Wednesday, July 28, 2010

pre-fair week

This is it. The pre-D day in every 4-H family's calendar.

It's the week lead-up to fair, hence my blogging absence.

I don't think I ever mentioned that I have officially become a leader of my kids' 4-H group. It was one of those gradual things that just happened... I was convinced after last year's fair to become a leader, due to all my involvement in that particular debacle. One by one, the other leaders in the club left for various reasons, and I was left holding the bag.

It's OK, really, it is. I don't coach my kids' athletic teams because I have zero athletic knowledge or talent. I am not a PTA mom, because their meetings conflict with ones that my LSH must attend. So it was high time for me to make some sort of significant commitment to my kids' activites apart from doing their laundry and providing snacks. Since all three kids are in 4-H, I can feel like I am taking care of my commitment quota in one fell swoop. 

The kids in the group are good kids, and the parents of said kids are pretty good themselves. Already three have stepped up to the plate and become co-leaders, and my job getting ready for this year's fair has been made so much easier by all the help and support they and all the other parents have provided.

So I am not complaining, really, I am not. Things are coming together. I walk around with the nagging suspicion that I might be forgetting something really important, though I have managed to muddle my way through uncharted territory like trophy and ribbon orders. (Really, who knew there were so many different choices in these things?)

As one parent pointed out, however, all the kids really want to do is hang out with each other for an entire weekend. They wouldn't necessarily bring the animals if we didn't require it as a pre-condition to being there in the first place. So whatever happens, it's all good as long as they have time to just be there and enjoy. A little weather cooperation wouldn't hurt. That's not too much to ask, right?

Friday, July 23, 2010

fof: mustard ranch zucchini salad

Before I even start this post, I have to come clean that it is very lean on illustrative pictures. I really thought I had taken tons of pictures, despite the fact that I was throwing this dish together right before approximately twenty 4-H kids and their parents were due to show up at our house for a potluck dinner and meeting this week.

In fact, I was absolutely sure I had. But when I checked my good camera, no dice. When I checked my little camera, thinking that maybe I had taken leave of my senses and used it instead (because my senses were obviously already gone anyway, what with me agreeing to have all those kids at the house), these were all the pictures I found.

Luckily you are all intelligent people who will be able to master this recipe in spite of the lack of illustration. It's a great dish for changing up zucchini, and most of us, at least those of us not afflicted with fungus and rot, are swimming in the stuff this time of year.

This is definitely one for those small to medium tender guys. It would not work for larger seedier ones.

Mustard Ranch Zucchini Salad
(not to be confused with Mustang Ranch)

3 to 4 medium sized zucchini, unpeeled, sliced thin
1.5 T light ranch dressing
1.5 T light mayonnaise
1 T plain yogurt or sour cream
1 t deli/brown mustard (i.e., not the yellow kind)
1/2 t salt
1/2 t paprika (optional)
1 t chopped chives or parsley (optional)

Mix together everything but the zucchini slices. Pour the mixture over the sliced zucchini and allow to set for 5-10 minutes. Mix well together, coating the zucchini slices, and allow to sit for another 5-10 minutes (or more). Serve at room temperature. Note: If the consistency seems slightly dry to you after mixing it together, just add a little more yogurt.

So you can get an idea of what the finished product should look like, here are the leftovers, taken very artistically the next day in a purple plastic sundae dish from Walmart:

I really outdid myself this week. And with our county 4-H fair starting a week from today, I feel it is only fair (ha!) to warn you that this coming week will probably be a lot more of the same.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

the good, the bad and the ugly

My last post may have given the (wrong) idea that it's all sunshine and lollipops in my garden these days, so I wanted to correct any mistaken impressions it may have generated.

The good is definitely the butternut squash; look at that baby! And there are half a dozen more just like it. Now I need to figure out when I am supposed to pick them. And also what I can make with them.

The bad is my green beans, that seem to be getting some sort of green bean funk. I am desperately picking and freezing the green beans as fast as they produce them, but I can't figure out what's ailing them. I am losing a plant every five days or so.

