Just in Time for Thanksgiving—a Winter Storm

For now, all is calm at the little house in the big woods
For now, all is calm at the little house in the big woods

Ah, the holidays. Yesterday I was brooding about the sheared bottoms of my pumpkin bread. Today I am worrying about a winter storm forecasted for Wednesday, when our daughter Dee will be traveling from New York to Maine. Last night, the prediction for snow was three to five inches, enough to make the roads a little slippery, but not enough for Mainers to worry about. However, overnight the prediction changed, and I woke up to hear Lou McNally, on Maine Public Radio, warn that we might get a foot of snow. Just what a mother wants to hear when her daughter will be traveling up the East Coast.

Our family has gone over all sorts of contingency plans, from Dee leaving early on Wednesday, if her work allows, to having Thanksgiving later in the afternoon, which would be better for those of us who will have to clean our driveways and drive to Portland. What fun!

From now until late March, the weather in the Northeast will be unpredictable, and over the years this has remained constant, despite climate change. When I was young, there were plenty of storms and slippery roads between November and March. I should be used to this uncertainty, but I’m not. Somehow, I expect the weather to cooperate during the holidays. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. (Last year our holiday treat was a mini-ice storm that knocked out our power during Christmas.) The weather does what it will.

Right now, the weather is calm, and the backyard looks deceptively peaceful. In addition, it is so warm that I haven’t started a fire yet in our wood furnace, and I am perfectly comfortable without the heat.

But all that can change in a day, and the sky’s hazy look portends that something is brewing, that something is ready to blow up the East Coast.

Good luck to all travelers who will be out and about during this storm. I know I won’t rest easy until Dee is safe in Portland with her sister.

 

The Pumpkin Bread Debacle

Last week, I baked two of Farmer Kev’s pie pumpkins, which made the richest, sweetest mash that I have ever tasted. Part of the mash went into a soup—thanks, Beth Clark, for the recipe—and the rest was saved for pumpkin bread.

The pumpkin bread unexpectedly turned out to be quite a project.  I started last Friday, with everything at the ready and just enough sugar for the bread. (You can be sure sugar was on my grocery list.) I creamed the shortening and sugar, and as I cracked the first egg into the mixture, I noticed that the yolk was gelatinous, sticking to the shell.

“Oh, oh,” I muttered, sniffing the shell.

Sure enough, there was a slightly sour smell, and I saw a pin-prick hole at one end of the shell.

I surveyed the sugar, shortening, and bad egg, and for one crazy moment, I considered scooping the egg out of the mixture. Right. Eggs—even a bad one—ooze into everything, making it impossible to scoop them out entirely. I would have to get rid of the whole mess, which I did by throwing it into the woods. (Last time I looked, the creamed mixture was still there. No animal has wanted to touch it. Clever creatures!)

There was not enough sugar for another batch of pumpkin bread, which meant there was nothing that could be done until the next day, when I would buy more sugar.

This I did, thus beginning batch two on Saturday afternoon. You can be sure that this time each egg—the recipe calls for four—was cracked into a little bowl so that I could sniff and examine it before dumping into it the creamed mixture. Naturally, all the eggs were good, and the batter went together without a hitch.

Next there were the bread pans to consider. Last year, the pumpkin bread stuck to the pans, but I’ve been making yeast bread with those same pans, and there is never a problem. I figured last year I hadn’t done a good enough job greasing the pans, and for this batch of pumpkin bread, I spent extra time greasing the pans.

Unfortunately, the pumpkin bread again stuck to the pans—both loaves did this—shearing off the bottom of each loaf of bread. The loaves look a little clipped, but they are edible. (Clif and I ate the parts stuck to the pan.)

“Once the loaves are sliced no one will notice,” Clif said.

True enough. But how irritating, especially after the rotten egg incident.

“I think the nonstick surface of the bread pans has worn out,” Clif said. “And yeast bread dough is not as sticky as pumpkin bread.”

Clif is probably right. “We should buy some new pans,” he added.

Not so fast. I don’t like getting rid of things wily-nilly, and I’m going to give those pans one more try when I make pumpkin bread for Christmas. I’ll line them with either parchment paper or waxed paper. (I remember my mother lining pans with waxed paper.) If that doesn’t work, then out with those pans.

Now, onward to the gravy. Yesterday, I cooked the chicken legs and made the stock, which is very tasty indeed. Today, I’ll thicken it with flour and butter, and pop the gravy into the freezer.

Out the gravy will come on Thursday morning, ready for the big meal in the afternoon. And I’ll be sure to cut the pumpkin bread in small slices so that nobody will notice the sheared bottoms.

