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Category Archives: Hobbies

Eleven

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I am sitting here watching the news and thinking about eleven years ago. And not having to get up to go to work on Monday morning. Ever again.

I retired April 1st 2010. A good way to spend April Fool’s Day. I have never regretted retiring as early as I could. Particularly when years like 2020 come along and recalibrate your plans.

I think retiring in the spring is a smart move. My husband retired in January. Dark. Cold. Stuck indoors most of the time. It is hard to transition when you are limited in things to do.

I found my hobbies and interests kept me busy. My garden. Cooking.

I then discovered the Conservancy and volunteering and the last ten years have been filled with activities that keep me busy even during the pandemic.

Last year I spent every other day for six months in the community gardens, tending my own plot, and helping with the food bank.

We have done more than a ton of food each of the past two years. Many of us who are retired use this outlet as our way to give back, while keeping active.

I also volunteer in many ways to support my husband’s hobby. Amateur radio. I cook for Field Days. For the annual “Fowl Fest”. I hope we get to conduct those activities soon, as we miss our friends and the good times we have when we are together. Like our crazy summer emergency preparedness field days. In the heat. Or rain. Or wind. But still, enjoying our hobbies with our friends.

I miss cooking for the radio guys. They are so appreciative of what we make for them. Yeah, we enjoy our meals here, but I have been cooking dinner every night for almost 400 days now. I really want to have those restaurant nights again, and want to cook for friends and family.

I know. This evening I am reminiscing, and also whining a bit about this lost year. Missing friends. Missing family. Missing my 50th reunion, which I hope will someday take place. Missing the gatherings. The sharing.

We just need to hang on a while longer. Beat this virus. So we can enjoy decades more of retirement.

But one good thing about this forced isolation. My husband got back into cooking. making a number of dinners now. Like the clam and fennel chowder I wrote about. And just simple things like pasta.

Here’s to better days. And meals with friends. And dinners at restaurants. And travel. Yeah, I miss travel. We will get there. Won’t we? I have faith. And I want to get out there.

Decadent

So OK, it is just Wednesday. No holiday. No significant life event.

But we live a fairly reclusive life, with no restaurant visits, no day trips, no outdoor activities because of the weather. We have been doing a weekly “cooking as a couple” dinner, which was a New Year’s resolution.

Tonight we cracked open a new cookbook of mine, I Cook in Color. By Asha Gomez.

Clam chowder, made with fennel and leeks.

We are using small, local businesses in our sourcing of ingredients for our cooking. We are supporting the small grocers, liquor stores, farms and a friend who is a wine broker.

We love Italian wines. Todd Ruby Wines is a wine brokerage owned by an amateur radio friend. He brings in awesome wines like this Greco di Tufo. Procured for us by The Wine Bin in Ellicott City. Perfect with the rich clam chowder.

As for the soup ingredients, Some of them came from Boarman’s. Our local grocery store. Littleneck Clams. Clam juice. Canned clams. Leeks. Fennel. Yukon Gold potatoes. Diced pancetta, which was a substitute for the smoked clams in the recipe.

We made our own seafood stock yesterday from leftover lobster claw shells. Used my CSA veggies in the stock.

The finishing touch, flour mixed with half and half, used CSA flour from a mill in Amish country PA.

How did we make it? Chopped leek, fennel and potato. Sautéed in butter. Added three cups of seafood stock. A bottle of clam juice and a can of baby clams. Browned pancetta. A pound of littlenecks.

Finished with a thickener of 1/3 cup of flour and a pint of half and half.

We have enough left for another night’s dinner. We only used half the clams from the bag. They were Chesapeake Bay clams from Virginia, harvested Monday, bought on Tuesday and cooked today.

This expansion of our cooking hobby is what is keeping us sane. While enjoying the fruits of our labor. Wonder what we will tackle on Valentine’s Day?

Dawn

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Of a new year, 2021, which we hope will be far better than last year.

Sunrise in the east, now that we don’t have massive evergreens blocking the view.

We have spent far more time enjoying the peace and quiet out here and doing some new, fun things while staying safe at home.

Like my husband getting into cooking.

He made cioppino using Ina Garten’s recipe from her Cook Like A Pro cookbook.

