Simple Pleasures: Spring Pussy Willows

pussywillows

When I was a little girl, we didn’t live on a real farm, but to me it kind of felt like we did.  We usually had a garden – some years bigger, some years smaller. We had a dog and generally a cat or two, depending on how many were hanging around when my mom put cat food on the back porch.  We had a small creek at the end of our backyard that we sometimes played in, depending on how deep – or how clean – it was at the time. And it seemed like we were always growing something, whether it was transplanting a shrub to a better location or putting our live Christmas tree in the ground in the spring.  Dad would often (and still does) start new plants from offshoots of a current plant.  That’s how we came to have three large pussy willow trees.

I loved it when the pussy willows opened up in the spring. Dad would cut down several branches full of pussy willow buds and put them in a large vase in the house.  He would set them near a window for sunlight where we could watch the buds open up even more. I loved feeling the soft furry buds as they blossomed! Eventually, tiny root strings would appear at the bottom of the branches, a sign that perhaps we could plant these in the ground and they too would grow into long-standing trees in our yard. Not all of them survived, but enough did that we always had pussy willow trees at our house, until we moved to another place.

A few years ago I purchased a small pussy willow tree at a local produce auction. I was so excited to finally have one of my own! Each year it gets just a little bigger and just a few more fuzzy buds open up than the year before. Today the sun is shining and the air is a bit warmer, so my pussy willows are in full bloom. I couldn’t resist cutting just one branch (since there aren’t very many yet) and bringing it in the house to enjoy.  And of course, I have placed it in some water, hoping that perhaps some tiny root strings will soon appear and I can plant another tree.

So as these first sweet days of spring come to us, I hope you will find time to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – maybe even some spring pussy willows!

My Easter Egg Fiasco

 

eastereggs6aI love ideas. I love cookbooks – because they are full of ideas. I love magazines- because they are full of ideas. I love hobby stores. Why, you ask? (I know you didn’t really ask, but work with me for a minute…) Because they are full of ideas. And now, for idea junkies like me, there is Pinterest – my own personal scrapbook in the ethereal cloud of the internet that can hold an endless amount of ideas and can be accessed in seconds. Wow!

Collecting ideas is great, no doubt. But putting them to good use can be another matter. Take Easter egg decorating, for example. Some years ago, when my children were younger, I read a magazine article about natural dyes you can make for Easter eggs with resulting soft pastels and gentle spring hues that looked absolutely stunning on eggs resting in an all-natural woven Easter basket. At least that’s what the picture looked like…

Determined to make that Easter particularly memorable for my children, I headed off to the grocery store, magazine article in hand. I returned with $16 worth of fresh cabbage, turnips, turmeric spice, beets and onion, all the recommended sources for natural dyes.  I chopped, pureed, boiled, smashed, and stirred my way into the stinkiest, smelliest kitchen mess I have ever created. The whole house reeked of cooked cabbage (soft green), boiled turnips (purple), blended cooked onion and turmeric (yellow), and pureed boiled beets (red). We had the windows open for fresh air and no one, especially my children, wanted to be anywhere near the kitchen. I insisted they join me for the actual Easter egg dyeing process (which, by the way, took 10 times longer than those nifty fizzy tablets in vinegar take.) The kids participated, with noses plugged, by dropping the eggs into the bowls of natural dye and then fleeing the kitchen as fast as they could. I remained there, cleaning up my mess and stirring the eggs for the next several hours as they ever so slowly took on the pretty pastel colors I had so eagerly anticipated. The next morning, Easter Sunday, I placed the dyed eggs in their plastic Easter baskets and then later we turned them into egg salad. Wow.

For some reason, holidays seem like the perfect time to incorporate all those great new ideas, whether it is a recipe, a craft, or a hundred new ideas on my Pinterest boards. However, I have an “S.O.S” signal sounding off in my inner person. A voice in my head speaking the words, “Choose a Season Of Simplicity, not a Season Of Stress.”  And I am beginning to listen.

As time passes and my life changes, I am learning that simplicity should be sought after as eagerly as productivity. Women are often presented with the perspective that “smart women have it all”, or “productive women spin many plates successfully”.  But there is another image that we as women have to look harder to find. The image of wise women who keep it simple. Women who know that life can sometimes be richer when we have less. Life can sometimes be more enjoyable when we do less. Life can sometimes be more memorable when we achieve less.

So, in the spirit of simplicity, I am attempting to choose more stress-free activities this year. Yes, we will maintain those special traditions we have loved for so long.  We will still enjoy our favorite recipes and activities together. But this year my S.O.S. call will not be a call to stress.  It will be a call to simplicity. I hope you will join me in choosing a Season Of Simplicity.  Happy Easter!

 

Seeds of Hope

green bean seeds 6My 2017 garden has not been one for the record books. The main reason for this is the amazing opportunity my husband and I had to travel this summer, due to a generous gift of time and funds from the church he has led for over 25 years. Thirteen thousand miles and a thousand pictures later, our unforgettable summer has come to an end. But there is always next summer for the “garden of my dreams”.

green bean seeds 2One redeeming quality of my less-than-useful garden this year has been saving seeds for next year. My green beans in particular became overgrown, with bean pods ripening past the point of enjoyable eating. So I allowed the pods to dry on the plant until the beans inside were nearly bursting out of the pod. Then, after removing the dry pods from the plant, I pulled each one open and removed the dried beans, preserving them as seeds for next year’s garden.

The Seed Savers Exchange first opened my eyes to the benefits of saving seeds. The typical seeds you buy in a store are generally hybrid seeds, meaning the seeds it produces in its first harvest may no longer contain both elements of the hybrid, thus making it unable to reproduce itself the following year. Enter the Seed Savers Exchange! They offer fantastic resources on saving seeds, such as this award-winning book, The Seed Garden.  A few years ago I ordered several types of seeds from them. My green bean crop this year was grown entirely from seeds I saved last year, which was grown from seeds I purchased from a Seed Savers source the year before. Free seeds and free green beans every year sounds like a great plan to me!

green bean seeds 1This morning I enjoyed some quiet moments on my screened-in porch, listening to the birds sing while I pulled bean seeds from crunchy pods and dreamed of the 2018 harvest already in my hands.  My favorite thing about gardening? Hope. Hope that is found in something as tiny as a seed. Hope that keeps me going, that calls me to try again. Hope that is still present in something that seems as useless as a dried bean pod, telling me there is another season of harvest yet to come. Sometimes all we have is a tiny seed of hope – but that seed of hope can grow into something beautiful if we don’t give up.

Sweet Potatoes, Round Two

sweet potato plants About a year ago I wrote a post describing (or more accurately, complaining) about my attempt to grow sweet potatoes.  Not realizing the maintenance level of starting sweet potatoes for the garden, I found myself babysitting my sweet potato in a mason jar for several weeks, hoping that the one measly root it produced would somehow turn into something profitable.

Well, I owe my sweet potato an apology.  I did my part, and it did its part. Last summer I planted the sweet potato starts that had come from the original potato, and – to my surprise – I actually harvested some sweet potatoes!  Not many, mind you, but sweet potatoes nonetheless! Though rather small in both in size and quantity, we did get to taste a few home-grown sweet potatoes before the season was done.

In addition, I was able to save about 4 or 5 smaller sweet potatoes to be my seed potatoes for the next growing season. After all, that is what I am ultimately after – producing and saving my own seeds from year to year. Though I had expected those small sweet potatoes to shrivel up over the winter,  I am happy to report that the potatoes did survive and, in fact, have produced a healthy batch of new sweet potato starts for my garden this year! So for those of you, particularly in the northern states, who would like to try growing sweet potatoes, please let me encourage you – it can be done! Here are pictures of my current sweet potato project and our progress so far.

sweet potatoes in bag

My sweet potatoes were stored in a paper lunch bag over winter

sweet potato seeds

Each sweet potato was wrapped in simple white paper inside the lunch bag. Look how small they were!

sweet potato starts

When removed from the paper bag this spring, the sweet potatoes already showed signs of new starts.

sweet potato plants

Just a few weeks after placing the sweet potatoes in jars of water, healthy new starts appear!

spring sweet potato plants

After carefully removing the starts from the mother plant, the starts were placed in shallow water to grow roots. Here are the rooted starts now taking off in recycled yogurt cups filled with my compost dirt.

In a few weeks, when the weather is warmer and my sweet potato plants are bigger, I will be planting them in my garden.  Hopefully we will have a few more to eat this fall, along with some more starters for next year!

Make-Ahead Marvels: Bran Muffins

Bran MuffinsCountry living seems to bring with it a certain anticipation of relaxed gatherings that also include tasty food! Outdoor picnics involving BBQ chicken and fresh sweet corn bring out the “country” in all of us.  I love cooking and I love entertaining.  However, my kitchen is small, so I have to be creative when cooking for a crowd. This means taking advantage of all the popular make-ahead recipes that are around today.

One make-ahead recipe I love to use has actually been in my recipe box for several years. I received it from a friend who expertly cooked  large quantities of delicious food for church dinners on many occasions. This is a tried-and-true favorite for me. These Bran Muffins will beat all the others you may have tried in categories of taste, texture, and simplicity. These also freeze well, so you can  take out just a few at a time and the flavor will still be outstanding!

Bran Muffins

  • 5 cups flour
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 5 tsp baking soda
  • 10-12 oz. Raisin Bran

Mix these dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Then add:

  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 1 cup oil
  • 1 quart buttermilk

Bran Muffin batterMix thoroughly.  Cover and allow to set overnight in refrigerator (can be stored in fridge for a week).  Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Do not mix the batter! Scoop muffin batter into regular muffin tin cups sprayed with non-stick cooking spray.  Do not overfill the muffin tin cups. Bake for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool for a few minutes in pans.  Remove to cooling rack.  Makes 4-5 dozen.

Bran Muffins2

 

Perfect for a bridal shower brunch or a Christmas family gathering — or just with your coffee in the morning.  Enjoy!

 

 

Gardening 101: My Sweet Potato Saga

sweet potato in jarOk, people – I have a potato problem.  A sweet potato problem, to be exact. You see, I love sweet potatoes, and I love gardening,  so I assumed growing my own sweet potatoes would be quite rewarding. But nay, on the contrary, it has become  quite distressing.
Who knew a sweet potato could be so high maintenance?  I ordered an adorable little orange gem from an experienced gardener in North Carolina who has been growing sweet potatoes from the same seed family for years. He even took time to send specific instructions to me, which I have carefully followed.  But North Carolina is not Ohio, especially in March and April.  I didn’t know  sweet potatoes like to be warm. Seriously?  I like to be warm, too, but that doesn’t mean I can sit around doing nothing until it hits 70 degrees!

But alas, sweet potatoes require a long growing season yet can’t be planted outside till the soil reaches 70 degrees. This means starting the rooting process indoors.  Remember those 4th grade science experiments with the potato in a jar of water,  being held up by toothpicks? Yep, you got it. For the last month my sweet potato science experiment has graced the front table in my living room, the only sunny spot I have.  And one month later all I have to show for this project is one root- one measly scrawny thread of a root- dangling from the bottom of my sweet potato, so thin it could break off in a weak breeze.

Lucky for me,  the weather has warmed up here the past few days and SW  has been able to sun bathe on my back porch. But this requires my remembering to bring him in each evening, as the nights are still too chilly.  Tonight,  as I retrieved SW from the porch to again tuck him safely inside for the night, I commented to my daughter that maybe I should just crochet him a blanket so he could  stay outside all night!

According to expert gardeners,  if I take care of SW properly, green vines will emerge from the potato’s top, which can then be planted outdoors in warm soil, resulting in an abundant harvest of sweet potatoes in the fall.  Pinterest even has a picture of a large wheelbarrow filled with stunning sweet potatoes grown from just 3 tiny seed potatoes.

So far I see no signs of green vines emerging anywhere on my sweet potato.  I’m just hoping that’s not mold on its pale orange skin. And I think I will be needing a smaller wheelbarrow.

National Doughnut Day, Country Style

donuts 5As I perused Facebook this morning to see what had happened in the world while I slept, I was alerted to the fact that today, June 5th, is National Doughnut Day.  I have no idea who decided to have a national doughnut day, but I am suspicious that somehow the culprit is connected to a national doughnut shop chain.  Nevertheless, this was all the reason I needed to justify indulging in this sweet doughy treat.  But the idea of standing in a long line at a donut shop with dozens of other hungry fans didn’t appeal to me.  Suddenly, I had the perfect idea – today I would dig out Grandma’s recipe and attempt to make her donuts that I  loved so much as a child.

Duane and wife 1a copy

My grandma and grandpa (several years before we made doughnuts)

On every spring break from school, my mom, sister and I would take a drive through the country to Grandma’s farm and spend the day making donuts.  The farmhouse kitchen was everything you would dream it to be -a large farmhouse table, lots of cupboards and counter space, wide windows overlooking both the front yard and cow barn as well as the backyard with an iconic outhouse from years gone by and Grandma’s flower beds.  When we arrived for donut making, Grandma would have already started the dough and most likely it was rising globe-like above the rim of her large kettle.  After punching the dough down, my sister and I began to cut out donuts with Grandma’s donut cutters. Grandma and Mom would manage the frying with great skill.  Then, when the donuts had just cooled, they were dipped in a sugar glaze and stacked on large trays all around the kitchen.  Eating those donuts while they were still warm and gooey was amazing!  After filling our stomachs, we would pack the remaining donuts into containers that would be delivered to family members so all could enjoy.

Some years later, the farmhouse burned to the ground.  Grandma never did make donuts again, though we still went out and spent time with her every spring break.  However, I did get the recipe from her, and several years ago I attempted to make them, without much success.  Thinking of Grandma today,  I determined to give it another try.  Some of the recipe’s measurements are unfamiliar to me. What is 1.75 lbs of flour?  How much is 1/2 ounce of salt?  This time I had the Internet to help and I was able to get the precise measurements I needed.  Also, I believe Grandma fried her donuts in lard.  I decided on the next best thing – a can of shortening.

After making the dough, letting it rise twice, and rolling it out,  my daughter and I began to cut out ddonuts 2onuts. Soon we were frying these delicacies and dipping them in the sugary glaze, impatiently waiting for them to cool enough to eat.  It was worth the wait! The crispy donut shell with the soft interior was perfectly highlighted with the glistening glaze of sugar, causing the donut to melt in your mouth.  Not only did I enjoy the taste of these treats,  I found myself laughing out loud at the sheer amazement that I had managed to make Grandma’s donuts almost as good as she did.  I was a little girl again, sitting on a stool in Grandma’s farmhouse kitchen, with sticky fingers and a happy heart.

donuts 4

Thank you, Grandma!  I think you are smiling down on me as I eat this treat in my suburban kitchen, sharing with my daughter the story of your farmhouse kitchen donuts.  I think we may have started a new tradition for National Doughnut Day.  And that’s a good thing!

Simple Pleasures: Porch Happiness

screened in porch 1 Life can be hectic, as we all know.  Even family life at home can be hectic.  Sometimes finding a place to be alone or to be quiet when everyone is home can be a challenge.  One of my favorite things about this time of year is being able to set up my screened-in porch for the season. Once the weather is even remotely warm, I sweep away the layer of dust and wood chips from a winter of stacked logs and get the porch ready for spring.  Today, after a busy day of teaching and yard work, I am relaxing on my porch, soaking in the sounds of birds chirping and leaves rustling softly in the breeze.

screened in porch 3Our screened-in porch has a whole lot of country built into it. When we put an addition on our house in 2003, this porch was included in the plans. But I wanted to give it a distinct look and feel. So we drove about an hour away to a place in the country that repurposes barnwood and barnstone. Upon arriving and inspecting the supply, we found the perfect match: stacks of tongue-in-groove barn siding from an old Ohio barn, still in tact and displaying remains of its traditional red paint. Soon we were on our way home with this treasure. My dad came over and helped us cut and install the siding on our porch.  It is still beautiful today.

screened in porch 2

Oops – the dog isn’t supposed to be there…shhh, don’t tell!

Since that year, I have been looking for just the right piece of furniture for my porch. I  had some wicker chairs for a time. I tried a few other pieces. But nothing quite fit my dream, which was to be able to take a nap on my porch. Nothing, that is, until this spring. Just a few weeks ago I was looking online and came across the perfect piece of furniture for my porch – this indoor/outdoor settee from Walmart.  I ordered it online, got free shipping, assembled it in about 30 minutes, and have been enjoying it ever since.

As I sit on my porch now and write, I am looking at a peony bush with pink blossoms  soon to burst open. I am enjoying the lilac bush now gracing the outside corner, and I admire a growing clematis vine that will soon reach the top of the screen panel and cover it with purple blossoms. Though my porch is only 12 years old, it feels like it has been here for a lifetime. Even the screened door squeaks like it hangs on an old farmhouse. No place else in my house gives me such a sense of peace and joy. That’s porch life. And I think we all need a little porch life once in a while.

screened in porch 4On this Memorial Day weekend, I hope you can find time to do some porch-sitting. It does a body good. As I celebrate this holiday with my family, I am thankful for a free country where I can enjoy these simple pleasures, and I am grateful for all who have sacrificed so much to make this freedom possible.  God bless America!

Beans and The Beast: Pressure Canning 101

About 8 weeks ago, as spring was first beginning to open her eyes to 2015,  my newest gadget arrived on my doorstep – my All American Pressure Canner, now affectionately named by the family as The Beast. Excited to learn something new, I began perusing Pinterest for pressure canning tips and recipes, all while keeping this large canning monster in my dining room. As fate would have it, I ended up having several rounds of both dinner guests and overnight guests during this time and, having not yet found a permanent home for The Beast, I continued to transfer it from living room to dining room, depending on what space was needed for company. At one desperate point I even tossed a placemat on top of The Beast’s box and topped it with a few books, hoping it would look like an end table. Fail.

But with the passing of time my curiosity increased and my bravery settled in. It was time to conquer The Beast. I decided my first attempt needed to be a relatively inexpensive experiment so that, if not successful, at least I did not break the bank. Thus, canning dried beans became my first pressure canning project.

I had acquired some beautiful organic pinto beans from Fresh Fork Market, directly sourced from the Shagbark Seed & Mill in Athens, Ohio.  Being assured by several Pinterest authors that canning dried beans was fool-proof, I spent a cool-weather May day canning pints of pinto beans that will later become the refried beans my family enjoys often. Yes, this was not as hard as I thought it would be…and no, the pressure canner did not explode (insert sigh of relief here!)

Here are a few pictures of the pinto bean canning process:

The Beast and the beans!

The Beast and the beans!

Don't these organic pinto beans look gorgeous?

Don’t these organic pinto beans look gorgeous?

After sorting and rinsing the beans, I placed 1/2 cup beans in each pint jar, followed by 1/2 tsp. salt.  Then I added hot water to the jars, filling up to the neck of the jar.  Once I added the prepared lids (following the typical canning instructions), the jars were ready to be placed in The Beast.

 

The beans in jars before canning

The beans in jars before canning

After placing the jars in the pressure canner (following the canner instructions carefully), I secured the lid, heated it up, allowed the steam to vent for 10 minutes as instructed, and then maintained an 11 lb pressure for 75 minutes.  Once this time had been completed and the canner was completely cooled down, I lifted the canned pints of pinto beans out of The Beast.

Looking delicious already!

After canning – looking delicious already!

Several recipes I looked at said the beans will continue to puff up as they settle.  These have a shelf life of one year without losing nutritional value.  Organic refried beans are now ready and waiting in my cupboard for our next Mexican Night!

With Round One finished,  I am even more excited to attempt pressure canning some additional recipes.  Stay tuned for updates on future projects with The Beast – I am hoping to can fresh peas soon!

 

 

 

 

Simple Pleasures: Mashed Potatoes

The sun is shining here in Northeast Ohio on this spring holiday weekend as many of us prepare to spend time with family and friends. Our family is headed out in just a short time to enjoy a delicious meal with both my immediate family and extended family.  My job is to bring the mashed potatoes.  In fact, now I offer to bring the mashed potatoes to most family meals.  This began after I found and tried this amazing Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes recipe.

I love mashed potatoes, but I always hated the prep process – peeling, chopping, boiling, draining, beating, scooping – all at the last minute.  This process always resulted in me as the hostess sitting down to enjoy the meal all  while the potato kettle is cooling in the kitchen with mashed potatoes drying on the sides and the potato peels are turning brown in my Tupperware bowl. (I know, some of you are clean cooks and have this all taken care of before you eat.  However, I fall into the Messy Cook category.)

Then I found a make-ahead recipe for mashed potatoes. Today there are dozens of these recipes online, using either the oven or a crock pot/slow cooker. I actually do not remember where I originally found this recipe.  But they all are essentially the same, except for your choice of seasonings and method of reheating them.

So for those of you who have been assigned the mashed potato job for your holiday meal, here is a 1-2-3 recipe to make your job a whole lot easier.  Just beware – you might become the perpetual potato person for all future family meals!

Make-Ahead Mashed Potatoes:

mashed potatoes 1 Step 1:  Peel, chop and cook cubed potatoes (5 lb. bag) in salted boiling water until cooked and soft, but not mushy.  (I am assuming you have done this part before.) Drain the cooked potatoes. Place 1 stick butter or margarine, 1-8 oz. cream cheese and 1-8 oz sour cream on top of the potatoes.  Allow these to sit and soften a few minutes.

 

 

mashed potatoes 2Step 2:  Beat the potatoes and extra ingredients with a hand mixer until smooth and fluffy. Do not overbeat or they can turn to thick paste.  A few tiny potato chunks will let everyone know these are the real deal!

 

 

mashed potatoes 3Step 3: Spread these fluffy potatoes in a greased 13×9 pan.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.  To reheat:  Remove cover and place mashed potatoes in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes.  (If using a glass pan, do not take pan directly from fridge to oven.)  Top with a dollop of butter and serve!  You can make these potatoes the day before your event or even just a few hours before your event, with excellent results.

There you go, folks – my answer to avoid the dread of making mashed potatoes!  I hope you and your family enjoy this holiday weekend as we remember the events of that Holy Week so many years ago when Jesus Christ died on the cross for the sins of humanity, was buried in a borrowed tomb, and rose again the third day – and is still alive for us.  What good news, what hope that brings in these days full of difficult news.  He is risen!