 

 

 

Flying Geese, Hard Lives, and Libraries

Blue sky, no geese
Blue sky, no geese

Yesterday, as I went into the backyard, I heard the unmistakable sound of geese calling as they flew. I looked up, hoping I would catch a glimpse of them—sometimes they fly off to one side where you can hear but not see them. Luck was with me. In two broad V formations, they flew right over the little house in the big woods. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I had. My camera is so small and simple that it wouldn’t have caught the geese.

I stood watching their dark silhouettes against the deep blue sky, and they flew low enough so that I could see the beating of their wings. Seeing them fly, hearing their call, and thinking of their long, perilous journey brought tears to my eyes, as it always does.

“Bon chance and bon voyage,” I called to them. I thought of how hard and dangerous life was for geese. I wondered, are they ever afraid? Do they dwell on their hard lives, the way we humans dwell on our own?  Or, flapping those strong wings, do the geese just push on,  guided by some mysterious instinct we can only dimly grasp? As we don’t speak or understand the language of geese, we can’t know, but perhaps someday we will.

The theme of a hard life threaded itself through my day. Later in the afternoon, two men came with a big truck and hose and pumped out our septic tank. The driver was a large, cheerful man and good for him because what a hard way to make living, removing excrement and waste from people’s yards. True, he has machines to help him, but he has to stand there and watch and smell. (I sure hope his sense of smell is muted.) Jobs such as this are often looked down on, but what would happen if the workers suddenly decided they had had enough of cleaning septic systems? Society would be thrown into a panic as everyone belatedly realized how vital these workers were to our well being.

That evening, I went to a library expansion meeting where I heard what we have come to call a “solicitation story.” A campaign member told of a recent conversation she had had with a man who has given a generous donation to the library. This man  lives out of town but was raised in Winthrop. He told the campaign member that when he was young, had it not been for Bailey Library,  he never would have read as much as he did. This was at a time when kids in high school  were put either on a college track or on a vocational track, and because his family was poor, he was not put on a college track. (This happened to my father, too.) Nevertheless, this man read and read and eventually went to college, got his PhD, and became a professor. (I want to make it clear that I think a vocational track is just fine. We need skilled workers who do practical things. But the choice should be based on temperament and interest, not income.)

Would he have done this without Bailey Library? Perhaps, but I’ve no doubt that the library gave him an important intellectual boost when he really needed it.

Life can be hard, for people as well as geese, and the older I get, the more convinced I am that libraries, large or small, can make life a little less hard.

Thank You, Farmer Kev

Frozen vegetables and a Farmer's Cookbook
Frozen vegetables and a Farmer’s Cookbook

Thanksgiving might not be here yet, but yesterday felt like Christmas at the little house in the big woods. Our own Farmer Kev has started a winter CSA (community supported agriculture) program, and we received our first delivery yesterday. Oh, the vegetables Farmer Kev brought—garlic; micro-greens and arugula; bean sprouts; romaine lettuce;  broccoli; squash; potatoes; frozen green beans as well as other frozen vegetables. He even included a Farmer Kev cookbook.

Such an abundance, and all grown in the Winthrop area, only miles from where I live. And, to top it off, Farmer Kev delivers.

Last night, Clif and I had fresh salads made with Farmer Kev’s greens. There was such a variety of greens that aside from the bean sprouts and some sunflower seeds, no other ingredients were needed.

I’m going to be honest—Clif and I had to scrape to come up with the money for the winter CSA, but yesterday’s delivery confirmed that this was money well spent. Not only are we getting vegetables that are fresh, fresh, fresh, but we are getting them close-by from a region not plagued by drought.

Best of all, perhaps, is that we are supporting a hard-working young farmer who is trying to make a go of it. Farming is not an easy way to make a living, and the high price of land makes it especially difficult for young farmers. With climate change bringing many, many challenges to this country, to this world, Maine needs a lot more farmers like Kevin.  In the years ahead, they might be instrumental in feeding the state.

Farms and farmers don’t spring up over night. They take years to develop, and along the way, those farmers need our support. Our own contribution may be small, but Clif and I are doing what we can to help local farmers.

This Thanksgiving my gratitude goes to Farmer Kev, to his parents,  and to everyone else who has picked, weeded, cleaned, and frozen.

Fresh lettuce and other veggies
Fresh lettuce and other veggies

All Things Pumpkin

IMG_7006Yesterday, I baked two of the sweetest pumpkins I’ve ever cooked—thank you, Farmer Kev—and have enough pumpkin to make a couple of loaves of quick bread for Thanksgiving as well as a soup for our supper tonight. The bread will go in the freezer, which is too bad. However, with all the other cooking I have to do, there just won’t be time to make the bread close enough to Thanksgiving so that it will be fresh.

This year, Shannon will be hosting Thanksgiving at her home in South Portland. Along with the pumpkin bread, I’ll be bringing the gravy, a sweet potato casserole, and a green bean casserole. All these recipes are oldies but goodies in our family, and in the green bean casserole there will be no cream of mushroom soup or canned onions.  I promise.

One of the happiest recipe finds in my life has been Julia Moskin’s make ahead gravy. It is a long process, but the hands-on time is small, and it is more than worth it to have an utterly delicious gravy made ahead of the big day. This, too, goes in the freezer and comes out Thanksgiving morning.  This gravy can be made a week ahead, two weeks ahead, even a month ahead, and if you do this, there will be one big worry eliminated from your Thanksgiving list.  I post this recipe every year, for new readers and for those who might have overlooked it. The only changes I have made are to use chicken legs instead of turkey legs—chicken gravy goes just fine with turkey—and I also use more butter and flour for a thicker gravy.

Gravy is all very well and good, you might be thinking, but what about those pumpkin seeds? Never fear! They are spread on a baking sheet, where they will dry for a day or two, and after that I plan to roast them with butter, soy sauce, a little garlic powder, and kosher salt. I’ve never roasted them this way before—salt and a little oil are what I have used—but Dee has been raving about roasted pumpkin seeds and soy sauce, which she gets in New York. So this year I thought I would roast them with soy sauce and see how they turn out.

Somehow, I have a feeling that the problem will be to refrain from eating all the pumpkin seeds before Dee comes home. Therefore, I plan to put the roasted pumpkin seeds put into a jar and tuck them in a cupboard where I can’t see them.

This should do the trick. Out of sight, out of mind really does work at the little house in the big woods. Now, all I have to do is remember to bring the pumpkin seeds with me to South Portland  on Thanksgiving Day.

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Of Dogs and Chores

IMG_6935This weekend, Clif and I tucked into our fall chores.  We raked, we hauled wood, and we brought pots, the watering can, and the animals’ water dish inside.

“Narrows Pond Road gym,” I joked as we took aspirin and rested indoors between sessions.

There is no denying it—the older we get, the slower we get. What would have once been accomplished in one day now takes two days, maybe even more. And the snow hasn’t helped.  Clif and I need more time to get the little house in the big woods ready for winter, not less time.

No matter. Clif and I pressed on. I raked all the open areas in the backyard. There were some patches with just a sprinkle of snow on the leaves, and I raked them as well. Clif helped a little with raking, but mostly he hauled wood.

The dog did his bit, too. Racing around the tarp I use for the leaves, he barked, barked, barked as I raked. Liam took breaks from barking to chase a small blue ball I threw, and while he chased it, I had some peace. But not for long. At nine, Liam is still an energetic dog, and it only took him seconds to retrieve the ball and come back to his barking post.

“He won’t be pesty tonight,” I said to Clif as he stacked wood on the pile.

“Nope,” Clif replied, taking a break to watch our racing dog.

“I wish I had his energy,” I said, and Clif smiled and nodded.

By Sunday evening, the leafiest part of the backyard had been raked, and the last of the wood—we have five cords in all—had been stacked. What a good feeling to survey the raked yard and the stacked wood.

There is still more we could do—the hedges need to be trimmed and the driveway swept, among other things. “But if we have a major snowstorm,” I said to Clif, “then we’re pretty much all set.”

By late afternoon on Sunday, as the dark settled in, Clif and I settled in, too, on the couch in the living room. We took more aspirin, I popped some popcorn, and we read and dozed. Resting from his exertions, the dog lay sprawled by the couch. When the three of us got up an hour or so later, Clif and I weren’t the only ones with stiff legs. Liam limped into the kitchen to watch us make supper, and he settled in a spot not far from the stove where he could supervise without being in the way.

How, fitting, then, later that evening, for Clif and I to watch Dean Spanley, an odd but haunting movie about dogs and reincarnation. (Dean Spanley features Jeremy Northam, Sam Neill, and the great Peter O’Toole.)

The movie reminded me that the dogs in our lives never stay with us as long as we would like. May they race as long as they can.

 

 

November 14, 2014: More Snow

IMG_6995Time was in Maine when November was a cold, dry month, where the ground froze solid by the middle of the month, and as long as leaves were raked by Thanksgiving, you were pretty much all set. Hunters prayed for snow by Thanksgiving, to make it easier to track deer. Sometimes they got it, but more often they didn’t.

Nowadays, the snow can come as early as the end of October, and it falls on green grass and unfrozen ground and unraked leaves. As the snow melts, which it usually does, it makes a muddy mess, and the wet leaves are that much heavier to rake.

This morning we woke up to snow, and after breakfast, I went outside to get some pictures of the snowy yard and woods. It is pretty. I will give it that. But I miss the old days of cold, austere November, which prepared us for December, where the snow often didn’t come until Christmas. I remember my mother and grandmother expressing the hope that we would have a white Christmas. Then, in January, the snow would come for real, and nobody worried about having a green landscape.

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We must take what comes, of course, and work around it. Still, it’s a little odd to be old enough to remember what was and note how much things have changed.

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