The ugly are my tomatoes and zucchini. Blossom end rot is not a pretty picture. The fruits look so promising, and then before I know it they morph into creatures from the slimy deep. Tomorrow morning's job -- before it gets too hot yet again -- is to put some lime the plants to try and add back the calcium they so desperatey need, before it's too late.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

good enough to eat

Today's harvest, pretty as -- well, a picture.

The yellow squash, grape tomatoes, slicing tomato and bell peppers were already served at the 4-H potluck dinner tonight. Beauty doesn't last long in this house.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

there's no place like camp

This last week has been an eye-opener.

The house has stayed clean and clutter-free (well, except for my clutter, but of course that doesn't count).

Not one trip to the supermarket, and the fridge has stayed full.

Not one complaint about what I was serving for dinner.

It is truly amazing what life without teenage boys can be like -- though I did have to play quite a few board games to keep their younger brother entertained in their absence.

Seriously, I missed them. I did. I swear. And it was wonderful seeing their grubby but healthy, happy faces on Saturday morning, belting out camp songs.

Not so wonderful to be facing these piles of laundry, however.

Once again, be grateful that the interwebz lacks scratch-n-sniff capability. Remember the rain last week? They had it at the beginning of camp week. All those soggy clothes were stuffed at the bottom of their laundry bags and left there to marinate during a very hot and humid week.

Yeah, it's been brutal. Payback, no doubt, for all those thoughts about how easy life was in their absence. All the same, it's nice to have them back.

* An aside for anyone searching for a camp for their kids: I cannot say enough good things about the Lindley G. Cook 4-H Camp in Branchville, NJ. The cost is reasonable and the camp experience is fantastic, at least from my kids' perspective (this is their 3rd year there). You do not have to live in NJ. Your kids do not have to belong to 4-H. It is a very traditional camp -- they do the shooting/hiking/swimming/boating/crafting thing to the nth degree, so much so that my kids are already planning the classes they want to take next year. At the same time, the staff and counselors provide such a healthy, positive experience for the campers that almost-15 year old boys come home singing goofy camp songs and an almost-12 year old boy comes home talking about all the friends he made. That is a hard demographic to please when an xBox is not involved, but this camp manages to do it in spades. Do your kids a favor and check it out!

Friday, July 16, 2010

fof: grandma's mac & cheese

The local eating experiment proceeds apace here. In the past two weeks, we enjoyed (well I did at least) eggplant, cucumbers, green beans, bell peppers, hot peppers and basil from our garden, along with blackberries, blueberries, peaches and red potatoes from local farms. The strawberries I planted just before the lettuce started to bolt are producing about a berry per day, which Terzo eagerly searches out each morning.

And tomatoes! The cherry tomatoes are coming in force, and the slicing tomatoes started about five days ago. The plum tomatoes are not far behind. I had my first pickled banana pepper and tomato sandwich of the season today. Hurray!

I thought I would get away from the seemingly inevitable newest-way-to-use-my-veggies post this week, but suffice it to say that we are eating a lot of fresh produce around these here parts. In fact, I think we are eating a wider variety, and in greater quantities, than we ever have before.

But I digress.

Today's post is for my husband's grandmother. Her name is synonymous in this house with macaroni and cheese, so much so that when we made scrapbooking pages for her 85th birthday a few years back, Primo chose a page printed with the familiar food.

Her recipe for the dish has been staple in our house since we were married. My entire family considers it soul food. At this point, my oldest can make it by himself and my youngest just started to learn. The best part is its simplicity: no need to make any complicated sauce. It is quick and easy but tastes like you went to a lot more trouble. My kind of cooking.

Start by picking your pasta; rotini or elbows work best.

While your pasta is cooking, beat a large egg in a measuring cup.

Add enough milk to make the total liquid equal 1.5 cups. Add salt and pepper to taste, and mix well. Set aside.

Drain pasta, and butter a large casserole dish. Keep the butter out! (I never said this was healthy.) Make a layer: 1/3 of your noodles and 3/4 C cheddar cheese -- sharpness is up to you. Top with a tablespoon of butter, cut into pieces.

