Thursday, December 31, 2009

An (extended) Excuse for Why I Didn't Make Any Resolutions

I'll tell you a secret - I keep a bag of tupperware that I'm sure will come to life hidden under my sink. I work up my courage and wash it about every three weeks, which is useless, because this final jump into the terror of moldy tupperware usually coincides with rotating in a new bag of similarly terrifying tupperware. These bags of mason jars and pyrex containers come from my car, which would give the most terrifying bachelor pad you've ever seen a run for its money. No, I am not resolving to actually clean the tupperware as soon as I bring it in - what else would keep my bravery sharp, if not the excursion, once or twice a month, into the land of mold monsters?

In case you think I get everything done - I don't. We don't. Not a single one of us is perfect - but that doesn't mean there needs to be much disappointment. not when it comes to small things - like the constancy of dirty tupperware. My own little secret to living joyfully is believing, with all my heart, the beautiful stories that I tell myself. I day dream with the fervor of my nine-year-old self and thank you, I will not stop believing in fairies. What other reason is there for joy besides the stories we tell ourselves in secret that explain love and hardship in a language only we ourselves are privy to? I am hooked on my own stories. I have spun my life into a wonderful tapestry of joy, mystery, and whimsical reasons that explain why I need to do the things that need to get done (and get me to do them). I believe in my stories, and act accordingly because I want to know where my stories lead. I want to know what fruit grows over the paths. I want to know where my stories spin in circles and meet someone else's story and make love and find new paths and new dreams.

A story you don't know the end to is that of my lettuce. It's frozen dead, I'm afraid. Faced with the choice of enduring the draft from the window or killing the seeds, I chose murder. I pulled the curtain closed over the window box each night for the past two weeks, forcing the damp and cold soil to suffer the draft for me. I knew what I was doing; I cannot plead innocence. I'll have to give something else a chance at life when I get to it.

While I'm confessing, I'll admit that the mice have been dancing on the floor of the shed and on its dark and dusty work table every night since the cold set in. The cat and I sit and listen when there's nothing good on the radio and the dishes are done and there's time to just sit. She stares hard and tries to find the magic brick that will slide open the door to the wonderland of food and toys behind the living room wall. I just sit and listen. In the little scratching noises and peeping I am deeply and truly grateful that the mice are not in my kitchen. For this I thank the cat. She and I are allies. I feed her, keep her house warm, and sit on the low bench writing at the coffee table while she keeps the mice in the shed and lays outstretched on the cushion of the chair by the stove - the chair with arm rests perfectly designed for sipping tea warming on the stove and which uses the low bench I'm sitting on as a footstool. The cat, I'm sure, does not appreciate any of this. She lays on the cushion, superior, knowing that without her my bread would be moldy and my store of winter squash devoured long before March came with her warm breezes. I let her keep the chair.

To continue this line of confessions, I frequently push a pile of clothing into the closet when guests are visiting.

I did not get to the borscht, dinner will be late tomorrow, and I'm snacking on chips and sour cream (the perfect combination of beloved childhood flavors. Almost beats Nutella and SCM (sweetened condensed milk, of course!) Did I mention that I keep Google open when I'm updating this blog to spell check every third word?

You see, I'm not making resolutions this year because none of these confessions give me much more than a slight twang of "I wish my parents didn't know." Truth is, I'm happy and doing well. I live within my means (mostly) and my default expression is a smile. Let's be honest, the perfect ideal of the clean house - that one in magazines and our mothers' dreams for our futures - is one that includes hired help. And since you and I (who work for a living and pray in secret) don't have hired help, what is the point of even bothering to attempt to wash the floors more than once every other month? Especially when the floors are old and hopeless anyway and tomorrow's chore of carrying wood will fill the floor with its mud and grit and make the wood look old and worked again?

In conclusion, please accept this excuse for not making any resolutions:

I like sour cream too much to go on a diet
I exercise by dragging 50 pounds of wood a week, and
I do not have hired help and am under no delusions of perfection in the home.

Therefore, if I must resolve to do anything at all in this new year, I resolve only to day dream more, read more children's books, go sledding, learn more of the secrets of joy and love, and fortify my belief in fairies. The rest, as they say, will follow.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

We all have our hostess panic moments

My dearest readers, I woke up this morning at 6:45 sweating and filled with stress. What if no one comes!? I haven't gone shopping! There's no play list! Speakers!?!? It was clear that sleeping long enough to hear my alarm clock wake me at 8:00 was an idle dream. I bundled up in my bath robe and shawl and shuffled downstairs to stoke the fire. Ensconced in my high-backed wooden chair pulled up to the stove, I grabbed my arsenal of notepads and pens to guard off the encroaching stress.

I do not normally put off party planning until the day before a party. Just the thought of such last-minute preparations makes my stomach tense and my mouth dry up. A to-do and to-call list grew from one page to three. My shopping list, though manageable, could have been better managed earlier this week. I reminded myself, as the stove's heat permeated my rough knit shawl, that there was ice skating to be had, games to be played, and that my dearest friends would be coming over to celebrate. Needless to say, my last minute party will be nothing like what suggests. Hired help!? A fully stocked bar!? You have got to be kidding me! But even if the champagne is cheap and it's the worst party ever (which, of course, it won't be), it will still beat the political misery of this past decade.

And then there are the nagging little questions: where do I by lamp kerosene that doesn't reek like the kerosene for heaters sold at the gas station by the gallon? Will people want to dance, or should I leave the living room for lounging? Do people really expect champagne? What if it's too cold and I can't heat the house through? Hot chocolate or hot mulled cider? I'm leaning towards Spiked Hot Chocolate

But it's going to be a full moon. And it might be snowing a bit (the two don't cancel each other - they offer two equally exciting prospects). And what is better than laughing with good friends? And a fire by the side of a stream frozen solid? And hot chocolate (or mulled cider?)

But now I'm listening to my favorite calm-me-down music - the beautiful harmonies of Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion (also here), and I have plenty to do at work, so it's a simple thing - calming down and trusting that tonight will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, will be fine, for a while. (I choose the rooms that I live in with care)

I didn't realize I was writing a blog on being a hostess...honestly.
Dear New York Times Style Section...just think about how you could sell it...a hip, young, down-to-earth, and green version of Martha Stewart! Get those yuppie-cum-farmer kids in and make a killing!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


I'm having a fall-in-love-with-home day. I read this adorable article and, aside from admiring the whimsical nature of many Times writers, actually teared up a little at the end. I am a long-term commitment kind of gal (this notwithstanding that I've never had a relationship longer than a year). I err on the side of over-commitment to the places I live in, the friends in my life, and all things important and sentimental. I have wanted to go to the same place on vacation since I first saw it on a map when I was 8 (Greenland).

As a result, I'm thinking plans. Plans for my little perfect cottage which I will not leave, thankyouverymuch. I need to find a roommate, that's for sure, but for that I'll need to build, and if I'm building anyway, why not dream? I know, I know it's a rental, but I can still dream, can't I?

