Last May

 

IMG_0639

So there she is in all her splendor and glory. It took a special kind of crazy to take the leap on this house. Some were turned off from the “A” word, asbestos, used for siding. Others, the derelict old garage that once leaned against the back porch. The general hasn’t-been-touched-since-the-fifties state of the interior didn’t help either.

IMG_0599

Brave or deranged, we decided to look past them all to see the possibility for wide-plank pine beneath the tatty red carpet and the yard just steps from a park and playground.

Then, once the decision was made came the garden hose enema of actually buying the thing. With a big chunk of money already thrown down, the bank came up with new requirements every day. The garage was unsafe and they couldn’t lend until it was down. There was exposed lath on the interior and we want you to cover it up. The drywall you put up must be painted. We don’t care if it is mudded or taped, just paint it.

Each day, our faith that this beat up house would eventually be ours waned.

Magically, at the beginning of May, it all fell into place. We closed our eyes, signed our lives away, and the deal was done.

Desperately in search of a reward for all this self-flagellation, we tore up the nasty red carpet the same day we closed. Beneath layers of hardboard, dust, and paper, the old wood floors didn’t hesitate, but breathed the free air for the first time in decades.

IMG_0653

Next Chapter

It’s easy to bury yourself in a hole, a burrow of your own creation where it’s safe to look out but you yourself never have to be seen. The internet particularly is a warren of twisted tunnels that all connect but seldom seem to lead anywhere. Where it is possible to read, watch, and gawk, poking your head out occasionally to leave an anonymous comment or an even more ephemeral “click” or page view.

Real life can be a burrow too. One where you become so focused on the daily routine, the List that is impossible to finish. To come out of your burrow seems impossible, impractical, perhaps even a waste of precious time.

My burrow has been lined with old plaster and lath, joint compound, and cut off lengths of two-by-fours. We bought a house last May. A really old (1850) house that needed a huge amount of love. Balancing renos with family life and the day in, day out jobs of a stay-at-home dad has been quite a challenge. With the breakneck pace of it all, it has been hard to poke my head out of my burrow and spend time here sharing it with you.

My community has been rocked by a horrible tragedy in the last few days, the details of which I’m not going to get into here. Suffice to say it is nightmare material. And where the tragedy has nothing directly to do with this post, it has torn at my heart and made me acknowledge that I want to choose connection over disengagement and sharing over hiding. This invention of the internet has done a lot do degrade our social structure, while at the same time making it possible to reach people who we otherwise never could. The fact that my son can have weekly face-to-face time with his grandparents who live on the  the other side of the continent is truly a marvel. I hope that this blog can be a positive place too.

Over the next weeks and months I’m going to try to go back to last May and share the story of our new home. I wasn’t always the best at taking progress pictures, so some of the posts might be a little sparse, but as the year progresses and I catch up with the current time, I hope to do a better job of documenting the things we’re doing in case the process might be interesting or helpful to any of you. Peppered throughout I’ll still be doing posts on recipes and non-sequitur thoughts as they come to me, and hopefully those will be fun too.

Lending a Helping Tentacle

PSM_V14_D361_The_giant_squid

 

This is a little day-in-the-life I wrote earlier this winter that I thought I would share. Enjoy!

 

Winter 2015

 

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, even the trees are freezing their asses off – it’s that cold outside. What a day! A day to huddle inside. A day to make muffins.

“Dadda, Dadda, I’m gonna help you.”

Wut? He noticed. Somehow Boy’s supersonic antennae read a change in the air. Perhaps alerted by an increase in atmospheric gluten set off the moment that the flour canister shifted, I know he’s on to me.

Now that the offer of assistance has been made and regardless of my consent, we’ve entered into a binding contract. Allow me to help make muffins or feel the full weight of my shit-nuttery.

It’s okay. I actually enjoy it when he helps, even though everything takes twice as long and there is the potential for disaster around every corner. What takes a bit of getting used to is the sudden boost in household activity. A moment ago I was sucking back a second cup of coffee and trying to remember where I left my pants. Suddenly, chairs are being pushed up against the counter and I need to kung-fu block his hands before they test the edge of the paring knife I left out or the razor-sharp blades of a micro-plane that he somehow managed to dig out of the drawer.

