The Great Pumpkin

Tell me again, is it fall or is it spring that is my favorite time of the year?   I suppose that depends on when you ask me!    Abruptly, we have gone from very warm weather, smack into the middle of my favorite season!

Last weekend was the last Farmer’s Market of the year and we just happened to be there as they were closing.    One farmer, anxious to not lug anything back home, saw me eyeing his pie pumpkins and he quickly threw me an offer of $5 for the remaining 7.   How could I refuse?!

With visions of the spectacular fall goodness these autumnal orbs offered, we loaded them into our bags, headed home, and I got to work.   Until last year, I always used pumpkin in a can.  No difference right?  Wrong!  The freshness and consistency can’t be compared.  My husband, the pumpkin pie fiend, will never let me go back.  (I’ll share my favorite recipe at the end.)

When choosing your pumpkins, look for ones that are smallish to medium sized, and blemish-free.   One of my pumpkins had a very small bad spot on it, and when I sliced it open, I saw it has spread to the inside, so I ended up throwing it away.  Pie pumpkins are much smaller than jack o’ lantern pumpkins, are sweeter and have a much nicer consistency when pureed.   Expect to get close to 2 cups of puree per pumpkin, just enough for the most scrumptious pie you have ever tasted!

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Start by giving them a good wash to remove any dirt they may be holding on to from the field.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.  Pop off the stem, or you may need to cut it off (slice the pumpkin in half just to the side of the stem and then notch it out).    Cut the pumpkin in half (or quarters if they will fit better on your pan) and scoop out and throw away the gunk.

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Set aside the seeds into a bowl.    Cover them with water and plastic wrap and place in the fridge until you’re ready to make them.  I roasted mine a couple of days later (see recipe below).   I also rescued a few good seeds by washing them then placing on a paper towel to dry for a couple of days.  I then slipped them into an envelope where they will stay in a cool place until planting next year.

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I line my pans with foil for easy clean-up.  Place the pumpkin flesh-side-up on the pans and roast in the oven about an hour, until your fork proves it’s tender all the way through.  Your fork should slide in easily all the way to the skin, there should be no “crunch” at all.

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I didn’t have enough room on my pans for one lonely pumpkin and I didn’t want to wait another hour to cook it.   I sliced up this extra pumpkin, put him in a Corelle dish with a couple of inches of water,  covered and microwaved for about 15 minutes.    Worked like a charm!

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After they have cooled down, simply scoop out the beautiful orange flesh into your food processor and puree in manageable batches.  It doesn’t take long at all, just give it a ride for a handful of seconds.  You’ll know when the consistency is right, the picture below may help

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Measure into two cup portions and place into quart-sized freezer bags.

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Try to get as much air out of the bag as you can and flatten for easy storage in your freezer before sealing.  Label the bag with the contents and the date.    I’m not sure what the “recommended freezer life” is, probably 6 months.  Don’t tell anyone, but I found a bag in the freezer from last year, and used it to make a pie.  It turned out perfectly and no one died.  Each one of these bags represents a future pumpkin pie!

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I had a little over a cup left.  What to do, what to do?   Pumpkin is a wonderful and healthy treat for dogs, which aids in digestion!   A few heaping tablespoons mixed into Dudley’s dog food (can be refrigerated for a couple of days), made for a very happy boy!

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Roasted Pumpkin Seeds:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees .  Rinse approx 2 cups of your seeds in a colander and set aside.  Melt about 1.5 tablespoons of butter in the microwave.   From there it’s all personal preference, add what you like to the butter and mix together.   I like the following:  A  teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a teaspoon of teriyaki sauce,  1/2 teaspoon of season-all, 1/2 teaspoon of garlic salt.  Yum.    Add this to the pumpkin seeds and mix well.  If you had your seeds in the fridge, your butter may seize up when you add it to the bowl.  No worries- just put the whole thing in the microwave for twenty seconds or so, then give it a good mix.     Line your pan with foil again (you’ll thank me later for this one!), and slowly roast until done- about an hour, flipping once with a spatula half way through.  Give them a taste to see if they are done, they shouldn’t be to chewy, they should be nice and crisp.   An absolute treat especially when they are warm, they won’t last long.   Here my daughter sneaks a few while I’m snapping a picture.

