Domestic Bliss

My traveling co-blogger sister has been carrying the weight of this blog for a while now, as she cruises around Southeast Asia. Meanwhile I have been slacking at home and trying to get back to normal (what’s that?) after the holiday break in routine. Now I feel that not only must I carry my share of the load and post something – but I must post something super domestic in order to balance out all the travel. A little yin to her yang, if you will. So here’s what’s going on at my little house today:windowIt’s a beautiful, sunny, warm day. I did some laundry and folded the clothes outside on the picnic table.P1010054 And I made my own laundry detergent this morning! It was easy and smells really good (I used Dr. Bronner’s scented soap – one rose and one orange – and added essential oils). The laundry looks clean, right? I used this basic recipe. I was surprised at how much cheaper it is to make my own at home.

My chores completed, I meandered about in the garden. I loved this little camellia flower hanging out all by itself in the shade.  It’s the first blossom to bloom on this plant.

camelliaBack inside, I messed around with my paper chain garland project. This is a craft project that I have been meaning to get to for, like, ever. And now it is almost completed. Here’s a tiny preview:craftI also checked in with my cats. They are my stay-at-home version of the wax monks. But a little less creepy.catAnd today I am making chicken stock. When I think about the most homey, cozy, productive, domestic things I can do, making chicken stock might be the golden star at the top of the list. Check out these lovely globules . . .chickenstockI suppose I feel so strongly about chicken stock because it is one of the building blocks of my cooking. Not only do I use it as an ingredient in many dishes, but often it is the main ingredient, to which I just add whatever we have on hand, especially leftovers, to make a quick, delicious, satisfying and healthy supper. That’s all anybody needs, isn’t it? We are fans of soup around here.

I have a basic formula, which I tweak as I feel like it, for my supper soup. I learned this method from How to Cook Without a Book, by Pam Anderson, certainly one of my most favorite and recommended books, especially for beginners.

For each quart of chicken stock, I saute a diced onion in a pot and add:

1 pound cut-up vegetables, like carrots (leftover roasted ones are yummy here), leeks, celery, kale or collards (thinly sliced), zucchini, or frozen peas. Got half a head of romaine lettuce? Chop it up and throw it in.

1 pound meat (like boneless, skinless chicken (precooked or not), precooked sausages (like kielbasa or pre-cooked chicken Italian).

Some starch, like a pound of diced potatoes or pre-cooked pasta or rice or a can or two of cannellini beans. Pasta or rice gets added at the end. Or you could add a sprinkling of corn meal, like in the polentina alla toscana recipe from One Good Dish, by David Tanis. (I expect that you will be hearing more about this book from me in future posts. I love it.)

And sometimes, a 14 oz. can of diced tomatoes. And herbs and salt and pepper of course. Have some rind from a hunk of Parmesan cheese? Throw it in! So yummy.

We have had some very tasty combinations like Italian sausage, collards and tomato or chicken with spinach, rice and lemon (oooh I’m hungry now), or the basic chicken, carrots, celery and peas with pasta. Sometimes I skip the meat and just do beans and vegetables. It’s easy to combine all sorts of things in the soup. Often it ends up being more of a stew than a soup, I load so much stuff in there. But it tastes delicious regardless.

No chicken soup tonight, though. It’s too warm! In January! Instead I will strain this stock and pop it in the fridge to cool. Tonight I’m going out on the town for a quick bite with the boy before his fencing lesson. Domesticity party!!

Tomorrow I will de-fat the stock (mostly) and freeze it for a rainy day (here’s hoping for one of those soon – it’s so dry here.) Then who knows what else I’ll get into . . .

That’s the report from NerdHaven West – staying home in L.A. and doing fine. xo

Frugalicious Freezer Exploration

So – schwhateva on that $100/week for groceries not including the CSA box thing . . .

When my mother (who is a thrifty shopper) said it couldn’t be done, I should have listened. Listen to your mother! She said she spends over $100/week in groceries for just her and my Dad, so she doubted I could do it for us four – especially with two growing (and prosciutto-loving) teens/tweens.

