for V's bedtime.)

2 T. grapeseed oil
about 4 lbs. pork hocks (or lamb shanks)
2 t. ground cinnamon
2 t. ground ginger
2 t. ground cumin
1/2 t. ground allspice
1/4 t. ground nutmeg
1 large onion, chopped
14 oz. (can) diced tomatoes with juice, we used home-canned
1 t. salt
1 c. chicken stock, vegetable broth, or water

In a skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat.  Add pork (in batches if necessary) and brown on all sides, about 8 min. (each batch).  Transfer to slow cooker as completed.  Drain off all but 1 T. fat from pan.  Lower heat to medium.  Add cinnamon, ginger, cumin, allspice, nutmeg to pan and stir-fry until fragrant, about 1 min.  Add onion and stir-fry until softened, about 3 min.  Add tomatoes with juice and salt and bring to boil, stirring and scraping up brown bits from bottom of pan. Transfer to slow cooker and add broth.  Cover and cook on Low for 10 hrs. or on High 5 hrs., until meat if falling off the bone. Serve immediately.

Note:  I found that this meat was nearly perfectly seasoned when it came out of the slow cooker, unlike many of the slow cooker dishes I've tried making before as I stuck closely to the recipe.  

Slow Cooked Pork Hocks and Indian Rice
Autumn moves on and I begin to get excited about fall/winter scheduling (somewhat to my husband's dismay).  A friend and I took the kiddos to the apple orchard this week for what looks like it might be an annual excursion.

Beautiful pears!
I love the little gnarly rings around the tops
of all these Daveys

Holy cow--now THAT'S and heirloom
Pumpkin pickin'
I love this one, warts and all
Loose in the orchard
And though I've heard whispers from friends and relatives about closing up the gardens for winter, I don't want to think about that quite yet--mostly because we still have so much growing, but also because it's another huge undertaking I'm not ready for at this juncture.  Everything in time, everything in time.  Maybe I'll toss that up into the air too and see where/when it lands.  


The Beauty Around Us

Paradise Springs, Kettle Moraine South
Still digesting all the natural beauty and mystery we've consumed in the last few weeks via a couple of treks in our gorgeous state parks.  Labor Day weekend we took a day trip to Kettle Moraine South to hike and hit the beach at Whitewater Lake.  Then last weekend we went on a much anticipated camping adventure with one of my old college chums and his family to Devil's Lake, one of the many geological gems in our fair state.

Hiking around Rice Lake, Kettle Moraine South
Finding geometry in nature, Rice Lake
My husband and I have always felt it's extremely important to get our daughter out in nature--seeing, tasting (within reason), touching, hearing, smelling it; these recent jaunts have been exciting for all of us in that regard.  I know it's a lot to ask a three-year-old to do a major hike (let along a second little gal in the case of our camping trip), but we believe it's best to start building their endurance at an early age.  Even though there was plenty of whining to accompany the hike at both parks, I truly feel the girls enjoyed exploring and feeling like they were on an adventure.

Hiking at Devil's Lake
Daddy Ben, V, and our friends up ahead
Breathtaking vistas
Are we still in Wisconsin?
Canoes and boats on Devil's Lake on a glorious Saturday
The campfire viewed from inside the tent
We're settling into the new school routine a little more each week.  Had a very minor emotional setback this past Monday, but are powering straight through till Friday now.  Last week after Thursday drop-off I went to the co-op to shop for camping food and found myself with two other mom-friends fresh from drop-off wandering around the produce section in the very quiet hour after the store had opened.  The silence was nearly deafening; I had to giggle.  We're all trying to adjust to this new "freedom."  I'm learning how to manage my spare time a little better and am finding it's not too bad.  We've moved library trips and errand running to the afternoons and V and I have worked out a deal re: after lunch rest/quiet time in lieu of a nap.  I have yet to figure out a new gym/yoga routine, but that will come.  With the uphill climb to school twice a day, at least I'm getting a wee bit of exercise.

I'm finding little pockets of time to work on more creative snacks and tried this recipe yesterday from the current copy of Taproot magazine on which I'm catching up.  Had originally planned to make them for our camping trip, but gave myself a break as last week ended up busier than originally planned.

Coconut Date Bon Bons
Makes a couple dozen tiny bon bons.