The real trial comes when the ingredients start to emerge. Our routine actually works pretty well. I scoop the flour, Boy dumps it in the bowl. I pour the oil into the measuring cup, Boy chucks most of it on the counter. Somehow he manages to get a hand on every surface and into each powder and liquid. He mixes the flour and spices around (actually rather helpful) and tests the viscosity of the egg whites (not so much).

By the time the muffins are ready for the oven and I’ve dislodged most of the brown sugar from my underpants, we both look like we’ve had the baker’s version of a wet t-shirt party, flour poured over our heads and vanilla dabbed behind each ear.

The muffin tins slide into the oven and quiet settles over the land. Boy moves onto some other activity, reading a book in silence or trying to see if he can work the blender, and I go looking for more coffee or double bypass surgery. It’s like having an ink-firing squid as an assistant, with tentacles that latch onto every surface and the innate ability to make more mess than seems possible with something as benign as a muffin.

Is it worth it? Wouldn’t a bag of oatmeal make for easier cheaper breakfasts?

Absolutely (on both counts).

People say that anyone who can read a recipe can bake, which I believe is true. But, and this is important, can anyone tell whether a batch of bread dough is ready by touching it? Do they know if a cake needs a few more minutes in the oven by the smell? I was kneading dough with my mother likely before I could walk and Wife has been around so many rising pastries that she never sets a timer. This kitchen muscle memory, imparted at such an early age, is irreplaceable. It would be a poor repayment of my mom’s patience if I was scared off by a bit of baking soda in the eyes.

At the same time, Boy’s desire to help is one of his finest attributes. It’s meant that cleaning up toys is a no-brainer. All I have to do is start and he pitches right in. I hold out hope that he’ll keep this virtue right through his teenage years (harharhar).

I would love to stay typing all day, but the timer is about to go off and it’s time to spend the next half hour keeping a pair of paws away from a screaming hot pan. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll put down the keyboard. I just found some eggshells in my one of my socks.

Applesauce Spice Bread

wpid-wp-1427048239008.jpeg

The impetus behind this recipe was solving a refrigerator issue. There is nothing so sublime as a pork chop slathered in sweet and tangy applesauce, that sweet and savory combo I’ve come to appreciate so much as I’ve gotten older. However, there is inevitably a half jar of applesauce in the door of the fridge that hangs out longer than it should. Applesauce is a staple in our house, something we like to make in the fall when the apples are cheap and at their best. We have found though, that we don’t eat as much as we put up. That’s where this recipe comes in.

Using up a whole cup of applesauce, this moist bread is a perfect breakfast or an even better mid-morning snack. It can be toasted in a skillet and spread with peanut butter or cream cheese.

The Recipe:

2 Eggs
1 Cup Applesauce
¾ Cup Sugar
¼ Cup Packed Brown Sugar
½ Cup Melted Butter
¼ Cup Sour Cream (Or Greek Yogurt)
2 Teaspoons Vanilla

1 Cup White Whole Wheat Flour (Plain whole wheat would work too)
¾ Cup All Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
½ Teaspoon Baking Powder
½ Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Cinnamon
½ Teaspoon Nutmeg
⅛ Teaspoon Ground Cloves
⅛ Teaspoon Allspice

The Process:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Spray one standard loaf pan. In a large bowl, beat together the first 7 ingredients. In another bowl whisk the dry ingredients together. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and fold them together just until the flour disappears. Pour the thick batter into the prepared loaf pan and bake for 50-60 minutes until a knife inserted into the center comes out clean. Let the bread cool for at least 30 minutes before removing it from the loaf pan.

Blogging Again – The Same But Different

I decided to start blogging again. Actually, I decided a few weeks ago. What prevented me from actually sitting down and posting, is not knowing where to start.

I could have just picked up where I left off, posted a recipe and pretended that nothing had happened. After much thought, I decided that wasn’t a genuine approach. I can’t go forward without acknowledging that I’m not the same person and everything has changed.

The only thing I could think of to write about while I am grieving, is grief itself. I won’t pretend to know what other people go through, I simply aim to share some of my own thoughts and experiences.

There’s no point in going into what happened. This is a public blog and the internet is full of people with their own problems. Suffice to say that tragedy struck and there was no way I could have prepared for it.

The first thing I would note is that there’s no guide book to grieving. There aren’t any stages either. Saying that grief comes in stages suggest that there is some order or process involved. That you will first go through one emotion that will neatly lead into the next. My experience wasn’t like that at all. Instead, the different emotions inevitably came as stabs from a blindingly sharp needle, sometimes one at a time and sometimes all jumbled up. Though it sounds irrational, it is possible to be happy and unbearably sad at the same time. Along with the grief can come feelings of guilt. Guilt for not feeling or for feeling too much. Guilt for not doing something when there is nothing you can do. Guilt for somehow angering God or the universe and bringing it all down on you and your family.

Another side of grief that I never would have expected was in the random arrangement of it all. There are times when I sit down, maybe looking at a poignant picture, and expect a flood of emotion. Instead there is only emptiness and distraction. Suddenly it sneaks up on you like a wild cat, tail twitching, to pounce when you least expect or want it, in the shower or walking the aisles of the grocery store.

Perhaps this is just me, but I am totally unequipped to deal with people who want to console me. In the first few weeks, my worst fear was to be recognized somewhere. That I would be seen away from home and then approached and hugged. As the well-meaning friend would put an arm around my shoulder, I would be searching desperately for a shovel and pickaxe so I could tunnel my way out. My brain understood the intentions of the other person, seeking to comfort, but my body would just seize up.

“How’s it going,” sounds like such a benign phrase. It’s one of the most common ways to greet someone, especially among men. For quite a while it left me stammering. I couldn’t answer with the normal, “Good. How are you?” That would have been a bald-faced lie; I was anything but good. Instead I would stammer, “Uhh.. Okay…” which just piled onto the discomfort of the situation. I finally settled on the oh-so-banal reply, “Hangin in there.” At least it avoided feigned cheer.

In the months that have followed, I don’t really know if I have started to heal or not. Somthing I heard once best describes where things have settled down – that the pain doesn’t grow less with time, you just feel it less often. I’m sure there are as many ways of coping as there are people in the world. I have taken to saying a rosary every weekday, 15 minutes where I can feel things and think, or not, but be free from the distraction of the internet or books or housework. I try to find gratitude even in the worst situations, to be grateful that these changes in my life may have helped me to be a better person.

And that’s that. I’m sure my next post will be silly or maybe delicious and I don’t intend to dwell on the negative in this space, but it didn’t feel right going on without speaking to my absence as well as perhaps a change in tone. I know that I don’t feel the same and that it stands to reason I might not write the same either.

 

Spatchcock Chicken with Sweet Potato Gnocchi

P1000649

So first I’m going to apologize for my camera. This is a photo-heavy post and my camera is a stinker. That being said, I had so much fun making this dinner that I had to share.

I’ve been reading about spatchcocking ever since I heard it proposed as a way to do up Thanksgiving turkey. Alas, our turkey will be much too large to do this way. Anything over 12-15lbs. is unlikely to fit on a standard half sheet pan. I consoled myself by making this chicken that was chilling (hehe) in the freezer.

The core point I want to make is that this was a normal meal, not at all fancy. I think I made it on a Tuesday and it was really easy. Economical too, as I’ll prove in the next photo.

P1000622 - Copy

There you have it. Less than 7 bucks for an 8lb. roasting turkey. It was on a great sale so guess what? We got 2! They’ve been frozen for the past few weeks and ready for a weekday meal. As we get to the bottom of the post you’ll see how far the depths of my cheapskatery goes.

By the way, someday I would love to raise all my own chickens or buy only local happy birds. Unfortunately that is a dream for a deeper pocketed future.

Let’s start with step 1 shall we. I want to give you an idea for the steps as I went through them to show the timing and the whole scope of the meal, so I’m going to skip back and forth between chicken and gnocchi. I’m not going to worry about spelling out the recipe for the gnocchi.  This was what I used.

P1000621 - Copy

I roasted the sweet potatoes until they were nice and soft, let them cool and then scooped out the flesh and put it through a potato ricer. If you don’t have a ricer there are other ways to skin the cat. I set them aside and started on the chicken. (And yes I do have a jar of jelly beans on the counter. Don’t you?)

P1000623 - Copy

With something as icky as raw chicken, it’s worth getting things ready before you start hacking away at it. All you need are a sharp knife and a pair of kitchen shears. And that bag? That’s where I stick the neck and the backbone, which we’ll be removing shortly. See, I really am that cheap. Why not get another few meals of chicken soup with a flavor-packed and free broth?

P1000624 copy

Flip the chicken over so that  the breast side is down. Now cut down each side of the backbone with the shears. I even drew some fancy lines.

