Friday, September 19, 2014

the big bad wolf and our children

Recently, two young daughters of two of my friends went out for an evening stroll in their cozy, small-town little neighborhood.

And got stalked.

By a scruffy man in a car.

The girls quickly caught on that something wasn't right, but even so, they had to pass by him four or five times as they hurried home because he kept circling around. When they were nearly home, he tried to talk to them through the car window and they took off running. Smart girls.

The police are on the case (which parallels some other recent reports). It appears to be some guy who is fixated more on indecent exposure than on abductions. In other words, it's yucky, gross, and disgusting, but it could be worse. No one got hurt. The girls are okay. Everything is fine.

Except everything isn’t fine. Two sweet girls were preyed upon by a full-grown man which is so utterly wrong that it turns my stomach. As they were being stalked, they discussed whether or not to scream, and the one girl had the presence of mind to look for houses with lights on inside. No child should have to think like this.

However, as my husband (who was seriously pissed off about the situation) pointed out, it doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong. It is what it is. This is the situation whether we like it or not. What matters is how we respond.

The very next night I sent my teenage daughter on a walk to our downtown library while I went to a meeting at church. A solo walk in that part of town is no big deal, really. The church is only two blocks from the library, after all. But it would be dusk—and then dark—and that creepy man had a reputation for dusk-time stalkings. So before we headed into town, I had a chat with my girl. I explained (in greater detail than what I had shared with the children previously) what had happened to the girls. And then, encouraged by what I had heard about the girls’ creative resourcefulness in the face of danger, I made up my own list of common sense safety tips.

*The majority of people are good. Don’t be paranoid.

*That said, if you ever feel creeped out or uncomfortable, listen to your gut.

*Keep your head up. Walk with purpose.

*Stay in main areas and avoid secluded spots. In other words, don’t cut through the parking garage.

*Make eye contact with people you pass, and say hello. This makes you more visible, and, not to be morbid or anything, if you go missing, they will remember you.

*If someone is following you, approach a pedestrian and ask if you might walk with them for a bit. If you feel comfortable, explain what is happening. It is quite likely the person will happily walk you to your destination because most people in this world are decent and good. If you don’t want to explain, just ask what time it is—anything to make you look less alone.

*Be observant. Note license plates (if a car is involved), street signs, hubs of activity, etc.

*Keep the cell phone within easy reach. Use it, if needed, to appear connected, or to call the police.

*If all else fails, throw yourself on the ground and flail violently while screaming bloody murder.

“Geez, Mom. This is freaky,” she said when I finished. And then she went on her merry way, ponytail a-swinging.

It's a fine line we walk, teaching our children how to be connected to the rest of humanity—to trust others and relate without fear, and to be confident (oh, how I want them to be confident!)—while at the same time instilling in them a sense of caution and awareness. (And of course, even with all the best safety precautions, bad stuff still happens. We can only do so much.)

When I asked my friends if they minded that I write about this, the one responded with a go-ahead yes, followed by this: "That whole thing still makes me angry. Part of me thinks, how dare anyone make me think twice about where I let my kid walk, etc. The other part looks at it like at the wild: the world is what it is, so you balance your response: don't walk close to the water's edge where there are crocodiles, don't walk alone through the African Savannah at sundown, don't go near a creepy guy's car, and know how to get a license plate. Not fearful, just, you know, watchful, the way most people in the world just know to be."

What common sense safety tips have you shared with your children? 
Have you managed to teach them to be safe without being fearful?

This same time, years previous: baking with teachers, candid camera, when the relatives came, the potluck solution, and I'm still here.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

in defense of battered kitchen utensils

Dividing the freshly mixed granola between two baking sheets, I got to thinking about kitchen utensils. See, when I had asked my son to fetch me the two baking sheets from the cupboard, he had pointed to the one and said, “Mom, I don’t think you should use this one anymore.”

“Whyever not?” I asked.

“Because it’s rusty and greasy and has black stuff around the edges. It’s gross.”