Well she was right. There I’ve said it: It’s a little over halfway through February and I am over my $650 for the month. I have some stuff in my freezer, but not enough to feed us through the month, right? Okay, time for real-time freezer inventory. I’m at the freezer now (this could get embarrassing):

Bag of frozen peas
Bag of frozen corn (okay, I’m going to stop saying each thing is frozen)
Pint of vanilla ice cream
Container cranberry cocktail concentrate (I had an idea about margaritas – didn’t pan out)
Bag of leftover homemade latkes
2 bags leftover homemade pancakes
Miscellaneous Go-gurt tubes of undetermined vintage
Gallon bag pork barbeque (dated September 2011)
3 bags of 1.5 quarts homemade chicken stock (that’s money, baby)
Gallon bag of undetermined beige substance – here, you guess:
Post a reply if you have an idea – now back to the list:

2 1lb packages grass fed ground beef (on sale at $5.99/lb so I bought extra)
Another unidentified bag of something appearing to be of tomato-sauce origin
2 quart bags homemade veggie soup (made this last week, it’s really good)
2 qt leftover beef soup from January 2012
1 qt bag of undetermined – again tomato-ey in origin
Box Dr. Praeger’s California Veggie Burgers
1 pint bag of pomegranate seeds
1 whole pomegranate
1lb ground coffee
One-half loaf Ezekiel bread
and finally:
One lego dude frozen in a jar of water.

Oh my gosh – I feel so exposed. But I also feel heartened – I have some food I can use to keep my expenses down this month. I am taking the pork BBQ out for dinner tonight. We can have the frozen peas since we don’t get a new infusion of green until the CSA box tomorrow, and I’ll have to make some potato thing for a starch, since I don’t have buns (the potato latkes?). . . okay you all don’t need to hear me thinking aloud. You already know what it’s like cobbling a dinner together.

So, thanks for going on this impromptu adventure with me.  I doubt I can go the rest of the month without buying groceries – but I am going to use up stuff in the freezer.  After all, I froze it to use it. And of course I will keep freezing as I go. I’m not ready to give up on my $650/month goal just yet, and I will spend the rest of February keeping very close track of things. That way, I can have more information to decide whether or not it’s feasible for next month.

And maybe the extra expense for food could go into the “wants” category. . . . The food we eat isn’t just calories to fuel our bodies. Dinner is really our one regular family activity. Sure, we go on the occasional outing together (we call them RFT – random family trips), but on a regular daily basis, dinner is where we all come together. It’s not that we sit around discussing current events and Shakespeare every night – sometimes we play a card game or watch an episode of Chopped. Sometimes it’s a homework dinner and sometimes it’s reading night – be we are all together. And the food brings us there. Beyond the calories, vitamins and minerals we need to survive, I want the food experience to be as fun and tasty as possible. So it makes sense to put some of the extra expense into “wants.”

By the way, I will let you know what the undetermined stuff is. Hopefully it’s tasty!

P.S. I also realized that when I use my bank records to add up my grocery bills (I use a bank card for everything), I can’t distinguish between food and non-food items (dish soap, toothpaste, etc.) that I buy at the grocery store. I’m going to have to start saving receipts . . . just what I need, more paper around the house.


Learning to Sew and Make and Do

A few years ago my husband gave me a sewing machine for Christmas. A complete surprise to me, it was both a fabulous and a threatening gift.

“Now I can make anything!” was my first thought, quickly followed by, “but I don’t know how to make anything!”

Sure, I made a duffle bag in home economics class in 8th grade. Clearly, that was many years ago, since I suspect home economics hasn’t been offered in grade school for about 30 years.

Alas, the machine sat unused as I focused all my energy on a newborn. About a year later, with a one-year-old daughter, I finally took a community education sewing class offered at the nearby university. As I learned the ins and outs of the sewing machine, I was excited by its abilities and how easy it was to sew basic items. In the class I made a pillowcase for a throw pillow from an old men’s shirt. Armed with some false confidence, I proceeded to plan to make more things. Just what those things were to be I didn’t yet know. The pillowcase sat unused. Another year or two passed and, as of yesterday, I’d done nothing more than hem a few pairs of pants with the machine. I felt a bit defeated; time for a confidence boost, and another class.

