Picking up the Pieces

Around the time I was due for my last blog post, I was faced with a difficult life change:  my husband got drunk and hit me.  It was not the first time he’d hurt me, but I vowed it would be my last.

I left my husband on Valentine’s Day, with the help of some very dear friends, taking the girls and the dog and as much of our things as we could cram into the car.  It was freezing in Ohio and snowed six inches by the time we left (with more falling).  When we arrived a day later at my parents’ house in East Texas, it was 72 ˚F and sunny.  The actual journey was an adventure in and of itself (including bald tires, frequent potty breaks for Starkitten, lots and lots of energy drinks, stereotypes about Louisiana, and car-hopping), but the kids and I were safely back in a familiar place.

One of the things that had been getting me down was my husband’s alcoholism.  As long as he is sober, he really is the most wonderful person in the world.  When he gets drunk, however, he turns into something scary.  And the more stressed out that work and other things made him, the more he sought comfort in alcohol.  I have tried for years to be supportive of him as he struggled to overcome this, but there is only so much a person can take, especially with impressionable young children in the mix.  I did not want the girls growing up thinking that it was okay for their significant others to use violence on them.

Add to it that the move to Ohio wasn’t as beneficial for our family’s finances as we’d originally thought–I couldn’t find work and my husband was not being compensated nearly as well as he was under the impression he would be–and we found ourselves in a financial black hole.  That gave me one more set of nightmares to deal with, on top of everything else on my plate.

I spent my first week back in Texas in a mix of conflicting emotions.  A part of me was still in shock, a part of me was worrying over everything I had to deal with (to the point that the worrying would make me start to shake), a part of me was getting lost in the kids and the warm sunny Texas weather I had so dearly missed, and a part of me was feeling unworthy of the outpouring of support I’d been receiving from my friends.  I didn’t want to handle any of it, so I found myself escaping–to books, to baking (until my mother reminded me that my father now has diabetes and I shouldn’t be making so many sweets that he cannot enjoy), to World of Warcraft, and to just sitting on the front porch like a proper Southerner and watching a dead world give birth to spring.

But escapism, like drinking, is not a solution to one’s problems.  Although I couldn’t emotionally handle everything at once, I began to tackle some of my challenges.  A phone call here, an email there, and what felt like half a million job applications.

At some point during all this, my husband stopped denying that he had a problem and became cooperative.  He understands that I am not going back to him and we have begun sorting out the details.  He calls every day to talk to the kids.  So even though divorce is imminent, at least we can be civil.  As sad as that sounds, it makes grappling with everything else a little easier.

Since my life is in a state of upheaval, I don’t know what I should do with this blog.  My posts will be intermittent until I can get into a routine (and hopefully a job), and probably not about cooking (trying to get my father to eat healthy food has been a challenge).  I’m open to suggestions on that, as I want to write (it helps me to keep my sanity).  I could talk about my return to World of Warcraft, or the depressing job market, my battle with existentialism, springtime in East Texas, games I play with the kids to teach them something, or how sometimes grandparents undermine their own kids’ parenting when they constantly interfere.  What do you think?

Light in the Tunnel

Jump to Taco Seasoning

I’ve been in a dark place the past couple of weeks.

It’s been the kind of stressful that killed every ounce of creativity in me.  At first, I didn’t want to even bring up to the blogging world that I’ve been stressed out, since it’s a depressing topic, but parenting isn’t always pretty (and neither is life), and since I’d said I was blogging about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting (yep, it can feel kind of like a Western film), I might as well be fair about it.

It’s difficult being a good parent when you’re preoccupied with something that’s incredibly stressful.  It’s even more difficult when you’re a stay-at-home parent, and so getting away from work (i.e. taking care of the children) is next to impossible.

A snow-covered world as seen from my back window.

I really miss that about working.  I could leave work and come home to the kids, or leave the kids by going to work.  If one of those was a stressful environment, the other offered respite.   And if both were driving me crazy, I was at least making money and so could afford to occasionally take off for a weekend with friends.

So all I could do was try to keep distracted: playing with the kids, reading something lighthearted, or watching comedies with my family.  Anything that didn’t give me time to myself to think, lest my stress affect me physically.  Of course, it didn’t help that this is the dark time of the year, and apparently I am sensitive to the day length.

At one point, I began to feel hopeless, and so I took time to read excerpts of The Sickness Unto Death by Søren Kierkegaard.  While he is the father of existentialist philosophy (questioning all religion and morality until you come to the conclusion that life is absolutely ridiculous), he basically says, “What the hell.  Take a leap of faith and believe in God.”  (Or, in my case, gods.)  It helped, if for no other reason than reminded me that nothing (not even horrible situations) lasts forever.  It gave me hope.

One night, Sunfilly kept having nightmares, and so I had Starkitten sleep with my husband on our bed and I joined Sunfilly on Starkitten’s twin bed.  Once I finally calmed her down and snuggled her back to sleep, I lay there, admiring how peaceful and angelic she looked.  Her sweet little face–even the way her lips move like she’s sucking an imaginary thumb–reminded me to be strong for her sister and her.

It also helped that, during these past couple weeks, we’d been surprised by small gifts from various friends.  Each one made my eyes well up from gratitude.  Each box was like a small piece of sunlight breaking through a cavern.  It was a cosmic reminder:  We are not alone in this dark path.

