Saving Beans for Seed

Let’s talk about saving bean seeds. This spring, we broke ground on a large area in our pasture, an area Angus jokingly referred to as the R&D garden.   We used the area for sprawling plants such as sweet potatoes, and to isolate a few plants to save seed for next year.  Unfortunately, there was just too much shade from the tree-lined driveway for it to be a successful garden, but I’m not bitter.  Okay, I am a little bitter, but the bright spot is that the black-eyed pea seed produced enough viable plants to harvest my seed stock again.

Saving black-eyed peas for seed

 

Legumes are very possibly the easiest seed in the garden to save and I increasingly believe it’s a necessary skill; let me tell you why.  My family ALWAYS grew Kentucky Wonder white half-runners in our garden.  ALWAYS.  Back to my childhood (and beyond) that was OUR bean and we planted it with great success season after season.  Beginning 5-6 years ago, crops began failing.  Not just for me, but across our county, for both commercial growers and backyard gardeners.  It didn’t seem to matter whether it was a hot season, cool season, wet or dry, you couldn’t grow a dependable crop of half-runners to save your life.  So as I was shopping for seed this spring at our local farm store, I mentioned to the attendant that I needed to try a new variety of beans because I hadn’t had any luck recently with my old variety and she replied succinctly “They’ve been tinkering with the seeds for 10 years.  If you want a good crop, you’ll have to save seeds for yourself.” I tell you, my head whipped around like it was on a swivel.  The lady selling seeds was telling me to save my own so I didn’t need to depend on hers.  That was telling for me.  So this season, our goal is to save enough seed stock from our black-eyed peas and green beans to plant our garden next year.  Let me tell you why it’s an important goal for any backyard gardener:

  • It’s cost effective.  It costs nothing but a few minutes of your time at the end of the season to save pea or bean seeds.
  • It requires minimal-to-no labor on your part.  Just let the plants stand until the bean pods are dry and then strip the pods off as you pull up the dead plants, which is what you’d do anyway.
  • You’re protecting a dwindling resource.  It has been estimated that we’ve lost 90%+ of our seed species as a result of not saving seeds ourselves.
  • You’ll know the quality of seed you’re planting.  You don’t have to wonder about the age or condition of the seed, whether it had been treated with chemicals or tinkered with genetically.

So you can see there’s no reason NOT to save seeds.  Our grandparents did it for millennia before commercial seed production became the standard and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t pick up where they left off!  There are only a few very, very basic steps to saving bean and pea seeds.  Here we go!

  1. You have to allow the seeds to fully mature on the plant.  You can’t pick them young and count on them to mature, it won’t happen!  The pods should be brown/grey, dry and brittle and begin to split open before you pick them.
  2. Healthy plants only!  If you have a plant that looks funky, wilted or off-color, don’t harvest seed from it.  If it’s a diseased plant, it’s very possible the seed is carrying the same disease and can cause problems next season.
  3. Pick on a hot, dry day.
  4. Remove the seeds from the pods immediately.  If you keep them in the pods, you may set up mold, fungus or any number of undesirable conditions.  Discard any seeds that look off; discolored, shriveled, misshapen, bug-eaten
  5. Spread the seeds on a newspaper-lined tray or even the racks from a dehydrator.  What’s important is that you allow plenty of room for air-flow so the seeds can dry completely.  Allow a week or more for drying time.
  6. Once dry, place the seeds in a glass jar or plastic bag, label clearly and store in a cool, dark, dry environment.

That’s it, my friends.  It couldn’t get any simpler! It may be too late for many of you this year, but I’m issuing the challenge for next year to all my backyard-gardening friends:  try your hand at saving legume seeds and update us the following year.  I’d love to know how successful you are at creating your own seed stock.  Til next time—

Eating Simply

As traditional as eating gets!

Welcome back to the third and final post in our traditional eating series that we began a few short weeks ago.  Just to refresh your memory, we’ve discussed eating locally– that is eating what is traditionally available in your region.  We’ve also discussed eating seasonally, which is eating what is ripe and freshly harvested during a given season.  Today, we’ll get to the last ‘cornerstone’ of traditional eating and that is eating simply.  How I’d define eating simply would be something like this:  eating foods as close to the way they were originally grown as possible by choosing whole, unrefined, seasonal ingredients and preparing them with as little processing as possible.  Our definition touches on 2 aspects of eating simply,  beginning with the most wholesome, simple ingredients and simple preparation, so let’s take a few minutes and touch on each of those.