“It’s fine," I snapped. "Give it here.”

Much of my kitchen stuff looks like that baking sheet that invoked my son’s disgust. My insulated cookie sheets are warped, their air pocket spaces filled with more water than air. When met with the slightest resistance, the heads of my rubber spatulas separate from their wooden stick bodies. My much-used pie plates are stained. My measuring cups are dented (and inaccurate, I’m sure). Even a lot of the good stuff I own—my few Cutco knives and my stove-top juicer, for example—are, respectively, dinged up and scorched.


My toaster is so ancient—a glorious thrift store find—and cantankerous that the people who rented our house while we lived in Guatemala couldn’t figure out how to use it and ended up putting it in storage and buying a new one. (We forgot to explain that you have to thump the toaster on the counter to make the toast come up.) The gears on our whirly-popper—another glorious thrift store find (because all thrift store finds are glorious!)—kept slipping until my husband finagled some sort of fix. The cord on my hand mixer is held together with duct tape.

The toaster that confounded: toasting some iced raisin bread. 

Which makes me wonder: why is it that people who have really nice kitchen stuff don’t cook and the people who do cook make do with borderline junk? In general: the more money a person has, the more nice stuff they have to work with and the less work they have to do. The people who have less money do more manual labor with inferior tools. Have you noticed this?

Cracked and handle-less workhorses: cooking up a slew of golden sourdough waffles.

It's logical, I suppose. People with money can afford to pay for more services and therefore have less need to use the tools themselves. And if you use your stuff it's going to show (duh).

I’m painting the picture like I’m the deprived person. But it goes both ways. Our Nicaraguan neighbor women spent the majority of their days in their dirt-floor kitchens and peeled potatoes with machetes. From their perspective, my plethora of tools are woefully underutilized and under-bunged up.

The other day a friend was admiring how lived-in our house and property look. (Seriously!) When I snorted, she said, "No really! It's inspiring!"

Inspiring? Hmm. I tend to think of those pristine magazine-worthy kitchens—you know, the ones that have copper kettles hanging above an enormous wooden table that's standing atop a tile floor and directly in front of an enormous six-burner gas stove—as inspiring. As in, If I were in that kitchen I'd be bake cookies from now to eternity and back. 

But maybe I'm confusing envy with inspiration. Maybe "work-worn" and "dinged up" are signs of respect and appreciation, marks showing that we care about enough to actually use and do. In this case, the messes, chipped dishes, and warped pans are inspiring because they show passion.

My kitchen tools—and all tools, really—are only as wondrously useful as we make them. And the fact is, no fancy tool, no necessary fancy tool, is going to be shiny for very long.

To sum up: three cheers for battered kitchenware!

P.S. The granola was delicious.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (9.16.13), the quotidian (9.17.12), goodbye summer, hello fall, a new day dawning, cornmeal whole wheat waffles, Greek pasta salad, and hard knocks.

Monday, September 15, 2014

2014 garden stats and notes

the high-summer garden

On Friday I wrote about being sick of canning. On Saturday I woke up and realized that I was done with the plums, tomatoes, grapes, and red raspberries. Into the basement went the canners and onto the sofa went I for a late morning nap. That evening, my husband lit the first fire of the season in the wood stove, and we cozied up in the living room with a stack of new library books.

My family knows what we love, produce-wise, and as the children get older, I find I am focusing more on quantity than experimentation. Thus the 39 quarts of one kind of salsa, sweet pickles only, and three-fourths of one entire freezer in green beans. It’s boring, yes, but practical. We’ll eat it.

Recently, a hardcore gardening girlfriend—seriously, the woman is a preserving diva—told me that when her kids leave home, she’s going cold turkey on the canning front. She wants to spend her time doing other things. And Costco has good salsa.

I don’t know what I’ll feel like doing when my kids leave home. I’m certainly no canning purist (Costco does have good salsa), and my husband is most definitely not a gardener. But I have a hard time imagining throwing in the canner completely. Putting food in jars is for me what digging holes is for 8-year-old boys: it’s time consuming and kinda pointless (by economic standards), but it’s also deeply satisfying. There’s something primal about harvesting food and squirreling it away for later.