Including making his own seafood stock.

I was impressed with the flavor but he needs to “up” his food photography skills.

We can’t see the depth of shrimp, scallops, mussels and cod in the bowl. Make no mistake.This was one amazingly satisfying meal. Fun to do while we hang out here at the house.

We decided that once a week we will tackle something new with him cooking.

We will patiently wait for our turn to get vaccinated, so we can get back into a normal life. In the meantime, photography, bird watching, amateur radio and cooking will keep us occupied.

Here’s to a better year, a new dawning.

Sunshine on a Baking Sheet

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It’s tomato season. I am drowning in yellow cherry tomatoes.

tomatoes and peppers for roasting

The yellow cherries are still overachieving. The husky red cherries are winding down but still available to add color to the sheet pan.

The tray is completed with scallions and sweet peppers from my CSA. When done, another pint of oven roasted tomatoes goes into the freezer. These containers guarantee that in the dead of winter I can bring summer and sunshine back on our plates.

It is very easy to preserve tomatoes. Cut them in half. Add sliced peppers, scallions, herbs, salt, pepper and a slight sprinkle of sugar. Olive oil and a hand mixing to incorporate it all.

Roast at 250°F until the tomatoes start to caramelize and shrivel up. Put in a container and freeze.

I have spent many hours at my garden this summer. It provides me an escape from the house without crowds. Every other day I harvest tomatoes and some peppers. Maybe a few asparagus. Zinnias. And soon! Sweet potatoes. Which are definitely doing well in a corner of my plot.

All in all, having a garden is giving me sunshine, and keeping me sane.

Milestones

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It’s been fifteen years. Since we packed up the boxes and started moving from the city to the country.

So much has happened. Natural disasters. Family crises. Medical setbacks. Still, I have to say. Leaving Columbia for a kinder gentler life was definitely worth it.

We came here so my husband could have towers for his radio hobby. So I could have a garden.  Things we couldn’t do when constrained by HOA’s.

I really can’t believe we have been here so long.

Some highlights.  Putting up that tower.

It used to be hidden from sight before the trees were toppled by the tornado. Now, it is visible from my kitchen and from the highway behind our neighbors.

The landscape has changed. We are adapting. I am planning a new garden since my yard is clear of tall conifers. I don’t want to give up my community plot because I love it, particularly the deer fence and the large stand of asparagus. Can I maintain two gardens? Time will tell.

I want to put in a large area of onions and I want to plant the most tomatoes I have ever attempted. They will go in the community plot.

Here, where it is most convenient, I want cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, herbs, and flowers.

Hopefully, there will be a couple of the tromboncino vines running through the dirt and producing those large unique squash which make perfect fritters.

I want to fill the freezer again with jars of sauce and roasted tomatoes. With caramelized onions. Zucchini fritters. Roasted peppers. This winter I am missing all those delicacies. That pesky tornado which ruined our summer and appropriated all my time meant I didn’t have my winter reserves.  I miss it.  Not much preserved at all in 2019.

My New Year’s resolution? Get back to those things that made me happy. Gardening. Canning. Birding. Cooking. Baking. Simple pleasures.

my garden haul one day in 2014

I will get there. There are many more milestones I want to make. Here’s to years more in my happy place. The oasis on the edge of the cities but far enough away to still be peaceful and quiet.

This is 2020.

Springing Forward

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Not my favorite time of year. Adjusting to the time change.

I am working on so many projects and just can’t get motivated to get up when I should, as my brain keeps telling me it’s too early.

Are you like me? Wishing they would just pick a time, one or the other, and stop the switching back and forth. You know, standard time is only four months long, and the daylight saving time is now eight months of the year. Why is the standard only 33% of the year?

For us, we like to have dinner as the sun sets. We tend to be busy outdoors and come in for dinner when we have to stop working in the garden, or maintaining the property, or in my husband’s case, working on his antennas and towers.

Enough complaining. I have to admit that today has been beautiful. Temps in the mid 70s. No rain. It all missed us. I headed into Clarksville earlier to do a few errands and I could see that the businesses are taking advantage of the weather. The windows are open at Food Plenty. I bet there are a few people already out on the patios. Maybe I should fire up the grill. After I move it back where it belongs. The wind storm a couple weeks ago actually pushed it around a bit.

This may be just a short taste of the coming spring, but it is most welcome after a wet miserable winter.

I am thinking about that summer trip to Charlottesville and the view from Barboursville.

The octagonal ruins designed by Jefferson. Made me think of the tomato seedlings growing in my kitchen. All heirlooms from Monticello. Prudens purple, purple calabash and red fig. Hoping that this summer will be kind to my veggie garden, and not drown it like last summer.

What signs of spring make you happiest? Flowers. Gardens. Outdoor activities. Grilling. Dining al fresco. That’s my short list.

The Accidental Vegan

That would be me. By whatever means, I have become the cook that brings the vegetarian/vegan contribution to the parties. Whether it is the amateur radio Field Day, or the contribution to my brother’s dinners (for my vegetarian in-law’s in-laws), or the potluck volunteer luncheon, I bring the veggie-centric dish that is satisfying and different.

We feed the volunteers, the garden clubs and the vendors at our Holiday Craft Fair every December at the Conservancy.

I share cooking with my friend who also coordinates and cooks for our Amateur Radio Field Day. We have become quite skilled at meeting the needs of those who partake. We have all sort of dietary restrictions and preferences. I get large amounts of vegetables in my farm share (aka Community Supported Agriculture)

Add to that, my lactose intolerance, which has me modifying recipes to take out the dairy.

Last week I made two dishes for the holiday event. They were vegan. Easy for those with restrictions. One was a vegan cole slaw. The other? One awesome butternut squash and black bean chili. Recipes were requested. Here is the response.

I began cooking many dishes using squash once we started seeing behemoths like this in our box. I do hummus, I do lasagna, and now I do chili using them.

This chili was easy. Two large cans of black beans. One diced, roasted butternut squash – large. Two large onions. One can of roasted red peppers, sliced. One can of Rotel tomatoes and chilis. One can crushed tomatoes. Those pumpkin spices. Choose those you like. I am partial to cinnamon, cumin, and coriander. Some garlic powder. Salt and pepper. Crock pot all of it. Kick it up with more heat, or more garlic.

As for my cole slaw. I used Savoy cabbage, carrots and Granny Smith apples. All chopped. I made a vegan dressing for it. It was mustard, vegan sour cream, white wine vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper. That vegan sour cream makes this dressing a great alternative for those who are avoiding dairy.

You don’t miss the meat when you add tons of flavor using herbs and spices. We certainly didn’t.

 

And The Winner Is …

… black cherry tomatoes.

Not only did they win me two ribbons at the county fair, they also are the highest producer in my rain soaked garden. I have harvested close to 25 pounds of these flavorful heirloom tomatoes from two plants. Plants purchased last spring from TLV Tree Farm at the Clarksville Farmers’ Market.

This is the second year they have taken second place in the heirloom tomato category. It’s the closest I have gotten to that elusive blue ribbon, and the $35 special premium attached to winning it.  I just can’t get my other heirlooms to ripen early enough to enter them in the fair. Next year will be even harder as the fair is a day earlier for entries, and I barely had adequate numbers of my other vegetables.

I did put in seven entries and came away with seven ribbons. Two firsts, three seconds, and two fourth place ribbons. My first place winners were my okra, and I had the largest tomato. Not very large, a green heirloom variety called Aunt Ruby’s Green German. It was a pound and a half. It’s crazy. I only got a half dozen of them from that plant, so it will not be bought again next year.

As for other notables from my garden, this is the year that the Italian cucurbita moschata, aka tromboncino took over my garden. It’s crawling everywhere and giving me 1-3 pound squash every time I go there.

This is the latest one. 2 Pounds, 14 ounces. There are seeds only in the bulb, so they are sweeter than other summer squash if you get them before they become too large. In past years, friends have found hiding ones that have weighed as much as 10 pounds. Those with darker green skins are treated like winter squash, peeled and used in soups or in muffins and breads.

I have been making and freezing trays of fritters. By themselves or paired with corn, or with sweet red peppers, we make a batch, have a few with dinner and then freeze them stacked on parchment. All winter long I can pull out a sheet or two and have fritters as a side dish with dinner.