Make a second layer, same as the first.

Make another layer, but this time leave off the butter. Pour your egg mixture evenly over the top instead, so the cheese is more or less coated.

Bake uncovered at 350 degrees F for about 35 minutes or until your cheese reaches your desired level of crispiness.

Watch it disappear. It used to be enough for two meals in our house; now we are lucky to get one out of it, even served with meat!

Grandma's Macaroni & Cheese
1 lb pasta (elbows or rotini)
2.25 C cheddar cheese
1 large egg
1.25 C milk
3 T butter
salt and pepper to taste

Beat egg in measuring cup. Add milk until liquid equals 1.5 C, then salt and pepper to taste. Beat mixture together. Boil pasta until al dente; drain. Butter a large casserole dish. Make first layer: 1/3 of pasta and sprinkle with 3/4 C cheese, then add 1 T butter cut into pieces. Make second layer same as first. For third layer, pasta, then cheese, then pour egg mixture evenly over top. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees F for about 35 minutes.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

backbone socks

A couple of years ago, when we were getting ready to go to the July livestock festival, Primo decided to bring along a couple of the chickens. Problem was, none of us had ever caught and handled a chicken. This was in the days -- actually, just a couple of days --before Primo became a premier chicken wrangler. The hens laid enough eggs to keep us in yolk, we left them alone to do their job. That was the deal.

I sent Primo and his friend out to catch said chickens... about ten minutes went by... I resisted the urge to check on them... another ten minutes went by... and the boys came tumbling in the back door, defeated. They begged me to come out and help them. I considered my options. Confess to two twelve-year-old boys that the chickens kinda scared me too? Or just get out there and catch a darn chicken?

I couldn't let the chickens get the upper foot, though their prehistoric feet do creep me out. So I screwed my courage to the sticking place, waded into the chicken coop, grabbed a darn chicken far, far away from those feet, and shoved it into the travel cage. Primo's friend said, in an admiring tone, "Wow, Mrs. B can do anything."

Whenever I have to face up to some challenge, that line still echoes in my head. Even if I might not necessarily believe in the truth of it at the time.

About a month ago, I faced a situation that I wasn't sure I was strong enough to handle. That twelve-year-old's voice kept me plodding along, minute by minute and day by day. I dealt with issues as they came up, tried not to spend too much time in the murky waters of hypotheticals, and kept reminding myself that I could do anything.

And I knit. The situation meant that I had a lot of down time in little tiny increments, so I kept a sock close at hand and did a row or two here or there. Before I knew it, these socks, which had been aging in my unfinished object pile for a year, were almost done. A little more time pool-side, and they were finished.


These socks have an unusual construction; the legs are knit flat, from side to side, producing the vertical stripes. You then graft the tube together, pick up the stitches around the bottom of the tube, and knit down the foot as normal.


I wasn't sure if I was going to like the finished product, but as it turns out, I love them, especially because I managed to make them as close to matching as is possible with handcrafted items. The pattern is called "Stand up for Stripes", but I prefer to think of them as my Backbone Socks. A reminder, like that twelve-year-old boy's voice, that it's there when I need it; I just gotta remember that I have it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

blessed rain

Last year, we suffered from an excess of rain. Days upon days upon days upon end, it rained. When it wasn't raining, it was hailing or tornadoing or otherwise forcing dreary weather upon us without much respite.

One of the local farmers contributed his father's wisdom: "A dry year, you worry. A wet year, you starve." After last year, we understood. Our garden performed subpar and we had trouble getting hay because the farmers couldn't get onto the fields to cut and dry it. Our pastures, though, were rich and lush with grass and we had more than the sheep could keep up with, so at least they were fat and sassy going into the winter.

