Saturday, September 29, 2012

Devil's in the Details

I’ve always made as big a fuss as possible over my girls when they’ve fallen ill. A simple common cold was cause to turn our sofa into an oasis of comfort - I’d make it up with bed linens and our softest old quilts and pile it high with pillows. A side table would get parked within easy reach so they’d have the television’s remote control nearby, a stack of “dirty magazines” (i.e., People, Us Weekly, Cosmopolitan - guilty pleasures for the otherwise academically inclined), a box of tissues and something cold to drink. Then I’d start making a pot of chicken soup if I didn’t already have cartons of it stored in the freezer. This habit has followed them into adulthood and their expectations aren’t outrageous - who wouldn’t enjoy just a wee bit of extra consideration when feeling down? Nobody wants someone hovering over them, but a few thoughtful niceties go a long way to improve an otherwise rotten few days of discomfort. You should be able to rely on your loved ones to provide a stroke or two at just the right time.

A few years back when my oldest was living in a neighboring city, she fell ill with a nasty bout of the flu while I was on a trip to California. She’d asked her boyfriend, a chef, to please make her some chicken soup if it wouldn’t be too much trouble. He brought her an offering of sorts. She called me.

Mom, you’re never in a million years going to believe what Rhyan considers a bowl of chicken soup when I’m so sick. @$%#@ Ramen Noodles!” 

“Oh, no. He didn’t. Really?” 

“He’s a @$%#@ CHEF and he brings me RAMEN NOODLES???? I felt rotten and now I feel even worse.” 

Heads up, readers - it’s a really good idea to cover the nuances of what your partner considers “comfort food” at the same time you’re discussing your financial standings, your spending habits, your religious leanings and your political persuasions. Getting it wrong can be life altering. Don’t put yourself into a situation where you have to take a stab at it - get the information up front and in clear terms. And if it’s a chicken soup recipe you’re needing, here’s a fail-proof version. It takes a while to make, so it’s better to cook a big batch and freeze it so you won’t be caught empty handed.

Did I mention that my daughter and I were both sick this week and there wasn’t a drop of soup to be found in either of our houses?

Doghouse Chicken Soup 

Any of your favorite vegetables will work in this recipe - green beans, zucchini, etc. The recipe is also easily doubled or tripled. You can make extra stock by roasting the chicken bones after deboning it after its initial cooking. 

4 quarts water 1 large chicken, cut up, or a large roaster
1 bulb garlic, roasted and removed from paper
2 yellow or white onions, peeled and roughly chopped
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
½ cup chopped celery, about 2 stalks with leaves included
6 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 cup cooked lima beans
½ lb. small pasta (orzo, penne, etc)
Chopped parsley to taste
Chopped rosemary to taste
1 tablespoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper

Wash the chicken thoroughly and pat dry. Cut up into pieces and put into a large stock pot. Pour in water, add roasted garlic and bring to a boil, skimming off foam. Cook until chicken is tender and falling from the bone. Debone chicken thoroughly, saving aside the bones. Strain the stock by sending it through cheesecloth in a sieve. Discard garlic cloves. Let it cool completely. If making more stock, put reserved bones into a roaster. Roast in a 400-degree oven until charred. Put charred bones into a stock pot, cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for a few hours. Repeat straining process and add to original stock. Refrigerate all of the stock overnight so that fat will rise to the surface. Remove fat and return stock to the stovetop. 

Add the vegetables, herbs, salt and pepper. Cover and let it simmer for roughly 2 ½ hours, adjusting the seasoning to taste. Add pasta and cook until al dente.

And lastly, remember to get your flu shots! Stay healthy and happy!

spring thaw . . .
i run
out of tissues

Saturday, September 22, 2012

New Goals and Wheat Biscuits

A recent visit to my doctor set me to thinking about my health. He commented that I was in good shape for a baby boomer, those of us born between 1946 and 1964. He asked if I exercised regularly and I responded that I’d only done so occasionally in recent years, but that I used to lift weights at least five times a week a decade ago. And then he said something that surprised me. “It shows,” he said. I did not understand his response. Sure, I’m a fairly big guy, but I’m not the beefed-up guy I was ten years ago. I’ve added two inches to my waist since I lifted those weights.