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Creamy Pumpkin Pie:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/creamy-pumpkin-pie/detail.aspx

Not my recipe, but follow the link to the best pumpkin pie you will ever have.  I promise.  Yummy the first day, and even better the second day- if it lasts that long.   I place mine in the fridge if there is ever any left.   One VERY important thing to note, as all of the reviewers call-out, the recipe gives the wrong amount of pumpkin.   Use only 2 cups of pumpkin, which conveniently is exactly the amount you have processed!   I also add a teaspoon of allspice.

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Yep, fall is definitely my favorite season.

Here’s to hoping the Great Pumpkin is very good to you this Halloween!

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The 1,000 Pound Challenge

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I’ve heard it said that a good move every now and then forces you to take stock in your belongings, encouraging you to reduce, reuse, recycle.  This March marks the 15th year in our home.  No move.

The footprint of the house feels heav-y.   I can almost feel the house sinking a little further into the dirt.  Our large, unfinished basement has served us well as a storage room for us and for others.    As we consider finishing this prime area to gain some needed living space for our growing kids, it’s evident that there is some work to do first!

Some tough decisions to be made.  Boxes of things from my husbands parents home-that-is-no-more; a pink rotary telephone, some old games and trucks, a wooden valet.    Trophies reminding me of oldest sons youth and time gone by.  He doesn’t want the trophies – I don’t either, but it’s hardly seemed right to throw them away.  These things are amongst all of the other usual suspects that you would find down in a basement used for the convenient storage of both useful items and ones not quite ready to parted with.

Kevin coined it best when we were talking about how difficult it would be to get rid of some of these memories saying, “Well, if we don’t do it, someday, it will become the difficult work of our children.”  We’ll do it.

Hence, the 1,000 pound challenge was born!   Simple rules: lose 1,000 pounds from now until Easter.    Weigh it as it goes out the door.  Keep a running list.  Doesn’t need to just be the basement.  We’ll recycle where we can, donating much of it to the Salvation Army, maybe a few items will go on Craigslist.  Someone else will get some good use of it.

I started last weekend by cleaning out the closet in one of the bathrooms.  40 pounds of ancient smelly lotion, a liter of hairspray so old there is danger it would change the color of my hair if I used it, pepto-bismo two years past its prime- all out the door!  The light-house themed stuff from a dozen years ago (what was I thinking?), stashed on the bottom shelf behind the hand towels, all gone!  What a great feeling!   I found an unopened bottle of expired rubbing alcohol, and asked my husband to put a new bottle on the grocery list.  He asked exactly what we do with rubbing alcohol, I don’t really know.  Off the list.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.  I’m sure we are all carrying baggage we don’t need anymore.   My challenge, if you choose to accept it:  Lighten up!  Take stock and lose 1,000 pounds with me!   Or you can always just move.

Fiscal Cleanse – Week 2-3 update – Seeing things in a new light

Peter the Woof

Peter the Woof

Highs and lows.  We are now officially half way though our fiscal experiment with three full weeks under our belt.  Some days I wonder why we are doing this and am ready to throw in the towel, and some days it seems like we could do this forever.

Both the pantry and freezer still have plenty to offer.  Kevin articulated what I was thinking, “Maybe when this is over, we’ll carry over some of what we’re learning”.    We’ve gone from, “What are you hungry for?”, and running to the market, to looking to see what we already have and coming up with some amazing way to utilize it.

January is typically the month when I am hitting all of the after-Christmas sales, filling up on more things.  That we don’t need.   Time has been found by not spending it in the stores or on-line.  More time for the stuff that’s truly important.  Very strategic of me, If I do say so myself.

In that same vein though, when I hear about a great sale I’m missing, I wrestle with my mind trying to justify dumping this whole plan,  “Think of how much money you’re losing in the long run by not taking advantage of this sale!”, I tell myself.   It’s taking some re-conditioning.

Grocery bill for my family of four (perishables only allowed):

Week 2:  $45

Week 3: $22 (is this getting easier?)

Exceptions:

-1 liter’ish of generic EVOO (extra virgin olive oil): $9.24   Don’t want to use the good stuff to fry up the chickpeas.  I know, I know.