Not so this year, at least not so far. Our fields are crispy dry brown, with barely anything for the sheep to graze. We have offered them the last of our winter hay, but they have turned their noses up -- they weren't too enthusiastic about it even over the winter, see less than perfect haying conditions explained above -- prefering to nibble at the last little nubbins of grass. Rotating sheep through the pastures to give the grass a break is out of the question; there just isn't enough out there. Now our constant worry, thanks to the lack of rotation and close-to-the-ground grazing, is intestinal worms in their sheepy guts. One of our 4-H families just lost a ram to them; it is one of those sneaky afflictions that we need to be extra vigilant about this year.

But then today: Hallelujah! The skies opened up. To give you an idea how bad our pastures were BR (Before Rain), take a look at the brown area in the photo below...

It seemed like the very earth and grasses and trees were breathing a sigh of relief. I know that I was.

All it took was the boys going to camp. No matter what the weather conditions, it invariably rains as soon as they go to spend a week out in the wilderness. I am very sorry, thinking of their doubtlessly soggy butts tonight, but I can't help but be grateful at the same time for their selfless sacrifice.

Monday, July 12, 2010

off to camp

Sorry for that silence... five days... really? And I even missed my food on friday post!

We had our big local livestock show here this weekend, and due to many other conflicts, we did not take sheep this year -- for the first time in five years. It felt very odd! But it has been a hard show the past few years due to scheduling conflicts and I felt like I was standing on my head to do it. Not to mention that the kids were less than enthusiatic last year... seemed like it was time for us to take a break. I still ran the fleece show on Saturday but it was a cakewalk compared to catching sheep, getting sheep ready, hauling sheep over there, etc. etc.

The other reason for the break was that the older two boys were getting ready for camp, and I didn't want to send them up all tired out. They went much earlier this year, but with two friends from their 4-H club. All were excited at the chance to spend time together; as I have mentioned before, these kids get along really well.

Given the beauty of the camp, the parents wanted to stay too...

And of course this little guy was pretty disappointed that he has three years to go until he is old enough to camp.

Once we settled the older two in their bunks we were on our way home. Yes, I know it looks a little spartan but they certainly don't complain and can't wait to get back each year!

Certainly much quieter around these parts today, though.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

desperately seeking salad

So we are one week into my "crazy plan," as one loyal reader referred to it, of trying to eat only fruit and vegetables grown within five miles of our house.

Good news: our garden has been keeping up its end of the bargain. In the last week, we have enjoyed green beans, bell peppers, yellow squash, grape tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, a baby spaghetti squash (which I accidentally knocked off the vine, but was delicious for lunch prepared like so) and lettuce from the garden.

Bad news: our very local farmstand, which I was counting on, has not really set up for business yet. I have managed to score corn on the cob, new red potatoes and turnips from local stands, but I had to compromise on a cantaloupe that was not necessarily grown within my radius limit but was certified Jersey Fresh.

Good news: my thought process is completely changing, and I find myself basing our meals around what is available in the garden. My boys would argue this is actually bad news, as we are eating a lot of green beans and other undesirables (in their view) as a result.

Bad news, no matter what your view: our lettuce bolted with the heat wave this week. If you haven't raised lettuce before, bolting is what lettuce plants do when the heat arrives. They don't deal with it too well, so they figure that it's time to flower and set seed before their swan song. Instead of neat tidy low-to-the-ground heads, they start to grow to the heavens -- the green lettuce to the left in the photo below illustrates the process quite well.

I managed to salvage one last salad's worth of leaves. Because leaves from bolted lettuce can be bitter, I followed Rechelle's recipe for wilted lettuce and it was quite tasty, though as my LSH pointed out, just about anything can be made better with bacon.

That still left the problem of no lettuce, though, as I have never seen it at a farmstand around here.

I scrounged around my seed packets and found quite a few varieties of lettuce... planted them... and three days later we have this:

Doesn't look super-promising -- but look closer!

Still quite a ways from salad production, though. Luckily a local nursery had these leftover:

So I interplanted them in the garden this morning, in the hope that the shade from the other plants would provide enough cover for them to give me at least a few leaves of lettuce to tide me over until the cooler fall weather. They were tucked among the peppers, the tomatoes, the squash and the beans, respectively.