P1000626 - Copy

It should look like this gruesome murder victim.

P1000629 copy

Next, make a cut right at the breastbone where I have the handy little arrow. You should be able to splay the chicken apart now and have it lie flat.

P1000631 - Copy

For flavoring I used the zest of a lemon, some dried pounded rosemary, salt, and butter. Mix them all together and slather the skin with the greasy concoction. Lay the bird on a cooling rack placed on a foil lined baking sheet. I even stuck the slices of the lemon under the rack to add some steam to the underside as the chicken cooked.

P1000637 - Copy

Bake at 475 degrees but be careful, it takes a lot less time to roast than a roasting pan chicken. The large bird I had took about an hour. Most would probably be done in about 45 minutes.

Time to swing back to sweet potato gnocchi.

P1000638 - Copy

Add the egg and cheese to the sweet potatoes. Use enough flour so that it makes a dough that holds together but is still quite soft. The less flour you can get away with, the fluffier the finished product.

P1000639 - Copy

It should look kinda like this.

P1000642 - Copy

Divide the dough into 4 and then roll each piece into a log. Cut into little chunks with a knife or bench scraper. At this point most people tell you to roll them on the back of a fork or something. I was trying to cut down on work and there wasn’t a thick sauce to sop up so I didn’t bother. They still tasted just as good as the fancy looking ones.

P1000644 - Copy

Drop them into boiling salted water and after they float let them cook another 2-3 minutes. I finished mine in a pan with butter and sage. Make sure you let them brown and don’t fuss with them too much. That way you get the crispy bits on the bottom.

P1000649

Once the chicken is 155 degrees on the breast and at least 165 on the legs, pull it out and let it rest for 10 minutes. Carve and serve with the gnocchi and maybe something green. I wish my final photo did the meal more justice. The chicken was bursting with juice with a crackling skin. The gnocchi were warm, hearty, and mildly sweet. Well worth the time and small amount of money expended.

P1000657

100% Whole Wheat Oatmeal Cookies (Master Recipe)

008

I planned on posting the second installment of my short story exercise. I even had the post all ready to go. After reading it through, which I hadn’t done in a while, I realized how violent the story was. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, it just doesn’t really reflect what I enjoy writing or reading these days.  I also worry that some of you who read this might read it just because you know me, and I don’t want to subject anyone to something that makes them feel uncomfortable. I’m still planning on posting story #3, but in the mean time I thought we could all get behind cookies.

There are thousands of recipes for drop cookies out there. Most of them are blessed by being delicious and simple to make. At the end of the day though, you only ever really need one or two. This recipe is meant to be a base for a great oatmeal cookie, into which you can add any of the nuts, chunks, chips or fruit you may want. What makes them even better is that they are 100% whole wheat.

The Recipe:

½ Cups Butter
½ Cups Shortening
213g Brown Sugar
67g Sugar
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
¾ Teaspoon Salt
14g Cider Vinegar
1 Egg
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
198g White Whole Wheat Flour
85g Quick Cooking Oats
350-500g Nuts, Chunks, Chips, or, Fruit

 

The Process:

This really is a dump-it-in-and-go recipe. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Blend together the butter, shortening, sugars, vanilla, salt, and vinegar until it is nice and creamy.

031

 

“Now wait”, you say. “Vinegar in cookies?”

Yes indeed. It reacts with the baking soda and gives these whole wheat cookies a nice lightness. I also think it tempers the sweetness of the sugar.

Do it!

028

 

Back on track.

Blend in the egg and baking soda then add the flour and the oats. If you only have old fashioned oats you can smash them in a food processor. That’s what I did. Using the old fashioned oats straight will give you a cookie that spreads more.

Now throw in your chosen add-ins. I went with chocolate chips, walnuts, and crisped rice. I’m serious, you can’t go wrong here.

036

 

This is the part where I might do it differently next time. I scooped my cookies right away, and on a warm evening the dough was VERY soft. Putting the dough in the fridge for half and hour would make for chewier cookies that don’t spread quite as much.

So…

Now, or in half an hour, scoop the dough onto a parchment lined cookie sheet. I went with the tablespoon sized scoop. Bigger or smaller works fine. Just adjust the baking time.

037

Bake at 350 degrees until brown around the edges and still soft in the middle. Mine took 10 minutes in my oven. The batch made about four dozen.

038

Let them cool for a nanosecond and eat, eat, EAT.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.