-Root Beer at Harvest Valley Farm $2.50:  We stopped after church to get eggs.  My youngest son was quick to volunteer to go in with my husband, while my daughter and I waited in the car.   I commented to my daughter, “Bet he thinks if he goes in, he’ll get a root beer.  He must have forgotten about “fiscal”. ”   A couple of minutes later, he comes out with a sly grin, and 2 bottles of pop, one for himself and one for his sister.    They’ve done great so far, guess they deserved this treat.

-Panko crumbs: $2.70

-Pop Tarts for Nate: $7.17

-Dunkin’Donuts: $7.08 (we don’t have one here, once again, the husband was traveling and brought some home)

-Parchment paper: $2.09

-Garbanzo bean flour: $2.69

-Bottle of wine:  .06 (my husband used a reward gift card, and this was the balance)

Now for the big exception:

Dinner out for 7: $152.   I struggled with this one, but in the end, no doubt, it was important and money well spent.   This week marks 10 years since my mother passed away.  My oldest son requested the family all get together at the restaurant we went to 10 years ago, and remember her.

I’m getting a little worried this may be building up to a big spend at the end.  More to come on that in the next week or two.  In the meantime…

Three weeks to go.

Fiscal Cleanse – Week 1 Update

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“Do lightbulbs count?” my husband Kevin asked, as he pointed to the dark pendant light hanging above his head.

“Yes”, I replied.

“Really?  Cause this is where I sit to pay the bills”, he went on, “It’s not really the intent of this thing is it?  This wouldn’t really be a superfluous purchase.  Six weeks is a long time to go without replacing this lightbulb.”

I gave it some thought, and supposed he was right and told him so.  He then offered, “Well, I didn’t look downstairs yet to see if we have any.”    I headed downstairs and found three of these specialties in the box chock full of about every type of lightbulb you can imagine.   This is why we’re doing this.

After Christmas I felt the need to try to simplify our lives, eliminate some of the too much and hopefully foster a deeper sense of appreciation for our blessings.  Beginning on January 2nd, my family joined me in my pledge to go on a “fiscal cleanse”, freezing our spending with the exception of dairy, fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, meat if we run out later, and of course bills.  All other food needs to come from the pantry and the freezers.  Realistically, we recognized there would be a need for exceptions, and agreed that they would be discouraged, and that we would document them after we have gained approval from each other.

The first week has gone very well.  In the world of excess it feels like we have made nary a dent in our surplus.   Near the end of the week Kevin remarked that there should be plenty in the freezer for another five weeks.

Our weekend grocery shopping trip for fresh essentials for our family of four: $40.32.

Exceptions made this week:

-$3.36 for a Hunger Games Calendar I found for my daughter on clearance at Target.   Totally unnecessary BUT I knew it would delight her, and I couldn’t pass up the price!

-$12.37 for some caramel and cheddar “Nuts On Clark” popcorn my husband brought home for us.  It’s been a few years since either of us has been through the Midway airport, so was a rare treat.

-$3 for a box of crackers.

Not bad huh?

We’ve had some great and different meals.  It’s taken some creativity, and has been fun- we’ve taken it as a challenge.  Kevin found a recipe for some yummy Tuna cakes one night because we definitely have plenty of tins of tuna.  Another night we repurposed some left-over mashed potatoes – inventing these amazing croquettes that had a little surprise center of mozzarella.    I only had a second to snap this picture of the last two.  As soon as the shutter clicked, I looked up from the camera and one lonely croquette remained.

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The kids don’t love all of what we are presenting them with though (like the tuna), and we aren’t giving them alternatives – they’re hungry and are finally learning to eat what’s in front of them.  The turkey noodle soup made from the left-over carcass in the freezer was wonderful on the first night.   It served us two subsequent lunches.  We’re ready to move on, so a whole batch of this goodness went back in the freezer for another time.

Not wanting to make it sound too easy, it’s important to note that our grit has also been tested.  We both work full time, and have two active kids with extracurricular activities at least three nights of the week (soon to escalate to 5 with basketball starting this week).  I’ll admit,  I was tempted to stop for fast food more than once.   But I didn’t.

Our little project, has lovingly taken on the nickname of,”fiscal” by the kids.   I can feel a whole new kind of grateful developing.