But really, I'm not sure why I spend all these hours and days doing a task that complicates my life. Perhaps the drive is nothing deeper than an urge to "play house." Perhaps I do it for the narrowed focus that comes with a sharp knife, slippery plums, and boiling water. Maybe it's because hard work feels good and the being done feels even better. Whatever the reason, it's strong enough to keep me going year after year.

And now, for this year, I'm done.

Boy, does it feel good.

2014 Garden Stats and Notes

strawberries, frozen, sliced: 7 quarts
strawberries, sugared sauce: 2 pints
strawberries, freezer jam: 6 pints
strawberries, daiquiri mix: 4 pints
mint tea concentrate: a lot
pesto: 9 batches, frozen
zucchini relish: 5 pints and 5 half-pints
applesauce, lodi: 82 quarts
green beans (mostly Roma): 107 quart-and-a-half bags
peaches, Red Haven, canned: 17 quarts
corn, frozen: 15 quarts and 29 pints
nectarines, chopped, canned: 42 quarts
nectarines, dried: 21 pints
red raspberries, frozen: 26 quarts
sweet pickles, canned: 16 quarts
tomatoes, roasted sauce: 36 pints
tomatoes, roasted garlic pizza sauce: 26 pints
tomatoes, red wine sauce: 16 quarts
tomatoes, salsa: 39 quarts and 8 pints
tomatoes, canned: 13 quarts
grape jelly: 9 quarts, 21 pints, and 2 half-pints
grape juice: 10 quarts
plums, canned: 9 quarts
plums, dried: 4 pints
plum jam, canned: 7½ pints
sweet potatoes: 1 heaping bushel
regular potatoes, assorted kinds: 1½ bushels

*Don’t plant the cucumbers next to the zucchini because they—the cucumbers—will die.
*Nectarines are awesome. Order four bushels next year.
*Twenty-four sweet potato starts is the right amount.
*Also, five to six basil plants is perfect.
*Dried plums are easy and tasty, but we have yet to see how popular they are with the fam. Same with the plum jam.
*Maybe we’ll finally have enough salsa?
*Next year, order ahead and get five bushels of Lodi apples in one go.

This same time, years previous: chili cobanero, retreating, the good things that happen, ketchup, two ways, making my children jump, cinnamon sugar breadsticks, September studies. whole wheat jammies, whoooosh!, lemon butter pasta with zucchini, on being green and other ho-hum matters, hot chocolate, coffee fix ice cream, me and mine, and ricotta.          

Friday, September 12, 2014

playing catch-up

My mom emailed me. “Are you on strike?” And then Girlfriend From Burkina Faso was all like WRITE SOMETHING ALREADY.

Nothing is wrong, I explained. I’m just weary from constant canning.

You and me both, son. You and me both. 

“You know what I need?” I whined to my husband. “I need two full days to myself. No kids. No canning. No nothing. Actually, wait. I have a better idea. Could we till up the garden this weekend? The whole thing—boom—gone? I think that might fix me.”

Just the thought of NO GARDEN makes me want to go fly a kite. Or at least write a blog post.


You know what irony is? I’ll tell you what irony is. Irony is deciding to pre-order a book for the first time ever because you just don't want to mess with the hassle of borrowing it from the library and then, within a couple hours of receiving the book, turning it into the library and spending the next couple days trying to get it back out. That's irony folks, served up nice and tart.


Last night I served the Ladymaids (because they don’t want to be called Milkmaids anymore and until we come up with a new name, this is it) a plum torte. It was a new recipe and we agreed that the pastry part was a bit on the choking side of dry. Today I made another plum torte and it is infinitely better. (This recipe, but with halved plums pressed into the top.)

The torte done right.

I should probably write the Ladymaids an apology for serving them inferior goods.