My little one gave this treat a very honest try (twice!), but still decided she didn't like them.  I believe it was the orange zest, which can be pretty intense for a young palate.  My husband said they tasted like the holidays.  I finally had a chance to use the precious pecans I bought at a roadside stand on our SC trip.  I also used South River brand chickpea miso I found at our co-op; it's a good alternative to a soy-based miso if you have dietary limitations.  And if no one else decides to love them, I'll eat all these little goodies myself.

3/4 c. pecans, toasted
1 orange, zest only
1/2 c. pitted dates, chopped
Pinch of sea salt
3/4 t. cinnamon
1 t. white miso
1 T. maple syrup
1/4 c. shredded coconut

Put toasted nuts, zest, dates, salt, cinnamon, miso, and maple syrup in food processor.  Pulse until you have an even mealy texture.  Remove food processor blade.  Scoop and roll mixture into 1-inch balls (I made mine half the size.)  Spread coconut on a plate and roll each ball in the coconut, covering each one evenly.  Serve leftover orange sections from the zested orange with the bon bons.

And though I've felt like I haven't done nearly as much canning as last season, I've realized that late summer/fall is a much more motivating time for me to preserve food.  I don't know if it's the sudden realization that our fresh, local food will soon be a distant memory or that there are more fun things, in my opinion, to preserve this time of year: tomatoes, carrots (pickled), beets (pickled), green tomatoes (sauced and frozen).  Last night I tested yet another of Marisa McClellan's fabulous recipes from Food in Jars.  Can't wait to sample her Lemony Pickled Cauliflower after a few weeks of marinating in a brine with fresh lemons and whole spices.  Yum!
I love using whole spices in every way possible.
Reminds me of the variety pack of cheesy and regular popcorn
Lemony Pickled Cauliflower
Through all of these changes and ongoing transitions it's been really fun and important to listen to my child and observe how she's dealing with it all as well.  I had to thank her for putting up with me one day this week when I'd been anxious and stressed and grouchy most of the afternoon.  And today as she came in from playing in the yard I heard her say something to herself that I've been trying to get her to practice for months, "breathe in, breathe out."  Made me realize 1) that they'll eventually get it if you keep repeating it--despite the initial resistance and 2) I could take some of my own advice now and then.  Sigh.

Stopping to "smell the roses" (rather, check out something
super gross on the forest floor.)
Enjoy this transition into the next season; savor the little things and take time to breathe deeply.


In Transition

Remembering all the challenging yet precious stages
we've endured.
I still remember a few things from our Bradley Method birthing classes about the last part of active labor called "transition."  It can be defined as:

"...[marking] the shift to the second stage of labor.  This is the most intense part of labor. Contractions are usually very strong, coming every two and a half to three minutes or so and lasting a minute or more, and you may start shaking and shivering."
Would it be the slightest bit fair to make a comparison and say that at points in our (sometimes intense) transition into this new school routine that I have found myself shaking and shivering?  Or at least feeling like we're never going to get to the other side (as a birthing mama might feel as she's pushing FOR.EVER.)?

I made this new chapter of my life out to be so calm and wonderful and fantastic in my last post.  And it very well might be once we get through the transition stage.  For now I'm coping with the (likely final) disappearance of nap time and B and I are working on shifting the bedtime routine to balance out the sleep requirements that our active three-year-old still has despite what she thinks.  From Monday to Tuesday we went from one end of the spectrum--having one last battle over whether V would nap or not--to the other as we went out and about for the afternoon to the farmers' market, playing outside, preparing dinner.  I must say I prefer the latter and so I'm willing to finally let go of the idea of midday siestas for my little one.  I offer you a sigh of surrender.

Guessing it will take all of us a good month or more to settle comfortably into this new routine; then I think it will really be awesome.  Thank goodness, because Monday evening I was feeling exhausted, desperate, and hopeless as I vented to my husband.  "This is worse than before...I don't know what I'm going to do."  After all the major transitions and new beginnings we've endured, how quickly we still manage to forget that we DO make it through (sometimes with minor scratches and wounds) and soon thereafter look back at how we fumbled and fought at the outset.