This time I decided I was going to make something I would use from something of little use. The pillowcase dress making class, which cost $35, seemed a perfect candidate. My daughter Clara looks cute in just about anything, so how could I go wrong? Inadvertently, I upped the difficulty level with my choice of “fabric” — I brought one of my mom’s old flowing, gathered Laura Ashley skirts to repurpose into a simple girl’s dress. Other expenses included bias tape and some thread – about $6.

I gained a true appreciation for how much preparation goes into a sewing project, as well as the number of techniques there are to master. Finishing seams, using the zigzag stitch, using fractions while calculating seam allowances, planning the process of turning a skirt into a dress – let alone measuring, cutting, pinning and, heck, even ironing – was tough. Oh, and sewing a straight, clean line wasn’t easy either. Given my initial fear of the machine, I might have found the need to learn all of these new skills daunting, but for some reason it felt (and feels) exhilarating. Fun. Playful. Expressive.

I’m pretty gleeful about the simple dress I made for my daughter. I’m going to make more. And I’m going to learn in the process. I’m going to become more confident. Talented. I’m excited. I don’t know why I have been afraid of that machine for so long. Sew. Make. Do. — the name of the business where I made my first dress — is a smart moniker that really sums up the empowering feeling one can get from the act of creating.

I find it inspiring to make clothes and toys for Clara. She is going to be my muse. Eventually maybe I’ll become brave enough to make clothes for myself.

Fresh and Exciting

So we are doing taxes and financial aid forms for colleges ($55K a year for college!  Really? Just in case there wasn’t enough of a divide between the 99 percent and the 1 percent . . . sheesh don’t get me started). We are up to our eyeballs in money talk these days. So for a minute or two I am going to put off the actual hard-core analysis of breaking down our finances and skip to healthy, simple (and cheap) food, which is what I’m trying to work on every day, anyway.

I’m trying the basics: Living my life responsibly and making my own stuff, when I can – and trying to learn something new every day. Recently, I learned that I can make yogurt. This is not trumpets-blaring news, I know. But it’s exciting for me . . . I finally did it after wondering about it for, like, ever.

Folks have been making yogurt – in a zillion different forms – all over the world for generations upon generations, probably as long as mammals, bacteria and humans have co-existed. (I’m picturing the first moment of yogurt – some suspicious wife passes some old, curdled milk toward her husband and says, “Taste this – is it still good?”) I am happy – okay, proud – to now be part of the flow of the history’s yogurt-making peoples.

I can’t believe it took me this long to try yogurting myself. This is easy, tasty and cheap – just like they did it in the old country. It is really a testament to the power of marketing that we all go out and buy this stuff when it is so easy and soooo much tastier to make it at home. This yogurt does not resemble the typical grocery store kind at all.  It’s more like what you’d get from Greek yogurt – but the flavor is not just tangy, it’s delicious. Maybe because it is made so fresh.

Adapted from Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Although the recipe is all over the place, I like to cite a reliable source.)

If you and/or your family are not yogurt freaks, like we are, you could just cut this recipe in half. It works just fine and heats and cools faster.

1/2 gallon whole or 2 percent milk
3 tsp. plain unflavored yogurt with active cultures

2 quart-sized glass jars
Gas oven with pilot light (or not, see Note below)
Candy thermometer (or you can just eyeball it)

1. Heating/Cooling: Pour the milk into a heavy saucepan.  Attach the candy thermometer, if using. Heat to 180F (until it’s just about to boil). Take the milk off the heat and cool to 110 º F (not quite hot to the touch). You can put your pot in a larger bowl with ice water to speed up the process to 10-15 minutes or so. Or you can just let the milk cool on its own (while you watch the Daily Show, for example) for 25-30 minutes or so.

2. Inoculating: Put 3 Tbsp. of store-bought yogurt in a small bowl and stir about 1 cup of the milk into it. Then stir this mixture back into the pot of milk.

3. Incubating: Pour the milk into the two quart-sized glass jars. Gently place the two jars in the oven – no need to cover – and then do not disturb or jiggle or bounce or jounce or anything for 6 -7 hours. My routine is to make this overnight – the kitchen is quiet, and I get to cook while I sleep. Nice.