My daughter has three puppies left. I’m threatening to do unkind things (to them, to her, to the whole world) if she doesn’t get rid of them soon, but truth is, I don’t mind all that much. They are infinitely sweet, and, contrary to what I expected, they appear to be getting cuter.

The puppies are forbidden in the house, but every so often the whole pack comes barreling through the (mysteriously left) open door. I secretly love watching them skid through the kitchen and around chair legs, their pink tongues lapping the air, jolly eyes shining.


I am on a good book streak. There was The Glass Castle (can anyone diagnose the mother for me?), followed by Carry On, Warrior. Now I’m reading Still Alice (messes with my mind, it does). Next up is my pre-ordered-and-yet-to-be-retrieved-from-the-library Home Grown.


I burned down my in-box. Not because it bothered me, but because Jamie told me to. It didn’t make me feel noticeably happier. I believe it requires something a bit more substantial—LIKE BURYING THE ENTIRE GARDEN—to get my buzz on.


This. Is. Perfect. The part about what to eat? It’s us. Completely. (Except we don’t order out because of the country living and all.)

This same time, years previous: regretful wishing, roasted tomato and garlic pizza sauce, 2012 garden stats and notes, rainy day writing, how to clean a room, blasted cake, almond cream pear tart, fruit-on-the-bottom baked oatmeal, grilled salmon with lemon butter, a quick rundown, the big night, and say cheese!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

the cousins came

The past weekend, the cousins came. For two full days, the children played without ceasing.

One family brought tee-shirts: blue for the boys, green for the girls. The kids decorated their shirts, signed each one, put their numberwhere they fall in the cousin line-upon the sleeve, and then proceeded to wear the shirts all weekend long.

Heading out to get basil from my brother's garden. 
Nine childrenall barefoot—marching down the road in single file. 
I wonder what the neighbors thought.

At times it got kinda tight inside. But space is overrated. 

It always strikes me as rather amazing, the children's ability to take up residence with a pack of rarely-seen family members and completely get along. Electronics is a non-issue. No one (except one of my own, gottaloveit) complains about being bored. There is no “I’m-too-cool-for-this-game” snootiness. Inclusiveness and positive attitudes rule.

Riverside visit.

This uncle is not particularly picky about his sleeping accommodations.

She's Number Two of the twenty-four.

Synchronized splashing.

A fifteen-month age difference. Which one is older? 

It’s not as though our families are exactly alike because we’re not. Like any other family, we have different temperaments, interests, and life styles. And yet, somehow, all our children love being together. What a gift.

Along with my husband’s side of the family (a third of them, anyway) visiting us, my side of the family was also gathered in our neck of the woods. On Saturday I made donuts for everybody—that’s 28 people, total—and some of my family joined the chaos again on Sunday for hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages. The more the merrier, I say.

How many Murches does it take to cut out donuts?
ALL the Murches!

She was rather partial to the vodka cream sauce.

The grill master (not my husband).

Full table. 

When the living situation gets crazy, light a fire in the field and tend it with an excavator.

The biggest bed on the premises.
(I told you that uncle wasn't picky.)

How many Murches fit in a K'ekchi' skirt? 
ALL the Murches!

Swing-time sillies.

He scored a puppy! 

Now we are back to our small, quiet (only in comparison) household of six, normal routines, and boatloads of tomatoes to put up. But we’re still feasting on the leftovers. And when those run out, we’ll savor the memories. They’re the best part, I think.

This same time, years previous: the quotidian (9.2.13), the quotidian (9.3.12), caramelized oat topping, roasted peaches, around the house, picture perfect, honey-whole wheat cake, on our way, smartly, and blueberry coffee cake.

Monday, September 1, 2014

the quotidian (9.1.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

They just. don't. stop.

Salsa, o how I love thee!
Which is good because...

They're not exactly "trickling in" anymore.

The pre-supper scramble: which became pasta with sausages and lemony grilled zucchini.

Homemade: you'll NEVER guess what kind. 
So I'll tell you!
Sweet corn with blackberry sauce, yum.