We’ll finish up, appropriately, on Fat Tuesday.   I jokingly suggested we continue through Lent.  My family did not see the humor.

Five weeks to go!

Fiscal Cleanse

OK.  All this talk lately about the “Fiscal Cliff” we are headed off of, has got me thinking.

Maybe I jumped on the consumerism bandwagon a little too hard, and it’s time for a fiscal cleanse.  Time to recover from the inevitable financial, and “stuff” hang-over left from a big and beautiful family Christmas.  Time to clean out the freezer, the pantry, get creative, make-it-work, realize how very lucky and blessed we are, if we don’t have it- we really don’t need it, live a little simpler.

I’ve talked my husband into it, and my children reluctantly understand.  Here are the rules we established:

  • The Fiscal Holiday will begin on January 2nd, lasting for 6 weeks
  • No spending ANY money during this period except for on the following items:

Milk, eggs, bread, fresh fruits, vegetables.  Maybe some meat if we run out

  • Any other exceptions are discouraged, require approval from each other, and will be tracked on a list

Contrary to the spirit of the cleanse, my husband did make a Trader Joe’s run to ensure he has some Cookie Butter in the pantry, and my youngest son requested I buy a bag of shrimp to put in the freezer so he could have some Shrimp Havarti.  I’ll need some Diet Coke.

Aside from these essentials, we already have been given everything we need and more.   A beautiful, healthy family full of tremendous love.  Wonderful jobs to provide, with the opportunity to make a difference.  A warm, safe home.   The rest is inconsequential.

Anyone care to join us on our fiscal holiday?

Happy New Year!

My oldest son Nick, hiding behind some pressies

My oldest son Nick, hiding behind some pressies

Jambones

This morning after waking up in my own bed, my husband Kevin, made me a cup of coffee.  My bleary-eyed, not quite awake self, in one quick action took a generous sip of the java, rolling it around on my tongue and taking in a little air.  I was trying to capture the nuances of the flavor.   This works really well with wine, but not so well with hot coffee.

Let me explain.  Late last night we returned from a rare week away without the kids, experiencing for the first time, the amazing, beautiful wine country, God’s country. Sonoma.  Loving wine, Kevin has always wanted to go, so we took advantage of my sister’s prolonged Easter visit and generosity, leaving the kids with their Aunt for a fun week at home.

Trying to figure out how this story fits into my gardening rambles, I decided it fit right along with the tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers.   I’ll include some traveling rambles (and eating and drinking!) from time to time too.  Driving through the town of Sonoma, I was amazed that a great many of the homes had small vineyards growing right in their front yards!    I imagined how absolutely incredible it would be to have the right climate to include some vines in my garden in Nebraska.   The fruits of my labor would result in a whole new kind of bounty!

This time of year, the vines were mostly bare, just the bones really, beginning to wake up with evidence of new growth.  Each type of varietal grows on a different kind of vine.  I gave them all names based on their shape; soldiers, brothers in arms, fingernails.  There were some that looked like something you would see growing outside of a haunted house, dark, thick and twisty; the jamm-y zinfandel grape grows here.  Jambones.

We visited many vineyards.  At first we hit the big productions with sprawling mansions and vines that went on forever, clearly each trying to outdo the other in grandeur.   You couldn’t help but let out a little gasp, picking your jaw up off your chest as you walked into their foyer.

One afternoon we decided to give our caramelizing palates a break, and ventured further north to visit Armstrong Redwoods State Park.   The majestic trees, some towering over 300 feet tall, solidified our thoughts about what a beautiful country we live in.

Speaking of beauty, we have never seen anything like this little guy before.  He measured about 6 inches long.  He was munching on a leaf, nom, nom, nom.   I posted him on Facebook (which happens to be the quickest way to get any question answered!), and seems like everyone knew exactly what he was!

