Freezing cheese

Many years ago, a friend told me about freezing cheese for recipes (thanks, Cathy!). But it never occurred to me to do this with shredded cheese. It's usually more expensive than blocks of cheese, but for things like pizza, lasagne or other baked pasta dishes, or Mexican food like enchiladas, it saves a lot of time (both cooking, and cleaning out the food processor).

If you're lucky enough to find shredded cheese on sale when you need it for cooking, that's great. But buying in bulk sizes (Costco sells 5-lb. bags of shredded Mozzarella for $11), dividing it into smaller packages, and keeping it in the freezer for future use… it just seems like a good thing to try.


Brussels sprouts, farm style

The CA crew found a restaurant in Laguna Beach that has brussels sprouts on the menu, and Dave says they're great. He asked how I prepare them, so I wrote the directions down so he can share them with the rest of the group.

What I typically do is trim the stems, cut them in half (they cook faster), and saute them in a bit of butter (much better than olive oil; the butter browns and that enhances the flavor of the sprouts). You don't need much, just enough to moisten the pan and keep them from sticking. If I’m in a hurry, I’ll steam the sprouts first, then finish them in the saute pan.

The last few minutes of cooking, I sprinkle them with Balsamic vinegar (white or red, doesn’t matter) and toss them in the pan to coat. I like how the Balsamic brings out the natural nuttiness of the sprouts. Remove from heat when just getting fork-tender; I prefer them a bit crunchy. If you prefer whole sprouts, trim the ends then use the point of the knife to incise an “X” in the stem; they’ll cook faster.

It's a treat to get them in the fall at my favorite farm stand, Carpenito Bros. And throughout the winter, I can get them at Costco. This year I hope to set aside a bit of garden and grow my own.

Forcing Forsythia

I wait for this day all winter long—the day when the forsythia branches are ready to force into bloom. Usually I do this by the beginning of January, but the buds were slow to form this year. Every few days I'd check the shrub, and last weekend decided it was finally time. I cut a big bunch, and arranged them in an old pottery pitcher, and set them on the farm table in the kitchen. Within a day, I could see the start of yellow at the tips of the buds, and a couple of days later, they were completely opened up.

This week I'll cut another armful of branches and bring them inside. I like to harvest forsythia in stages, so I'll have these bright yellow blooms in my farm kitchen for the longest possible time. Just looking at them makes me think of spring, gardening, and spending more time outdoors. And doesn't the forsythia look wonderful in my yellow kitchen?


Home cooking

About 5:00, I wandered into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door, and stood there, thinking about the choices at hand. I pulled out lamb chops and brussels sprouts, and got red potatoes and shallots from the bowl on the kitchen table.

I used a spicy Texas rub on both sides of the chops, and browned them in the new Trader Joe's olive oil before putting them in the oven to roast. The shallot was sliced and cooked in the olive oil until tender and transparent, then I added the cubed potatoes.

Meanwhile, I turned the chops over, and boiled the brussels sprouts. When the potatoes were tender, I cut the brussels sprouts in half. I added a tablespoon of butter to the pan, then browned the sprouts in butter along with the potatoes and shallot.

It was one of those meals that just came together with no recipes, just instinct, and it was the perfect meal for a chilly, rainy Saturday.



Tonight I made my famous Mexican skillet for dinner, this time with leftover rice added to the mix. It looked great, and smelled oh-so yummy. Maybe it was the heavenly smells that distracted me into making a really boneheaded move—I grabbed the handle of the cast iron pan with my bare hand, just seconds after carefully removing the hot pan from the oven using a potholder. Duh... I burned my hand pretty good, mainly along the base of my fingers and at the base of my thumb. Ouch!

So as I stood at the kitchen sink, holding my poor hand under a stream of cold water, Dave handed me a glass of wine and gave me a hug. And it got me thinking… wine glass, cold water, soothing… hmmm...

Tip of the day: For a palm burn, fill a wine glass with ice and water, and hold it by the bowl of the wine glass.

Second tip of the day: If you cook with cast iron, buy a silicone sleeve for the handle.