Sweet boy.

Making a delivery.

The kitchen apprentice.

It's beginning to look a lot like ... late summer.

Taking a break.


This same time, years previous: the new bakery, grape parfaits, puppy love, walking the line, chocolate yogurt cake, oatmeal jacked up, why I don't teach my kids science, around the house, dreaming, pasta with sauteed peppers and onions, and losing my marbles.    

Thursday, August 28, 2014

it all adds up

Yesterday morning I picked the red raspberries. I do this every other morning for a couple months, quitting either when I’m sick of them or the season ends, whichever comes first. The berries were late this year, but now they’re making up for lost time. I get two quarts, maybe three, every picking. It adds up.

While I was strategically worming my way over, under, and through the briars in search of every single berry, I thought about the other red fruit we've been picking: tomatoes. In the same amount of time it takes me to pick two measly quarts of berries, my husband can pick two to three five-gallon buckets of tomatoes. With such a discrepancy in size and quantity (less is more, right?), you’d think the berries would be light years ahead in taste. But they’re not. I probably prefer the tomatoes.

Every couple days, my husband staggers in from the garden under a fresh load of tomatoes. One of the kids lays them out to finish ripening on the table in the downstairs bedroom that is not a bedroom, and each morning I roast a batch of tomatoes for sauce.

The process feels classic in its straightforward simplicity. I halve the tomatoes, oil them up real good, and cram them into two big baking trays. I scalp a head of garlic, pour golden olive oil into the papery crevices, wrap it up tight in a piece of foil, and tuck the silver ball down among the tomatoes. As the vegetables sizzle and blacken in the oven, the kitchen turns steamy and unbelievably rich-smelling.

A couple weeks ago I did several batches of the basic roasted sauce. This week has been dedicated to roasted tomato and garlic pizza sauce. Six pints there, thirteen pints here. It all adds up.

Tomorrow I plan to turn an entire bushel of Romas into salsa. In preparation for the marathon chop session, I’ve been stashing the ripest of the tomatoes in the fridge, but even so there’s a bunch more on the verge of turning. In this heat—how weird it is to actually be hot!—the tomatoes ripen fast. Unlike my leisurely saucing-making process, the salsa project will be much more overwhelming. Come morning, I’ll set the kids up at the table with cutting boards anchored on ratty towels (to prevent slippage and to catch the juicy run-off) and we’ll have ourselves a party. If all goes as planned, at the day's end we’ll have twenty more quarts of tomato product to add to the basement shelves.

Earlier this week, I bought a two-liter bottle of red wine for a spaghetti sauce. The wine was cheaper in the bigger bottle and I figure we could use a double batch of sauce. We sure do have enough tomatoes. The bushes are still loaded. My husband says we haven’t even yet reached the halfway point. The way I see it, I have at least two weeks, maybe three, of tomato puttering in my future.

Which is fine by me. Tomatoes and raspberries: they are a nice way to close out the growing season.

This same time, years previous: they're getting it!, pasta with lemon-salted grilled zucchini and onions (we ate this for supper this week, but I added a few grilled sausages, YUM), 2011 stats and notes, and pesto.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

peach crisp

When it comes to peach desserts, I am finally gaining ground. We’ve eaten countless batches of our much-loved peach cobbler recipe, and as of a couple weeks ago, I have a peach crisp I’m satisfied with. (I have yet, however, to bite into a peach pie that is anything other than bland.)

I used to make my peach crisp by slicing peaches and then capping them with a butter-oat topping. It was fine, but in a pallid, this-needs-ice cream sort of way. Dressing up the peaches (à la the cobbler method) goes a long way in creating juicy, flavorful fruit. In other words, sugar makes it better. This is a dessert. If you want something healthy, just eat the peach.

My other great discovery is—and this might strike some of you as a no-brainer—chop the peaches, don’t slice them. I used to slice my peaches as I do apples for pie. But then I'd end up with a slippery slice of peach on my spoon and no topping. Or all topping and no peach. It was awkward. And disappointing. Chopped peaches make the eating deliciously convenient. I’m not even joking.