Today I gave what was probably my last in-home sewing lesson for now.  The whole process has been great and earned Ben and I some "free" babysitting hours.  My student wanted to raid my fabric stash today to make some gift bags for her upcoming wedding.  This time we traded food for fabric.  I received two gorgeous dozen eggs from her own hens in exchange for several good size swatches of fabric.  I can't wait till we have our own hens (give me 5 years max!) so I can use the eggs as a
bartering tool.

No photo can do justice to the beautiful hues of these urban eggs
Speaking of the trials and tribulations of birth, this
looks like it hurt.
150 Best Indian, Thai, Vietnamese and More Slow Cooker Recipes CoverThis week I've also been paging through a slow cooker book  I randomly grabbed from the library.  I love Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese food and I love cooking hearty dishes in the slow cooker once the weather starts to get cool.  Dinner is already simmering away and the kitchen's clean.  Goan Chicken Xacutti on our plates tonight.  Can't wait!

Via this borrowed cookbook--which has slowly made its way to the top of my wish list--I learned a new technique.  All of you Microplane fanatics may have already figured this out, but I'm a late bloomer.  I usually just use my garlic press to get very finely minced garlic, but by using this very fine grater, one can actually make a garlic puree and get more essence out of each clove.  If anyone has ever, or still buys jars of garlic puree--Stop!  Spend a little money on what is one of my favorite and essential kitchen tools (perfect for citrus zest and finely grated hard cheeses too) and make your own--no preservatives added.

Love my microplane grater
For those of you who have been following my blog for more than a year, you may have noticed I haven't posted quite as much about my food preservation adventures this season.  For two reasons: I made SO many preserves last year (which directly correlates with how much more my daughter was napping then) that we're still trying to eat them up and I decided at the beginning of this season to simply take it easier on myself this year in both gardening and preservation commitments and just see how it feels.  I have definitely felt certain things missing, but for now, I think it was a wise choice.

Last weekend at our neighborhood farmers' market I was perusing the beautiful crates full of apples and pears at our favorite orchard's stand.  I noticed a crate at the end with lots of little happy Seckel pears and as I was eyeing them the woman next to me who was quickly surveying each little fruit said something like "grab what you want otherwise I'm going to take them all."  I asked her what she had planned and she said she was going to pickle them.  I'd never thought of that and had certainly never tasted them so I asked her about her recipe as I was loading a bag with my own pears.  Both of us found ourselves temporarily out of business cards, but she rattled off her website and I committed it to memory long enough to get home and look it up.  Ironically we haven't crossed paths before, but it was fantastic to stumble upon the musings of another local food blogger, especially one committed to eating locally.  Before I could connect with her to get her pickled pear recipe, I found my own in a library book I was just about to drop in the return slot at our neighborhood branch.  Here is another reliable version from the ever-popular The Ball Complete Book of Home Food Preservation.  Admittedly, I don't know what I'll use them for once I open them, but it will likely be a savory dish.  And after reading more this past week in the latest issue of Remedy Quarterly, a fabulous little ad-free journal of food essays, I may use the brine in a shrub.  

Whole spices, fresh ginger and lime (instead of lemon) in each pint
Starting to fill the jars--pints and couple half pints for gifts.
Yum!  Can't wait to taste them this winter.
My wild foraging activities haven't been as frequent this season as last year either, but I am starting to think about fall foraging and staghorn sumac is on my radar.  Last year I canned a few pints of sumac concentrate which I used in some spritzers at our recent garden party.  I also dried some of the fuzzy "berries" and ground them into a powder, which I then used to make za'atar, a Middle Eastern seasoning that can perk up salads, chicken, vegetables, or homemade flatbread.  You can certainly buy this specialty seasoning from our local Spice House, but it's fun and easy to make your own.

Homemade Za'atar in a reused spice jar
Mmmm, warm spices
So I felt like I got a little momentum today and after this crazy week and fun weekend I'm hoping I'll feel slightly more organized and level-headed.  Glad to have my friends and immediate family here for support right now just like the amazing group of people I had to physically and emotionally support me in labor.  Once I got through it, I loved what I found on the other side.


New Beginnings

First Day of School
This week was the one we'd been waiting for--V started K-3.  We are so fortunate in our city--and neighborhood--to have numerous publicly-funded Montessori schools, and some high achieving ones at that.  Just a few blocks away from the homestead is one of these gems, but we'd been on the waiting list since the lottery in spring.  We got the call on Tuesday and not a minute too late.  Yesterday V started preschool and we officially began the next big chapter of our lives.  This is a big step for her, not only because we feel it's such a great program and philosophy for our child, but because she'll be at this same school for the next decade building important relationships and life skills, creativity and friendships.  Oh, and Mommy might just get a little more personal time to boot.  Admittedly, I've been extremely giddy all summer about this new phase, though I tried not to get myself too excited since it wasn't absolutely guaranteed.  But even after two days of having a good three-hour chunk of childless time, I am feeling like a slightly new person.  As we settle into our new routine I am hoping to eventually carve out--and highly guard--some time to get back into yoga, do some serious sewing (with dreams of having an Etsy shop one day), bake bread regularly, page through recipes and make dishes that I've never had the time to make before (and improve on the creativity of meals around here--breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner, all of it!), possibly do some volunteering, get together with a friend or neighbor for coffee (which we've been only talking about for too long), do more preserving and plan next year's garden more thoroughly.  My husband says "it's only three hours."  Yes, but it's a regular, guaranteed three hours three days each week (school is Monday through Friday, but I'm going to add an extra half-day shift to my current pastry gig.)  You'd be surprised what I can get done just knowing for sure I have that time reserved.  Of course there's all the life maintenance that I do around here anyway, but I've already discovered that I can get it done much more efficiently (read: more quickly) when I'm solo. Not to mention the load is lighter--no need to pack snacks for the gym bag, no need to factor in extra time for extraction every place we go. What I'm most excited about is that I'll get to have this personal time in the AMs then will have more time to focus and be present when my youngin' and husband are around.

First Day of School Breakfast--Gluten-Free Maple French Toast
With some of my home-canned peaches, an "All-Star" Breakfast
Last night I already felt I had more time to make a creative salad for dinner.  Picked up some fennel from our CSA farmers and was eager to use it.  

Beet, Cabbage, and Fennel Salad
Serves 4

I served this alongside some poached whitefish for a simple dinner.  One could use red beets as well, but the golden ones give it a beautiful color.

1 lb. golden beets, shredded
1/2 c. shredded red cabbage
1 bulb fennel, thinly shaved (I used a Japanese slicer) with handful of fronds, minced
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
1 T. sherry vinegar

Place vegetables in a large mixing bowl and set aside.  Combine the oil, vinegar, and preserved lemon in a food processor and process until a "dressing" is made (alternatively minced the preserved lemon and mix first three ingredients by hand.)  Pour dressing over vegetables and toss well.  Taste and season with additional salt as needed (remembering that the preserved lemons are already salted.)

Tomorrow will be V's half birthday.  I'm not usually one to get into half birthdays, but really just wanted an excuse to bake something, especially with her.  We made our favorite Vanilla Cupcakes using almond flour and had a great time working together (where did this additional patience suddnely come from on my end?)  

Helping to whisk...
...and mix
Mise en place
Mise en place is one of the most important steps in making any recipe, a point I try to convey in my cooking classes.  But honestly, it's been all in theory for me because I usually feel like I'm frantically throwing something together.  Sure, most of the things I make work out just fine that way, but I can probably still count on too many fingers how many times I've begun mixing  ingredients together only to find I'm out of something.  So today I actually had time to stage all of the ingredients in individual prep. bowls so that V could more easily help me bake.  She enjoyed being able to pour and mix, which are too often complicated by my lack of time to get organized.  Seriously, this new chapter has been awesome so far.  I hope it lasts!
Ready for frosting
The garden is still going strong and the fall crops are well established--even after some chipmunks turned under my brassica bed last Friday.  I reseeded immediately and kept them protected.  Everything is nearly back to normal already.  Coming out of our garden right now are lots of cherry tomatoes, which we're mostly eating out of hand like candy; basil basil basil--time to make pesto; and some interesting peppers that are relatives to poblanos.  Greens and beans are still popping too and the fall crop of golden raspberries are starting to peek out.

Pick a peck
One more school day for the week then a jam-packed weekend of fun in Milwaukee.  Summer's on its last leg so everyone and every organization are trying to celebrate before it's too late.