With their own little fleece pillows, natch. Sweet and low may they grow!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

mad scientist smoothies

We are eating so many blueberries around these here parts that we are going to start looking like this any minute now:

The blue girl, that is.
Our hair will start turning green NEXT week,
if we continue our green bean consumption at our current rate.
Or at least that's what my boys suspect.

One of the boys' favorite things to make with fresh berries is what they call "smoothies", but what I call "a giant mess in the kitchen". The dialogue goes something like this:

Younger boys: "Fresh berries! Can we make smoothies?"

Me: opens mouth, don't even get a word out but clearly disapproving look on my face must give the trigger signal

Boys: "We won't make a mess! We PROMISE! We will clean it all up as soon as we are done! Pinky swear!"

At which point I give up because it gives them something constructive to do in this god-awful heat wave.

After hauling out the blender, they start scouring the pantry, fridge and freezer for potential ingredients.

This one had the following ingredients, in undetermined quantities: milk, plain yogurt, fresh raspberries, fresh blueberries, chocolate pudding mix, chocolate syrup, Trader Joe's chocolate cat cookies, a raspberry creamsicle (minus the stick), ice cubes and some orange gatorade powder.

I don't call them mad scientist smoothies for nothing.

As with most of their smoothies, the end result didn't taste too bad and all of it was consumed... but if you guessed this is what happened after they were done:

Then you guessed right. If you didn't, then you don't know my boys.

I thought about using this as my food on friday post this week but I figured that my FOF posts had been such cheats the last two weeks, that people would come after me with torches and pitchforks. Or leave me lots of angry comments. Hmm, maybe I am onto something...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

happy fourth!


My "artistic interpretation" (actually a completely random arrangement produced by the non-stop berry-fest that is my kitchen these days).

OK, you might have to squint a bit to see what it is supposed to be... and tip your head to the side... no, no, the right, not the left... and squint a little more... Do you see it now?

And long may it wave!

Friday, July 2, 2010

fof: banana blueberry bread

We are up to our ears in blueberries here. This was what followed me home from Hammonton yesterday:

Your eyes don't deceive you: three pints are already missing. One didn't even make it home. It was devoured at the picnic we had at Batsto Village after we picked up the berries. (Unfortunately we had Dusty with us, so we couldn't make a proper tour of the village; next year!)

I decided time was of the essence and started getting the berries ready to freeze. A little online research suggested the best method was to wash the berries, lay them out to dry, and then put them in gallon freezer bags. If they were perfectly dry when put in the bags, they (supposedly) will stay loose for easier use later.

So today I spent a good chunk of time washing and drying berries. The beautiful temperate weather we are enjoying right now was perfect for this task!

All these blueberries put me in mind of our favorite way to use blueberries. I never had banana blueberry bread before my friend Marta brought it to me in the hospital after I had Terzo. It was a very welcome and thoughtful gift, nice and sweet and hearty, just the ticket when I was hungry all the time thanks to my body kicking into milk production mode.

And what else are you supposed to do when life hands you almost-rotten bananas?

Based upon the recipe for Quick Banana Bread from an older edition of The Joy of Cooking, but you could just add blueberries to your favorite banana bread recipe:

Banana Blueberry Bread
5 T butter
2/3 C sugar
1/2 t lemon juice
1 C white flour
3/4 C whole wheat flour
2 and 1/4 t baking powder
1/2 t salt
2 eggs
two black bananas, crushed with a fork
3/4 C or so fresh or frozen blueberries

Blend together butter, sugar and lemon juice until creamy.

In separate bowl, mix flours, baking powder and salt.

Break eggs into butter/sugar mixture, and beat until mixed well (scrape down sides of bowl if necessary). Add crushed bananas to wet mixture and mix in gently.

Pour flour mixture in, dividing into three portions or so to add.

Once the mixture is well blended, add your blueberries. Stir in gently so the blueberries don't break apart and make purple mush bread.

Bake in a greased loaf pan at 350 degrees F for about an hour, or until toothpick comes out clean (though my boys prefer it slightly underdone in the middle).

Just out of the pan:

Not too long thereafter: