Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016


Just seven for dinner this year with three stopping by later for leftovers and pie.  No vegan guests, but two pesco-vegetarians, which means they eat fish and eggs.  So the menu was simple.  However, I still prepared some of my dishes using coconut milk and no butter just because I thought the dishes really tasted better prepared that way.  I had all day Wednesday free, so I was able to make a lot of the dinner ahead.  Here are some notes from this year's feast, in no particular order, just so I can look back next year and remember what worked for me.

Make ahead on Wednesday:  Stuffing, yams, pies, cranberry sauce, salad, and rolls (this year I bought the rolls and pies).  Chill the drinks.  Set the table. Select all the serving dishes and utensils and have them ready.  Thanksgiving day goes so smoothly with all this advanced prep.

Cranberry Sauce.  Simple -- just a cup of sugar, a cup of orange juice, and 12 oz pkg. of fresh cranberries. Cook and stir over medium heat 10 minutes or so to reduce liquid.  Can continue to simmer on low stirring frequently until liquid is reduced enough.  At the very last, I add my secret ingredient -- a half teaspoon of vanilla.  Chill in refrigerator until ready to serve. Sauce thickens when chilled. 

Stuffing.  Made my own bread cubes with two loaves of bread.  Toasted cubes under the broiler. Two loaves is perfect so everyone has some leftovers to take home.  Used all the usual seasonings along with sauteed veggies (I used butter for sauteing, but if I have vegan guests, I use dairy-free margarine).  Moistened bread with one can of coconut milk and two cans of vegetable broth.  Added a half cup of walnuts and one can of water chestnuts (drained and slightly chopped) and sauteed veggies. Covered and refrigerated until needed.  Baked at 370 for 30 minutes.  Yams and stuffing go in the oven together 40 minutes before dinner, so they come out of the oven 10 minutes before dinner. 

Yams.  The simplest thing to fix.  Boil whole, unpeeled yams in a large pot of water for an hour.  Drain and cool enough to handle. The skin peels of easily with a paring knife.  In a baking pan, spread some melted butter or spray with vegetable spray.  Slice yams into round medallion shapes about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick.  Layer in the baking pan. After each layer, salt lightly, drizzle with melted butter, and sprinkle with brown sugar.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.

Mashed Potatoes.  I made a really huge pot this year because we had no leftovers last year.  Probably nine pounds (most of a 10-pound bag). Peeled in the morning, cut into 3-inch pieces and placed in a large pot of cold water until ready to cook.  Started cooking 45 minutes before dinner.  Cook over high to boil and reduce heat to medium to continue boil for 35 minutes.  Mashed, adding only a can of coconut milk and very light salt, no butter.  This makes them vegan or vegetarian, but honestly, they are the most delicious mashed potatoes you'll ever eat.  I enlisted help mashing since things are chaotic in the kitchen the last 30 minutes.  Mash in the pot and cover with a lid to keep hot until serving.

Rolls.  This year I decided at the last minute to buy rolls from Winegar's instead of making my own.  It was a good choice as it saved me time and work, and Winegar's rolls are really good.   I bought three dozen so there were plenty for people to take home for turkey sandwiches.  I didn't even heat them up, but could certainly have put them in for 10 minutes after the yams and stuffing came out of the oven.

Turkey.  Just a 13-pounder.  It's big enough.  The family likes turkey, but any more than this would just be wasted.

Salmon.  I make this every year for the vegetarians, but honestly, every guest has some as my recipe is really good (and simple).  This year I cooked three pounds of salmon, so there was extra for taking home. Even though my recipe says to set the oven to 475, I set it to 370 as it has to go in while I'm also heating the yams and stuffing on the lower rack.  I put a half to 3/4 stick of butter and 4 tablespoons of chopped parsley in a shallow baking pan and put it on the top shelf in the oven long enough to melt the butter.  Placed the salmon on the baking pan, skin side up, and baked for about 6 minutes.  Removed from oven (at this point you can remove the skin, but I didn't), turn the fish over. Salt and pepper and return to the oven for 5 or  more minutes until done.  I do the salmon at the end of the baking time for the yams and stuffing and after the gravies are already made and simmering on the stove.

Green beans.  One large bag of prepared fresh green beans is enough. Blanched these in the morning (placed in boiling water for 10 minutes and then plunged into ice water to chill immediately) and then refrigerated until the salmon is in the oven.  While the salmon baked, I sauteed beans over a med-high heat in olive oil and fresh garlic (I press it, but you can chop) for 3 or 4 minutes.  Use tongs and turn these constantly to heat all of the beans through and not burn.  Turn the heat down or off, cover the pan to keep the beans hot until ready to serve.

Drinks.  I always offer a cabernet sauvignon, but this year I also had a Kendall Jackson sauvignon blanc and it was very popular. A bottle of each was enough this year, but I would double that if I had 12 or more people. I had soft drinks (a dozen coke, a dozen diet coke), but no-one drank any although they did take some home.  I had 10 bottles of the zero-calorie orange sparkling drinks for the kids and a lot of those went home with the families, too.

Pies.  Heck, I just bought the Marie Callendar's frozen pies this year: apple and banana cream. Also the pumpkin, but it looked so small, I ended up buying a larger one at Smith's bakery.  Even with sending pie home with everyone, I ended up with that one Marie Callendar's pumpkin pie untouched.  Next time, I'll just bake two MC pies and buy the pumpkin fresh.

Gravies.  I did the usual mushroom red wine gravy for vegetarians and simple turkey gravy for everyone else. Had to send my son to get mushrooms at the last minute as the ones I had bought on Sunday and gone bad.  Lesson learned.  I made the gravies while the potatoes boiled after putting the yams and stuffing in the oven.  Even the mushroom gravy only takes 10 minutes to make, and I put both gravies on back burners and a low simmer, stirring occasionally.  Also, I added the wine to the mushroom gravy just a minute or two before serving for best flavor.  I had read that if you add the wine too soon, it can add a bitter taste to the gravy.

Salad.  Just my very popular make ahead broccoli-grape-pasta salad.

Hors D'oeuvres. None. I had pretzels and candies set out along with the wines and wine glasses on the server in the living room, so people had a drink and a little taste of chocolate before dinner.  Forget all the cheese and crackers or crab-stuffed goodies.  People want to fill up on the main event.

As far as buying food the Sunday before, it's fine for the turkey and most everything else.  But knowing what I know now, I would make a short shopping trip on Wednesday to purchase the mushrooms, a fresh pumpkin pie, and rolls.

Timing is crazy the last hour before serving in order to have everything done at the same time.  I do the turkey in a roaster so my oven is free for this crucial time.  With that in mind, here's how I manage the last hour before dinner when serving at 2 p.m.
  • As people arrive, invite them to select a drink.  Also enlist helpers for last minute serving.
  • 1:00  (Or any time sooner) Put butter, salt and pepper and lemon wedges on the buffet. Whisk together the thickening agent for gravies (flour and liquid) and set aside.  Can also saute the mushrooms etc. for the gravy earlier and set aside until needed.
  • 1:05  Preheat oven to 370. 
  • 1:10  Start the potatoes cooking on high.
  • 1:15  Put yams and stuffing in oven, bottom rack. Put the shallow pan for salmon on the top rack to melt the butter. Remove as soon as butter melts.
  • 1:20  Make mushroom gravy and put on back burner to simmer.
  • 1:30  Remove turkey from roaster. Lift out with the rack handles, place on a baking pan, and tent with foil and allow to rest for 30 minutes.  Pour off liquid for gravy.
  • 1:35  Make turkey gravy and put on back burner to simmer.
  • 1:40 Test potatoes.  If not done, cook for 5 more minutes.  If done, drain, mash in the pot and cover until ready to serve (you always get offers of help and this is a great one to assign to someone).
  • 1:45  Put salmon in the oven. 
  • 1:46  Start sauteing green beans on high.  After 3 or 4 minutes, cover, reduce or remove from heat.
  • 1:46  Set out salad, rolls and cranberry sauce for serving (I assigned this task to grandkids).
  • 1:47  Stir wine into gravy and continue to simmer very low. 
  •  1:50  Remove yams and stuffing from oven and set out for serving (assign someone to add serving spoons, forks spatulas, etc, as needed to the hot dishes).
  • 1:51  Remove salmon from oven, turn it over and return to oven for 6 to 8 more minutes.
  • 1:52  Move turkey to a serving platter and slice some white and dark meat.  A grandchild can decorate the platter with parsley now.
  • 1:59  Put into serving dishes the mashed potatoes, gravies and green beans.  Remove salmon from oven and place on a serving platter.  Cut into individual portions and drizzle with some of the butter from the pan.
  • 2:00  Dinner is served.

Whew!  You really have to keep moving and be organized to have all the food done and hot at the same time.  This works for me.

I serve buffet style as my table is really too narrow for all those serving dishes along with the place settings.  So when the hot food is ready, I invite people to bring a plate from the table and serve themselves from the buffet. I provide smaller plates for cold foods like salad and roll.  All of this is very efficiently handled using my kitchen island.

So that's it for another year.  Dinner was a success and the family stayed and stayed.  Every year I think I might not do the dinner.  But knowing how important the tradition is to my family, I keep it up. It's such a pleasure to see how people enjoy the day together and how they really enjoy the food.  Yes, I will probably do it again next year.  But now I've written down the little details, I won't have to think it all through again.  My plan is right here.

We had a freezing snowstorm the night before Thanksgiving, but just a couple of inches of snow.  Temps improved the next day.



Tuesday, September 13, 2016

I survived the summer

What a great summer it was.  I looked after my two grandsons who live nearby all summer long.  Each week we did both routine activities and special adventures, had lessons in cooking, art, and science, practiced math and did reading every single day, and ended up having just a memorable time.

Of course, I had good intentions for keeping up on housework and yardwork, but it was really all I could do to just maintain some semblance of order in the house.  At the same time I spent some evenings and weekends helping my daughter with her new yard and home, and lending support to my friend who downsized from her big home to a condo.  I was busy.  But happy.

In August, my high school graduating class had its 50th reunion.  I had not intended to go, but after much encouragement from my closest friend (friends since we were 8 years old), and many classmates, I did attend after all.  It was two events over two evenings and in the end I was glad to have had the chance to see so many people I hadn't seen in years -- most since graduation.  Here's a very poor picture.  I guess we should all be grateful you can't see us very well.  Haha! You might be able to find me with my three best old friends.  See the four guys standing in front to the right side as you look at the picture? Look behind the fourth guy in and you will see on either side behind him Celia (in white), Sally (in navy), continuing looking left it's me (in tan), and next to me, darling red-headed Sherry. 


Once the grandkids went back to school, I became committed to getting all caught up on yard, house, projects, and even fall cleanup.  Yes, I resorted to my lists, and I have been following them faithfully.  Until this week, that is.  I woke up Monday morning with such a feeling of ennui.  My house was super clean from my flurry of activity for the past two weeks.  My yard was decent, but needing some more weeding.  I had even completed a number of items from my one-day project list and was following my daily self-care list faithfully.  It's almost as if I became TOO productive for awhile.  I wasn't taking any time for fun except to watch Netflix.  And I was so devoted to the lists and knocking items off, I began to have a hard time sleeping due to thinking about plans for tomorrow.  So I have slacked off for two days now and just enjoyed the cooler weather and the peace and serenity of my home and surroundings with my sweet little dog.

Of all my lists this year, I have been most devoted to my "Kind Self Care".  I have managed to lose some weight and hope to continue. I've achieved 20 percent of that goal so it's coming off slowly but surely.  I've ticked off the items on the list each day, looking after not only my physical health, but my appearance and my attitude.  My emphasis has been on being kind to myself.  No more guilt and berating for not adhering strictly 100 percent of the time.  There are no failures. But there are sometimes pauses in my efforts. 

So this is just a little pause.  I'll take up my goals again tomorrow and focus on outside things.  My list told me to clean house yesterday and today, but I refuse to pretend to clean a house that's already clean!  Sometimes I follow the plan and sometimes I ignore the list.

But all is well.  I survived the summer.  Things are moving along.  I'm still uninterested in blogging much, but will continue to check in here once in while.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

2016 Spring -- What I've Been Up To

I've not posted in quite awhile, but I've been busy. Alberto's crew was just here for the spring cleanup,and they did a really fabulous job.  The yard isn't terribly colorful at this moment.  The earlier spring blooms have faded and are ready for dead-heading.  The mid-summer blooms are just barely starting to show.  But even so, the yard is pretty and lush.

I took a bunch of photos today despite it being cloudy (and has now started raining).  I want to use this post as a pictorial reminder of the things I want to tweak in the fall and spring.  The thing most needed is moving plants to a better location.  I am adding notes with each photo to help me later.

As for me, I've been seriously focusing on self-care, or "kind" self-care, as I like to call it.  I read some of Anne Lamott's ideas on radical self-care, and at first I was taking that approach as well. But for me, the word "radical" felt too militant and forceful.  What I thought I needed was self-care with a lot of TLC.  I am seeing real results in my efforts.  I feel better, I look better, I am happier, and I have more energy to do the things I need to do.  I realize more than ever before, that I need to take care of myself first.  It doesn't mean I don't do what's needed to help my family and friends.  It only means that if I neglect myself in the process, I not only harm my own health and well-being, I'm not really able to give the time and effort needed to help those who depend on me.

Changes eventually become new habits.  And you're never too old to change.  When I want to change something specific, I set some short-term goals to focus on just that one thing while not neglecting my other newly-formed habits.  So change is gradual.  But at some point you surprise yourself with where you are overall.  I'll say I'm happy to be where I am but I'm not finished yet.  This year will continue to be the year of Kind Self-Care.

And now for the photos of the yard.  The photos start at the back patio and make a circuit of the entire yard with some commentary.
Starting at the patio looking to the backyard, I like how they cut the vines back to the retaining block wall. I still have patio cleanup to do myself.
The shade garden has plenty of plants but is slow growing this year. It was a cool wet May, but the new warmer weather will get things moving.  Only thing to do in the fall is remove remaining iris plants.

This shade garden needs more. Right now I have some pots of volunteer plants ready to pot somewhere else.  I added petunias, but I don't think I get enough sun for them to thrive.  So more shade-friendly plants are needed. Favorite new plant here is a bellflower.


This middle upper level is fine. I won't plant anything here. I have a project for those bricks in the foreground.


Oriental poppies were glorious here for a couple of weeks, but gone now. That iris in the front needs moved to the back. I had started some Mexican sunflowers at the back from seed, but Alberto's guys tore them out thinking they were weeds. I'll try again and see what I can get this year.  There is a cone flower here that needs to be moved.


Still need to get rid of that old grill.  I tried taking it apart, but the bolts are rusted tight.  We have extra trash pickups throughout the summer and I'll try again to get rid of this.

I lost one of these small trees in the winter which opened up the upper backyard a bit and made it sunnier.  I have water coverage on some of this ground, so I want to add some of my perennials here and maybe some large grasses.

A gopher tried to kill the ornamental pear third in this line. I've braced it with a rock and am trying to save it.  I'm diligently watching for new gopher mounds and applying smoke bombs to the burrows, which seems to work well.

A view looking down the steps where a little Frankie looks for gophers in the vines.

The upper corner garden is about as nice as it's ever been. I will have color all summer long here.  The ajuga along the front are transplants from elsewhere.  They took well, and I'll add more all along that edge.  I need to move the white salvia that's hidden behind the large coreopsis.  I have added a dozen small zinnias for summer color.  I'd like to find a perennial to replace those.  For now, I handwater the zinnias because they need more water than the perennials.

Gopher mound, grrr!  Right in the middle of my beautiful corner garden.  I applied a smoke bomb today.  Hope it works.

Love this pink salvia.  I think I'll repeat this along the long east side of the yard.

I fogot to get the guys to remove this yucca.  It has become yucky and needs to go.


The big view along this side looks pretty and there will soon be more color.  But there are a couple of problem areas to address.

Here, the artemisia needs move nearer the sidewalk in line with the new blue fescue.  The coreopsis needs to trade places with the hyssop behind it.  The columbine needs move away from the catmint.  The whole area needs more water.  I want to add a salvia and a couple of the sedum that I have in the corner garden.

This area is just sad. Definitely not getting enough water.  The geum needs moved away from the lavender.  I want to add a pink salvia and some more of the same sedum here to repeat that look along the sidewalk.  Need to solve the water problem.

The purple catmint is waning and the color will be replace by the Russian Sage soon and the orange hummingbird plant will add a punch of color.

Ice plant is dying out everywhere.  Some of the pink chintz thyme died here too.  I might just dig up the old ice plant here.


A very shady interior spot. I have a few things planted in here, but I don't think I should pursue plantings here.  Maybe just a nice little park bench to dress up the space.


Lots of competing ground covers here.  I've severely cut back the hummingbird plant as it encroaches on everything.  Also here are ajuga and thyme.  I will be moving a lot of this ajuga to the along the east side of the yard.

The Mexican primrose came back this year.  It's much pinker than this picture shows. This side of the house is so shady now and I've lost a couple of fire bushes here.  I have to think about what to do with this space.



This area right by the driveway is a problem.  Too much hummingbird plant here.  I've lost a number of plants I've added here, so I'm not sure what to do.  Giving it some more thought.

This funny little triangle has both a lot of shade and a lot of hot sun.  Some bee balm in here is struggling.  I have yarrow and new salvia and gaura plants.  Need to move that artemisia to a sunnier spot. Too much coreopsis here.  I should replace a few coreopsis with blanket flower for some variety.  Also, maybe add a pink and/or white salvia.  Decide what to do about the bee balm.


I discovered a stonecrop plant that volunteered where i had dug up an old one to move to a better area.  I think I'll move this to the front corner garden.



The blanket of pink chintz thyme looks brown now that the pink flowers have faded.  Sometimes I actually trim the dead blooms off to let the lovely green of the thyme plant to show through.  It's labor-intensive but worth it.

The wisteria has sent up wonderful vines climbing all over the arbor I put up last year.  I had the guys trim it up.  Next year, I should start getting blooms again.

I removed all the old phlox in the front garden. It was hopelessly full of grass.  Now I have lavender, Jupiter's beard, and blanket flower here along with the mugho pine shrub.  I'll keep this just as is for now and decide next year whether to change anything here.

The next few pictures are the hidden west area of the house.  Basically, just a route between back and front yards.  Also, some views of the fence and property line.  The house next door is for sale.  I hope I get some good neighbors who take an interest in their yard.



Front corner garden.  I like how this is coming.  Need to be sure water is getting everything. Move the purple salvia away from the white salvia.  Add the rock crop here and maybe some of the sedums that I have in the upper corner garden.


The rock wall is fine but weed prone.  I will try some Preen in here to keep the weeds at bay.  I notice the guys left a lot of morning glory in here.

Lower corner from another angle.

Before the coreopsis bloomed, I had glorious yellow iris in bloom here. This garden doesn't need a lot of change,  But is a little bare on the east side.


 
This is a new garden spot near the back yard. It was all Jupiter's beard, but I added iris, asters and coreopsis last fell.  All took off great. I have to work to keep the Jupiter's Beard at bay.  I'm thinking I might move some of my hybrid day lilies here that are sitting now in shady spots and not doing so well.

Some of the backyard pots.  I have an unbelievable 30 pots large and small to hand water this year.  I won't do that again!




And back where we started at the shady patio.