And so I found strength.

The Snowstorm

A pair of beautiful swans in the local pond.

A winter storm blew through here last week, bringing biting winds and 5 inches of snowfall.  Right before the storm, I spotted a pair of swans in a nearby pond.  I ran out to take some pictures of them, and then ran back inside just in time to gaze at big, fluffy snowflakes falling from the sky.

At one point, we had a couple days that were so cold we were excited if the highs hit the twenties.  The wind chill was in the negative teens.  I threw on my house slippers and a winter coat and ran out to check the mail (the mailbox is about a football field’s distance away from the house).  By the time I darted back inside the house, my nose, fingers, and feet were so cold they burned.  And so I learned the meaning of the phrase “biting cold.”  And also why people wear scarves.

A bunch of rabbit tracks.

After the storm passed, I made sure to take a few moments to appreciate the beauty of winter (instead of cursing it).  The local pond had frozen to a thickness that supported the weight of an average sized adult.  A couple people were trying to ice fish.  They did not have any luck, and joked that it was because we brought Texas “winter weather” to Ohio (in other words, it’s been too warm for winter fishing and too cold for normal fishing).  The pond was also covered with a thick layer of snow, which was a surreal sight.

Rabbit tracks around the trunk of an oak tree. There are bits of chewed-up acorn.

We took a stroll in a nearby forest and spotted rabbit tracks in the snow.  It looked like they were hopping from tree to tree, either looking for a burrow in which to hide or acorns to dig up (we did spot a few chewed-up acorns on top of the snow).

Here is the pond when it was frozen and covered with snow. For a point of reference, below is the same view of the pond during late summer (I took this photo in mid-September, when we first moved to Ohio).

Taco Seasoning

I love cooking with mixed beans. After I open the bags of various beans to make a batch, I pour the remaining beans into a large jar to make decorative layers like this. I'll mix them together when it's time to cook them.

When a person is depressed, comfort food does a lot for reviving one’s spirits.  Because I grew up with a lot of Mexican food (my father is Mexican and my mother learned to cook for my father), beans are actually one of my comfort foods (which is ironic, considering that beans give me uncomfortable gas).  And since we are eating a mostly vegetarian diet, beans became an easy main dish to prepare.

Beans store easily in the freezer.

I love cooking beans, because you can toss them in a large pot and cook them all day.  Whatever you don’t eat immediately you can divide into 3- or 4-cup portions and freeze neatly to save for later.  They are easy to thaw and can be used in a wide range of dishes (or as a side by themselves).  They are also incredibly inexpensive (cooking your own beans is four times cheaper than buying them canned).

I tended to make bean tacos.  I also made tacos with some leftover Christmas turkey that I’d frozen.  And, for variety, I tried using some Yves Meatless Ground in lieu of ground beef, and it made for some fantastic tacos (it’s also half the price of a pound of ground beef here in Ohio and much lower in its fat count).

I’ve been using the same taco seasoning I gleaned from my Buelita (a diminutive form of the Spanish word“abuela,” for my paternal grandmother).  Learning recipes from her was an experience unto itself.  She did not use measuring tools.  Increments were in palmfuls, or enough to coat two fingers or the food in the frying pan, or a just couple shakes of the bottle.  She just knew how much to put into a dish and relied on smell to get it right.  And I learned how to cook Mexican food from her.

Chicken tacos

NOTE:  I should point out that “Mexican cuisine” is a broad term.  It’s like saying “Indian cuisine” or “Chinese cuisine” or even “American cuisine.”  Mexican food varies between regions and ethnic groups.  Parts of my father’s family came from Veracruz and other parts had lived in Texas from the time when it was still a Spanish territory, and his side of the family is more Spaniard in ethnicity (we come from a line of disinherited nobility) than it is Mayan or any other indigenous tribe (although some indigenous Mexicans are in our family tree all the same).  So I have no clue how to correctly characterize the kind of Mexican food I grew up with (or if it’s just “Tex-Mex”), except to use “Mexican food” in the generic sense.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I bothered trying to measure out the spices that I used to make taco seasoning to help a friend learn to make something more authentic.  I’ve used this blend on a variety of taco “meats” (as mentioned above), and my family loves it.  You can always tweak the proportions, depending upon what flavors you want to enhance or subdue.

Ingredients

Yves Meatless Ground (above) and mixed beans (below) being prepared for tacos.

  • 2 tablespoons cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne powder (chipotle power, ancho powder, or any other chile works just as well–increase the amount if you want spicier food, decrease or omit if you want something milder)
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard

Directions

  1. Mix the spices together and sprinkle over chicken, beef, beans, or whatever you’re using for taco filling.
  2. It tastes best if you sautee some onions first and add them to the filling, along with some chopped fresh cilantro.

One of the presents I received was The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas, which is apparently written for people who are transitioning into vegetarianism.  I’ll be trying out a few recipes, so I intend to post a review of that book shortly.

You can use the same blend for taco filling to make chalupas.

Tales from a Winter Trail

Jump to Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

The past few days have been strangely warm.  I mean “warm” by Ohio winter standards, as “warm” in Texas requires the threat of heat stroke.  “Warm” in an Ohio winter means the weather is above freezing–like a balmy 40˚F.

I think we have been adjusting to the cold, because when it “warmed” up to the low 40s, it felt nice enough to go for a hike.  (You have no idea how strange it feels to me to say that 40˚F is warm enough for hiking!)  We didn’t go far, but we explored the nature trail and a local pond and canal.

Iced over pondThe pond had iced over on the surface.  This was something I knew happened in colder climates, but I’d never seen something like it before.  It was strange, like the pond was dead.  I knew it wasn’t, but it sure looked lifeless.  No ripples, no fish jumping out of the water, no fowl landing on its surface.  We stood at the bank and stared at the dead pond.  I picked up some rocks and plunked one against the ice, to demonstrate to the girls what had happened to the water because it’s been cold.  This phenomenon was particularly fascinating to the girls, so we took the rest of the rocks and skipped them against the ice.  It became a game: who can make a rock skid the furthest down the ice.  It was almost like bowling with hockey pucks.

We also wandered along the Miami-Erie trail, which runs along Rapids on the Miami-Erie Canal(surprisingly) the Miami-Erie Canal.  Because the water flows more swiftly there, it had not frozen over.  Past one of the locks, under a bridge, was a rocky area where the water moved more like rapids.  We sat on a blanket near the bank and listened to the water rushing.  It was therapeutic.  Everything around us felt dead, but at least the water was still alive.

Some kind of dead polyphore

Some kind of dead polyphore.

With my handy mushrooming guide in hand (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms), I kept my eyes peeled for the few things that might be alive this time of year.  I saw quite a few mushrooms that must have grown in November or December but had been killed by the snow and frost.  They were shriveled and black and mealy, and some tiny insects and grubs were making a meal of them.  They made me reflect on the irony that saprophytic lifeforms like mushrooms (“saprophytic” means “feeds on dead or decaying matter”) also die and become food for something else.

Trametes versicolor

Turkey Tail Mushroom

I also spotted some turkey tail mushrooms (their scientific name is Trametes versicolor), a shelf polyphore that is pretty common in North America.  They are actually quite fascinating to observe.  When I was a child, I’d imagine that little animals or something fantastic as fairies lived off colonies of these mushrooms, sort of like a small city on a tree trunk.  Supposedly you can make a medicinal tincture out of them, but I haven’t found any literature (at least, from any legitimate source) that was particularly clear about what these mushrooms are used to treat, except that they treat something.  Maybe they are the cure for hypochondria?  (Well, apparently scientists are examining it as a possible treatment for cancer, but that doesn’t explain why a Google search for turkey tail results in all kinds of “Buy this cure-all mushroom pill!” articles.)

Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata

I also made note of some possibly poisonous mushrooms that seemed to have popped up and then started dying from the cold.  These are mushrooms in the Galerina genus.  I say possibly, because there are edible (and hallucinogenic) mushrooms that very closely resemble Galerina mushrooms, but only expert mycologists with some impressive laboratory equipment can discern the difference between them.  Even expert mushroomers (usually going for the hallucinogenic kind) have mistakenly ingested Galerina mushrooms, with deadly consequences.  Most mushrooming guides I’ve read strongly recommend against harvesting “little brown gilled mushrooms,” and this is the reason.  So, as I always do, I instructed my girls to not touch wild mushrooms unless I tell them it is safe.  This is one of the reasons why.

These mushrooms were growing off a sawed-off pine log. I believe they are also in the Galerina genus. They appear to be dying from the cold.

A junco in a dormant apple treeWe did see some dark-eyed juncos in the trees.  Juncos are in the sparrow family.  They were obviously frightened by our approach (and the loud laughter of the girls amplified by the echo in the dead woods and pond certainly did nothing to convince the little birds we meant no harm).

These adorable little songbirds were certainly a refreshing break from the dead world of winter.

Scrambled Eggs and Mushrooms

One of our New Year’s resolutions was to eat more vegetarian cuisine.  Not necessarily vegan cuisine (although we will eventually transition to a day of fully vegan, but I’m not a fan of things that are overly processed, either), and for now we’re still doing the eggs-and-dairy kind of vegetarian.  There are several reasons for this.  One is to save money on meat, which is becoming very expensive here (as opposed to fresh produce–and also so that we can afford more whole grain breads and fresh produce).

Another reason is for health: my husband and I have both been packing

Toddler breakfast

A balanced breakfast of eggs, mushrooms, various fruits, a half-slice of whole-grain toast, and yogurt. They have water in their sippy cups. Usually the kids don't eat everything (each girl has her own quirks), but this gives them some healthy options.

on the pounds and, instead of going on a fad diet, we are just going to change what we eat.  We figure it’s better to eat things that are not processed, have more fiber, and aren’t pumped with hormones and chemicals (as so much commercial meat is, unless you buy certified organic, which is expensive and hard to come by in rural grocery stores).  For the girls, we want to make sure they are raised with healthy lifestyle choices (as opposed to my upbringing–which was the same for a substantial number of Americans) and healthy lifestyle choices are best taught by example.

It’s also for environmental reasons: just consuming things that are more sustainable (like buying organic or locally grown) and don’t contribute to greenhouse gas, as cows do.  And for me, as a Wiccan who dabbles in Hinduism, it’s also partly an ethical thing (many Hindus and Wiccans/neopagans are vegetarian because they tend towards nonviolence and they see all living things as brothers and sisters under the divine).

That’s not to preach to you to make any lifestyle changes, but just to explain why we are aiming to eat 4 days a week of vegetarian or vegan.

This is a new thing for me, being a carnivore by nature.  It’s easier for my husband, who grew up eating a mostly eggs-and-dairy vegetarian diet.  So I’ve made a wish list of vegetarian cookbooks and found some interesting websites with recipes for those who are just starting down this path.

In the meantime, I’ve been experimenting.  One of my first endeavors was making a country-French-inspired scrambling of eggs and mushrooms.  It turned out to be a great success with my family.  So much so, in fact, that I’ve now made it several times.  When I serve it with a side of fresh fruit and yogurt, it fills up my girls’ bellies and provides a balanced breakfast.

This recipe serves 3.

The tomatoes have been sliced and the ingredients in the egg mixture are ready to beat.

Ingredients

  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, sliced or chopped (portobello would work best, but any kind will do)
  • 3 tablespoons parsley, dried or chopped fresh, and extra for garnish
  • 1 large tomato (or 1/2 cup small tomatoes), diced
  • 2 tablespoons parmesan cheese, shredded or grated, and extra for garnish
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • salt to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a medium frying pan.  Add the mushrooms.  Sautee them until they are cooked (usually they will get tender and darker).

    Making scrambled eggs & mushrooms

    The mixture in the frying pan.

  2. In a bowl, beat the eggs.  Stir in the black pepper, parmesan cheese, salt, and parsley.
  3. Add the egg mixture to the frying pan.  Stir frequently so that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan and burn.
  4. When the eggs are cooked thoroughly, remove from heat and serve.  Garnish with any combination of parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and parsley.

It goes well served with a side of fruit, whole grain toast, and yogurt.

Striking sunset over the ice

The sun setting over an icy, dead, wintry landscape.

Christmas Leftovers

Jump to Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

Jump to Madras Hot Curry Powder

The week of Yule and Christmas ran by very quickly.  I was busy–as most people were–with cleaning and cooking and cleaning and cooking and enjoying time with family–and I had so many ideas of things to share with you on this blog.

And then today happened.

Snow Cat

Image by clickclique via Flickr

I was sitting down with a cup of coffee, watching after-breakfast Sesame Street with the kids as I groggily shifted into gear to complete all the chores on my to-do list, when I noticed the rain turning into some of that scary fluffy white stuff: snow.

“Oh lawks,” I groaned.

I had a list of errands that I planned to run tomorrow, but if it’s snowing, I didn’t want to be out in it.  I checked the weather forecast, and it said that it was going to be snowing off and on for the next few days.  And, like anyone who learned to drive in the South, the thought of driving in the snow scares the crap out of me.

I called my mother, who learned to drive in Chicago.  She helped me prepare for this frightening task:  “The ground isn’t frozen yet?…  Then you don’t have to worry about ice in the road until it gets colder.  Just keep a good distance between you and the other vehicles.  If you hit ice, turn your wheels in the direction of the spin.  Don’t brake on ice.  Before you hit your brakes, let the vehicle slow down first.”

So the kids and I put on our winter coats and headed out the door to run our errands.  Fortunately, the snow turned to rain and the drive into the nearest city (a good 40 minutes of driving on a sunny day) was uneventful, although longer than usual, because I drove slower.  This annoyed the Yankees greatly.

The challenge came when I had several places to drive to and it started snowing again.  We came out unscathed, but the snow started falling hard and even the Yankees were driving slowly.

Taken in Megeve, France

Image by Joss Dude via Wikipedia

I kept telling myself, “Breathebreathebreathe.  Drive like a granny.  Is that a polar bear?  Keep several car lengths between you and the next vehicle.  Slow down before braking.  Ice is everywhere and it’s out to kill you.  Don’t punch the accelerator like the Texan-in-the-big-behemoth-truck stereotype–there is no time to squish puny cars.  Drive slowly.  Remember to breathe.  Omigod what is all that white stuff and why does it hate me?!

It was hard to not think of C.S. Lewis‘ classic villain, the White Witch.  She was making all this happen and she knew I have a weakness for sweets.

I soon realized it was well past lunchtime (in a trip that would normally have been done hours ago), and so stopped between errands to pick up lunch for the kids.  No sweets allowed, lest they have been bribes from the White Witch.  But while sitting down at our table, Sunfilly demanded to take off her coat by herself, and in a rage at her stuck zipper, pulled at her coat before I could turn to help her, and broke her zipper.  I think the White Witch knew I was onto her.

I had to add one more stop to my trip:  a store to buy a new coat.

That extra trip to the store turned into going to three different stores, as I couldn’t find a coat that fit either girl at the first two.  All this while driving through crazy scary fluffy white stuff falling from the heavens.

One of the stores I wound up going to was the dreaded Wal-Mart.  Even though they didn’t have any toddler-sized winter coats in stock, I did what any good Southerner would do when the apocalypse dust is falling from the sky and bought a bunch of non-perishables.  I mean, after all, it looks like the Saints are going to win the Super Bowl again, and last time that happened, 49 of the 50 states suffered from the white apocalypse dust (remember Snowmageddon?).

So what should have been a two- or three-hour venture turned into a six-hour venture.  In the snow.  It was dinnertime when we arrived home.  And I needed another pot of coffee.

And did I add the kids didn’t nap?  Oi!

English: Small trees after heavy snowing.

Image by Emr via Wikipedia

There was silver lining.  In the sea of white that was now the farmlands I passed on the way home, there were many ponds, which have not yet frozen over.  In one of them swam a pair of swans.  I was in awe of their beauty, and even more impressed at how large they were.  I realized I never would have seen them had I stayed at home and hated snowy roads.

And I gained confidence in driving in the snow.  You see, by the time I got home, I realized I was driving confidently.  I wasn’t terrified anymore.

That being said, it was leftovers for dinner tonight.  And, as I had plans to write about so many other things that went on over Yule and Christmas, I felt that I could save it for next time, as my first time driving with my kids in the snow was a fairly frightening event for me.  (I had driven in Dallas snowstorms a couple times, when I was supposed to go to work.  I wound up calling in.  That is how much snow on the road terrifies me.)

But, as we all know, dealing with leftover turkey requires a bit of creativity, and so I figured I’d share tonight’s culinary creation.

Turkey Curry with Chickpea Couscous

In short, we cooked a huge bird for Christmas dinner and I was running out of ideas for traditional ways to prepare leftovers.  And I was going through some serious curry cravings.

Here it is, while the curry paste is melting.

The ingredients I used were:

  • 3 cups of diced or shredded leftover turkey meat
  • 1 small onion
  • 1 cup turkey drippings
  • 1 can of carrots
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 tablespoons curry paste

And for the couscous, which I served as a side, I used:

  • 1 cup couscous
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 teaspoons Madras hot curry powder
  • 1 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 can chickpeas

Quite simply, I diced/shredded (I really did a combination, depending on how cooperative the meat was) leftover turkey into 1-inch cubes and sauteéd it with some onions and olive oil in a large pan.  I’d saved the drippings from when I initially cooked the bird on Christmas, and so I added a cup of refrigerated drippings to the mixture, along with a drained can of carrots.

Contrary to how it may sound, turkey drippings aren’t that greasy, and it adds a nice flavor to the bird.  The drippings gel when refrigerated, and the gel is heterogeneous, with the fat forming a white layer at the top.  If you want, you can scrape that part off before using it.

Then I added a substantial amount of curry paste and stirred thoroughly.  (You can usually buy some form of curry paste at most grocery stores, usually in the Asian food section.  If you want to make your own, I recommend this recipe for Thai curry paste.  It’s rather spicy, so when I cook for the kids, I usually halve what the recipe calls for on chillies and excluded the shrimp paste/mountain sauce ingredient and it still came out great.)

Then it’s just a matter of cooking until everything is warmed up and mixed well.

This is everything but the actual couscous, waiting to boil.

For the couscous, when boiling 1 cup of water, I added 1-1/2 teaspoon of Madras hot curry powder, 1 tablespoon of butter, 2 tablespoons of pine nuts, and a drained can of chickpeas.  When the water was boiling and the chickpeas were cooked, I added 1 cup of couscous, mixed thoroughly, and let it sit (as you’d usually prepare couscous).

Madras Hot Curry Powder

To make the curry powder, you need:

  • 8 tablespoons coriander seeds
  • 6 tablespoons cumin seeds
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seed
  • 4 tablespoons ground cinnamon
  • 8 tablespoons peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 2 tablespoons ground cardamom
  • 2 tablespoons turmeric
  • 2 tablespoons ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon cayenne (or less, depending on how much heat you can handle)
  • 1 Mason jar

Directions

  1. In a dry skillet over very low heat, place the coriander, cumin, mustard and fennel seeds. Roast the seeds gently, shaking the pan occasionally, until they begin to pop.
  2. When about half the seeds have popped, add everything else.  Continue to heat and stir gently until the mixture is hot.  Be careful not to burn it, though.
  3. Pour the mixture into a dry blender.  Grind into a fine powder.  You may need to pause, remove the blender from the machine, and shake it up to keep from clumping in the blades.  (If you have a lot of patience and want to do it the old-fashioned way, you could break out the mortar and pestle.)
  4. Wait until the mixture cools off, and then you can store it into an empty jar.

That’s all there is to it.

The end result was oh-so-delicious.

And at the end of the day, the snow turned to wind and rain.  So I scared myself onto the road for naught.  But at the end of it all, I had a story to tell, about driving through the snow for the first time and seeing swans for the first time.

I guess the snow isn’t all that evil.

English: Swans in the snow

I wonder what they taste like. - Image by Michael Preston via Wikipedia

Comforting Chicken Soup Starts with a Good Broth

Jump to Homemade Chicken Broth

During cold La Niña episodes the normal patter...

La Niña phenomenon - by NOAA via Wikipedia

I learned that Ohio has been experiencing what is called an “Indian Summer” as a result of La Niña phenomenon, which has unusually occurred two years in a row.  An Indian summer usually occurs in autumn or early winter, when there has been some snow or frost, and then it’s followed by a period of unseasonably warm weather, followed by more cold weather.

In the South, we called that “normal weather.”

And the dramatic fluctuations in temperature, coupled with the wetness of “winter,” would typically lead to people getting sick (actually, the weather change itself doesn’t make people sick, but it can trigger their allergies and force them to stay indoors in drier air and around other germy sick people, and this makes it easier to get sick).

But here in Ohio, you can feel the temperature extremes more.  When it’s warm, it’s perfect weather for hiking and playing outside.  Then suddenly it’s cold and wet, and we get runny noses and have no desire to go outside, unless there is some of that strange, fluffy white stuff falling from the sky (which people call “snow”) to play in.

Because my kids are both under 6 (the age that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends is the minimum for taking over-the-counter cold medicine), it’s important to me to do everything possible to make sure they don’t get sick in the first place.

Common cold

The Rhinovirus, one of the viruses that causes the common cold, looks much like a snowflake. - Image by Robin S via Wikipedia

One of the best ways to combat the common cold and the flu is chicken soup.  This is one old wives’ tale that hasn’t been debunked.  In fact, doctors have found that it does in fact help to fight some respiratory illness.

Homemade Chicken Broth

There are many recipes for chicken soup out there (here’s a simple one), but they all pretty much require pre-made chicken broth.  I personally believe that if you’re going to make homemade chicken soup, you should use homemade chicken broth.

For a few years now, I’ve been using a recipe I adapted from Tapas Deck by José Andrés (it was a gift from a dear friend who spent a year in Spain).  It’s an amazing recipe and is very easy to follow.  All I’ve ever added is ginger.

Also, I try to use organic chicken whenever possible (and living near the Amish in Ohio, I’ve found I can also buy Amish chickens at some local grocery stores, and their chickens taste fantastic and are pretty much organic as well)–it tastes richer, was raised humanely, and wasn’t fed antibiotics (which may actually impair your body’s ability to fight certain infections later) or other harmful chemicals, like arsenic, which young chickens contain more of (and I know from having worked in the poultry industry that commercial chickens are about 4 months old when butchered–and a home-grown 4-month-old chicken still looks like a baby chick!–because they are also pumped full of growth hormones and other chemicals).

The ingredients for chicken broth have just been put on the stove to cook.

Ingredients

  • 1 whole chicken, rinsed
  • 3 carrots, peeled
  • 2 onions, peeled and halved
  • 1 leek, well washed and outer leaves removed
  • 1 head garlic, cloves peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (if you don’t have fresh thyme, 1 tablespoon of dry thyme will do the trick)
  • 10 sprigs fresh parsley (if you don’t have fresh parsley, 1/4 cup of dry parsley will do the same thing)
  • 1 tablespoon of freshly grated ginger root
  • salt to taste (I recommend kosher salt for better flavor)

Directions

  1. Pour 4 quarts of water in a stockpot (or any very large pot) and add all the ingredients except the salt.
  2. Bring to a boil.  As the stock comes to a boil, foam will form on the surface.  Scoop this off immediately, so that your stock will end up as clear and clean as possible.
  3. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.  You don’t want to overcook it, or the chicken will fall apart and you’ll have a lot of tiny bones to pick out of loose meat pieces.
  4. Add salt to taste and remove from the heat.
  5. Strain the stock.
  6. You can store it in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.  I prefer to store whatever I don’t use immediately in the freezer, separating it into 4-cup increments.

You don’t have to worry about discarding the leftover chicken meat.  I like to debone the chicken and use the meat in tacos or in the subsequent soup I prepare, but you can do many other things with the boiled meat.

English: Chicken soup and toast Български: Пил...

Image by Biso via Wikipedia

November Recap Part 1: Foraging is Fun

Jump to Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

First, I must apologize for the hiatus.  November turned into a month full of crazy stressful events that swept me away from much me-time.  So now that all of that has passed, I am going to play a little bit of catch-up.  This is the first of two parts of my recap of November.

This chipmunk lives under my patio. He is hibernating now, but during autumn, when he was still active, the girls would happily gather acorns for him and drop them in the hole that served as the front door to his little home, to help him get ready for winter. He was a challenge to photograph, as he would see me and dart away before I could snap a good shot of him.

The first couple weeks of November were beautiful.  They were warm, the way I think of autumn in the South.  It was perfect for going on long hikes with the kids and exploring nature.  When my husband was home, we would also go fishing.  I liked the long hikes the most, because Starkitten is such a little trooper–she can walk an entire three-mile trail and be happy about it–and Sunfilly is small enough that I can carry her on my shoulders when she gets tired, and her weight, plus the weight of my backpack, meant that I got a lot of strength training and actually lost a jean size during that two-week stint.  (Granted, I gained it back with interest after Thanksgiving.)

A praying mantis on my doorstep.

There were a lot of things we saw and did during those two weeks.  I took advantage of the falling leaves to teach my girls about the seasons and explain about autumn.  I explained that some animals are getting ready to hibernate, trees are losing their leaves and becoming dormant, and birds and butterflies are flying south for warmer weather.  We made a game out of it: spot the flocks of ducks and geese, and which trees were still “awake” and which were “going to sleep.”

Botany and Mycology as Hobbies

There was also the foraging.  Wild walnuts are everywhere.  I’m allergic to walnuts and pecans (it is a tragic allergy, indeed), but my husband and daughters certainly enjoyed finding them and eating them.  And with two handy manuals–Wild Berries & Fruits Field Guide: Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio and the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms–I was able to identify quite a few delicious (and, more importantly, safe) berries and mushrooms.  I loved these guides because they are reputable, well-organized, and pocket-sized.  I’d pack them in my backpack for quick reference, in case I saw something that might be a great hiking snack.

My interest in botany (and mycology–the study of mushrooms and fungi–I will use “botany” to refer to both disciplines for the sake of simplicity, even though they are in fact completely separate) began when we first moved to Ohio and I was amazed at the abundance of wild mushrooms and berries not only on our rental property, but all along the local nature trails.  So many of nature’s goodies looked delicious, and yet I was well aware of the dangers of eating heedlessly.  Since I wanted to learn about my new environment, as well as eat of it, I researched well-respected field guides and went with the two that I mentioned, along with a few larger ones to supplement.

So the general rules to follow in foraging are:

  1. Take a notebook and pen with you, and a camera if possible.  You’ll need to record details about the plants that you found for the most accurate identification.  It’s also wise to have several small containers or ziplocs handy to store what you find separately and to prevent them from being crushed.
  2. Never eat what you find right away.  Take it home to identify it fully.  In some instances, you may need a microscope.
  3. Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  Cross-reference.  You need to be absolutely sure that what you think you’ve found in the forest or on the trail is in fact what it is.  Use more than one book and take advantage of the internet to look at pictures and find detailed descriptions.  In fact, one of the things I love about my two pocket field guides is that they will let you know what plants or mushrooms can be mistaken for each other.  This tells me I need to read up on not just what I think it is I’ve found, but what its look-alikes are.
  4. Don’t over-harvest.  Remember that plants and fungi are food for wild animals, too.  If you gather all the morels in the woods, it can spell starvation for all sorts of critters.  It can also lead to a shortage next year, as the plants you harvested would not have been able to make seeds–or the fungi to make spores–sufficient to reproduce.
  5. Quality of what you find is important.  Once you know that what you are looking at is edible and you want to go back and harvest more, pay attention to the quality.  If it looks like it’s had bugs in it, or looks squishy or overripe, don’t pick it.  You wouldn’t buy a nasty fruit or mushroom at the grocery store–why take it from the forest?  Besides, leaving the unwanteds on the plants helps ensure food for the wild animals and a steady harvest for next year.
  6. When eating a new fruit or mushroom for the first time, sample only a small amount and wait at least 48 hours.  This gives you time to see if there are any allergic reactions or if there are any toxins.  Don’t give any to your kids until you experimented on yourself first (and if there are multiple adults in your household, I’d recommend that you each try it and wait 48 hours, but taking turns).  Also, don’t try more than one new food at a time.  This way, if you do get sick, it will give your doctor a better idea of what to treat and to act quickly.
  7. If you have any questions or concerns, contact your doctor and/or a botany or mycology professor at your local university.  Especially if you have any doubts as to the identity of what you have found, it’s best to defer to the experts.

For fruits specifically:

  1. Observing the leaves is important.  How many are on a stem?  What shape are they?  Do they alternate or are they symmetrically ordered on the branches?  If you can, cut a piece of the branch to take home as well.
  2. The bark may also be important, so take note of it.
  3. Notate whether the plant was growing in the sun, partial sun, or shade.  Did you find it in the woods, or along a stream?  This can be important, too.
  4. Notate how tall it is, or whether it was a vine or tree or shrub.  Some plants are edible in one related form but not the other.
  5. Notate any smell the leaves or fruit emit.
  6. Once you find edible fruits, be sure to rinse them before you eat them.  I usually bring wet washcloths in a ziploc to wipe down the berries I know are edible so we can eat them on the trail.

For mushrooms specifically:

  1. If you’re a novice mushroomer (as I am), avoid gilled mushrooms completely.    When I first moved here, I spoke with a local park ranger about this, and his words of wisdom were repeated in several mushrooming guides I’ve since read.  There are too many fatally toxic gilled mushrooms that too closely resemble the edible ones, so much so that they are easily mistaken.  Until you have lots of mushrooming experience under your belt or are in the company of an experienced mushroomer, it’s safest to just leave them alone.
  2. Notate where the mushroom was found, how much sunlight can reach the mushroom, and how much precipitation fell the day before.  What it was growing on is extremely important.
  3. Notate whether the mushroom has any smell.
  4. When you harvest the mushroom, be careful not to yank it out.  The threadlike roots, called mycelia, are what actually produce more mushrooms.  If you damage the mycelia, you risk that chance that no more mushrooms may grow there anymore.  You wouldn’t chop down an apple tree to get the apples; be equally considerate to mushrooms, too.
  5. While the mushroom is still fresh, press the spore-producing underbelly against a clean sheet of paper or index card.  This will create a spore print and will be integral to mushroom identification.
  6. If you have identified an edible mushroom, never eat it raw.  Aside from the cautions about cooking out possible toxins and germs, I’d like to point out that it may have been hit with the errant droppings or urine from a bird or dog or some other critter.  You’d want to kill those germs.

While this list of considerations may seem long, it’s by no means exhaustive.  I highly recommend that you look up other guides to foraging to make sure you are well-prepared.  Remember, it’s not to be anal about science.  It’s for your own safety.

Also, don’t let it seem daunting.  I found that on my first trip down the nature trail–with two toddlers in tow–gathering and identifying wild berries and mushrooms actually went by pretty smoothly.  I learned a lot about autumn-producing plants in Ohio very quickly.  I also learned to identify poisonous plants such as deadly nightshade very quickly–and to explain to my girls not to just eat any berry they find, but to let me tell them if it is safe.

Here is a sampling of some of the yummy and/or interesting plants that I found during November.  You can click on the image for a better view.

Honeysuckle berries

Honeysuckle (the Lonicera genus) makes berries.  I guess I should have known that, but it never crossed my mind.  I know that you can use the flowers to make tea, but it turns out the berries are inedible for humans.  Birds, however, seem to love them.  They are easy for me to identify, because I’ve seen the vines all over the South (the smell of honeysuckles in May is intoxicating for me).

Dogwood with blue fruit

Silky dogwood (Cornus amomum) makes a blue fruit that looks deceptively delicious, but can actually make you sick.  This is also considered an endangered plant in North America according to the USDA, so chancing upon one was pretty exciting.   (If I am wrong in its identification, then it’s the stiff dogwood, which looks fairly similar.)  These dogwoods are important for preventing soil erosion; they grow along stream beds and lakes and their roots hold soil to prevent runoff.

Poison sumac

If you find white berries in Ohio, as a rule of thumb, assume they are poisonous.  This poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is one example.  And this is also an example of why you want that field guide with you.  Just touching any part of this plant can result in skin irritations (like poison ivy) or even more severe allergic reactions–people with sensitive allergies can get sick just from being near the plant.

Rose hips

Roses (Rosa genus) are best known for their beautiful flowers and sweet smell… to the point of being cliché.  Wild roses are a pain in the rear for anyone wanting a manicured garden and take cliché to painful levels, especially if you’ve ever listened to country music (I’ve heard, ad nauseum, the phrase “you can’t time a wild rose” as a metaphor for country women).  A lesser known, and even cooler, fact about roses is that they make a very delicious and beneficial fruit, called rose hips.  They are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. Wild roses grow all over the place along the Miami-Erie Trail and Buckeye Trail in Ohio, especially along streams and the canals.  The fruits are smaller (because the flowers are smaller), but they are incredibly sweet.  We would just suck out the juices from the fruit, however, because biting into the core was unpleasant: the core has a fuzzy texture and tastes rather bitter.  I’ve read that some people make jellies out of them, and I’ll be curious to try that next year.  As it was, this was our favorite snack along the nature trail.  You can also make a tea out of rose hips, and apparently the nutrients in it help boost your immune system–useful for this time of year.

English: Hen of the woods mushroom

Hen of the Woods - Image via Wikipedia by Gargoyle888

But berries weren’t the only thing I found.  I failed to bring my camera the day I found them, but I found a hen of the woods mushroom (Grifola frondosa) during one of our hikes.  It weighed about four pounds and, after I cleaned it and cut out the wormy parts (a lot of worms and pill bugs like to live in between the folds of the mushroom) and diced it, it filled about three quart-sized freezer bags.  I’ve since found two locations where this mushroom is growing on our property (the largest one weighing about nine pounds), which is cool, because the hen of the woods will keep growing back on the same spot.  And they taste delicious–I’ve read that some rate them as just a few steps down from truffles–and apparently also have some beneficial vitamins and antioxidants.  They only grow on oak stumps or branches and they are easily mistaken for a pile of leaves, which is why I didn’t notice them when we first moved here.  But I’m so thrilled to have found so many of these amazing mushrooms, as they have since been used to jazz up spaghettis and soups and many other dishes.  It even tastes fantastic by itself, just sauteed with butter and onions.

And that reminds me of another nifty pointer I’d like to share about mushrooms: the best way to preserve them is to freeze them.  Cut them up into whatever slices you’d like beforehand, because you cannot thaw them.  When it’s time to cook, you just toss the frozen mushrooms into the pot or pan and cook them.  This preserves the flavor and texture best, and it tastes just like the ones you’d harvested that day.

I couldn't get close enough to inspect it, but it sure looked delicious. Because I couldn't reach it to examine it, I'm not sure if it is edible. But it was too pretty not to share with you. Growing next to it is what appears to be poison sumac.

Next blog post: adventures on the trail, what to pack for hiking, and homemade cranberry sauce.

Howdy!

Hello!

After moving from Texas to Ohio and subsequently transitioning from lawyer to housewife, I’ve picked some new hobbies: arts and crafts with my kids (ages 2 and 3), foodie-type cooking, sewing… and now blogging.  I’m also trying to renew older hobbies, like gardening and critical reading/film-watching.  I’m going to start sharing recipes I’ve learned, projects that work (and ones that don’t), parenting challenges, and other random bits.  Since I’m new to the blogging world, I’m open to feedback on form or content (i.e. if my topics are too scatter-brained).

–Mommysaurus

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