Saturday, July 26, 2008

Hello, am I there?

Something strange is going on in my brain. I feel like I'm walking around in a dream most of the time. Other times I sit and stare, thinking nothing in particular, then suddenly jolt back to life, having 20 minutes to an hour pass without knowing it. I'm having trouble remembering things and stop in the middle of sentences, carried off on some other thought.

It feels almost like I've been drugged.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

There's a first time for everything.

Well, this is a new one. Hubby was laid off yesterday. That's never happened to either of us before. It wasn't personal, the company laid off 10% of its workforce. Even hubby's boss was forced into an early retirement.

We're okay for now, they gave him a small severance package that will last us for a couple months if we are very careful. But there is so much to do. There's only one other company in our state that does what he does, and they had layoffs about six months ago.

There's a new job to find, and almost certainly a move to get ready for. I'm kind of in a spin right now. I was going to break out the canner and canning jars to put up tomatoes today, but instead it looks like I'll be taking a notebook through the house and taking notes on what needs to be done. We've never sold a house before, so there's homework in addition to housework.

It's all in God's timing, that's for certain. We weren't totally surprised by this, the company has been showing signs of decline for a while now. And we'll be fine, the Lord has confirmed that we are in the palm of His hand and in the apple of His eye.

But, there it is.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

I'm having three of those days

Ever have one of those days? I seemed to be having three of them yesterday.

It was a simple schedule. Take Kate to work, come home and do the first day of our Olympic unit study with Rose and Christy, vacuum and clean the loveseat, rest for a bit, then do a bit of IC work on my way to pick Kate up, come home, make dinner and throw "Flight of the Navigator" on for the kids.

These simple days never work out like they should. Why is that?

How it actually went: Take Kate to work. Bless her heart, she's so organized and prepared. Her uniform is clean and pressed, her lunch is packed and waiting for her in the fridge, she wakes me and her sisters up in ample time to go and has breakfast waiting for us! What a gem!

First day of Olympic unit: This is a computer-based unit, taking liberal advantage of the official Olympics website. Hm. Internet's down. What now? Move on.

Vacuum and clean the loveseat: Vacuum breaks. No problem, get the back-up from downstairs and finish. Can't find all the pieces to the steam cleaner. Wake up Blair, the last one who used the machine, who, bleary-eyed, finds all the pieces after about an hour of muttering under her breath and reorganizing the cleaning supply closet. Think she'll take it as a lesson to put things away properly? Unlikely.

Internet's up, so I get the girls going on the unit study. We do a little together, then they go off to do some research. Great! I can start cleaning the loveseat! But, it's almost lunch time. Okay, put on the potatoes, cook the sausage, rinse and chop the kale then clean part of the loveseat while it's simmering.

Carpet cleaner breaks. I was planning to clean the loveseat today, then the living room and hall carpet tomorrow. Drat. They're so grimy, too. While I'm fighting with that machine, trying to determine the problem, the sausage burns on the stove. Aargh. No problem. I'll just cut off the burnt part and keep moving forward.

Lunch is done, time to rest a little. Nope. Juice spill on dining room carpet. Argument between two siblings turns nearly physical. Wii won't connect and John needs to communicate with a friend now. Downstairs bath mat mysteriously turns up moldy and must be washed now. "And while you're at it, Mom, I have nothing to wear tomorrow..." Child assigned lunch dishes stalls and procrastinates until long after scheduled time.

Time to go to my IC work, but the kids are all still a little touchy. So, instead of leaving them here to play in the pool, they all pile in the car with me and get an early dinner out on the way home from picking Kate up. Who fainted at work. Again. (Like her mom, she just doesn't do heat.) And what is that scary sound the car is making when it shifts from first to second gear? Skip the drive-thru, let's get the car home to rest before it falls apart on the road.

I get dinner made with few problems, but nobody likes it. Whoever heard of a kid not liking pizza?? Okay, so it's stuffed zucchini, but if you close your eyes and hum "That's Amore," it kinda tastes a little like pizza!