First, let’s choose wholesome, unrefined ingredients.  Meats should be recognizable, not mechanically separated, extruded and chemically treated.  Opt for whole roasting hens or bone-in, skin-on chicken quarters in lieu of nuggets.  The same goes for fish!  Opt for wild-caught filets over sticks or nuggets.  Fruits should be whole, raw or very minimally processed.  If you *have* to buy canned fruit, choose fruit preserved in fruit juice instead of syrup…but fresh or frozen are by far the superior choices!  Veggies should also be whole and minimally processed, with fresh or frozen being the optimal choices.  If you must use canned, be sure to choose cans without BPA linings–the packaging should proudly advertise that fact.   For dairy, choose full-fat, unsweetened and, if possible, non-homogenized products.  Be sure your cheese is actually cheese and not a “pasteurized cheese food product”.  It possible, buy your eggs locally; if not, free range is best.  Choose beneficial fats like butter, coconut, olive and avocado oils.  Avoid margarine and seed oils like the plague, my friends.  If you eat grains, choose whole grains.  Now let me add a caveat here:  I KNOW some budgets won’t allow for these choices.  And depending on your region, some of these choices aren’t available.  That’s okay; no guilt, my friends.  These are guidelines directing you toward optimal choices but you have to tweak your choices to fit within your budget, region and lifestyle.  You’ll receive no shame from me if you need to make other choices.  This is totally a no-shame zone!

Second, let’s talk about simple preparation.  Let me begin by saying that I’m a bit of a minimalist in the kitchen.  I don’t care for a lot of gizmos and gadgets.  I don’t care for elaborate recipes that require odd ingredients I’ll never use again.  And I loathe overly complicated, fussy directions.  You know the kind I’m talking about.  Here’s my thinking:  if we begin with quality ingredients that were raised responsibly and harvested at their peak, we shouldn’t need odd spices, expensive gizmos or elaborate directions to create a delicious dish.  The point behind seasonal, local eating is that ingredients should be the “stars” of the dish; all we need to do is learn to make them shine through simple, proper preparation and presentation.

Every ingredient has a “sweet spot” in my opinion, a manner of preparation that elevates the taste and texture from a plain, raw ingredient to a satisfying end product…and that may be different for each ingredient.  Let me tell you how I like to prepare some of my favorites.

  • Try roasted vegetables.  Cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, potatoes, sweet/white potatoes, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, zucchini…they’re all delicious tossed with a bit of oil, sprinkled with salt and roasted in a moderately hot oven.  The flavors intensify, the exterior carmelizes and the end product is so much more delicious than boiled or steamed.
  • We love raw or stewed fruits as a dessert or sometimes a main dish for breakfast.  Topped with a bit of heavy cream, fresh berries make a great, simple dessert.  During the wintertime, my sweet Petunia will ask for stewed, spiced apples with cream for breakfast and I gladly oblige.
  • We regularly eat whole roasted chicken for dinner.  During cool weather, it’s a weekly meal and the leftovers make for some amazing lunches and soups!
  • During crazy hot weather, we tend to either grill tender cuts of meat (chicken breasts, pork chops) or use the Instant Pot for tougher cuts of meat like roasts and ribs.  If you’re not familiar with an Instant Pot, I’ll do a post on it later.  (Believe it or not, our great-grandparents used pressure cookers, so this is a fully acceptable return to our roots!)  To get the best results from the grill, we choose thin cuts or filet them at home, brush them with oil, season appropriately and cook them according to directions.
  • We eat wild-caught fish as our budget allows and blackened in a cast iron pan is our perennial favorite.
  • Soups and stews are an extremely easy way to prepare wholesome dishes from simple ingredients.  We LOVE chicken soup made from leftover roasted chicken,  beef and barley soup made from leftover Mississippi Roast and chili to use up day old beans.  Be sure to use quality broths, as it will have a huge impact on the richness of the soup or stew.

I follow the old time-honored “Meat + 3” approach to planning simple meals.  I serve meat or a hearty main dish such as a casserole, soup or stew with 3, typically lower-starch side dishes.  (This may seem like a lot of food, and it is, but the leftovers make for incredible lunches, so I save myself some work tomorrow by adding an extra side to the meal tonight.)    A typical cold weather dinner in our house looks like this:  1 large/2 small baked chickens, roasted root veggies (carrots, onions, celery), a dish of homegrown green beans and side salad or pot of braised greens.  In summertime, we go for lighter meals and “ploughman’s lunches” are a favorite for several of us; they allow for an infinite variety of texture and flavor, as well as preventing the waste of those little bits of cheese wedges, leftover meat and half-eaten jars of pickles in the fridge.  The kids and I frequently take ploughman’s lunches to school in lieu of sandwiches and their dishes almost *always* come home empty!

Well friends, I think that’s all I have to say on the topic, but I’d LOVE to hear what you have to say!  Tell me which aspects of traditional eating you already employ and which ones you’re excited to try your hand at.  Til next time!

 

 

Salt Preserved Herbs

Our grandmothers were experts.  They may not have held degrees, but they KNEW how to do stuff and do it well, and food preservation (in all forms) was at the top of that list.  They were able to take a simple, raw material and turn it into something amazing that we are willing to pay a premium for now.  Take for example, infused salt, which is nothing more than common table-salt that has been infused with herbs, minerals or essential oils and used to “finish” elaborate meals.  It’s all the rage among foodies and in fancy restaurants, but it’s something our grandmothers have done for centuries.  As the tagline says, “All things old are new again.”

So there’s a reason our grandmothers used infused salt, and it wasn’t to impress their Bridge clubs or quilting circles: infused salt is the by-product of salt-preserved herbs.   With little to no effort, equipment or electricity, plain old salt will preserve fresh herbs without destroying their flavor or color.  Salt is a natural desiccant, and in absorbing the moisture from the herbs, it also absorbs the flavor, leaving a delicious finishing salt for the table.  As we’re moving quickly toward the end of the growing season and my cupboards are already stocked with dried herbs, I’m going to make a good-sized batch of chive-infused salt, both for cooking and for gift-giving later this year.  It’s seriously the simplest process ever and as it’s a fairly quick project, it appeals to the immediate-gratification Gen X in me!  Here’s what you do:

 

Salt preserved herbs

 

First, you need to start with quality, fresh herbs.  Old, wilted, past-their-prime will work, but quality-in results in quality-out, savvy?  So either cut your own herbs or pick the best quality, fresh herbs you can find at the grocery.  For infused salt, I lean toward what we consider Italian herbs:  oregano, rosemary, chives, basil, parsley but any variety will do.  It’s all a matter of taste preference here.  Beforehand, clean and dry the herbs well.

Next, you need a good quality salt.  Yes, you can use the $.45 box of non-iodized table salt, but if you’re looking for the best results, I prefer Kosher, sea salt or Himalayan.  A finer grind works better than a coarse grind in my opinion, but please experiment and find what you like best!

Last, you need a glass jar with an air-tight lid.  Plastic tends to absorb flavor, so I avoid it and use an old mason jar.

To make preserved herbs and infused salt, you begin by adding a layer of salt11 to the bottom of your jar.  1/4c (or less) of salt12 should work, depending on the size of your container, as you need at least 1/2 inch of salt13 on the bottom of the jar.  Next add a layer of herbs.  Not too thickly because you need the salt14 to be able to ‘reach’ the middle of the layer.  Add another layer of salt, completely covering the herbs.  Repeat til the your container is full, then cap it tightly and sit it in your fridge.  It takes 1-2 weeks for the herbs to dry and infuse the salt15 with wonderful flavor.  Kept refrigerated, salt16-preserved herbs will last well into winter and beyond.  To use the herbs, you simply remove them from the jar, brush off the salt17 and use as if they were fresh.  The salt18 can be used directly from the jar as a finishing salt19.

That’s it, my friends.  There’s your salt-preserved herbs and the accompanying infused salt20.  How easy is that?  And placed in a pretty jar with a label you print at home, infused salt21 makes a beautiful, frugal homemade gift during the holidays.  Give it a try and let me know what you think!  On a personal note, I’d like to welcome my new readers from the Simple Life Mom Blog Hop .  So glad to have you!   Til next time, my new friends–

Eating Seasonally

Let’s get back to the topic of traditional eating and pick up where we left off a few days ago.  So, the 3 cornerstones of traditional eating are eating locally, eating seasonally and eating simply.  We talked about how food cultures and traditions evolved from the food available in a particular region combined with the means of preparation and preservation.  I know that sounds complicated, but it’s just a matter of eating what you can grow or gather in your area.  So today, let’s move on to eating seasonally.

I think many of us have a rough idea of what eating seasonally is about.  If you haven’t been living under a rock, you’ll notice all the pumpkin spice *everything* that has been popping up on Facebook over the past week or two.  I guess that could technically be considered seasonal eating…if it’s actual pumpkin and not artificial pumpkin flavoring.  Seasonal eating is nothing more than eating what the soil is providing inside any particular season and it’s the reason we associate berries with spring, tomatoes with summer and pumpkins with fall!   Our grandparents ate this way because they had no other options, but for our generation, there are many benefits to be had from eating seasonally.

First, it just tastes better!  I know we love our chocolate covered strawberries for Valentine’s Day, but have you noticed that those strawberries are white and hollow inside instead of brilliant red and fleshy?  As hard as modern food science tries, they cannot replicate the sweet, juicy flavor of a strawberry that has ripened in the May sunshine.  Hot house produce has a one-dimensional flavor, flat at best, that is no more than a mockery of the real thing.  Stick to citrus and apples in winter and your taste buds will thank you.

Second, fruits and veggies that are grown locally, picked at the peak of freshness and eaten as soon as possible retain a much higher level of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals than produce that was picked green and stored for months in controlled-atmosphere cold storage.  Yeah, that apple you bought in May?  It was picked last September, sprayed with fungicide and stacked in a cooler til you bought it.  (Now, there are exceptions to that rule.  Squash and sweet potatoes, for instance, actually improve in storage,  as the starch content is turned into sugar…but we’ll talk storage crops another day.)

Third, eating seasonally saves you money.  In-season produce cost is often 50% less than unseasonal produce.  You figure those February strawberries had to be manipulated into ripening, packaged in a climate-controlled facility and then shipped across the country.  May and June strawberries take their time, ripen naturally and are eaten as quickly as they’re picked.  And to be honest, in gardening circles, as we approach the end of the season, there are days that I give away produce because I can’t stand the sight of another zucchini or tomato.  That’s an absolute money-saver for the lucky recipient!

Fourth, eating seasonally keeps you connected with the Earth, seasons, life cycles.  Remember a couple weeks ago when I said that there’s a rhythm to living seasonally?  There’s something that’s almost magical about the first ripe tomato, berry or apple, especially when it’s still warm from the vine or the tree.  Magical.  And those flavors become indelibly linked to memories in a way I can’t explain.  Don’t laugh at me, but a few weeks ago, I sobbed as I picked black raspberries for my dying father-in-law.  Of course, I was grieving the impending loss….but I was so unexplainably sad that he was experiencing his last black raspberry season.  There was such grief in knowing that season would never come for him again.  I can’t explain it.  Don’t judge lol.

Eating seasonally is a matter of creating a diet built around freshly-harvested foods, making the necessary adjustments for the various seasons, of course.  Now admittedly, the farther north you go and the shorter your growing season, the more difficult this style of eating becomes, but it IS possible.  As with eating locally, eating seasonally doesn’t have to be an all or nothing prospect.  It’s entirely acceptable to start with one meal a week and build up from there as your resources, confidence and knowledge begin to grow.  An example of a seasonal meal for Ohio in mid-August could be something as simple as green beans cooked with onions and tiny new potatoes, roasted sweet corn and cukes/tomatoes/onions marinated in a simple vinaigrette.  How easy is that?!  As fall approaches, how about a stuffed butternut squash with a side of braised kale and a compote of stewed apples and cranberries?  Admittedly, winter is the more difficult of the 4 seasons to eat in season, but that’s where your storage crops (winter squash, pumpkins, onions, potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots, apples) and preserved foods come into play.  So for a winter meal, possibly pumpkin ravioli with sage leaves sautéed in browned butter, home-canned veggies or fermented pickles and a mug of steaming, mulled apple cider?    A spring meal could be a pan of foraged mushrooms, served with wilted greens, early spring onions or wild garlic and if you’re lucky, the first of the fresh rhubarb.  You cannot tell me that doesn’t sound delicious!   And yes, my children WOULD eat that.

So to summarize, eating locally is nothing more than eating food that can been produced in your particular region.  Eating seasonally is eating food as it becomes mature in your particular region.  We’ve got one more ‘cornerstone’ of traditional eating to address…eating simply…and we’ll do that in a day or three.  Til next time!

 

 

Eating Locally

We’ve talked a bit about traditional eating recently and I’d like to expand on the different aspects of what it means.  Last week, I gave this rough definition of traditional eating:

“Traditional eating is simply-prepared, whole, nutrient-dense food that our ancestors have been eating for hundreds (thousands?) of years.”

That makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it?!  Well, it IS simple, but that doesn’t always mean it’s easy.  Our great-grandparents ate locally, seasonally and simply because that was the only avenue available to them.  They ate food that was grown locally because cross-country transportation was slow and prohibitively expensive.  They ate food seasonally because commercial refrigeration wasn’t widely available and preservation was a new, imperfect practice.  And they ate simply because food was expensive, and time and money were too precious to waste on pretentious techniques and presentation.  I think we could call those 3 points the pillars or cornerstones of a traditional diet.  So let’s take them one point at a time and begin to apply those points to our lives.

Eating locally may be THE most difficult aspect of traditional eating.  As we’ve moved from a rural, agrarian society to an urban, technical one, it’s harder and harder to find local foods.  I count myself blessed beyond words that we live in a region that can provide most of what we enjoy.  Our low-temp pasteurized, non-homogenized milk is delivered from a local microdairy twice a month by the farmer himself.  Eggs come from a family down the road.  Pastured beef from a family in the next county.  Fruits come from my own property or a family-run orchard a short drive away.  Veggies come out of my own garden or from my cousin’s farm market in the neighboring village.  We produce our own sweeteners in the form of honey and maple syrup, and sorghum is produced just south of the Ohio River.  I am so blessed!  Of course there are items I can’t find locally; we’ll never grow avocados or citrus here in Central Ohio, but we attempt to eat in a manner in which the bulk of our diet can come from local sources.   And I think that’s the hinge upon which traditional eating swings:  you have to decide to eat in a manner that you can sustain locally.

Think for a minute about how food evolved culturally.  We often make fun of different food cultures:  the British boiling everything, the Scottish and their haggis, the French and their escargot, the Irish and their potato-heavy diet, the Germans and their cured/pickled food.  But those different food cultures evolved in response to the ingredients available locally and their attempts to prepare and preserve them.  Even here within our own nation, we have distinct food cultures.  My family were/are Appalachian people, so our diets consisted largely of dried beans, storage crops like potatoes, beets and onions, yard birds and cornbread made from the grains we grew, dried and ground.    If you head into the Carolina lowcountry, you find a traditional diet consisting of locally grown rice, seafood and heat-loving vegetables like okra, yams and greens.  North, into the colonial states, you find diets heavy in seafood, venison, squash and cold-loving apples.  Yes, these are generalizations and even within those regional food cultures, you find microcosms that have been heavily influenced by immigration…but the point is, traditional eating is based on what was available regionally.

So where does that leave us now, with our Super Walmarts full of food grown from across the globe?  As I stated earlier, we simply need to attempt to eat in a manner we can sustain locally.  In this age, very, very few people will be able to fully walk that out, but we CAN take baby steps.  Imperfect progress, my friends, imperfect progress.  Let me give you just a few pointers to set your feet moving forward.

  • Ask around.  Talk to your foodie friends.  You’ll be surprised at what’s available when you start talking to people with similar food goals.  Til yesterday, I had NO idea there were 3 microdairies within a 20 mile radius…because I had never bothered to ask!
  • Shop locally.  If you can, shop at farmer’s markets, family-run veggie stands, butcher shops and orchards FIRST.  And again, ask.  There’s a whole-food underground out there and local farmers can help you get connected.
  • Grow what you can.  I’m not suggesting that you have to have acres in crops; even a small patio garden can supply lettuce, peppers, onions, eggplants and tomatoes.  And they’ll taste so much better than anything you can buy.
  • Start small.  Start with one locally-produced dish or meal a week.  The object of this game isn’t to become overwhelmed and quit out of frustration, but to slowly shift to locally produced food.  Let your diet evolve just like our food cultures did.

Anytime we make the decision to change the way we eat, it feels awkward, uncomfortable, and a little daunting.  You’re not alone in those feelings, sweet friends!  I remember when we first began to make the shift towards more homegrown, local, seasonal meals….I thought I’d die trying to figure out how to feel my children!  But here we are, years later and we’ve all survived lol.  Our diets aren’t perfect by any means, but we try to follow the 80% rule and allow ourselves grace for the other 20% of the time.  So, do the same, allow yourself grace and start the slow process of moving forward.  No guilt and no pressure;  just slow, steady and forward.  Til next time—

 

 

Gardening By The Moon

To remember the once-in-a-lifetime eclipse today, we’re going to talk a little about gardening by the moon.  (See what I did there?)  I can clearly remember the first time I ever heard reference to gardening by the moon.  I had plans for a big bed of potatoes and when I mentioned it to my mother in law, she said I needed to be sure to plant by the dark of the moon.  I’d never heard that phrase in my entire life, but I DID know that I had no plans to go out and plant taters in the middle of the night, regardless of what she had to say.  Oh Lardy, I was so stinkin’ young then.

A few years later, while talking dirt with my mama, she said the Old Farmer’s Almanac suggested it would be a good weekend to plant such and such a crop, based on the moon, and that’s when things started to click for me.  This wasn’t a myth or a silly wives’ tales, but a speculative science, examining lunar cycles and the physical changes that accompany it on living organisms.  Now, I’ll freely confess that I’m still on the fence about some of this, but I think there’s enough evidence to merit its consideration.

So just a very brief overview for you to ponder.  Gardening by the moon isn’t a based on astrological signs but according to the lunar cycle.  The ages-old belief is that the various stages of the moon have a direct impact on seed germination and plant growth.  The gravitational forces that pull on the Earth creating high and low tides also affect the water content of the soil, so to yield the most vigorous plants and the largest crops, you should plant them during the lunar phase that will best suit them.  Weather allowing, Farmer’s Almanac says to plant annuals and plants that bear fruit above ground during the light (waxing) of the moon and perennials and root crops during the dark (waning) of the moon.  Beyond just planting, there are numerous farm-related chores that are said to be significantly impacted by the moon’s phase; chores such as timbering, fishing, hatching eggs, pruning and such.  I don’t know if that’s true or not.   As I said, lunar gardening is still new to me and I’m still firmly on the fence about it, but I CAN tell you this:  There have been numerous years that there was a significant difference in yields between my garden and my mama’s….despite the fact we lived only minutes apart, had similar soil composition, bought seed from the same source, amended our soils with the same compost, plowed in the same straw at the end of the season.  The only difference:  she planted by moon phases and I didn’t.

It’s been my observation in the past few years that unusual wisdom and what we consider old wives’ tales often have their feet firmly based in truth.   Our grandparents looked to the sky for navigation, to develop calendars and to predict weather, so why does it seem so strange that we’d also use the moon as a guide as we tend the Earth?

Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years.  Genesis 1:14

Anyway, I hope you have the opportunity to go out and *safely* enjoy the eclipse today.  I plan on being on the front porch with my husband’s welding mask and a glass of iced tea as this is an experience I don’t want to miss!  Til next time—

 

A Soft Place To Fall

Summer vacation ended today and my sweet children returned to school after a long, lazy break.  It’s odd…you don’t realize how quiet this big, old farmhouse is until the kids are gone and there’s no one fighting over the remote or wrestling the dogs.   With the return to school comes a return to homework, projects, flute practice, recitals and a flurry of other events that leave us breathless long before our winter vacation begins.  Throw in Mom and Dad’s busy schedules, commitments to church and community and “bonus” activities like birthdays and holidays and our lives feel more harried than ever.

It wasn’t til I returned to work after 12 years of being a stay-at-home-mom that I learned the importance of warming the home; not literally of course, but in spirit.  After a frantic day at school, the only place I wanted to be was home, with my people, gathered in around the fireplace.  The thick, plaster walls of this home that’s seen 2 centuries of life serve as a shield from the noise and desperation of the world outside.  A warm home is a refuge; a place to nurture the senses, restore the spirit, rest the body and calm the mind.  A place to drop all pretense and immerse yourself in the warmth of family.  Home is not just a house, but a haven, a place of respite.  So how do we go about creating a soothing environment that will comfort our family after a long day in the world?  Let’s use the five senses to map out a warm home.

The #1 thing that makes a room visually uncomfortable is clutter.  There’s something I find incredibly calming about clear countertops and tables.  Our eyes need a place to “rest” and surfaces that are covered in papers, junk, knickknacks and personal items create a frantic space that doesn’t allow that rest.  It took me many years to figure out that simply clearing off the kitchen counters, supper table, desks and side tables reduced my anxiety.  Isn’t that crazy?!  So clutter is enemy #1!  Color and lighting in your home also serve to enhance or detract from the mood.  Of course, this is all subjective and everyone’s preferences will be different, but there’s a coldness to overhead, task lighting.  It creates harsh shadows and feels sterile and busy to me, for lack of a better word.  Unless we’re actually working on a task that requires bright, overhead lights, I prefer the soft glow of table lamps and electric lanterns.  When it’s cold and dark outside, I feel especially comforted and drawn to those small, cozy areas of light.  Not sure that lighting really affects the mood of the house?  Imagine a home that’s dark except for the glow of the Christmas tree and it’s hundreds of twinkling lights.  Home, in the most literal aspect, should be a light in dark places.

Fragrance is also vitally important.  Of course we don’t want our homes to smell bad, but how much thought do we give to the impact that a pleasant fragrance has on the mood of our home?  There are certain scents that are indelibly etched in my mind, in connection with particular people.  I cannot smell the aroma of cinnamon Redhots without thinking of my grandmother’s kitchen and a particular dessert she was fond of baking.  Fresh, wild honeysuckle reminds me of my mother-in-law.  Buttercream, of my mother and her favorite candles.  Scent is a powerful, powerful force in creating mood and memories, so why not use it to further enhance the comfort of your home?  In fall and winter, I keep a simmering pot of water on the back of the wood stove, full of cinnamon sticks, apple peels, whole cloves, used vanilla beans and whatever else I happen to have laying around the kitchen.  In spring and summer, lighter fragrances like hyacinth, lilacs and citrus are favorites.  A favorite trick of mine is to crack the front door when it’s time for the children to arrive home from school….so they can smell the aroma of dinner or dessert as they’re walking up our long driveway.  Typically, you can see when they catch that first scent of home as they quicken their pace toward the door! 

Inarguably, taste is my son’s favorite sense and the one he enjoys practicing most at this moment lol.  My children know when they come home from school each day there will be a small, delicious treat on the kitchen counter, along with a glass of iced tea, local milk or a mug of cocoa.  We don’t do a lot of processed or fast foods, so their snacks and meals are simple, hearty fare that reflect my Appalachian/Tidewater upbringing.  We enjoy seasonal homegrown veggies and carefully preserved fruits all year ’round and my little food-snob children are pretty quick to point out when restaurant food doesn’t taste as good as home cooked.  Love that!  They closely associate homemade food with celebrations and will happily tell you their favorite meals and what Mom does that makes them so special.

Aside from visual, touch is my most important sense when creating a comforting home for my husband and children to come home to.  Our home is 3100 sf, with 14 rooms and 10′ ceilings, but it feels cozy to me.  The carpet in the living room is soft and plush.  The fires in the wood stove and fireplace are warm and beckon you closer.  The old down throws invite you to cuddle with someone, even if it’s just our Pointer, Molly!  There are comfy feather pillows to rest weary heads and thick mattress toppers to rest tired bodies.  The tactile comforts of a cozy rocking chair pulled close to the fire and a blanket pulled up to my chin…oh that’s bliss.

And finally, the last sense is sound.  What is the soundtrack of your home?  Yelling?  Noisy TVs and electronics?  Conflict?  Rattle-y appliances?  Slamming doors?   Oh Mercy, sound is so influential to the mood of your home and it’s the sensory area I’ve had to work on hardest.  After a long, hard day, no one wants to be greeted with harsh words, so I practice putting extra care into greeting my husband and children with kind words each afternoon.  The TV is shut off and the first words they hear are how much I missed them and I hope they had a great day.  No quarreling about messy rooms or chores that need to be finished.  No loud appliances.  No yelling at the dogs for digging in the flower beds.  I want the soundtrack of our home to be loving words in a gentle voice.  And laughter, so much laughter!

Our lives are more stressful than they’ve ever been before and so it’s absolutely vital that we make our homes a soft place to fall.  Our spouses and children need to know that at the end of the day, no matter what school or work held for them, home is where their peace lies.  When they cross that threshold and close the door, the world has been left behind and what lies inside is comfort, coziness and acceptance above all.  Our grandmother’s practiced this skill—that’s why we have such wonderful memories of time we spent there!  While we can’t necessarily rush out and buy new plush carpeting, expensive artwork for the walls or eider-down quilts for the beds, we can use what we have at our disposal and invest ourselves into our houses to create an atmosphere worth coming home to.

Til next time—–

 

Christmastime’s A Coming…

 

I know.  I know.  You don’t have to say it….it’s WAAAAY to early to be thinking about Christmas.  But my friends, if you subscribe to the idea that handmade and from the heart is the way to go for Christmas gifts, NOW is the time to start thinking about it.  I don’t know about you, but beginning around early-November, our schedules take a dramatic uptick in general busyness.  Of course there’s Veteran’s Day remembrances and breakfasts, followed closely by Thanksgiving and Black Friday.  Not long afterwards, our little town holds “Christmas In The Village”, complete with a parade, shopping, and a free community dinner at our church.  Then there’s Petunia’s band recital, a church play with it’s weekly practices and Christmas Eve worship.   All of which I love and would hate to miss and would hate to miss, but there’s only so many hours in the day!

Schedules aside, in the past few years, my thinking about gift-giving has changed.  Oh Lardy, it used to be that I would work myself into a frenzy trying to buy the perfect gift for everyone on the list; children, adults, neighbors, siblings, parents, cousins, sibs-in-Christ.  And the older we/they got, the more difficult it became to buy gifts, especially with loved ones who live out of town or state and so the obvious thing to do was purchase gift cards.  Then one Christmas, I kid you not, we sat down in the living room and exchanged gift cards with our siblings.  That’s to say, we just traded them.  I must have had the most ridiculous look on my face as the full impact hit me.  We did nothing more than pass a gift card to the right and accept one from the left.  (Close your eyes and visualize that.)  The following year, things changed.  Well, my attitude changed.  My job as a dear sister and auntie wasn’t to make their Christmases;  my job as a sister and auntie is to love them.  And one way I can love them is to bless them with a little gift I made with my own hands, just a simple reminder of my affections.

So now, homemade gifts are at the forethought of my mind and my goal is to have 90% of the preparation done by Halloween.  Which admittedly is a big task!  I try to come up with new, fresh ideas each year as no one wants the same gift year after year and to which I can only say—God Bless Pinterest!  Some gifts that have gone over incredibly well in the past few years included handmade, scented soap with a homegrown loofa sponge and crocheted cotton spa cloths,  Anna/Elsa crocheted hats for my niece, homemade blackberry cordial, pans of baklava, jars of homemade maple syrup and so on.  For this year, I’m considering baking extracts,  blackberry mead, small quilted pieces, flavored honey, herbal tea blends and new scents of soap.  If things go well and I learn to weave baskets, there may also be a small basket or two to offer.  With the kids returning to school, I’ll use the lull to begin creating gifts and hopefully be finished well before my target date.

I’d like to share a trick with you that has served me extremely well in the past few years:  a gift closet.  So, memory isn’t one of my stronger points and invariably, I’m going to forget *someone* from my list and invariably, that person will show up on my door with a gift for me.  Que c’est embarrassant!  So over the past few years, I’ve built up a small collection of gifts that I keep on hand for just such an emergency!  Some of the handiest items have been small 31 totes and Longaberger baskets, candles, coffee mugs, books, candle frames, lotions, stuffed animals and inexpensive games.  A couple cute pieces tucked into a nice tote or basket make a sweet gift for anyone and you never have to worry about the person you’ve forgotten.  At least that’s been my experience with a gift closet!  Now is a great time to get started stocking your closet for the upcoming holidays.  Don’t be afraid to shop markdowns and seasonal items….a quality gift is a quality gift, no matter when you bought it or how much you paid for it.  Now get to it….it’s only 132 more days til Christmas!!!

Til next time, my festive friends!

The Last Great Hurrah – Or – Back To The Lunchbox

All good things must end, and today is the last day of summer vacation for my children.  Angus, who turns 13 next week, is beginning 8th grade, and my sweet Petunia, 6th grade.  I tell you, I just blinked my eyes and June and July were over and done and we’d begun the August countdown.  Sigh.  While I dread the 5:45 wake-ups, I AM looking forward to a return to something like a routine.