The doctor saw my puzzled look, gave a wry smile and said, “There are a lot of baby boomers who are not as healthy as you. You’ve had three surgeries in ten years, yet you’ve maintained good health. You recovered from your surgeries quicker than some folks; you are still active, a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that you took time to exercise regularly years ago. What you did a decade ago has helped you today. Why don’t you do something today that will benefit you tomorrow?”

Alana, Ian and me (with the shades) ten years ago
For a moment, I thought my doctor had morphed into a motivational speaker. I felt a surge of positive energy. I could not wait to get home and ride my bicycle or lift a dumbbell or two. I drove home, mentally retrieving and cataloging the exercises I used to do, scheduling and juggling times to fit into my schedule where I could ride my bike or lift a few weights. The thought of climbing Hanging Rock again in better shape and in less time than a few weeks ago appealed to me. I would set goals, little records that I could break. I would exercise wisely, always careful to not over do it.

I’ve been exercising regularly now for three weeks and I can already feel the benefits. I have more energy; I feel better about myself and I have a pair of shorts that fit a little better around my waist. :) I will never be in the same physical condition I was a decade ago, but I can damn sure strive to be in better shape than I am today.

Staying motivated has not been a problem. My neighbor, friend and Hanging Rock hiking partner, Deedee and her friend Anna have been exercising too. Sharing healthy recipes and exercise information with friends inspires me further. Seeing their benefits from exercising, shedding pounds, toning-up, feeling better about themselves encourages and motivates me to do the same. Finding people with the same goals for better health and a happier life can help you achieve your goals.

But there is more to improving one's health than riding a bicycle or lifting a few weights for thirty minutes four or five times a week. I’ve also altered my diet slightly, reducing my intake of fatty foods, eating smaller portions, eating more fruits and vegetables. Does this mean I’ll have to give-up biscuits and gravy or steak? No. I can still have the foods I love as long as I eat one or two biscuits instead of four or five or a third or half of a steak instead of the entire cow.

And with that in mind, here’s a healthy biscuit recipe for you to chomp on. :)

Wheat Biscuits

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup milk (or buttermilk)

Whisk flours, baking powder and salt in a bowl.
Cut butter into flour with a pastry blender or knives.
Add milk and stir until a dough is formed (adding a little flour until the dough is no longer sticky).
Roll onto a floured surface and knead a few times
Roll/press with a rolling pin or wine bottle until 1/4 inch thick.
Cut (I use a Mason jar lid) into round biscuit shapes and place on a lightly greased baking sheet.
Bake in a 425°F oven 12 to 15 minutes or until lightly browned.

Today is the first day of autumn. Undoubtedly haiku poets will be inspired to pen a haiku or two today. The poem below is one I experienced some years ago and, perhaps, fits nicely into what I talked about today on The Frugal Poet. I think the theme here is certainly the passing of time, but I also think it could mean that we should never give-up. We must always...try.

cycling with my son –
this is the autumn
I fall behind

The Heron's Nest VII:4 - 12, 2005
An Editors’ Choice haiku.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Best Laid Plans

A few weeks ago I happily anticipated my daughter’s birthday weekend in Virginia. I let my imagination gleefully run with the imminent opportunities to create “bumps in the night” while floating down the James River in Virginia with my favorite coven of wild women to see whose imagination would run most rampant, who would scream first, who would scream loudest as we kayaked under a full blue moon. If for some unforeseen reason no opportunity presented itself to create a bit of havoc, then surely our next day’s hike on the Chessie Trail wouldn’t disappoint. Well, so much for that.

Despite a questionable weather forecast, we made the short drive to Buchanan, VA where the Twin River Outfitters awaited our arrival. After watching a brief video on water safety and ensuring that everyone was properly outfitted with life vests, our river guides offered us the last-minute chance to opt out - rain was indeed forecast for the evening and the trip might prove to be less than expected.

Better-seasoned kayakers and canoers were in our company. They were the ones wearing arrogant demeanors and tee-shirts from previous kayaking adventures, the ones sporting specialized water shoes, the ones who brought their own oars- nothing would deter them from the trip. They talked amongst themselves while we tadpoles strained to catch any information we might deem useful to our impending trip. We heard their comments on that night’s weather - “...after all, it’ll be nothing more than a little rain if it ever shows. We went down Class 4 rapids last weekend...” The coven unanimously agreed that the “devil should take the hindmost” and piled into a repurposed school bus for the short yet winding trip to a point where we’d launched our kayaks and canoes onto the James.

After affixing glow sticks to the cleats on our kayaks, in we went. Having heard the guide’s advice to immediately paddle to the right bank of the river upon launch, my kayak headed a swift and dead left. No amount of furious paddling would extricate me from the river’s current, and I promptly went sideways smack into a rock formation. At least I didn’t capsize the kayak, but I had to wait briefly for the guide to step - yes, I said step - out of his kayak to put my craft aright and give me a gentle push. I’d have bet good money that the river was deep at that point. Humiliating? A little. The hoots from the coven bounced off of both riverbanks but their cheers also met my ears as I finally made some progress to meet up with them downriver.

Dusk quickly turned into dark night as we paddled the five miles back to camp. Rain clouds obscured the full moon and we all became thankful for our glow sticks despite their casting what could be woefully inadequate light. What had started as a soft drizzle had turned into a persistent rainfall. At one point a disembodied voice asked me, “Are you my husband?” I replied, “Nope!” and then giggled to myself. I couldn’t at first discern whose canoe bumped into the back of my kayak but quickly figured it out when I heard from the darkness, “Paddle UP! Why do they let these idiots on the river?” I heard the guide’s authoritative voice warn everyone to again paddle a hard right to avoid a fallen tree in the middle of the water...but I heard it too late. Thankfully, I was able to push myself away from the tree and didn’t require the guide’s help once again. We straggled and dripped safely back to camp, roasted s’mores over a welcome fire and warmed up with cups of hot chocolate. Believe it or not, I was the second craft to pull into basecamp There’s nothing like a hard-driving rain, a bruised ego and smelling home’s camp fire to motivate a soul!

The next day the coven hiked all 7.2 miles of the Chessie Trail on a gloriously warm and sunny day. At the trail’s beginning, signs warned us that we’d cross personal property along the way and asked that we please be respectful, to please not stray from the trail itself in order to meander on said personal property, and to leave the beautiful path as we’d found it (i.e., pick up your own trash). About half way through the hike we encountered cows. Large cows. Very large cows with small calves. It’s amazing how abruptly our constant chatter ceased upon spotting the first one - how gingerly and respectfully we crept past their unblinking stares, how completely oblivious I was to the giant pile of cow poop I’d be forced to wear on my shoes for the rest of the hike. I’d take that trip all over again given the chance, river rocks, fallen trees, cow pies and all. I didn’t even mind unintentionally providing the weekend’s comedic relief. It’s hard to be too full of oneself when you’re surrounded with so much love and laughter.

Cow Pie Cookies

2 cups white sugar
½ cup milk
½ cup unsalted butter
3 cups quick-cooking oatmeal
⅔ cup chunky peanut butter
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a medium-sized saucepan, combine sugar, milk and butter. Slowly bring to a boil and boil for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and add rest of ingredients. Mix well and immediately drop by spoonfuls onto waxed paper. Cool on waxed paper and store in airtight container.

Finally, a haiku to remind you to enjoy the season, whatever it hands you.

the tug of red clay between my toes blue moon

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Nix the Cable and Stroganoff

Take your monthly cable or satellite bill and multiply it by 12. Does the amount of money you are willing to spend in a year to be entertained or receive news through your television surprise you? Now imagine what you could do with that money if you were to cancel your cable or satellite bill. What a nice chunk of change you could add to your savings or apply toward a vacation.

I don’t have cable or satellite here at Poet’s Cottage, but that doesn’t mean that my daughter and I are unable to watch our favorite television programs. I recently purchased an RCA digital indoor/outdoor antenna for a mere $40. Frankly, I was surprised at the number of channels I receive from such a small antenna. For that one time cost of $40, I have access to four major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS) and a number of other stations. 

But what about the programs I am unable to receive via the antenna? Thankfully, nearly all networks stream their programs free over the Internet nowadays. Usually, there is a slight delay, maybe a day or so, before I’m able to watch on my computer what was broadcast on television. Toss in a few bucks for an HMDI cable and I can connect my computer to my television and watch my favorite shows on a much larger screen. Bottom line, I don’t have to miss episodes of Duck Dynasty or Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.

Even a monthly charge of accessing movies and television programs on Hulu Plus and Netflix is far cheaper than a monthly cable bill. 

If you have any questions about digital antennas or connecting your computer to your television to watch programs streamed over the Internet, let me know. I’d be happy to help you save several dollars.

There are alternatives to paying exorbitant prices for cable or satellite TV.

Today marks the anniversary of my becoming a resident at Poet’s Cottage. I want to thank you all for your support and prayers. Sometimes, it is better to move on and make your own happiness rather than expend the energy to change the unchangeable.

Here’s an easy recipe that my daughter and I enjoy:

Crock Pot Stroganoff

2 lbs stew meat
2 cans cream of mushroom soup
3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce (or to taste)
1 to 2 sweet onions
1 16 ounce sour cream
a package of egg noodles

Add first three ingredients to a crock pot. Cook on low for eight hours. 

Add chopped onions half way through the cooking time.

When the Stroganoff is ready to serve, cook egg noodles according to directions on the package. Turn the crock pot off. Add sour cream and stir thoroughly until well blended. Serve over egg noodles.

You can also serve Crock Pot Stroganoff over mashed potatoes, rice and sliced bread.

I’ll close with a kyoka that was originally published in Prune Juice:

that poor birch tree
scarred with our initials
decades ago . . .
how I wish someone
would chop it down

Prune Juice –  Issue 2, Summer, 2009

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Figs and Flotillas

Curtis’s post of last week on Quick Frugal Trips coordinated nicely with and added a great sense of anticipation about our personal plans to celebrate my youngest daughter’s birthday this very weekend. Deeds was born on Labor Day so it’s always nice for her to have an extended holiday each year on her birthday. Her sister, Linds, has planned an action-packed weekend for us visiting with her in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. And we’ll not miss one bit of fun celebrating richly yet frugally (imagine here my pirouette as I simply adore when the execution of a great plan leaves money in my pocket!)

Friday will find friends and family piling into the jeep for the brief trek to Lindsay’s house. We’ll share a meal that evening with fixings from our pantry - pasta with fire-roasted marinara sauce canned this summer from Papa’s garden. We’ll pack a picnic basket for Saturday morning’s trip to the Maury River in Goshen where we’ll enjoy the area’s extraordinary beauty while swimming in the naturally formed rock pools there. Lunch for six can easily be afforded when I raid the pantry once again to appoint that picnic basket - homemade biscuits, a jar of fig jam, a good wedge of cheese and cold-cut deli meats will make for a filling lunch for us while we laze the day away enjoying stellar company. Saturday evening will find us savoring a full-moon kayak adventure on the James River - we’ll even have a campfire with s’mores afterward. The outfitter assures us that the last half of this trip will allow us to float downriver in the dark. My alter ego, Mommie Dearest, fully intends to exploit every opportunity to see which of our company scares easily! Oh, the anticipation... 

On Sunday we’ll hike the Chessie Trail, a 6 mile rail trail following a roadbed formerly used by the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway before ending our day at a wine tasting at Rockbridge Vineyard. We’ll travel no more than 2 hours from our home in North Carolina to spend an entire holiday/birthday weekend costing no more than $300 for six people. But best of all will undoubtedly be the abundance of smiles, laughter and memories on which to later reflect - these are the things which money simply cannot buy.

Drunken Fig Jam

1 lemon
1 orange
4 pounds ripe fresh figs, stemmed, cut into ½-inch pieces (about 9 cups)
4 cups sugar (or 3 cups honey)
¾ cup brandy or Cognac
½ teaspoon kosher salt
slivered almonds (optional)

Zest the lemon and the orange, avoiding white pith. Combine the zest and the juices from the lemon and orange with figs, sugar (or honey), brandy and kosher salt in a heavy, large and deep saucepan; let stand at room temperature for an hour or so, stirring occasionally.

Bring fig mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce the heat to medium; continue to boil until jam thickens and is reduced to about 6 cups, stirring often and occasionally mashing the mixture with a potato masher to crush large fig pieces, about 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in slivered almonds if using them.

Ladle mixture into 6 hot, clean ½-pint glass canning jars, leaving about ¼-inch headspace at top of jars. Remove any air bubbles and wipe the jar rims with a clean cloth. Cover with hot lids and screw on jar bands. Invert on a clean kitchen cloth immediately and let cool on countertop. Once cool, check seals to ensure that jars have indeed sealed. If not, process jars in pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Store in a cool, dark place up to one year.

Lastly, I hope you’ll enjoy one of my poems written while ruminating the works of one of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda.

pressing blooms
and Neruda’s explanations -
scent of hibiscus

 A Hundred Gourds, 1:1, December 2011