4.  Waking: In the morning, shuffle into the kitchen to find two containers of yogurt in the oven! I save one to use in smoothies (awesome – although what will I do without that constant stream of 32 oz. plastic yogurt containers coming into my life?). With the second container, I move onward – and upward – to step 5.

5.  Draining: This step isn’t necessary if what you are want is a yogurt to use in smoothies, or if texture is not a big deal to you. But if you want a hauntingly delicious yogurt to eat with honey or preserves, or to use in a dip or salad – you really must drain it. Once I tasted the drained yogurt – I couldn’t get the taste out of my head. I wanted more . . . Here’s the step: Line a strainer with a bandana (see fancy orange bandana in photo above) and place it over a bowl deep enough to catch 4 cups liquid. Then pour the yogurt into the strainer and let sit about 3 hours. Turn the yogurt out into your storage (or serving) container and stir until smooth. Serve yourself some yogurt right away, spoon some honey on top and . . . prepare to have your mind blown. Enjoy.

Note: Denise has joined the yogurt-making flow by making yogurt without a pilot-lit oven. You go girl! Just use a hot-cold plastic container, or wrap the jars in towels and put them in a cooler. Whatever it takes to keep the incubating yogurt cozy at 110 º F. If the temperature drops below 110 º F, the yogurt will be thinner or take longer to set. But as long as you have the active starter and a peaceful place for the yogurt to incubate – yogurt will happen.

P.S. Making yogurt at home is also – big surprise – cheaper than buying it at the store.  Two quarts of this yogurt cost me $3.00 to make (I used 1/2 gallon of organic milk, which I buy at Trader Joe’s for $5.99/gallon). While the price for one quart of organic yogurt at TJ’s is $2.99. So I am getting two for the price of one by making my own.  True – when I don’t buy the yogurt at the store I do not get the quite useful plastic tub it comes in . . . but I will trade the tub out for being that much closer to saving 30 Large.

P.P.S. Did you like my old-school yogurt photo? I took the photo on my phone and old-schooled it on this cool Japanese site. I’m going there now to make all my photos old.

The Road Taken

Today I did not write a summary judgment motion. I did not teach a college course. I did not give calm and kind counsel to ten women taking their first steps to extricate themselves from domestic violence.

What I did today was: make pomegranate jelly. It took the better part of the day – the most productive part of the day. And really, I should include the time to juice those suckers – so two hours of a previous day gets added in as well. And what I have to show for it is: 8 jars of jelly. It’s fairly tasty and the product of our backyard tree – genuine product of Nerdhaven Farms. But still . . . is this all there is?

As I was . . . jelling (i.e., stirring, jell testing, failing jell test, stirring, repeat until loco), I thought of a friend of mine – a law school classmate. He was loving his work as a litigator, even starting his own firm. We had an ongoing conversation about work/life balance. Him having, um, none; and me desperately seeking more – litigation and marriage/parenting being diametrically opposing missions.

I remember him saying how it made no sense for him to do housework, cooking, errands, or whatever, because his time was better spent working, where he earned money to pay people to do those things for him and still came out with a sizable profit. I was repulsed when I tried to imagine living my life that way. I felt he was paying someone to live his life for him.

I wanted to be involved in my whole life – like putting my own damn laundry away. At least I would know where my clothes were and I wouldn’t put my sweater – the favorite one that my husband brought me back from Iceland – in the dryer (have I had experiences with house cleaners? Yes.) I wanted to approach my life from a participant’s standpoint, not from a supervisor’s standpoint. No surprise then that I left that firm and took a few years of Mom-time with my then toddler.

Now several years later, I chose the Mom road again and I am very pleased about it. I know what stuff I have and where it is (for the most part) and how to clean it. That’s not to say I don’t look back: let’s take a moment to acknowledge this housewife business can be totally tedious. But as I think about it, there is very little more tedious (sometimes) than lawyering.

What I am glad about now is I am dealing with the simple, daily consequences of my family’s life. We wear clothes. I wash them. We make messes. I clean them. We own things. I take care of them. We (well, one of us) eats a PBJ almost daily. I make pomegranate jelly. And, because I am my own damn supervisor, I also make chocolate chip cookies just cuz I feel like it: