January 26, 2020

Rainy days and prep cooking

Rainy days are good days to do some cooking and stock the freezer. It's definitely helpful to have meals made ahead for those days when I've been working outside and I'm tired. Who wants to cook if you've just spent three hours on a lawnmower? Or a couple of hours on the John Deere 1023 using the snowblower? Not me, that's for sure.

I used to hate leftovers. I guess that was a holdover from my formative years when my mother and grandmother shoved even the smallest amount of leftover food into the fridge and God alone only knew how long it would be in there until they pulled it out and ultimately had to throw it in the garbage. I learned to FEAR the leftover.

Things are different now. Managing the manor means managing food resources the same as managing how we spend our time. Sound a bit hokey? It's really not. Wise use of food is wise use of money. That's what all those science projects my grandmother and mother created were about - saving money. It didn't work for them because they didn't take the time to THINK about meal planning. They just cooked. That's all they had time for. They didn't have the tools we have today.

Homemade ricotta
My life is a little different. I have a computer and the Internet. Those two things are as big game changers as Gutenberg's printing press. I don't have to reinvent the meal planning wheel. I can pick and choose from hundreds of plans developed by others. Saves money and saves time.

So taking a rainy and cooking a few freezer meals is a no-brainer for me. One of my favorite things to fix is lasagna. I generally have everything on hand on except ricotta cheese, so I make my own. Instructions on how I make it are found here.  A gallon of whole milk makes enough ricotta for one 13x9 pan of lasagna. 

I don't just cook meals on my cooking-binge days. I brown burger, bake cookies, make French toast casserole, make homemade crackers - anything I have ingredients for. A couple of hours spent prepping makes life a lot easier when I come home from work so it's well worth doing. 

Of all the things we have in life, time is the most precious. I do my best to use mine wisely. How I spend my time UN-wisely is for another blog. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 19, 2020

The chill is back but the fire is warm

The weather forecast for yesterday started out with a predicted one to three inches of snow followed by a wintry mix. What we got was about, maybe, an inch of sleet. Snow or sleet, the end result was the same. Nothing much was accomplished here on the hillside unless you consider drinking coffee a viable use of time. 

This morning brings the promise of a bit of sunshine. I was awake early, reading a piece of fluff on the Kindle. Sitting quietly beside the window with a cup of coffee and a book is my favorite way to be one with the coming day. It gets me started by instilling calmness. 

I've been waiting for a day like today for several weeks. Having a wooded lot, there is always a brush pile that needs to be burned. Burning requires careful consideration. Weather and available time need to coincide. I need to 1) be home for the day, 2) the brush pile to be of sufficient size to burn quickly and hot, 3) it must be raining or the ground must be covered by snow or sleet, and 4) there must be minimal wind. 

Burning is never a chore. There's something primitive and pleasing to sit near a hot fire when the air and ground are cold. A dancing wood fire is fascinating to watch. We get a lot of enjoyment sitting by the woodstove, too, as ours has a glass panel. It's a simple pleasure. 

* * *

Rural living is often governed by the weather. Burning the brush pile didn't happen today. Once I went outside, I determined there was just too strong a wind blowing. For the sake of safety, and not burning down my house, I decided to put it off until another day. And that day will come soon enough. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 15, 2020

Fire starter

My grandfather was born in 1910. He lived through the Great Depression and hard times. While he never pontificated the "waste not, want not" principle, he taught it by example. 

Never purchase anything you can make yourself.
Never pay someone else to do what you can do yourself. 
Never throw away good lumber, even if used. 
Never buy a new car if the old one can be repaired.
The land will provide if you work it right. 

Pop practiced re-purposing before it became fashionable. He constantly came home from his day job with items his co-workers thought were useless. Old tires protected young trees or served as planters for flowers my grandmother called invasive, like catnip. Old window frames became cold frames for early planting. Sawdust mixed with old oil worked like a charm for starting a fire. 

Times have changed. Using old oil and sawdust to start a fire in my woodstove - um, just say no. Melting down old, used candles and mixing with sawdust or wood chips to start a fire in the woodstove? Heck, yeah. That works. 

It's simple. Have your friends and family save old candles for you. Color and scent don't matter. Once you have a bag of them, go to the pet section at the department store of your choice and get a bag of cedar shavings (bedding for hamsters and such). 

You'll need a sturdy frame/box. Mine is approximately 12x24 inches with a removal middle insert. Line the sections with heavy-duty aluminum foil. Fill the sections with the cedar shavings. 

Toss a few of the old, used candles in a pitcher (or pan) and heat until melted. Once melted, carefully pour the HOT WAX very sparingly over the cedar shavings. Using an old wooden spoon you'll never cook with again, stir the shavings until coated with wax. Add more HOT WAX if necessary and then use the spoon to pat down firmly. You want to compress the shaving in the wax. 

Allow to set up until completely cool on the bottom. Lift the sections from the tray and store in a dry location. 

The starter block should have a layer of paraffin on the bottom which holds it together and a looser layer of cedar shavings on top. If you can't easily break off a section with just your hands, use less wax next time. You want to hold the shavings together and yet leave them loose enough to catch fire quickly. 

To use the starter, break off a SMALL section, place on a dry log in the woodstove, and light. Do not put the starter down on bare metal. The starter will burn cleanly. Think about it. When you burn a candle, what happens to the paraffin? It burns cleanly. The starter should peel right off the foil, leaving the foil for re-use or recycling. 

If you've ever struggled to get the fire in your woodstove or outdoor fireplace burning, the homemade starter might be the answer. And you'll use up all those old candles. Bag up a few pieces of starter and give back to your friends with fireplaces. Tell them they can have their candles back. Sort of.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 12, 2020

January thaw

My grandfather looked forward to the "January thaw." Where we live, it typically happens mid-month, and this year it arrived right on time. It lasts four to five days and is followed by our coldest days of the year. 

The January thaw gave Pop a few days to walk his property lines and attend to anything that needed to be done. He could read the weather signs, and he told me a few secrets about doing that. As soon as the thaw was over, Pop began studying the seed catalogs. It was time to plan the veggie garden. Indeed, my own thoughts turn to ways to successfully grow a tomato plant. 

Being Sunday, I made the most of the warm day. I opened the windows in my sunroom office and let the fresh air blow through. Some time was spent on the porch, admiring the clear blue sky. I was struck by the patterns and contrasts I could see from my quiet perch. 

In winter, the trees have a silent magnificence, their strength and structure on display. We enjoy their shade in summer but never see beyond the leaves. Stripped for a winter's sleep, they cast long, straight shadows across the ground. 

Winter is a time of discovery. The world laid bare is the world on display. I don't have time to despair the cold air and the threats of snow. 

It's easier to breathe. The air is heady when not laden with moisture. Being outside without sweating is invigorating.

I'll never be a "snowbird" and head for warmer climates when winter comes. I'm made of sterner stuff, like my grandfather. I see the world not as sterile and cold, but ready to renew and I wouldn't miss it for love nor money. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor  

Deuce enjoys the snow

I've had many dogs in my life and it seems the one with me at any given moment was the most special. I loved them all. At this point in time, Greenbrier Smokey Deuce shares my life. Deuce is the first, and will be the only, dog I ever intentionally go to a breeder to purchase. I wanted to have another Lab and this seemed to be the only way to get one. I lucked into the first one at the local SPCA when they had to rescue a litter. Jett was a great dog. Between Jett and Deuce, I've seen two sides to the Labrador nature. 

It snowed this past Tuesday and as soon as I arrived home from work, we went out. Deuce has a great nose. Everything is of interest to him. I've taken a lot of pictures and videos of him because I don't want to ever forget him. He will probably be the last dog I have. 

It's a little sad to think of the Manor without a dog, though. If I ever do get another, it will be after I extract a few promises from the cousins to care for them if I would happen to pass from this life before the dog does. 

It's Sunday now, and the snow has melted. We're in the middle of what the old-timers called the January Thaw. What comes next is real winter weather. Until then, I have a sweet stroll with my buddy Deuce to remind me simple pleasures are the most lasting. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 7, 2020

January snow

two holly trees in snow

It snowed today. Not a lot, and it certainly didn't impact the roads or my schedule. It was one of those soft, wet, clingy snows that turned the mountain white. 

I just took Deuce outside for his last trip of the day, and I was struck by the silence. The sky had cleared and Orion was rising. There was no wind and no noise. There was peace. 

This is where I'm supposed to be. I watched the snow fall today via security monitors at the day job. It wasn't until I got home that I could truly experience the wonder of the snow coming down, smell the newly cleaned air, and listen to the quiet. All the technology in the world can't replicate how it feels to be outside when it's snowing. 

It's not quite cold enough for this snow to last long. By the weekend, it will be gone and we'll be preparing for the next one, which likely won't be so gentle with us. Mother Nature does give us clues if you know what to look for. 

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor

January 2, 2020

Cranberry White Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Cookies

Some time ago, the spousal unit and I agreed we needed to change some of our eating habits. I can't recall exactly what it was we learned about food additives and preservatives that brought about the discussion although it was likely on one of those exposé newscasts.  Our decision has led to a lot of experimentation in cooking and baking. 

We're not total fanatics about cutting additives out of our food. It doesn't take a degree in rocket science to know that in our situation it's unlikely to happen. We're not raising our own chickens (yet), raising a beef cow (yet), or growing all our own veggies (yet). Chickens bring in the foxes, three wooded acres isn't right for a steer, and there's too much shade for a big garden. That's just the way it is. I am not selling the manor, either. We bow to practicalities. 

Starting small and working forward, we agreed to forego any and all store-bought cookies. We love, love, love cookies and so this means I'm going to be baking a lot of cookies. 

I bake a batch, divide them into dozens, and freeze them. Storing them in the freezer in the basement helps slow our consumption, too. 

On a recent Saturday night, he wanted cookies and we were all out. I checked the pantry and determined the only cookie I had ingredients for were oatmeal cookies. My check also revealed half a bag of white chocolate chips and a partial bag of Craisins. So I tossed them into what was the standard oatmeal cookie dough and discovered one of our new favorite cookies. Serendipity at work.

The Lady of Holly Tree Manor