Great Blue

I spotted a new Blue Heron rookery today, thanks to the dozen or more herons flying around a huge wetland on the outskirts of town. I'm sure my jaw dropped; I've never seen this many herons together before. They're common in the valley, because of all the ponds and marshes, and we see them on our own pond from time to time. But seeing so many circling the marsh was really a thrill. I was hoping to find a place to park and watch for a while, but the only nearby parking was at the animal control shelter, and the gates were locked. I've never seen this group of nests before, in spite of driving this stretch of road nearly every day. So I'm thinking it's a new, under-construction heronry.

A couple of years ago I found a heronry close to my house, in a stand of dead trees in a county park. I would never have seen the nests except for the pair of herons that flew across the road right in front of my truck, each carrying a long stick. As I turned my head to watch them fly into the trees, I spotted the group of nests.
When I got back to work, I got curious about their breeding habits and did some online research. The Great Blue Heron usually breeds in colonies, building their nests in trees close to lakes or other wetlands. The colony is correctly called a heronry, although more often I hear them referred to as a rookery. Once the birds choose a mate for the year (they're monogamous for a single breeding season), each pair builds a bulky stick nest high in a tree, usually at the crown, or the top of a standing dead tree. The female lays 3 to 6 pale blue eggs, each about the size of a chicken egg. Eggs are incubated for about 28 days, and hatch over a period of several days. Hatchlings will fledge (take their first flight) and reach their full adult size in about two months. The birds are wary of humans, particularly at the beginning of the nesting process. Repeated human intrusion into nesting areas often causes the birds to abandon the nest (and the eggs or chicks). If you want to observe the nesting of herons, stay back and use binoculars. If you get too close, body language will tell you if the bird is disturbed by your presence. Pay attention, and back off until the bird relaxes.
An adult Great Blue Heron has a head-to-tail length of 38–54 in., a wing span of 66-79 in., a height of 45–54 in., yet only weighs 4.6–5.5 lb. Because of their size, adult birds have few natural predators, but can be taken by bald and golden eagles, and less frequently, great horned owls and red-tailed hawks. The eggs and nestlings can fall prey to turkey vultures, hawks, bears, and raccoons. The biggest danger to the heron is habitat loss, starvation (associated with habitat loss), human disturbance, and disease.
The Puget Sound area has a unique subspecies of the Great Blue Heron, which is non-migratory. It doesn't interact with migrating herons, and has developed adaptations that include a darker plumage. It's classified as Ardea herodias fannini.


Horses in winter

Every year when the weather finally turns cold, I inevitably think about all my years with horses at home. With no barn (at least, no stalls in the barn), my guys lived in the pasture year-round.

This morning I woke up at 3:00, and it was cold! I ran to the bathroom, then back to bed and snuggled under all the layers, and thought about the old days. I’d be up at 4:30, pull on jeans and boots and my canvas barn coat, and go outside for chores: haul hay from the barn, fill grain buckets in the tack room, break ice from the water trough. While my horse munched happily, I'd check legs and blankets by flashlight to make sure both survived the night. Undo leg straps and feel the underside of the blanket to make sure it was dry; if the blanket was wet, I'd replace it with a dry blanket, and hang the wet (and dirty) blanket in the barn. Then back to the house for a shower, dress in work clothes, and head for work. In the horse years, 6:00 was the earliest start time I could manage, which meant doing horse chores in the dark every day.

I actually preferred the cold—blankets would get steadily dirtier, and I’d spend as much time brushing them as I did grooming the horse, but the horse stayed warm. Worse by far were days of steady rain. In the fall and early winter, Fallon wore a mid-weight blanket underneath a waterproofed nylon sheet, which kept the wet from soaking in. When it really turned cold, I’d switch to a heavy multi-layer winter rug, the ideal clothing for a pastured horse. As long as you kept the rug in place, the heat from the horse would keep the layers underneath warm and dry, and any water that soaked in from the outside wouldn’t make it through. But after a couple of weeks of rain, you’d lose the battle. As soon as the wet soaked through, the horse started to shiver with cold. So I always had two winter rugs—when one soaked through, I’d switch it for the other and hang the wet one in the barn to dry.

By this time of year, every year, I would have spent a day cleaning, drying, and waterproofing all the blankets and sheets, and hang them from nails inside the barn to dry. I learned about using Thompson’s Water Seal from Judith—pour it straight into a spray bottle, and do at least three coats on sheets and winter blankets. It would eventually stain the cloth, but it worked better than anything else (even ScotchGuard) and was much cheaper. Once everything was clean and waterproofed, I'd fold and stack them in the tack room, ready to use.

But in spite of the work, I really miss the horses. There’s nothing quite like watching your horse gallop up the hill as soon as she sees you drive in the driveway each day, anxious for a pat… and her dinner!


Singing coyote

Every night for more than a week, I've heard a pack of coyotes barking and howling on the other side of the valley. There have always been coyotes here, as long as we can remember. Lots of open pastures, lots of woods, but the real draw is the nearby creek and all the ponds. There are always geese and ducks near the water, plus chickens and other birds (one of our new neighbors brought several peacocks with him when he moved in; he built an outdoor aviary pretty quickly!).
This pack sounds like it's at the big pond across the road, and it sounds like a really big pack. The first time I heard them, I'd just climbed into bed to read, and had the windows open. The cats usually ignore the sound of a barking dog or the occasional coyote; this big pack freaked them out. James actually stood up and stared toward the windows, and had to be coaxed into relaxing and settling down to sleep.

After midnight, I heard one of them singing solo. It's a treat to hear a coyote sing, sort of a yip-yip that soars up into a howl, and it can go on and on. It's haunting and beautiful to hear.

It got me thinking about all the coyote sightings we've had since we moved here. I wouldn't have thought they'd live so close to suburban areas, but the coyote has adapted really well to fringe rural areas like ours. They've become tolerant of people, wary, but tolerant. I like to walk the back roads near my house, and often see a coyote coming or going between the creek and the open pastures, sometimes boldly trotting down the gravel road in front of me.

They've also adapted to a changing food supply, and people are good at unintentionally providing food for them: garbage cans, leaving pet food outside, and even (sad to say) the pets themselves. Every time I see a sign posted for a missing cat, I just shake my head. I used to let my cats go outside, but finally decided it was too big a risk. Ironically, it was a pair of neglected neighborhood dogs who posed the biggest risk to my cats, not the coyotes. When the dogs started packing, they started killing everything they could catch—cats, geese, ducks, chickens, you name it. But that's a story for another day.

On the positive side, in a world where other natural predators have moved away from people, coyotes can help keep an expanding rodent population under control. And in rural areas, especially where there are horses and cows (not to mention llamas and alpacas), rodents are part of the deal. So we've encouraged barn cats to share the barn by providing food, but built a special shelf high on the wall of the barn, easy for a cat to jump up to, too high for a coyote or dog, and( hopefully) out of the reach of rodents!


Use vs. Utilize

This is probably the best description of how to use these two different words that I've ever seen. I don't take credit for it; a new copy editor at work found it in her efforts to break the Marketing folks of their habit of using "utilize" in every other sentence (and always incorrectly). It's something technical writers and editors struggle with constantly: how to get others to understand that "utilize" doesn't make you sound smarter.

Here's an easy way to remember how to use these words correctly:

  • McGyver once utilized a shoelace, bubble gum, a house key, and hair spray to create a bomb.
  • If he had put the shoelace in his hiking boots, strolled home chewing the gum, opened his door with the key, and set his coiffure for the day with the hair spray, he would have been using those items instead.


False spring & forsythia

Last weekend we had four days of beautiful, sunny, warm weather. Just enough to get the gardening juices going, and make me anxious for signs of spring in the garden... the daffodils pushing through the mulch. For purple primroses, and the huge hellebores to start blooming. The fruit trees to start budding out. And I even look forward to the grass starting to grow again (shhh... don't tell my husband).

Usually by now I've cut an armload of forsythia branches to bring inside, where I fill my biggest vases and place them throughout the house. I've done this every year since we bought this old farm, and I love the sight of bright yellow blooms opening up, bringing a touch of spring and sunshine in the middle of winter. This year it's late, probably because of our very cold weather in mid January. A few more days should do it, once the buds get just a bit bigger.

My big, overgrown forsythia has never failed to provide a beautiful display of blooms, in spite of a few years of neglect (and some not-so-friendly competition from a 50-year-old wild rose). Forsythia seems to thrive when left to grow naturally, with minimal pruning to keep in in check so it doesn't crowd its neighbors. It isn't happy if brambles (or wild rose) block too much of its sun. It will sulk for a season if that happens, but will bounce right back the next year. I love that it comes to life so early each year, and love the bright green leaves that contrast so well with the rhododendrons that grow nearby. It's the perfect shrub if you have the room, and I think I've found the perfect place to plant another one.


Feather nest

We cleaned out the nesting boxes today. Dave built these years ago, and we have them on each end of the barn, on the light poles in both orchards, and on the fence outside our bedroom windows. The one on the north end of the barn was stuffed full, and the nest was amazing. It's completely made of feathers, held together with blond horse hair. Looks like this pair of birds found their nesting materials next door on the Evans’ farm. They have exotic birds in an outside flight cage, and they also have a Palomino horse. The peacock feathers probably came from the big new house on the old horse farm; they brought a flock of peacocks with them when they moved in.

I carefully extracted the nest from the rest of the debris in the box, then sorted through the feathers and saved the best for the collection I keep in my mother’s silver christening mug. The nest is in a martini glass so you can see all sides of it.

The variety of feathers is amazing. There are spotted feathers, delicate beige with faint stripes, solid black feathers, brown with rust edges, and fluffy white goose down feathers. The prettiest are the miniature peacock feathers, with the vibrant blue-green coloring, and the same distinctive eye as peacock tail feathers have. It must have been a very soft home for the baby birds who were born there.


Cookbooks for a farm kitchen

I don't claim to be a great cook, or even an avid cook, but I do love to cook. And my friends never complained (or failed to accept an invitation to dinner), so I guess that says something. My early efforts were tentative, sticking to the food I was comfortable preparing, and only occasionally straying into uncharted territory. But once I stopped being intimidated by the whole process, I found that I really enjoyed cooking.

I also discovered the joy of reading cookbooks. I used to grab an armload and sit in my local used bookstore, or maybe in Barnes & Noble, sipping on a Starbucks coffee while I looked through each book to see if it suited my tastes. I soon discovered that my favorite cookbooks were those that tell a tale while tickling my tastebuds. Those are the books I read cover to cover. Everyone has a story to tell, and I've read some great tales while flagging recipes to try in my own kitchen.

My friend Ruth has a good technique for scoping out cookbooks to try: she goes to the newest branch of our county library system. They have the latest titles, brand new and squeaky clean, with that great new book smell… yum. I bring home an armload at a time, and when I find a cookbook that I can't put down, that ends up bristling with colored tape flags, and the recipes I've cooked taste as good as they sound... it's a book for the collection.

Over the years, my collection has grown and shrunk, depending on my changing tastes. But some that came to stay permanently include these (and they're still in print!).

Streamliner Diner | a charming diner on Bainbridge Island, just a ferry ride away. My version of the book is the first, written by the four women who started the restaurant, and who took turns cooking. Probably my all-time favorite salad recipe came from this book, and just reading the title makes my taste buds perk up: Mushroom-Bacon-Blue Cheese Salad. The flavors of bacon, marinated mushrooms, toasted walnut halves, and blue cheese atop crisp Romaine lettuce, with a Dijon vinaigrette, are heavenly.

The Riversong Lodge Cookbook by Kirsten Dixon | Probably the first cookbook I ever read cover to cover before cooking a single recipe. The author and her family run a fishing retreat in the Alaskan bush, living there year-round. Really good, hearty food, but I love the Orange-Chocolate Chip cookies.

As American As Apple Pie by Phillip Stephen Schulz | I absolutely love this book. It has a very simple concept: a dozen recipes for favorite dishes, like baked beans, chocolate chip cookies, pot roast, meat loaf, pancakes, and potato salad; twenty categories in all. Feel like making chili but don't want to search through a dozen cookbooks to find the recipe that matches the ingredients in your pantry? This is the first book I pick up.

Sunday Suppers (Barnard & Dojny) is another book that I bought many years ago, but never got tired of. Simple, wonderful comfort food with common ingredients and completely "unfussy."

When my 30-year collection reached the century mark, I limited my cookbook research to the library, and stayed away from the bookstores! But then I gave some away, and sold a few more, and have added some new favorites. I love Ina Garten's Barefoot Contessa cookbooks. and I'm baking bread again, thanks to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (and my sister, who recommended the book to me).