Here is one of my earlier harvests of the squash.

And these are the other major producer this year. My okra. Drowning in okra. I had a market pack with ten plants in it. They looked quite pathetic when I planted them and I expected many of them to die. Nope, they didn’t. Out of ten tiny plants, seven survived and are now six feet tall and producing like mad. I have made many fries, have sautéed them, made a hash, and am running out of ideas. I do donate quite a bit of these to the food bank every Tuesday as we get dozen of them weekly.

Last but not least, the heirlooms.

Not a great year. Many cracked from the excessive rain. I did get quite a few of Rutgers tomatoes. Those are the red ones with the cracked tops. The green ones were those green German variety. The two on the bottom right were from my Amish CSA and not from the garden.

But these were still my favorite. At the height of summer, they were large and sweet.

I roasted these. Spread out on a tray. Rolled in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, pepper, and oregano. Low temperature for a few hours. Like candy.

The garden is winding down. Just okra, cherry tomatoes and lettuces. A big basil plant and sage. Almost time to do my winter pesto and maybe spread some Tuscan kale plants in the corner to see how they do.

This summer was awful for the gardeners. Far too much rain, excessive heat when it wasn’t raining, and bugs galore. Still, I love the challenge and I enjoy my harvests.

The Yeast Beast

Conquering yeast breads. One of those “bucket list” type items on an old list of things I wanted to do in retirement. With the challenge in my cookbook club this month being “Genius Recipes”, this one had to be included.

The famous No Knead Bread from Jim Lahey. Catapulted into the limelight more than 10 years ago by Mark Bittman in the New York Times. According to his website, it is one of the top ten recipes that are visited there.

There are many variations. The ratios, though, are fairly constant. The one from the book is a bit different in that it calls for active dry or instant yeast. As I learned later, every other recipe calls for instant yeast. It works with active dry as that is what was in my pantry at the moment, but I think it would be better with instant.

Here is what I did. Twice, now. Once plain. Once with dried rosemary added. First, I invested in a digital scale and made this recipe using weight, instead of measuring with cups and spoons.

Not a fancy scale, but certainly useful. Zeroed out with the bowl in it. Started with 400g of bread flour. Added 5g kosher salt, 1g yeast (I just used a 1/4 tsp for the yeast as it was so little change in weight). I thought it was interesting in the recipe that the 1 1/2 cups of cool water (55-65 degrees F) to be added used 360g for the measuring.

You mix it all together and then let it sit covered with a towel in a warm corner of your kitchen, out of direct sunlight. I let my first one rise for 12 hours, the second one for 20 hours. The longer rise gave me a bread that was definitely different. This scientific approach, although simple, is really quite educational and erased my trepidation with using yeast.

After the first rise, you flour a board. Dump the wet, sticky dough and pull into a round shape. Recommendations to use parchment paper for this will decrease the messiness of using a floured towel. This second rise or 1-2 hours wrapped loosely in the towel will just about double the dough ball. I used cornmeal for my first bread, and flour for the second.

Here is the first bread.

The crunchy cornmeal coating added to the flavor. It was crusty on the outside and dense, chewy, but with lots of air bubbles inside.

The directions call for you to use a heavy covered pot, like a Dutch oven. I used a Pyrex baking dish. It has to have a lid because what you are doing is creating an oven in your oven. The dish has to be preheated for a half hour at 475 degrees before dumping the dough from the towel into it. It will spread across the bottom. If you want a higher small boule, you need a pot that size.

This was my rosemary bread, dusted with flour. It was baked, covered, for 30 minutes, and uncovered for an additional 15 minutes. I have convection ovens so that last timing with the cover off will vary for those without air circulation. The recipe calls for 15-20 minutes uncovered.

The rosemary bread rose a bit more than the first bread.

Fresh from the oven, lifted out of the pot with a large spatula. Be careful as that pot is screaming hot at 475 degrees.

I will be making this easy recipe every chance I get. I do want to try some of the variations, like using a drizzle of olive oil, and adding sliced olives. Or, making a sweet bread with mini chocolate chips and chopped walnuts.

Google NoKnead Bread, if you want to mess around in your kitchen. Me, I need to get some instant yeast and see if it makes the bread rise more than mine. The slow “fermentation” of that 18 hour rise time makes this bread. It is almost foolproof.

Thanks to the Genius Recipe book by Kristen Miglore for rekindling my interest in baking bread, without fuss.

Cookbook Club

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In my last post, where I talk about all the ways we experimented with brining turkey, I mentioned the inspiration of the cookbook club. Friday I started cooking from the 10th book, a different one every month, and sharing it on social media with other “club” members. This version of an online community is managed by Food52, a popular web site for people obviously interested in food.

The club, a closed group on Facebook, has thousands of members. A small percentage of us cook and write about it. What is so interesting to me is seeing results, and comments, successes and failures, by cooks from around the world.  Seasonal cooking as well as regional cooking are thrown for a loop when the Aussies and Kiwis from the bottom of the world, and the Asians, the Europeans, the Canadians, South Americans and those of us Stateside all try and cook from the same book with ingredients we can source.

We vote for the books, three months at a time, a few months in advance. This allows us to reserve library books, or to have a book readily available worldwide.

This month? Food52 Genius Recipes by Kristen Miglore. I am lucky to have a great county library where I can reserve books, and then use online renewals to keep them for up to nine weeks if no one else requests them. I got the book in midNovember and started reading. I like this book quite a bit. Her column on line explores these great recipes in depth, and uses input to make them easy for anyone to tackle. Tweaks to them. Hints. Substitutions.

I needed to make cookies for a cookie party. I spent Friday doing one from this book and one from the latest Ottolenghi book, SWEET. Sweet is the book of the month for the baking version of our little online community. If you have never cooked from Ottolenghi’s books, you should get your hands on any of them and just have fun. I have all of them in eBook versions. The cookbook club in June let us loose on all of his previous books.

What did I bake?

From Genius Recipes I visited an old favorite. Molasses cookies from the Silver Palate. Mine spread too much. I think I didn’t let the dough chill enough. Still, they taste great and they look like lace cookies, which make them perfect tea cookies.

From Sweet, I made these absolutely amazing cranberry, oat, and almond cookies, covered in a white chocolate glaze. These disappeared immediately at our event Saturday. Not sugary at all. There is only a half cup of sugar in the entire batch, which made 48 cookies. The white chocolate is the right touch to make these really good. Perfect with a cup of tea. The online recipe for these cookies is on the Random House UK web page, The Happy Foodie.

I am working on my baking skills this month. In my CSA share, I am getting the flour and grain shares, which will be put to use often, as I work my way through the Genius Recipe book. Jim Lahey’s famous No Knead bread is on my short list, as is an interesting one grain ingredient cracker. More on whether I do these, and if they are successful, later this month.

As for why I am active in this community. I promised myself that I would continue to challenge myself in retirement. Trying new things. Different cuisines. Tackling that fear of baking. Within our little online group, we commiserate. We encourage. We share. Some of us aren’t as good at it as others. Doesn’t matter. We enjoy cooking and by seeing the results, we become determined to try a harder recipe, and expand our knowledge of techniques.

In February, the cooking club celebrates its first anniversary by opening the month to a free-for-all with all the books we used in the first year. I joined the second month, so I didn’t cook from Art of the Pie by Kate McDermott. I will be reserving that book and facing that challenge. To me, pie crust is hard to do.  But what the heck! They may end up messy, but taste is what really counts.

My other favorites from this past 10 months? Deep Run Roots by Vivian Howard. Made in India by Meera Sodha. All the Ottolenghi books. I had three of Ottolenghi’s already on eBooks, and have downloaded the others. CSA farm shares tempt me to dig into those books for good vegetable recipes. And, if it wasn’t for Deep Run Roots, I never would have grown okra in my garden.

Or made these.

Or this.

The okra fries are so easy, and so good. Just olive oil, cumin, salt and pepper. Screaming hot oven or on the grill. Crunchy, salty, spicy. As for that awesome cauliflower cake from Ottolenghi, it will be repeated when we get cauliflower again from the CSA. It is absolutely the best show stopping addition to a pot luck party, and really not that hard to make.

What’s stopping you? Get cooking!