Put on the DVD, and it's one of the very, very few "problem" disks we have received from Netflix. Kids agree on a video tape, but the VCR is broken. Five quick rounds of Boggle and it's off to bed for everyone.

Except me. Screwdriver and manual in hand, I set out to fix the carpet cleaner. I can't, but I do discover that it's only the handheld part that is not working. The actual carpet part is working fine, so I wind it up and clean the grimy hall carpet. I'm not gonna let this day get me.

I don't hit the sack until well after midnight, and tomorrow is a big, long, errand running day. But the day didn't eat me alive and for that I'm very happy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rescued Soup

I burned the sausage, but cut off the worst of the singed area and pressed on. Even the kids liked this, which is unusual, since they don't like soup.

I cubed four potatoes I got from the store as the locals aren't in yet and boiled them for about 20 minutes until they were good and soft. I drained them, but saved the boiling water. I tossed in some butter from local grassfed cows and mashed them smooth. In went the boiling water, some cooked and cut up cheddar bratwurst and the last of our locally grown kale. This simmered along for about 20 minutes until the kale was cooked down. I liked it without the brats, but the kids insisted on the meat. Very good.

Friday, July 11, 2008

100-yard challenge

I'd heard about the 100-mile challenge: eat only what grows within 100 miles of where you eat it. But I'd never heard of the 100-yard challenge until today. Our Homeowner's Association prevents us from putting in a full backyard garden like I've always dreamed of doing, and my physical state would not allow me much participation in its upkeep, but I think the idea of a Victory Garden is worthy of consideration. The challenge is not a commitment to eat three meals a day, seven days a week from one's own garden, only one meal a week. I could eat fresh tomatoes and tea made from the mint on my patio for lunch one day a week, easily.

One of my greatest challenges in life is moderation. I am a very black-and-white, all-or-nothing kind of thinker. I don't want a small patio garden, I want to plant my whole backyard in edibles. I don't want to agree to one meal once a week, I want to go all out. I don't want to "just" grind my own wheat and bake bread at home, I want to build my own house and get off the grid.

That is just SO not happening.

And I realize it. But I have to maintain my attitude that every bite of local food on my table improves my overall health, the health of my family, the economics of my city, the ecosystem, the farmer that grew it, and the world in general. I have limitations (and a man's got to know those, per Clint) of time, finances, pain and endurance, which dictate much of my life. I'd love to embark on a utopian dream of self-sustainability, but the inevitable setbacks and failure would dash my hopes and embitter my heart. The phrase "start small" has little meaning to me, but I'm working on it!

Last night's dinner was yummy.

That's locally grown broccoli, steamed just past raw. I love the leaves, they are richer in nutrients than the florets and don't make a mess between my teeth. The stems were so tender that they didn't even need peeling. This local variety was very delicately flavored, without the strong sulfuric flavor and odor of grocery store broccoli. Hm. I wonder if the sulfuric odor comes from travel and increased storage time.

The entree was storebought black beans and corn, cilantro from my patio garden, locally grown red bell pepper and green onions mixed in with storebought couscous. I made a bit of dressing with olive oil, lime, red wine vinegar and cumin, but what really boosted the taste was the spoonful of salsa on top. It was so good I had some more for breakfast!

I have an ice cream maker that has been run daily for the last couple weeks. It's not the old fashioned crank with ice and salt kind I used as a kid, but the kind with the tub that lives in the freezer until it hooks up to the electric base on the counter. I love it. Not only have we made fresh fruit sorbets, but we used it to quick-chill some lemonade when unexpected guests dropped by.