The last couple of days we spent exploring the Alexander Valley and Dry Creek.  Finding gems in much smaller productions with equally breathtaking views.   We “Face-timed” the kids from Stryker showing them the view, they later told us it was so beautiful it looked like we had photo-shopped the whole thing.   Our favorite of them all, hands down was Medlock Ames.  Medlock Ames is a newer winery who aggressively practice environmental sustainability, utilizing completely organic methods for production.   They have wonderful examples of some of the produce found on their ranch growing in raised beds just outside of their tasting room.  They were recently featured in Food and Wine, so they are enjoying some well deserved attention.  Still, they promise that even as they grow, that they will only sell their wines to restaurants that share their philosophies.   It was probably their amazing Kate & B’s Block Cab I was hoping to taste as I sipped my coffee this morning.

Which brings me back to the reality of the day.   We returned to Nebraska with some pretty hefty storm warnings.  This is only the second time in history that the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center has issued a high risk for tornadoes more than 24 hours in advance.   At almost noon, it seems more like dusk and the sky is looking quite green.  Time to make sure the phones are charged, and flashlights are in place in the basement.   The wine is down there too.

Morel Madness and the tick

We wait for it every year.   A great excuse to get outside after a long winter, breathe some fresh air, spend some time together, experience the thrill of the hunt and the gastronomical rewards.  Morel Mushroom hunting.

Last year our first score was on April 14th, which was relatively early in mushroom time.   The unseasonable weather pattern that I am sure  has thrown Mother Nature into a spin (I know I would be spinning if I was her!), has prodded the fungus up even earlier.   The markers were there, a couple of days of rain, followed by just the right temperature of warm days, dandelions blooming.  Anticipatory chatter began on the Morel-forum communities last week, crescendoing this weekend with reports from hunters from our area of little greys, usually the first to make an appearance.

My husband was convinced that our search on Sunday morning would yield plenty of  the year-long anticipated amazing morsel; enough to serve with the t-bone steaks he planned to grill for dinner.

The ONLY bad thing I can think of when it comes to Morel mushroom hunting, is that the season also corresponds to prime tick season.   I deplore ticks.   They give me the heebie jeebies and I have recurring bad dreams about them.    As such, I have developed my own (not) foolproof methods of deterrence.   You would laugh if you saw me, or anyone like me in the woods, thankfully, we don’t run across many people there.  My husband refuses to abide by my over-the-top techniques, but my son is still young enough to listen to his mamma.   My daughter doesn’t like mushrooms, and doesn’t like ticks so she refuses to come out mushroom hunting with us anymore.   I missed her out there with us this weekend, but truth be told, I didn’t miss the search for ticks through her long hair after the hunt.  Much to my husband’s aghast, when I asked her, she was kind enough to let her brother wear her hiking boots because he had outgrown his.   He and I were quite the sight!

Following is my tick averting technique:

Step 1:  Tuck your pant legs into your tall socks

Step 2: Tie a bandana over your head.   Top with a ballcap (which is necessary to keep branches out of your eyes)

Step 3: Take masking tape, and seal the open edges; the tops of your socks, your wrists, where your shirt meets your pants at your waist, and even at your neck.

Step 4:   When you get home, change in the garage, throw all the clothes into a hot washer (this is important- last year we put them in a laundry basket in the bathroom closet, only to find a tick crawling up the wall in the closet two days later!), and jump into the shower.

I added another trick I read about to my repertoire last weekend by cutting dryer sheets into strips and tucking them into the tops of my socks.   This really didn’t do much though.

The verdict?   Well, during the hunt we stopped plenty of times and picked ticks off our clothing.  We do a “tick-check” before we get into the car, I am sure we look like monkeys checking each other for bugs.   Even still, my son found another two climbing on him on the ride home.  I found one climbing on me, and when I set my hair free and ran my fingers through it, I found another (thankfully before he attached!).       Later at home, I surgically removed a tick from my husband’s right leg, the naysayer and non-adapter to my crazy methods.

If anyone has any tick aversion techniques, I would love to hear them!   I have thought about a spacesuit, but that probably isn’t too practical.

It’s all worth it though.  I can almost hear the butter splattering in the pan, smell the complex mushroom fragrance as they saute, and taste the amazing deep, down-to-earthy goodness.   Alas, I’m sad to report that we did not find any morel’s this time to savor with our t-bones.   BUT, I am hoping that summer will slow down, and that perhaps the extremely short-lived morel season may stick around a bit longer.  This would  give us lots more opportunities  to finally find the motherlode and make some more eight-legged friends.