Summer for my family is a very relaxed season.  With the exception of hygiene and tidy rooms, I don’t have huge expectations for the kids.  After 9 months of “working” full-time, I feel like they need to be free to rest, play, visit, explore and generally be children.  Typically, they develop new interests and learn new skills over summertime with little (or no) “push” from me:  this summer, Petunia took up sketching, bird watching and learned some elementary kitchen skills while Angus began learning guitar and kept busy outdoors; he LOVES cutting grass and has been tinkering on small engines in the barn with his daddy.  I’m sad all that ends tonight at bedtime; I think there’s something magical about self-directed, summertime learning, something that can’t be duplicated during the school year with it’s non-stop demands.

With back-to-school comes the inevitable question of “Mom, what’s for lunch today?!”  Part of our return to traditional eating meant that school lunches needed a complete overhaul.  Before 2015, I was pretty okay with my kids buying school lunches, but that changed abruptly when I began subbing at the kid’s school and actually SAW the lunches.  I never understood why my children were coming home *starving* at 3pm after eating lunch at 12:30—til I had lunchroom duty one afternoon.

  • Veggies were steamed with no seasoning whatsoever.
  • Portions for a 110# 6th grader were the same as a 40# Kindergartener.
  • Lunches were very carb/sugar heavy and completely lacking beneficial fats.
  • Time was an issue as that 30 minute timeslot included the 10-15 minutes it took to stand in line and order the food.

Now listen, I’m not dogging my children’s school, the lunch lady or the program they follow.  The food they serve fits the federal requirements, is considered “nutritious”, is handled properly and the lunch lady is an absolute doll.  BUT…sometimes things that look fabulous on paper don’t translate well to reality.   My personal conviction (perhaps it’s the French in me?) is that food should do more than just supply nutrients to your body, but should also feed the eyes and comfort the spirit as well.  Yes, I understand that school cafeterias can’t “feed the eyes and comfort the spirit” en masse in a 30 minute window.  Like I said, I’m not dogging the school.   They do their absolute best, especially considering the restrictions and regulations they’re working within.  What I AM saying is that we need to return to the ages-old practice of feeding ourselves from home.

So what does this all look like?

In our house, school lunches start the week before with a detailed meal planning list.  We use leftovers extensively and the only way to end up with quality leftovers is to plan, plan, plan ahead!  One to two times a week, I prepare a cut of meat large enough for dinner plus lunches for the 4 of us.  Our favorites are whole roasted chicken or a good quality beef roast, both of which can be chopped or shredded and served in a million different ways.  I follow the old “Meat + 3” approach to lunches, the same as for dinner, and it’s worked well for us for many years.  I pack a hearty main dish, hot or cold depending on the season, and plenty of nutritious “sides” that the kids can pick from to fill up their empty corners.  Typical main dishes include favorites such as chicken fried rice, soups (chicken, tomato, beef, chili), pasta salad, Build-Your-Own burritos, bite-size meatballs, shredded chicken barbeque, chicken/tuna/egg salad or baked beans.  Packed into a thermos, the hot dishes will stay hot for many hours and provide a soothing, comforting, delicious meal for the children—and for me!  (If you haven’t purchased a serving-sized Thermos yet, I greatly encourage you to do so!  We picked them up at Walmart for about $10 when the kids began Kindergarten, and 9+ years later, they’re still going strong!)    “Side dishes” can be anything and everything, depending on the children’s palates and appetites.  Favorites for us include fresh berries, nuts and seeds, cheese cubes, homemade yogurt, carrot sticks with a full-fat dip, applesauce, olives, small salads and occasionally, a small treat like a cookie, piece of chocolate or a homemade dessert.  To wash it all down, I pack a small juice box and a bottle of water, but when it’s especially frigid outside, I’ll include a thermos of hot tea, spiced cider or cocoa, again, to nurture the spirit as well as the body.

To keep the morning chaos at a minimum, I do as much prep ahead of time as possible.  When we unpack from the grocery store, we automatically portion non-perishable items into snack-size baggies or small plastic containers.  All the non-perishable items and necessary paper goods are kept in a convenient drawer so in the morning, it’s just a matter of grabbing a few sides and tossing them in their lunch boxes.   The same can be said of perishables; just designate a small basket or shelf in the fridge and load it up with small serving containers of perishable sides like berries, yogurt and olives.  In the morning, I simply prepare the main dish, add a few sides and a drink and we’re ready to roll.  Honestly, if I’ve done the requisite prep work, I spend less than 10 minutes a day on lunches…while at the same time, saving $30+ each week on school lunches.   Occasionally, something will come up on the school menu that the kids are really excited about and we do allow for a purchased school lunch from time to time, but as a rule, they find it disappointing and are ready for their home-packed lunches the next day.

Now, I want you to know that it took several months for us to find our lunch-packing groove.  It took a while to learn what worked, what didn’t and what they looked forward to each day.  Don’t expect every lunch to be a smash hit—that’s a whole lot of unnecessary pressure you’re heaping on yourself!  Just start small, one lunch at a time and go from there.   Til next time!