Last night, though, I used it to make the most wonderful ice cream. I got a vanilla custard going on the stove with local half and half and local whipping cream while I beat the yolks of some local eggs with sugar. I whisked it all together and warmed it until it got thick like a thin pudding, then refrigerated it until late afternoon. Before I started dinner, I put the custard cream into the frozen tub and started the motor. Rose chopped some local cherries (where did the cherry pitter go?) and I located some organic chocolate chips that we added when the ice cream was soft-serve consistency. I could NOT wait for the ice cream to harden in the freezer, so we ate it soft and creamy after dinner. It was marvelous. It was so rich and full of flavor that four tiny ounces really was a full serving! (I always laugh at the serving sizes on cartons of Ben and Jerry's. Yeah, like I'm really going to stop after four ounces.) Next time, I need to either find some miniature chips or give them a chop before adding them. They were just about twice as large as they needed to be.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Our Tropical Feast

We had a very yummy dinner last night. Some (but not all) of it was local, but I have to admit I imported for this meal and it was delicious.

We had pork tenderloin, rubbed with cinnamon, cumin, chili powder and pepper, seared in a hot skillet, then rubbed with brown sugar and baked until done. I served it on top of a salad of Napa cabbage mixed with baby spinach and tossed with red bell peppers. I made a dressing in the blender for the salad of one zested and three juiced limes, dijon, curry powder and a mango. That's sliced carambola (starfruit) and orange for garnish. Dessert was so simple - I cut up and blended a pineapple, threw in the juice of one lemon and a handful of brown sugar. I put it in the ice cream maker to freeze while I cooked everything else. While setting the table, Christy was inspired by our tropical theme and added mint stems and sliced lemons to the water and mint stems to the sorbet.

The grocery store provided the pork, sugar, and spices, Napa cabbage and spinach, carambola and mango and pineapple. The lemons, limes, orange, and bell peppers were locally grown and the mint was from my own patio garden. The water was local, from our tap with a good filtering system. :D

The kids loved this meal, most of them even ate the salad. I had one complaint about the sorbet from the child who dislikes pineapple, and John dumped the green "stuff" out of his water very dramatically.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Local joys and sorrows

Eating locally means revelling in the joys of the season. From the first bunch of spring kale to the first winter squash, each flavor speaks of its own diet of sun and rain. A tomato grown in the hot humidity of the south will taste and look different than one grown in the short-lived, intense dry heat of a higher altitude.

As an herbalist, I learned that native plants address native concerns. A mullein plant produces leaves that are a powerful expectorant in the season when nasty summer colds are at their worst. More recently I learned that even meats are seasonal, with the heavier beef and pork being suited to autumn and winter slaughter, while chicken is more suited to summer slaughter. Springtime? That's reserved for the new, tender greens like dandelion that cleanse the liver from all that heavy meat over the winter! It all works together in a beautifully choreographed dance.

But sometimes it doesn't work perfectly. 2007 was a year of profound drought in our state. Many farms closed for the season, others switched crops after suffering economically-disastrous crop failure early in the year. Eating locally was challenging as well, with more weeks of less water-intensive heat-tolerant crops, and fewer strawberries and tomatoes. That's part of the deal. What grows is what you eat. Sure, you could run to the store and buy some over-priced non-local strawberries. But the price you pay includes dependence on foreign oil for the packaging and the transport, pollution spewed out by the trucks or trains bringing the food to market, pesticides and fertilizers seeping into the groundwater, not to mention the practically tasteless product that has taken up to ten days getting to you. Now that's one expensive strawberry!

So, while we suffered through a strawberryless year in 2007, it makes this year's strawberries all the more precious. We have eaten each gem whole and raw, savoring every bite. I've been tempted to make a shortcake or preserve, but can't bring myself to. Seeing strawberries in my CSA box is an invitation to praise the Lord who caused the vine to flower and sent the rain to nourish each one. And that's one valuable strawberry!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Buttery Melty Goodness

I'm one of those strange birds that wants to taste what they're eating. Weird, huh? So, I don't use salt when I'm cooking (unless, like for baking, it's necessary for some required chemical reaction), but leave the salt shaker on the table for everyone to use as they see fit. Another example: I despise cooking oil in my baked goods. Even if it is flavorless, even if it is yummy, it adds calories to a product that just doesn't need it!

This morning's breakfast was coffee cake. I used just the plain old basic recipe, flour, baking powder and soda, salt, an egg, some honey, a little buttermilk, cinnamon, all the usual suspects. I left out the 1/2 cup of oil they wanted me to add (blech) and put used applesauce instead (yes, ALL applesauce.) But then when I got the batter in the pan, I thought about what it would taste like and my reaction to reach for the butter dish for that hefty sensation and rich flavor that would be missing. Instead, I heeded the call of the Amish and cut up a couple tablespoons of butter into tiny little chunks and pushed it into the batter before baking it. The cake baked, the butter created tiny craters of buttery melty goodness, and the cake was just right. And to me, a couple small chunks of butter is better than 1/2 cup of tasteless oil any day of the week.

Is coffee cake a local, seasonal food? Not this one. But the wheat was freshly ground from wheat berries purchased at Whole Foods, if that counts. The buttermilk came from the grocery store, but from a dairy in my state. The butter, well, there's nothing local about Land O'Lakes. But I did ask my CSA dairy agent if they could bring me a pound of raw local butter to their next drop. I can't wait!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Thinking about school

In previous years, our school year would begin on the first Monday after the Fourth of July and end May 29. This nearly-year-round schedule would allow us ample days off but still give the kids some time to take a nice summer break and just play all day.

This year I'm having trouble, and I expect it's a self-discipline issue. True, the painkillers make it hard to concentrate, and the budget is not curriculum-purchase friendly, but I seem to also be having an "I donwanna" issue.

My first child graduated 10 years ago. It was easy to get back in the swing after he left. I had five more to work with, the youngest was a baby, and they all had a long way to go. But when Blair left our school this spring, something changed in my mind. John probably won't graduate from our home school, but from the public school system where he attends now. He will be there another three years. After that, Kate won't graduate until 2012, which seems like forever. Christy starts sixth grade this year, and Rose starts fourth. I can see my involvement in the process lessening each year. Twenty years is a long time for me to be doing the same thing. Very long. I'm kinda flaky like that.

As for specifics, here's what I have so far: I think Kate will do Saxon Algebra I, and Rose will do Horizons math. But Christy needs more direction than Saxon offers and hasn't adapted well to the book or workbook forms of math instruction. I got a free month of Aleks, which she has been enjoying. I might consider continuing that, but the price is prohibitive.

We have a little music theory left over from last year that we will continue until we are done. I have some Botany the kids will do for science, but our main focus this year will be World Geography. I figure we'll work four days a week and really get a feel for the world. I can expand that with world literature, history, cooking, music and the like and teach all three of my remaining students together.

But then, there's the Olympics and the Election too - in the same year, yikes. Both worthy of covering to some extent. Hm. Maybe I should start the Olympics study in August, then finish up the Elections study we started last year until November. That will give me room in the schedule for the Botany and music theory and math. Then just after Christmas break we can start the world geography unit and focus solely on that (and math) until the end of the year. Boy, that really pushes it, though. Clearly I need to think about this some more.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Wish I had a grill

My kale leaf experiment turned out great. I washed the leaves and removed the center stem, then patted them dry. I have one of those pump-up mister bottles full of olive oil, and I used that to spray a thin coating of oil on each leaf front and back. I put them under the broiler for about five minutes until they got all dry and crispy on the first side, then turned them over to get crispy on the second side. The second side took only about two minutes. I sprinkled them with some salt and they were delicious! I imagine they would be even better grilled outdoors.

We keep meaning to get a grill, but hubby doesn't grill and I have a hard time justifying such a large expense for cooking. I've never had one I liked to clean, and have had many that were just cleaning nightmares.

Oh, but fresh veggies on a grill. Mmmm. What a wonderful meal!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Meat on a Stick

What is it about the combination of kids and summer that screams for simple food that you can eat in motion? My kids will eat something on a stick that they wouldn't touch on a plate. Here's an example:
This is what we had for dinner last night. I took some bamboo skewers and soaked them in water while I marinated a pound of (deeply discounted, thank you) rib eye steak that I'd cut into one-inch pieces in some vinegar. About a half hour later I cut up mushrooms, zucchini, red bell pepper and kale. I put some water on to boil while I assembled the kabobs, then put the orzo in to boil. I brushed the kabobs with a little olive oil and broiled them about five minutes, turned them once, then another five. The kids kept theirs on the stick, pushing the food up and biting it off one bite at a time. It was so much fun they even suffered through that "leafy green stuff" to get to the chunks of veggies they much prefer. We adults pushed the goodies off on top of the orzo, as is pictured above (on the Christmas plates, Christmas in July? Didn't think about that.)

One of the difficulties I'm finding with local, seasonal eating is the lack of variety. We have been very spoiled by the grocery store: I can serve asparagus in November as easily as May. But in June, where I live, it's kale, kale, kale, kale and collards, collards, collards, collards. Coming up with ways to eat the same old thing in a new way has been a real challenge for me. Kale is not as bad, I have steamed it, braised it and boiled it, all with success. But this kabob thing was wonderful! The kale came out almost as substantial on the tongue as a meringue, and crispy like a chip! I'm going to try broiling some large leaves today: flat and sprayed with a fine mist of olive oil. Sprinkled with a little salt it should make a really yummy afternoon snack!

We have been notified by the CSA that today is our last shipment of collards, and just in time. I finally found a single recipe that doesn't involve hocks, garlic and lemon juice, and I will be making that tonight. I hope it will be as successful as the kabobs.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

One more little chunk of history before moving on...

In my previous post about my trip toward local whole foods, I omitted one gigantic factor in my life: my disability.

I was born with hip dysplasia. It was too tiny to be noticed as a baby, and it fixed itself enough that by the time I was ready to learn to walk, my bones could handle the stress. But as I reached my preteen years and the sudden physical and hormonal growth that accompany it, the bones in my legs began to bow. From the hip to the knee, the bone now bows outward, and from the knee to the ankle the bones bow inward, giving my legs an "S" shape.

I dislocated my knee for the first time at age 9. The other knee went soon after that. Back in the 1970's there were few options for fixing recurring knee issues like mine. Microsurgery hadn't been invented yet, the now-common arthroscopy was not even a glint in the orthopedist's eye. So, they did what they knew to do: rebuilt tendons, cinched ligaments, moved muscles. Thirteen surgeries later, I cried "UNCLE!" The surgeries were not helping, and now I was battling arthritis from the constant assault of the joints.

All this has very little to do with my eating proclivities save a few points. One, that during the years of surgical intervention, I actually ate very little food and drank a great deal of water. Hospital food was never a big hit with me, nor was the take-out Mom would call and ask Dad to bring home for dinner. The pain meds left me constantly nauseated and masked any hunger I would have felt. But I was constantly thirsty. I kept a clean gallon milk jug full of delicious Rocky Mountain water next to my bed. It would go empty twice a day. That's a lot of water for a hundred pound kid! So you could say that one of my good habits was instilled early. To this day, I drink about a gallon of water each day as a baseline.

During pregnancy, the hormones circulating in my bloodstream made me positively "high" and giddy. The pain in my legs all but stopped, I could move very comfortably and felt great. But within a week of giving birth, the hormones changed and my joints stiffened, became swollen and hot to the point I couldn't walk for several weeks. I really didn't mind, after all, I had this new person to get to know! But the lack of exercise made my pregnancy weight cling to me. Each subsequent child added 20 pounds to my frame. When the child would wean and I could get back on strong pain and anti-inflammatory drugs, I generally lost about half of that weight again, as a result of nausea, lack of appetite and just being able to move.

Then the two C-sections that gutted me like a fish, ruining the rock-hard abs I had worked so hard to develop as a young woman, knowing that a strong core would help my knees. Weight began to pile onto my middle, a very bad place for fat to sit: balancing where my already precarious knees would have to adjust to it.

Now in midlife, I have good, bad and in-between days. A good day means I can stand and walk for nearly 30 minutes with minimal pain. A bad day finds me in a recliner or bed on pain meds. This leaves me with several mealtime options. 1) Eat out. Sink the budget and our health, this option is by far the easiest in the short term. 2) Eat extensively pre-processed food because it requires less prep time for me standing at the sink and stove. We're talking frozen entrees and nutritionless breakfast cereals here, make no mistake. 3) Eat food that is processed slightly less, do a little more of the cooking and thereafter, hurting. 4) Eat whole, local and mostly raw foods, paying more and working more for each meal; hoping that the short term cost in dollars and pain is balanced by a long term gain in health.

But, lucky for me, these options can vary from week to week, day to day and even meal to meal. I don't have to choose one to stick to forever. Lucky for me because I'd choose the course of least resistance: the extensively pre-processed road known as the Standard American Diet.

In My Day, Little One...

A very brief history before I launch into my locavore life.

I was always a chubby kid, my sister was jealous because I was "shapely" and I was jealous because she was thin. I went on my first diet at age 8. One banana and 4 ounces of milk every two hours, if I remember correctly.

In my day, little one, Mc Donald's was just starting to find its way into the larger towns of our country. I was 12 before I ate my first meal at a McD's. There were no Quarter Pounders then, just hamburgers, cheeseburgers and small bags of fries. The drinks were served in 12-ounce cups and no one ever asked for a refill. Before that first fateful take-out, we ate at home, almost always.

In my teens, my mom took off for a year or so to take care of an ailing relative and left me alone with my dad. Dad worked long hours and had personal issues to boot, and I was not interested in cooking in the least. I didn't want to be home with him much either, so I ended up eating more of my meals with friends than at home. I was exposed to all manner of strange foods: Mexican, Chinese, Kosher.

In high school, I fell in with the music department clique. They went every Friday morning to IHOP for breakfast. It was so cool to be counted among a group, and I loved being the quirky kid who always sprinkled pepper in her buttermilk and had a side of hash browns.

In early marriage, both hubby and I worked. Sunday morning omelettes at Hof's Hut was a real treat. That first child was born with a load of food sensitivities, though, and I had to learn how to cook for real. Told I couldn't breastfeed by well-meaning but mistaken nurses, I embarked on bottle feeding only to watch my son not gain. At three months of age, he had not gained but one pound over his birth weight. I got myself to a La Leche League meeting and learned how to breastfeed. After a few more months, my son was gaining and growing normally. It was during my dad's one and only visit to see his grandchild that I learned about whole, fresh foods, brown rice, live cultured yogurt and tofu. My dad, the alcoholic wanna-be truck driver, had discovered macrobiotics in the last years of his life. What a baffling day that was!

The babies stopped for about 10 years before resuming, one after another, in rapid succession. During my pregnancies, I learned and read about nutrition, both for me and the babies. I learned how to shop for and cook with whole foods, how to plan a nutritious well-balanced diet and kept a careful eye on my children's health. We didn't eat out except for the rare special occasion, and when we did, it was not fast food.

But, after six children, the non-fast variety of dining out became too expensive and cumbersome and our eating out devolved into trips to the drive-through or pizza delivery. The last baby had numerous allergies and food sensitivities and my attention to nutrition was aroused once again. I began growing food, canning, buying from a natural food co-op and learning all I could about herbal medicine. I even took an herbal medicine course, and am currently about three hours and a final exam short of being an herbal practitioner.

But the more I studied, the more I discovered the flaw in herbal medicine: it's still treating what goes wrong. What if there was a way to prevent things from going wrong, to walk daily in health?