(yes, daydreaming is one of my all-time favorite things to do)

An extra room for privacy for a roommate
storage space (aka - a shed)
Place to keep wood


Plan omg I'd die it'd be so perfect:
- Add a second room to the loft. Windows out over the living room in the front room for light, the view of the Catskills, and to let heat in (it would be really cute), floor vents in the back room which would serve as a guest room (except I'm really torn about which I prefer - the view of the pond across the street with the sun rising over it or the view of the Catskills....that I can see from other parts of the house, which isn't true of the pond view). That, or keep the loft intact for now - though that wouldn't allow for much privacy in a roommate situation.
- Shed: Insulate, frame out a door into the living room, add proper flooring, take out old and useless boilers, seriously insulate or board up the exterior door, add 2 windows (one facing north on the stream, one long one facing west towards the mountains), call it a bedroom for my housemate (in the long term - a craft room/office/den/guestroom)
- Add a small lean-to directly north of the shed that will serve as tool storage. Elevated over the flood-line of the stream. Annex a corner of the ice house as a small workshop.
- extend the roof of the ice house to make wood storage possible between the ice house and the driveway (? or actually figure out a good wood shed situation)
- Add a little roof over the main door.
- Level the area between the road and the kitchen (outside) and seed with grass for a little patio. Build a screen with wysteria (grape? kiwi?) vines to block out the road a bit
- (This is the serious kicker) Add a small attached greenhouse to the south side of the living room. this, my friends, would be too perfect to describe.

Plan okay...I'll be realistic...for now:
- Add a second room to the loft for a roommate.
- Clean out the shed, remove the boilers, and make it a more useful workshop space.

An Homage to Home

My beautiful wooden dish drying rack broke sometime this weekend. No one told me it was collapsing, so one side caved and the second side, held together only by a peg, twisted and pulled the peg out with the force of the uneven weight of drying dishes. With time to kill as a date was running horribly late (to the tune of 3 hours), I tried my options. I whittled down some twigs to use as pegs - which were too weak to hold without twisting while I hammered the thing together. One broke and is now stuck in the hole for the peg - which will be easy enough to dislodge with a sharp knife (I hope). So tonight I'm going to go and buy some pegs. It's a beautiful dish rack that's very fixable and I have no intention of throwing it out.

Most of our waste comes from things not being reused or not being seen as reusable. We seem to generally refuse to accept the possibility that things actually are fixable, and therefore are reusable. Of course, it makes perfect sense that replacing is easier than fixing - things are cheap, and with at least 40 hours of each week going into work, who has time to fix what could just be replaced?

When things around the house break or clothes rip, I feel morally obligated by my own frugality to fix them or sew them up, and not to waste by throwing whatever broke out and getting a new one. As a result of financial need, a tinkering habit, and a deep love of older, well-crafted, simple (and therefore fixable) objects, I have turned frugality into a hobby. This hobby of mine makes living cheap fun and easy, and makes my sense of moral obligation to waste not less preachy - and less central to the point. Morality is far less effective in motivating me than simple pleasures - so I try to combine the two.


When my date finally did arrive (I did not turn him away at the door. I'll be honest, a part of me had wanted to, but I was far too excited to see him), he was surprised by my house. He paid me a compliment I had not even considered until the moment. "I have never seen a 23 year-old," he said "with a house this well kept."

My home is an homage to the concept of home in the same way that a poem is an homage to the concept of a poem. My home is a work of art. How could it not be? These walls are the only walls that contain me and all things mine. I have chosen them. Home is a simple and modest shrine made by and in honor of daily tasks. There is a holiness in the home. It is the only holy place I have ever known. It is the sacred heart of the tasks and objects of life, love, and family. If home is not beautiful and well cared for, if our shrines are not places of exaltation, how can we exalt within them? The quest for a life of grace, wonder, and beauty is an uphill battle if a home is not a shrine to the best that we hold inside ourselves - to the holiness of even our most mundane daily tasks. These tasks that are not only necessary, but are themselves an homage to the potential of their own perfection. it is all, on days when the sun shines and the home holds its sacred heart, a poem.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Hosting - for a week straight

I have never understood why New Years happens a week and a half after the winter solstice. Thanks to Wikipedia my thoughts on the complete arbitrariness of the new year falling in January have been confirmed. January was when the consuls of ancient Rome assumed the government. Traditionally, the Roman calendar started in March, which makes much more sense. The Jewish calendar renews during the harvest season, which also makes sense. Perhaps the only thing a January new year has going for it is that winter is a time of introspection and a time when we spend far too much time trapped indoors and are in need of something to make us feel less caged. Winter could benefit from a party and a nudge in the direction of thinking over the past year, though not, in my over-extended hostess's opinion, a week following Christmas.

I am not prone to thinking over the year at this point in December. While I was a student, the much more obvious time for the was always at the end of the school year in May or June. To me the year always feels as if it is renewing when I pull out the seed catalogues in mid January and start planning the new garden (this year, again, for the third time in four years, I will be digging a new garden). The renewal of our calendar is an imposition on my otherwise fluid experience of the cyclical nature of seasons. It feels rushed, stuck in and overshadowed as it is after the month-long glut of Christmas specials, carols, and advertising.

Since Wednesday evening I have had no time for anything besides driving, catching up with friends, cooking, washing dishes, and cleaning - definitely no time for top-ten lists and memoirs of my 2009 AD/CE experiences. It is a relief to be at work, where I am left relatively alone and no longer frenzied to the point where my body insists on hurting itself through sheer stupidity because otherwise I do not hearing it yelling "slow down and take a break, you maniac!" (I slammed my fingers in the front door right before sitting down to Sunday brunch, a completely idiotic move I haven't successfully pulled off for the better part of a decade)

I take pride in my hosting not because I am a deeply social person who loves having people over. Quite to the contrary. I make hosting a fastidious habit because that is the only way that the whole experience becomes easy and low-stress. Because every step is a habit, drilled into me by endless practice runs since I was old enough to pour tea, I no longer have to think about it. I spend half of my time with my guests going through motions so habitual I could do them with an axe murderer. "Tea or coffee?" "Let's move to the living room, where it's more comfortable." "Candy?" "Of course I don't mind if you take all the books off the shelf. It's about time I reorganize, anyway!" This perfected routine turns 4 hours of hosting into 2 hours of robotic ease and 2 hours of actual interaction, which, I assure you, I cherish.

Seeing as I am actually an antisocial person who likes more than anything to take a foot bath alone except for the company of my cat and Ira Glass, I hope you will excuse my coping mechanisms. I assure you that they are for our mutual benefit - you get tea and slippers as soon as you walk through the door, a set table, and other conveniences most people can't look forward to expecting until their friends are in their 40's and have finally shaken off the oafish habits of college, and I get the security of auto-pilot.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ice Skating, heating stones, and cole slaw

The world is miraculous. It is splendid. I had to work saturday a bit, so I moved my weekly cleaning day to Sunday. After a few hours of dishes to Selected Shorts, sweeping, taking out the trash and piles, and setting dinner to cooking, I noticed my neighbor and his daughters pulling an ice sled and their skates to the pond. I peaked out of my living room window, and sure enough, there were two kids, a grown man, and a dog skating circles under my window on a beautifully frozen pond/stream (it's a dammed stream, and under my window, it's pretty narrow, though once it goes under the bridge and across the road it spreads into a lovely acre-sized pond (and nowhere is it deeper than 4 feet - which is great for skating and bad for swimming).