Peach Crisp

If I’m feeling pious, I sometimes dial back the butter for the topping—maybe 14 tablespoons instead of 16. I rarely feel pious.

for the fruit:
8-10 cups chopped peaches
2/3 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
juice of one lemon (or about 2 tablespoons)

Stir together the brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, and salt and toss with the peaches. Tumble the fruit into a 9x12 baking dish and sprinkle with the lemon.

for the crisp:
1 cup quick oats
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup butter

Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Using your fingers, mix well until all the butter is incorporated.

Arrange the clumpy oat mixture over the fruit.

Bake the crisp at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes, or until the topping is golden brown and the fruit is bubbling madly. Serve warm, with milk or vanilla ice cream.

This same time, years previous: Bezaleel scenes, the quotidian (8.27.14), fresh tomato salad, buttery basil pesto, and odds and ends.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

don't even get me started

All day long—all the time, really—I’m bombarded with ideas. There’s the slew of NPR shows I like to listen to when I have a morning in the kitchen. There are the blogs, Facebook articles, and magazines. There are the books. There are the sermons, classes, and conversations.

So many ideas, so many thoughts. Some of them lap at my brain like the ocean tickles a sunbather’s toes, but others are like giant waves, begging to be played in. Most of the time, I stay on metaphorical dry ground, enjoying the crashing wetness from the safety of my towel. Once in a while, I turn playful, jumping into the foamy spray, yelling and getting soaked. Rarely do I actually make something of the waves (that are actually ideas). Which, to carry this analogy through, I guess would be ... a friendship with pod of dolphins? A meal from seaweed? A driftwood couch? Homemade sea salt?


The point is, I do a lot more input than output, idea-wise. Sometimes I feel like I’m missing out by not fully processing—making something of—all the ideas at my disposal.

Not that all my reflections are worth expounding upon, of course. For example, take the eggs. Just this morning I read about someone’s intense gratefulness and delight over the deliciousness of bright-yellow, homegrown chicken eggs, and I thought:

Bah. There’s not that much special about homegrown chicken eggs. I can’t taste a huge difference. Besides, eggs aren’t really my thing. I mean, I like ‘em, but I prefer the buttered toast that’s served up alongside.

And what’s so great about homegrown stuff anyway? The cherry tomatoes from Costco were far tastier then the red ones we grew. WHICH ARE NOW ROTTING IN THE GARDEN BECAUSE I DON’T CARE. In fact, I’m EAGER for them to rot themselves into oblivion so I’ll have an excuse to eat store-bought cherry tomatoes again SO SUE ME. 

Sure, homegrown food tastes better (usually, ha), but many times, the difference is all in the head. The brain part of the head, not the tongue part.

(I do believe I just handed over my credentials as a gardener and food blogger. I should probably be impeached or something.)

See what I mean? All this from one measly phrase about eggs.

It's probably best I don't detail all my reflections. Still, I'd like to push myself to think things through just a little more thoroughly. Package it up presentable-like.

Unlike this post which my husband says makes no sense whatsoever. But I'm posting it anyway because it's all I've got.

This same time, years previous: atop the ruins, on not rushing it, chocolate malted milk frosting, and my new favorite fruit.

Monday, August 25, 2014

the quotidian (8.25.14)

Quotidian: daily, usual or customary; 
everyday; ordinary; commonplace

Stick a fork in it.

Playing school.

Keeping it (desperately) real.
(Actually, to be completely real, the room was in the process of being cleaned.
And everyone knows that it always gets worse before it gets better.)

Creekside waif.

Out for a stroll.

Little boy blue.

Snuggling the snoozer.

Multitasking like a champ.
Or a hungry eight-year-old.

Moving up in the world.

Pin a kitten in it.


This same time, years previous: tomato jam, basic oatmeal muffins, earthy ponderations, part three, homemade butter, and starting a new baby.