After a week of surprisingly cold temperatures for December never getting up past 23*F (about -5 Celsius to everyone else) and no snow - the blizzard that clobbered the northeast missed us this far north and inland entirely - the weather is perfect for ice skating. over an acre of perfectly frozen water, with no snow to sweep off or ruin the texture. The stream flows down to the pond from areas I've never explored. A house burned down around the bend from the stream last week. I'd like to skate up there one of these days. The fire was so huge and sad and beautiful - it would be good, i think, for me to see its effects.

I ended up going out to skate 3 times. I had hot chocolate and the most pristine spread of cookies all handmade by my landlady with perfectly iced gingerbreads, flower-shaped sugar cookie sandwiches with raspberry and quince jam and powdered sugar, little chocolate cake and jam with ganache cubes, lemon pound cake squares, ginger snaps, and rugellah. I aspire to such domestic perfection. I make a point of never showing up empty handed (for the sake of propriety and general joy and the continuity of the spirit of giving), so I brought over some sour cherry jam, the christmas presents I had made, and a book of paper dolls for the oldest daughter's birthday which is on Christmas (a day after mine!). Then I went out skating again with their 3 girls for at least another hour.

Friends came over for a dinner of root veggies, barley and chicken soup in turkey stock and cole slaw (see recipe below). We went out ice skating with my kerosene lantern. Dressed in fleece leggings and my turmeric-dyed house skirt, with gloves, scarf, and my long winter coat, the stars so bright they were reflected in the perfect ice, it was a wonderful, beautiful sight. Aesthetics are a lovely part of life!

My friends and I figured out a very clever little personal heater. I had a smooth river stone, flat on one side, about 3 inches in diameter. My friend tied cotton kitchen twine around it so it hangs like a necklace. when heated on a brick on the stove (not directly on the stove - that's too hot) it's the perfect temperature to wear around my neck under my sweater but over my long sleeved shirt (it's winter - layers! layers! layers! 2 on legs (including feet) and 3 on top is my standard rule - one of the tops damn well better be a sweater too). It heats right at the core and radiates that heat for well over an hour. It is by far the most magical way of staying warmm - and the most effective! Just keep your eye out for the right sized stone and a boyscout who knows his knots. if you don't have a wood stove, you could probably boil the stone - just be careful that it doesn't burn you!

Life is so magical when it's a winter wonderland! i am so incredibly happy it's hard to describe. it's as if winter is conspiring with me to make everything perfect and wonderful.

New Years' party at my house with ice skating and everything - come on come all (if I actually know you or you're a friend of a friend). It will be a night to remember! Hot stones will be handed out for ice skating. Bring skates, a sled (if there's enough snow), and plenty of warm clothes. I'll provide warm beverages for adults, kids, and designated drivers.

Killer Cole Slaw
I always have cabbage in the house. It;s cheap, it sits in the fridge forever, and it's versatile. So when my one-pot soup had to serve as dinner for four, I had to figure out how to add a side dish. In the fridge: a full array of winter storage veggies and condiments. nothing else. So here goes:

- Finely cut cabbage. You can shred it with a cuisinart, but why, when it's easy to shred cabbage with a knife and the crunch is so much more satisfying? To fine chop cabbage, cut off a chunk and then cut shreds on a diagonal.

- Grate a few carrots to get to the cabbage/carrot ratio you want (or parsnips, or beets - whatever you have that's sweet and can be grated)

- Mix in Mayo - enough to cover everything but not too much. nothing kills a good cole slaw like too much mayo.

- Add in enough pickle brine so that it tastes salty enough and somewhat tangy, and has enough moisture (I just use the leftovers from my store-bought or homemade dill pickles - always leave this on hand when you finish the jar of pickles for soups and slaws. it's a delciious treat). If you pickle brine has garlic in the bottom, add it to the slaw.

- If you have it, add some Dill. This adds an authentic Russian taste to your slaw, which will add a nice ethnic touch.

- Add black pepper, mix it up, and let it sit for a bit so the flavors meld. Taste and adjust seasonings.

Yum! Now you have a side dish to your otherwise scant dinner spread.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Time in wood and Home, among other things

It is definitely winter. Nights are down in the single digits. I'm facing the choice of living a life of decadent warmth or being conservative with my wood usage. I went for conservative last night and spent all morning huddled by the stove, not even cooking myself a warm breakfast because that would take me out of the living room for too long.

It seems to me that the length of winter is measured in wood. A chord isn't just a measure of stacked, split wood (2 feet by 4 feet by 8 feet), but of heat per day, per week, per month. 2 1/3 chords - which is roughly what I started out with, is shifting, shrinking, and changing very rapidly. In the fall, a chord of wood is endless. One log here and there makes the oncoming winter seem easy, filled with abundance. As the winter comes in with her blizzards and below-zero wind chills, a chord becomes a much smaller measure. 2 months easily becomes a chord and a half. the stack of wood indoors shrinks fast. the amount of heat provided becomes relative to the cold outside, and the stove is always on. A little furnace chewing away split logs, one by one, or two by two, or three by three if the stove is cold and dead and needs to be revived, first hoarding the heat, then slowly radiating it out into the house over the course of hours, until even the kitchen is warm, and the cat and I venture away from the chair pulled right up to the stove for an abbreviated night of chores and tasks.

Last night I made both salves I said I'd make lavender lip balm, lavender baby oil, and shampoo. I used 1/4 pint jars, old travel candle tins, and these little black plastic lidded containers that were used for goat cheese and a friend had saved in her resourcefulness and had given to me. They turned out to be a good size for salve (a bit on the large size - so I filled them halfway, but much better than anything else I had, since I had neglected to buy another flat of 1/4 pint jars - which I go through faster than is at all reasonable).

I hung a blanket over my front door to keep the draft at bay. What looked like a very ugly old blanket actually turned into a cozy entryway because the colors matched and complimented the walls so well. I considered weather stripping, but the space between the door and the frame is so uneven in places, and the process of buying and installing the stripping was so unknown to me, that I went for the simple solution of nailing a blanket to the door (yes - this is what my landlords suggested. I think the door is being replaced come spring anyway - I need a screen).

As the winter encroaches and I am drawn more and more to the hearth I am dreaming of the possibilities of home. I am considering the possibilities of summers and winters. I am considering a little mud room, or at least a covered porchlet. The direct southern exposure would make for a perfect little sunroom or greenhouse. The shed could be insulated, a door could be cut into the living room, and the little room could serve as an office or a small bedroom. with an additional window facing the stream to the north, it would easily be the most beautiful little room in the house.

My landlords mentioned, offhand and semi-joking in the way we all do, that maybe we could switch houses eventually, when their kids all moved and once I had kids. They wouldn't need the big house anymore, and would like the coziness of the cottage, and I would need a larger space and could move into the farm house. it is a fantasy, of course, but to me, in my incredible sedentariness, it is the loveliest of fantasies. Imagine - finding home at 22! This may not be your dream, but it is mine. A stream, a view of the Catskills, a strip of forest, a sledding hill, 30 tilled acres, outbuildings, a barn, a hamlet within a mile with a library and a PO, a city within 10 miles with everything I might need including a direct train into New York City, wonderful neighbors and long-term relationships. Never underestimate the power of a beautiful place.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

On not always getting everything done

We all know that Martha gets all her cookies in on time and her crafts arranged because other people do it for her. I do not have a bevy of assistants and interns planting my lettuce and making salves. In case you're worrying that I'm super-human and that you can't keep up with all of the little tasks, crafts, homemaking, and what have you that I do, let me allay your fears. I write my plans here, and execute them eventually. I mean to get to it right away, but I rarely do. I have a high need for seeing friends after work, especially when I'm upset, and that never fails to interfere with doing dishes, sweeping, and planting winter lettuce.

Last night, on one of my visits to friends (where I live visiting friends means a ten to twenty minute drive no matter how you cut it), I finally picked up the lettuce seed I was looking for about 2 weeks back. I also picked up kale and chard...just in case. My window box has been set up waiting for the moment when I finally lay my hands on seed. In the move I lost all of my millions of seeds I bought in winter after winter of snow-drunk dreams of the perfect summer garden. Friends who garden always have a surplus of seed from the previous summer - we all succumb to our winter plans of long beds of kale and marigolds - so there's rarely a need to buy seeds for the winter months.

I have also been putting off going to the health food store (with what I will always refer to - thanks to its back corner shelves of jars upon jars of dried herbs, shredded roots, and a plethora of whatever you might want for an herbal preparation if you have not wildcrafted the herbs yourself as an apothecary). The salves i'm planning will be (must be) made by the 23rd. I will get to them this week. The dishes are in a constant state of mocking my apparent laziness. I am running low on shampoo, and need to make myself a batch. I need to ask my landlords if they have dried black walnut hulls from the trees in front of my house for the herbal infusion in the shampoo, yet another recipe from Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair - which at this point, if you've been following my online meanderings, you're probably realizing you need to own.

All in all - life takes time. I, and you as well, will not get to everything in the plans. At most, we can hope only to try. There is relief in the daily rhythm of work that I would not give up for the world. I get a much-needed feeling of stability and self-sufficiency from going to work every day. i am grateful, even in the tedium, even in the face of an ever-lengthening list of things left until later for my 40-hour job, even though I don't get benefits, paid vacations, or sick days. Those 40 hours represent a lot of salves, jams, mopping, organizing, and wood chopping that must be left for later or someone else. That is fine. We are not perfect. We consume and judge and live lives that are hypocritical despite our attempts at honesty. That is okay. We must forgive ourselves and each other for the fallibility in our humanity, and for the failure inherent in trying. I am not excusing hypocrisy. I am simply saying that we owe ourselves the peace of balanced forgiveness. In the calm and comfort of accepting that we are only human, we can finally appreciate the greatness of our attempts, the truth in our passion, and the power in our hope.

a note on wildcrafted vs. store bought herbs: I don't typically consider myself a spiritual (whatever that word means these days) person, but I do hold onto a breath of my childhood that carries fairies and dreams in the air. I do not and cannot believe that store-bought herbs, sitting in their glass and plastic casings for months in fluorescent corners can heal in the same way herbs picked in the summer with love and intention and stored and prepared into the winter can heal. At a fairly early point in your herbalism and gardening journeys, if you have not bumped into it already, someone will tell you to watch the moon. They might tell you that the moon pulls on the essence of plants. St. John's Wart, if used for the flower, should be harvested on the full moon when its essence flows upward. When harvesting comfrey root, dig on the new moon, when the plant's energy is low in the roots. Biodynamic farming relies heavily on planting and working with the moon. I do not think that we know how the moon affects the power of plants, but I don't think cold science has it right either. Tides aren't just gravity - they're magic and mystery too. They are a larger manifestation of the way all water yearns for the moon. We do not understand the depth of this world, both in terms of its banality and in terms of its layers of wonder and magic. I cannot help but treat my intentions and my interactions as holding real meaning and consequence - even with plants. Though scientifically questitionable, Masaru Emoto's stunning photos of water are enough to make anyone wonder.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Holiday presents - Calendula and St. John's Wart Salves

Being a Jew, I don't think of Christmas much except to fume about its unfortunate proximity to my birthday. If I had kids I would fume more, of course - what with everything in this area being Christmas-themed all month and every community celebration featuring santa clause and the baby Jesus surrounded by lambs and wise men - there's nothing for Jewish kids to do! And being as I believe that Chanukah is a mediocre charity-holiday created by the marketing conglomerates to make little Jewish kids just as consumer-oriented as little Christian kids, I'm prone to go through December enjoying the pretty lights, wreaths, and garlands and happily avoiding the consumerist hubbub. to be honest, I consider myself lucky (though if I had my druthers, I would move my birthday to some point a bit farther from Christmas when people could actually focus on me, come to my birthday party, and give me presents that weren't afterthoughts at best).

This year, in a great departure from the norm, I am making some Christmas presents. I'm making them for my landlords, who very sweetly sent their daughter over with not one but two homemade Chanukah gifts for me. Seeing as they're my landlord-soulmates, I'm going to make them a Christmas gift. Also, I'll have some on hand for whoever else I need to bestow gifts upon - which is something I generally reserve only for my friends who are giving birth soon, and their children, and, when I think of it and see something they'll love or am making something lovely anyway, my closest friends. Seeing as I have at least 3 birthdays in February for the sweetest little girls, and have infused oils on hand from the summer, the following recipes should do. (taken from Earthly Bodies and Heavenly Hair)

Calendula and St. John's Wart Salves

Salves are super-luscious, concentrated moisturizers and healing balms that can be used all over the body. Calendula, which is an all-purpose skin-healing super flower is many a mother's favorite tool for moisturizing chapped baby skin, keeping cold wind from chafing rosy cheeks, etc. To be honest, I don't know any mother who doesn't have a bit of it on her at all times. Also, it's great for grown-ups. i used it as a lip balm, on cuticles, and the backs of my hands when they get cracked.

St John's Wart is also a super-healing, mildly antimicrobial flower found just about anywhere in mid summer. In tincture form (steeped in alcohol for months) it is frequently used as an anti-depressant. In salve or oil form, it is great for relieving pain in aching joints, and generally soothing minor physical complaints both topical and injury-related. Great for arthritic hands or aching joints brought on by cold or flu. Mixed with some fennel and lavender oils, it has a soothing effect.

Clandula flowers dried or fresh, olive oil, or calendula-infused oil (6 ozs)
St. John's Wart plants, dried or fresh, olive oil, or infused oil (6 ozs)
Beeswax (4 ozs total for both recipes)
A double-boiler, or a small pot of water and a heat-resistant measuring cup
something to stir with (a chopstick works)
little jars, 1- or 2-oz, or 1/4 pint jars

The Process
We're making 2 seperate salves here - in my case, on for the parent(s) and one for the kid(s). So follow these instructions twice over - one time with the calendula and another time with the St. John's Wart

If you're lucky, clairvoyant, or have been doing this already, you'll have some olive oil infused with calendula and st john's wart on hand. If not, wait until the summer for a fresh harvest or go to your local health food store that features an apothecary (mine does, for some wonderful reason) and pick up some dried flowers.

Now, if you have time, here's how to do it: Cut up petals (in the case of calendula) or the whole plant (in the case of st john's wart) and place in a jar of olive oil to cover (more or less depending on how strong you want it - for these recipes 6 ozs of finished oil is required). Let sit in a cool, dark place at least a month or more. 6 weeks is ideal, but it can sit for a long time. Mine have been sitting in a closet since the summer.

Strain your oils and put 6 ozs into your double boiler, once the water is boiling. get the oil good and hot, and then chop in 2 ozs of beeswax into small chunks into the oil. stir until assimilated and then pour into your containers. If you're planning on adding essential oils do so at this point (lavender and fennel for calming colic, tangerine for energy, none at all for most salves, since scents are so invasive and define a salve's purpose so strongly). Cover immediately and store in a cool, dark place until they're ready to gift.

If you don't have the time to infuse oil, or don't have infused oil
You probably don't. If this were the book I want it to be, you would have read in May that it's time to plant your calendula and in August you would have read that it's time to dry it and steep it in oil, and on December 15th, having all the ingredients on hand, you'd be reading this. But since that book is still in my brain and not in your hands, here's what I would do if I didn't have infused oils on hand.

Follow the directions above using olive oil and beeswax. If you'd like, replace half of the olive oil with jojoba oil or cocoa butter for extra-moisturizing power. Then, when you pour it off, choose an essential oil mix that's right for the person you're gifting this to. Lavender would make a great "bedtime salve" for lips, temples, chafed noses suffering from colds that would be a sleep-aid. Tea tree oil would be great for a scent-reducing foot salve. Tangerine would be great for a morning or pick-me-up salve, and sandalwood and rosemary would make a great scent for soothing tired hands (also- it's a fairly masculine scent)

Note on herbs: Really, you can use just about any medicinal herb in this way. Comfrey is good for treating bruising and internal aches. Black Walnut hulls and tea tree oil are great for fungal infections. read up on things and experiment. To make a colored lip gloss, infuse annatto seeds (for an orangeish tint) or alkanet root (a reddish tint). replace 1/2 oz of the infused olive oil in the salve recipe with castor oil for gloss. Replace 1/2 oz of infused oil with jojoba or avocado oil for extra moisturizing. add fragrance if you'd like, but be sparing, this is going right under your nose! in another alternative, you could make a salve-perfume, mixing a lot of essential oils in to make a solid perfume. Be careful though. gifting and making perfumes is a very specific art.

Note on consistency: The recipes above are not hard science. If you want a runnier salve, use less beeswax. If it's summer and you want the salve to hold up better and don't want to risk oils going rancid, use more beeswax.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Sauerkraut, Okroshka, and guests

You know how sometimes your weekend gets hijacked by guests who overstay their welcome? Sometimes, even the nicest, friendliest people stay too long. Just a gracious reminder: it is not up to the hostess to kick you out. A good hostess never tells her guests to leave. Instead, she makes hints. Please, take the hints. Offer to leave or, if you absolutely must, ask to stay early on enough that it's still a possibility for you to leave if your hostess tells you she has important plans in the morning (like relaxing because it's Sunday morning). Do so before it becomes necessary for the hostess to offer you the couch and some linens. I don't care how fresh-out-of-college you are, manners are still manners.

Now that we're all clear on that, back to the topic of the day: Sauerkraut (or, as I more commonly spell it to avoid the minefield of german vowel combinations: kraut).

Kraut is the food of the gods. Salt, cabbage, a little weight, and a week or 3 of magic turns into the most delicious, nutritious food you could ever imagine. Eat straight out of the jar (as I was did my whole childhood when my parents weren't looking), on a Reuben, or as a side to just about anything (how my parents would have preferred I ate kraut). My favorite part of sauerkraut (don't knock it till you try it yall) is the brine. I drink it straight or make a variant on a Russian soup (I prefer it as a cold soup) called Okroshka (recipe below) which is traditionally made with Kvass (fermented black bread - eww).

Also, this post includes a basic lesson in Russian

KAPUSTA (aka: cabbage, but generally used to refer to kraut as well)

Seriously - it is this easy.


- gallon crock (keep your eyes open at garage sales and flea markets - they're everywhere) or a few wide-mouthed ball jar
- 3 tablespoons canning salt (or any non-iodized salt. Sea salt is expensive. go for Morton's canning salt. it's just as good and cheaper than the iodized stuff)
- 5 pounds (bout 2 small heads) cabbage (green for traditional look. red for a sexy burgundy kraut)
- a lid that is just too small for your crock/jar. The goal is to push the cabbage under the surface of the brine.
- a weight that will fit on top of the lid and into the crock/jar (typically a boiled rock (boiled to sterilize), but you can also use a plastic bag filled with water and rocks if you're using a jar, or a smaller jar filled with water, or whatever)

The process

Chop up your cabbage to the size you like your kraut to be. I like cutting off a chunk and then cutting the chunk into thin ribbon-like slices.

Now layer 1 layer cabbage, 1 layer salt until you've layered all the cabbage and used all the salt. Press down as you go. All of the cabbage should fit into a 1 gallon crock.

Now put the lid you're using (or small plate, etc.) over the kraut, push it down as far as it will go, and put the weight on top. Store it somewhere out of the way. The warmer the spot, the faster the fermentation will go, but the flavors will be less subtle. The colder the spot, the longer the fermentation will take, but the flavors will develop more fully.

Check your kraut after 24 hours to make sure the brine has covered the cabbage. If it hasn't, add a saltwater mixture (about 3 tablespoons salt per quart) to cover, and leave. Taste in about 5 days, and then daily if it's in your room-temperature house, until it's as sour as you want. don't wait to long - or it'll taste off. Once it's done, stick it in the fridge to slow the fermentation (in jars or in the crock if it fits).


A note on ingredients: some people put weird things in their kraut, like juniper berries, caraway, coriander, and black pepper. Try it out, but in my humble opinion, nothing beats traditional salt-and-cabbage kraut. A carrot or for color can also be added.

A note on crocks: I found a set of nested crocks with lids. It's perfect for kraut since the medium-sized lid is a perfect kraut lid for the largest crock.

A note on salt content: If you're not into salt, you can soak the kraut overnight in tap water to get a low-sodium kraut for eating the next day. do this rather than making a lower-salt kraut. Salt preserves the kraut, and is needed for the right bacteria to ferment the brine. Traditionally, kraut was made with a lot more salt than we use now, because the main purpose of the salt was to preserve the kraut before refrigeration. Thus crocks were typically held in cold cellars and the kraut needed to be submerged in water overnight or for 24 hours to leach enough salt out of the cabbage to make it edible. The level of salt needed to preserve kraut in brine is 5 tablespoons salt per quart of water. This way, in a cold cellar place, it will take at least a month to ferment, and will last at least a few months, if kept cold.


Yes, this is my favorite soup.

This is my personal recipe. It may be blasphemous to my grandma's traditional okroshka made with beef and kvass, but so be it.

ingredients (no quantities because you know how to make soup. Just make soup.)
- The usual suspects: carrots, celery, onions
- Brine (yum)
- potatoes
- optional - meat (if you're into it, I'd go for a chopped up hotdog. That would be traditionally Soviet. If you believe in real food, pork or beef will do, and tofu would be good too)
- garlic
- dill (a lot) parsley if you have some
- black pepper

Chop and saute carrots, celery, onion, and garlic (i'd suggest a medium dice). Substituting celeriac for celery in the winter is great, and I would recommend it in general when you have celeriac in your cellar. If you're using meat, throw it in to saute a bit, then cover with some water or whatever stock you have on hand (use the smallest amount of water/stock possible. This soup is about the brine! you''re going to want a final ratio of about 1-to-1 stock to brine), throw in the potatoes (I'd suggest a medium dice), and simmer until everything is cooked.

Add brine. for hot soup, heat, but do not boil (boiling kills off the good-for-you bacteria). according to my mom, this is a very traditional soup called Sour cabbage soup (kisloy schi). For cold soup, chill. season with black pepper, lots of dill, and parsley if you have it, and adjust the salt by adding more brine or more stock/water. Serve and be happy!


Friday, December 11, 2009

Life is going to change. No doubt about that.

I've started drawing sketches to accompany the blog, but I don't have a functioning scanner in my life. The one at work doesn't seem to work, though i spent more time than I should have trying to fix it. Please forgive me, dear readers, for my dislike of digital photos. They just take up way too much time. sketching is much simpler and more satisfying.

Now I must admit a thing that has made me sad and that will definitely impact this blog and the pace of my life, though I have no idea how (who ever knows?). Now that I've finally fallen in love with living alone, I have put out a call for a roommate. there was no way to avoid it. I can't afford to live in my sweet little house alone, and there's no way in hell you could get me to move. I have found my little piece of heaven. I intend to stay here until I have no other choice. So there it is. I wish I were filthy rich, so I could be a real fashion farmer and live wherever I wanted and grow whatever I wanted just for the hell of it - and because it makes me feel good about myself (warning about the link - don't open it if you're an ex-suburbanite-turned-rural-farmer and take yourself too seriously).

As a result of me not being a trust fund baby, you, my dear readers, can expect to find posts about building walls (because i intend to separate the loft into 2 rooms), arranging work-trades, and figuring out how to convince your roommate to do all the dishes (I will think of a worthwhile exchange and appreciate any help in doing so). Also, I will inevitably have to discover how I can listen to NPR as often as i want to with another human being in the house, who probably hates Allen Chartok as much as I do but isn't as fascinated by the constant chatter.

Wish me luck, and if you know anyone who wants to be my roommate, send them my way!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

It's the little things

I have discovered the secret to joy last night and it is this - a foot bath in the chair by the stove once a week with sea salt and essential oils, tea kept perfectly warm on a brick on the stove, and crackers with sweetened condensed milk. After a day of the usual - 8 long and boring hours of work, cooking, shoveling snow, dishes, bringing wood in, and, if I'm lucky, some time on the couch with the cat - it is the perfect sliver of luxury. It is such luxury, that is makes me forget entirely about those boots I've been coveting that are $80 out of my price range. The $.03 foot bath is better than the boots anyway.

I finished the sweetened condensed milk two days ago, so last night I settled for a jar of my admittedly mediocre apricot jam, honey, and butter. It's not perfect, but at least I can afford sweetened condensed milk - now a staple of my diet above and beyond peanut m&m's which come in a now-distant second for top guilty pleasures. I'd give up a lot before I'd give up that little Carnation can. Definitely chocolate (gasp! I know! but seriously, s.c.m. is THAT good), sliced bread, and any $120 pair of boots. My favorite way to eat it is slathered on a very thin cracker that doesn't get in the way. It's also very good over nutella (but really, how could that not be?) I also like dipping my finger into it when it's cold in the the fridge and will stick - ah, the pleasures of living alone!

So in case you too have just discovered that you're not really making all the ends meet and will therefore need to find a roommate or move out, if all your muscles hurt from shoveling the driveway with a very heavy and old snow shovel, if you really can't stand the thought of cleaning, cleaning, cleaning after working, working working all day, and just want to live your own life, even though that's basically impossible - go dip your feet in some hot water and let yourself sit for a half hour. Listen to some music, or the radio, or watch a movie, or write, or read. I promise, you'll feel better. I do.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Snow Day!

6 inches of snow meant I got to come into work today at noon! In a wonderful, relaxing morning I spent half my time on the couch (which I pulled up to the stove) petting my cat, and the other half helping my landlords switch in a new fridge for the old 1950's one with a breadbox-type freezer that had been in my kitchen, and setting up the lettuce window growing station I promised myself and yall that I would make. I only had one piece of 2x2 long enough, so I made a one-legged window sill extension using the front panel of an old drawer which comes from a set I have used for just about everything from shelves to a spice rack.

I simply cut the 2x2 to the height of the window sill, set the plank of wood from the drawer onto the sill with the 2x2 supporting the overhanging edge, and nailed the shelf down to the 2x2. With the weight of my window box on it, it's actually very sturdy. I'll add a second leg if I get around to it.

I transferred my frozen fruits, herbs, veggies, and meats from the upright freezer in my shed into my new indoor freezer and unplugged the big upright freezer. Half a bushel's worth of frozen peaches wouldn't fit, so tonight (or tomorrow) will be a night of jam and preserves making for gifts.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Essential Oils - A guide

Every other thing I do at home includes essential oils. They might seem pricey, but they're so concentrated and so useful, that they're 100% worth it, especially if a local co-op is willing to let you order direct from their distributor with them. Housing co-ops (include the one at your local small liberal arts college) and buying clubs are great for this. If there aren't any in your area, ask your food co-op/health food store, though they need to make money somehow, and since you won't be buying oils in bulk, you might have to pay full price.

Essential Oils are highly concentrated medicinals. Keep them in a cool, dark place away from children. Never drink or eat them (unless specifically indicated). This is the distilled essence of the plant. Treat them with the due respect they deserve.

Here's my stash and what I use it for, in order of how much I love it. You can find more info just about anywhere.

Lavender - It's as close as you're going to get to all-purpose. Smells great, calming and uplifting, Lavender is also a great antiseptic. use it on cuts and scrapes to ward off infection, in household cleaners, and in scented anything. I always add lavender to my baths, I run it through my hair to freshen up (just a drop or two), and if anything needs an uplifting scent, I spray it with a bit of lavender water (essential oil mix).

Tea Tree Oil - go ahead and buy the 2 oz bottle. Tea Tree Oil is an outstanding antifungal. It works much better than almost anything else (including many over-the-counter creams). If you have any type of fungal infection including athlete's foot, a yeast infection, or those spreading pink and brown spots anywhere on your skin, keep a mixture of tea tree oil and witch hazel on hand (20-30 drops tea tree oil in a half pint jar filled 3/4 of the way with witch hazel is perfect). Shake the mixture and dip a cotton ball in, squeeze out excess, and apply to the affected area twice a day until infection clears and then at least an additional week. I also include tea tree in all of my household and personal cleaning mixes. I mix 10-15 drops into my deodorant (1 part baking soda and 1 part corn strach - mix thoroughly after every drop. I keep mine in a tightly sealed mason jar and apply with a large powder brush. This is also great for whisking away moisture on feet, in cleavage, etc.)

Lemon - I use lemon essential oil in my dish pans as I do dishes. My water smells very strongly of sulfur, and washing dishes in batches in dish tubs with 4-5 drops of lemon does the trick. It smells so fresh that I can almost convince myself that I enjoy doing dishes.

Sage - Like its fresh and dried counterpart, sage is great for coughs and any sort of congestion. I add sage to my baths if I'm feeling a cold coming on. It is also part of my personal bouquet of scents. it is one of my favorite smells - being earthy and flowery at the same time, and also evoking that edge in the smell of body odor that is so mysteriously sexual, intimate, and calming (at least to my nostrils). I mix 10-15 drops into my deodorant along with tea tree oil (see tea tree section for recipe).

Sandalwood - I just love it. It's a scent thing. Also, all of your musky, wood smells are great in foot baths or regular baths after a hard day of work. They do something to really get in and relax your muscles and your mind. Cedar, Bergamont, Egyptian musk are also great "masculine" scents if you want to mix a scent.

Clove - clove oil is a strong antifungal and antibiotic. Use with tea tree oil if your infection really isn't going well. Also drink clove tea for general systemic candida overgrowth (but not essential oil - boil whole cloves).

Eucalyptus - Eucalyptus is most commonly used for clearing colds and minor congestion. Carry a small vial with you and inhale the scent as needed to help with a common cold.

Echinacea - Mix 10-15 drops into water or juice and drink to boost immune system response.

Oregano - Mix 5-6 drops in water and drink to ward off cold and flu-like symptoms, and to generally boost immune system response.

Garlic oil - This isn't an essential oil, but it is a great medicinal oil. heat up 1-2 tabelspoons of olive oil in a small pan as if to cook. add a clove of minced garlic and turn off the heat. let it sit in the pan until the oil is warm to the touch. strain out garlic and massage the oil into ears to treat ear infections. Lay on each side after applying to each ear to let it seep in.

A note on mixing your own essential oil perfumes:
No one appreciates being bashed over the head with your scent, no matter how good it is. go for subtle. Too much Egyptian Musk makes you smell like a bad male escort. Too much rose makes you smell like an South Asian kitchen before a wedding. Mix small amounts and then add to it, so you don't waste excess on a bad mixture. use two drops, max, on the throat, behind your ears, wrists, and temples. never perfume your cleavage. it's trashy.

Check in with this entry from time to time. I'll be adding more as I think of them.

DIY Household Cleaner

I don't understand why anyone would spend $5.00 on chic, organic good-for-you house cleaning sprays. First - they smell bad. Second - they're expensive! Third - organic? really?

Make it yourself!

The Tools:

- A dark, plastic bottle (not white or clear - you could use a finished Hydrogen peroxide bottle - that's what I do)
- A spray nozzle that fits your dark bottle (I found a regular household spray bottle in a friend's recycling bin, took out the spray attachment, and cut the end so it fit into my hydrogen peroxide bottle.
- A funnel (unless you have very steady hands)
- Hydrogen Peroxide (this can be found in the pharmacy section of any store. look for a boring brown bottle)
- White vinegar (I generally have 2 gallons of the cheap kind on hand for cleaning at any moment - but you'll only need about 1/2 a cup to a cup depending on your bottle)
- Water (easy 'nuff)
- Essential Oils (once again - I use my old favorites - lavender and tea tree)

The Method:

I'm going to give you a grandma-style recipe. Which means - you can't mess this one up. Seriously.

put your dark bottle on a table. Get a funnel into it, and pour about an inch of hydrogen peroxide into the bottom. If this is going to be a bathroom spray, feel free to be a bit more generous. Hydrogen peroxide is your main antibacterial tool. You can also use your hydrogen peroxide to clean wounds, gargle (use a tiny drop in a cup of warm water), and as a general sanitizer.

Now fill the bottle about 1/4 of the way with white vinegar. Vinegar is anti-fungal. I soak anything that's moldy in a bucket of vinegar and water (1-to-4 vinegar-to-water ratio, once again), my friends soak their cloth diapers in vinegar (same ratio), and after this summer of mold attacks, I am very liberal with my use of vinegar around the house.

Finally, top off you bottle with water (leave enough room to get the spritzer in without overflowing) and add essential oils until you have the smell you want.

And tah-dah! a $0.50 household cleaner that's easy to top-off as needed. Use as a regular household spray. It's really tough stuff that works great. I use mine in the kitchen and the bathroom as well as a final touch on the kitty litter (it's great in cutting smell), and I have no complaints. Just remember - spray cleaners do not replace the scrub power of baking soda or bon ami ever, which work best on anything enamel.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Hosting Friends (and getting them to visit)

One of the challenges of country living is getting old friends who live in more urban areas to visit. City dwellers are convinced that they are more accessible than you are, and they're right. I am in New York City much more frequently than my City friends are upstate. I take trips into the city for a variety of different reasons, and will frequently make a point of seeing a friend or two on that trip. However - hosting is something I love doing, and it's something I learned to do well from my mother, who is a very talented and innovative hostess.

My approach to getting friends to visit is to turn it into a vacation. I live in a beautiful, and fairly accessible part of upstate new york, which makes my house (and therefore me) a perfect weekend getaway. No one wants to commit to visiting a friend they may have not spent a straight 24 hours with if they're wondering if you'll have enough to talk about to fill the time. This is stressful even with the best of friends, and for those of us who don't have children to distract us, 24 hours of non-stop interacting can be difficult. So I always suggest a few key things to do when I suggest a friend comes to visit.

Winter is perfect for a short and beautiful winter hike (most people never get to see a waterfall completely frozen still, but with the water still loudly flowing through the center of the the great column of ice that is Kaaterskill Falls in January. Just 30 minutes away, this is a perfect hike. Ice skating, cross-country skiing (on the landlord's property), winter farmers' markets, and walking around town are all wonderful things to do with visiting friends. If you have the space, it's also great to have two or three friends over, so there's some variety.

Make it low-stress. Nobody likes a stressed-out hostess. Plan in advanced. Go shopping two days ahead of time, because you'll probably forget something and have to go back the day before as well. If you've forgotten something and you discover it missing day-of, don't stress and make an acceptable substitution. If you don't have lemons, use apple cider vinegar or concentrated sumac juice (press the red point sumac out into water, leave everything in the water, and boil it down until it's good and strong). A good hostess learns how to stay calm and creative when there's no way she's going back to the store. Even if there is only one can of tomatoes left and you're making tomato soup for 10. You would stay calm, pour yourself a cup of tea, and think. Then you'd cut up the bread you were going to use for French grilled cheeses (croque monsieurs), leave it out to go stale overnight (because soup you always make soup a day in advance to let the taste ripen, and because it's easier that way). You would add some beans for thickness and extra vinegar for taste and make an Italian bread soup instead - which can stand alone as a dinner soup. Then, for a side, you'd make cheese crisps out of the cheese you had bought for the croque monsieurs. See? No stress. Just some time with your favorite cookbooks (the original Joy of Cooking, Moosewood, one of Brother Victor's Monastic, seasonal cookbooks are great cookbooks that are easy to be inventive with and don't involve complicated ingredients lists), and a break to think with a warm cup of tea. Always take a break if you're about to panic. even 2 minutes clears your mind enough to actually think clearly, and it will save you time in the end. Consider showering at the moment of stress instead of just before guests come. You're going to shower at some point anyway, why not do it now?

Now that we have no-stress down - plan a dinner meal that will double for lunch. You don't want to be cooking all day when friends are over, unless that's the vacation plan. If you make burritos for dinner, the leftovers will make a wonderful taco salad (just make a dressing, or get out a different can of home-made salsa and have some lettuce on hand to complement this easy self-assembled meal), or, for a more wintery example, Chili at night will make great cheese-and-chili subs for a packed lunch (pack chili separately and assemble when you're ready to eat). Same goes for pasta and meatballs and meatball subs. If you cook well, no one minds eating the same food twice in different combinations - just be creative and don't stress yourself out.

Only make dessert once, but make enough that you'll have leftovers on hand, and have some chocolate or dried fruit. Always keep snacks out and accessible (jam and crackers are easy) and tea on the stove. Leftover dessert is everyone's favorite snack.

let your friends help with dishes. They'll feel better about themselves if they help, and you'll be more likely to avoid stress.

...See? Easy! Now go and invite your friends over. There's no reason for them to stay at home when winter is so beautiful in the country!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A great book, where to find free newspaper, and growing winter lettuce

If you're looking for a present for yourself or a friend, here's a very cheap and incredibly useful book: Country Wisdom and Know-How for just $20 at you local bookstore, this is a total steal. It's an oversized book printed on newsprint that is full of useful tidbits, recipes, and is an all-around great starter kit for just about everything.

Looking for newspaper for the stove?
If you're looking for newspaper to use as firestarting in your stove and you, like most of the US population, has moved away from daily paper delivery, Here's what I suggest. Go to any local business that you can get free monthlies/weeklies at. The theater I work at has them, so should local eateries, grocery stores, etc. Usually, at the end of the month, the paper distributers will drop off new ones and not pick up last months'. Generally, these get recycled. if you come in and let the business know you'll take the excess papers off their hands, they'd probably be happy to let you. Just come at the right time - generally, the first week of the month.

Home-grown winter lettuce
Next week I'm devoting myself to salad. I love salad. With a bit of chicken or tofu, over some rice or with crispy croutons, nothing makes an easier meal than salad. But in the long winter months the only salad to be had is grown in California, and as you may have noticed, i don't like grocery stores. I have, in my life, had winter seasonal salad replacements (cabbage chopped in very fine strips with grated carrot, turnip, rice and chickpeas is easy and delicious), but it's not the same!

So I'm building myself (perhaps 2 months too late, but still do-able) an indoor salad garden so that I can last the winter.


South-facing windows and/or a florescent light to rig up over your plants (which is a cheap grow-light - grow lights are a marketing scheme)

A table, or a home-build stand/shelf to keep the plants on - it's going to be dirty and potentially wet. don't use anything too nice. I'm building a standard shelf with L-brackets and e few leftover pieces of boards.

Containers to grow lettuce in - If you're going for individual pots, I'd go for a 6 inch pot - but it's easier, I'd say, to use a planter-type set up. I'm going to use some (ugly) window boxes I found in trash cans here and there. You can also use buckets (drill holes in the bottoms to let water escape), old drawers (just make sure they're not treated with anything), dish pans, troughs, etc. etc. generally anything you find lying around will work. just remember that you're growing food - so it needs to be food-grade. Anything that held petroleum products or was treated with excessive or poisonous chemicals (including pressure-treated lumber) is not food-friendly. I'd use something at least 6 inches deep.

Potting Soil - wherever you get it, just make sure it's not sketchy. You can dig up some of your garden soil, you can buy the bags, whatever. The best would be finished compost. And no matter what, incorporate some finished compost to add some nutrition to your soil. The soil in your container is what your lettuce will be eating all winter.

Something to use for watering - watering is important. Not killing delicate seedlings while watering is also important. If you have a watering can, great! If not, no sweat. get a quart jar and then either poke holes in the lid itself or in plastic that you can secure with the band part of the lid (we're talking canning jars here). Now it's easy to shake some water onto your seedlings.

Lettuce seed - I'd choose a nice winter variety if your house (like mine) is on the cold side - or tends to fluctuate to below-freezing levels (again, like mine). Otherwise, the sky is the limit. I'm sure there's an heirloom indoor winter lettuce variety out there somewhere. If you hear of it, let me know. I'd love to try it.

Now, combine the ingredients! - Pot on shelf, soil in pot, water in soil (very wet for first planting), seed in soil (not too deep. Seed planting is fairly intuitive. Plant the seed at two times the depth of its width). Plant extra seeds, and then, once you can pick out your favorites, thin to about 6 inches apart. If you're growing leaf lettuce (which I would recommend for winter grazing), 6" should be fine. For head lettuce, you'll have to thin out to a bit more, about 1 foot.

All done? keep that tray watered well and keep the cat out of it! I'm going to use a cover of hardware cloth to keep the cat out until the lettuce gets big enough to fight for itself. You can cover the tray in plastic to help keep down watering needs until the seeds germinate.

If the cat really loves plants (mine also like harassing my Meyer Lemon Tree), I'd go ahead and plant a little kitty garden for it with something it can eat - wheatgrass, catnip, whatever (I will be taking my own advice on this soon).

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A recipe for a decadent evening

Last night I came home very upset over a political upheaval here, so i decided to treat myself to a decadent night. I drove over to the nonprofit independent theater in Rhinebeck Upstate Flms and watched the Coen Brothers' new movie, A Serious Man. This gave me a lot of thoughts about being first generation, bilingual, generally confused, American-ish Jewish in rural NY - where very few people are any of the above. While I love living in rural places and daydream about moving up to Vermont or Canada, I know that a need to be able to occasionally escape to a place where "my people" are yelling and carrying on in our typical bruhaha, complete with the simple joys of loudness and sour cream, will keep me tethered to the NYC-bound or Boston-bound Amtrak line.

When I came home, musing on the woman who kept saying "Oh Jeez" through the whole move, I continued the decadence!

I drew up a lovely foot bath with a bath salts recipe from my favorite topical herbal recipe book Earthly Body, Heavenly Hair By Dinah Falcone. It was a very simple recipe - 6 Tablespoons sea salt, 15-30 drops essential oils (I used sage and lavender, though if I had it I would have thrown in some sandalwood too), and a few tablespoons of comfrey-infused olive oil (which is generally healing). I would have used Calendula oil, but I don't have enough to splurge on such frivolities. Calendula oil is strictly for salves for my soon-to-be baby mama friends. I pulled up my chair and my foot bath right next to the stove, put a teapot of evening tea (chamomile and mint) on top of the stove along with my mug (works much better than a tea cozy) and, with incredible luck, got to listen to "Selected Shorts" on NPR (which, tied with "This American Life" is my favorite evening listening program).

All in all, I had myself a lovely evening. Which means tonight I will be cleaning up. a lot.

My other favorite recipe from Dinah's book is a quick pick-me-up for dirty hair. Drop two drops of essential oil onto a comb (I use 1 drop each of lavender and tea tree) and comb it through your hair. It adds a lovely scent and dries out oily hair a little, along with making your hair look, feel, and smell cleaner if you just can't get to washing it that day. My hair is fairly dry, but it works very well. Tea Tree is antifungal and lavender is antibiotic, so it's also great for warding off smells and infections.