How to Shovel Snow

Yes, snowfall can be gorgeous. If you like to ski, snowboard, or snowshoe, fresh snow also means winter fun. But for those of us without a snowblower and with a driveway, the winter of 2013/2014 has been epic in terms of the amount of snow shoveling many of us have had to do. I am gearing up for a second round of shoveling this afternoon, and before I head out, am taking a brief break to write a post on

How to Shovel Snow

  1. Dress warmly! Layers are preferable, so you can take off a layer if you get to warm. Shoveling is exercise, and you may find yourself heating up. Be sure to wear a warm hat, gloves, and a face covering if temperatures are extremely cold. You want to protect your exposed skin from possible frostbite.
  2. Go slowly and take breaks. Shoveling is not a race. Work at a pace that feels comfortable for you. Make sure you stay properly hydrating by drinking water periodically. In the cold, you may not feel thirsty but your body is working hard and water is essential.
  3. Invest in a snow shovel. 
  4. Don’t overload your shovel! Wet snow is heavy, and can be unwieldy. Only scoop as much snow onto your shovel as you can comfortably throw or knock off.
  5. Use your legs to help you lift the shovel. Make sure you aren’t over-extending your lower back by leaning over too far, or trying to lift all of the weight with your arms. Again, breaks are important.  
  6. Chances are, it may be windy while you are shoveling. It is easiest if you shovel with the wind at your back. When you toss the snow off of your shovel, the wind will blow it away from you instead of back into your face.
  7. Make sure you warm up afterwards, and drink plenty of liquids., Popular Mechanics, and Web MD have even more tips and advice. 

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How To: Grow Greens Indoors

Spring is coming! But until it gets here, perhaps you’d like to get a head start.

Growing salad greens such as arugula and some lettuces indoors is a lovely way to enjoy a taste of summer’s freshness year-round. Here’s how!

What you’ll need:

  • Seeds (arugula, spinach, or “loose leaf” lettuces are good choices)
  • Potting soil
  • Container(s)
  • A sunny window


Most greens grow fairly quickly and have shallow roots. That means you will be able to grow more than one crop of your greens of choice during the winter months. As soon as you harvest one crop, you can begin another. Or, you can even have plants growing at multiple stages in different containers to give you a steady supply of fresh greens!

1. Fill your containers with potting soil. Containers don’t need to be anything fancy — you can use anything from terra cotta pots from a garden supply store to a cardboard milk carton laid lengthwise with the top side cut away.
2. Plant your seeds in the containers. You will not need to bury them – simply sprinkling them on the surface or using a pencil or fork tines to make a very shallow “furrow” is fine.
3. Water the seeds very gently until the soil is moist.
4. Keep in a sunny location with a relatively constant temperature between 55 and 70 degrees. The room can be a bit chillier than that, but your seeds will likely take longer to sprout.
5. Water regularly. As your plants sprout, you may need to thin them periodically. Just use the microgreens on a salad or sandwich!
6. In a few weeks, enjoy your homegrown greens!

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How-To: An Easy, Make-Ahead Brunch

Does the idea of hosting brunch make you wish it were acceptable to drink something stronger than a mimosa at 11am? Never fear. Everyone needs a fail-safe, easy-peasy brunch recipe up their sleeve, and this is mine.

If you can slice bread and scramble an egg, you know everything you need to know to make this delicious and filling brunch recipe! Best of all, it is assembled the day ahead, so all you need to do it pop it in the oven the morning of your brunch.

Note: The original version of this recipe was created by Paula Deen. My variation is “lightened up” with less butter, sugar, and half-n-half, and made more flavorful with just a hint more spice. It is still a sweet and decadent brunch treat, but with fewer calories and less fat.

Baked French Toast with Pecan Topping


1 loaf French bread
5 large eggs 
1/2 cup half-and-half
1 1/2 cups milk (1% or 2%) 
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Dash salt
Maple syrup (“real,” if possible)
For topping:
1/2 stick butter, softened 
2/3 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Slice French bread into slices approximately 1/2 inch thick. Spray a 9 by 13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and arrange the slices into two rows. You may need to overlap the slices. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and beat with a rotary beater or whisk until well blended. Pour the egg mixture over the bread slices. You may need to turn some of the slices over and dunk them in the egg mixture a little to make sure that they are all covered evenly. Cover the dish with plastic wrap or foil and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F. While the oven is preheating, prepare the Pecan Topping. To prepare the topping, mix the butter, brown sugar, pecans, corn syrup, and spices together in a medium bowl. The mixture will be gooey.

Spread Praline Topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. 
Serve immediately, accompanied by the maple syrup alongside. To round out your brunch, serve a simple fruit salad of strawberries, blueberries, and sliced bananas, coffee, and orange juice (champagne optional). Viola!
In the unlikely event you have leftovers, store them in the refrigerator. Portions can be reheated in the microwave at 80% power for 1-2 minutes. 


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How To: Build a Fire

With temperatures plunging to the single digits or into the sub zero realm across most of the U.S.,  now is a good time to think about staying warm. After all, we don’t want to end up like that guy in To Build a Fire.
So in honor of my friend Brigit, who asked for some “how to” posts on the blog, here is my inaugural life skills post.
If you were a Girl Scout or a Boy Scout, or just grew up in an outdoorsy family, chances are you may already know how to build a fire. But if not, read on. For simplicity’s sake, these instructions are for building an indoor fire in a fireplace or a wood stove.  I’ll tackle outside fire-making in a future post.
Step 1 – Ventilation
Many of us can recall lessons about hot air rising from science class. The flip side is that cold air tends to settle downwards. When you prepare to start a fire in your fireplace or stove, make sure you open the flue – this is what allows exhaust to go up the chimney, but you need to make sure the air inside is warm enough for the smoke to rise up through  it. There should be a handle that you will need to pull, and on a very cold day, allow the flue to stay open for a good 30 minutes to get a warm air current moving up the chimney. Otherwise, there’s a good chance that all the smoke will pour right back into your house once you light a fire!
Step 2 – Fuel 
A fire needs fuel in order to start and keep burning. There are three kinds of fuel you should have in place:
Tinder – used to start a fire. Crumpled newspapers and very small twigs work well. You can gather your own tinder, or purchase “starter logs” and other ready-to-use tinder. 
Kindling – “intermediate” fuel used to feed your fire.  Larger twigs (say an inch in diameter), or small pieces of a type of wood that is quick to light, such as pine, work very well.  Just like most cars won’t go from 0 to 60 instantly, fires won’t go from a single flame to burning full size logs. Kindling is used to aid the transition.
Logs – used to sustain an established fire.  Elm, hickory, and oak are solid choices, as is apple. Be sure that your wood has been properly “seasoned”, i.e. allowed to dry out for several months or up to a year. Freshly cut wood contains a high degree of moisture, and should not be used indoors.  Pine and other soft woods are acceptable as kindling, but are not ideal to use as your main fuel source.
Step 3 – Ignition
Once your flue is open and you have collected your fuel, you’re ready to build your fire.

  • Crumble several pieces of newspaper into loose balls. Pile the balls together into a loose pile, and arrange several small twigs on top. You can either criss-cross the twigs in alternating layers, making sure there is space between them (aka the “log cabin”), or arrange them into a pyramid shape over the newspaper (aka the “teepee”). No matter which method you use, make sure there is some space between and around the twigs, so that air can freely circulate.
  •  Light the newspaper. As it catches and the small twigs begin to burn, gradually add more twigs.  Note: Do not use lighter fluid in fireplaces or wood stoves
  •  As your fire becomes established, feed it some kindling. Be careful not to add too much fuel, which can smother a fire. Make sure your tinder and kindling catches and is burning steadily before adding more.
  • Once you have given the fire a few helpings of kindling, add a larger log or two. Depending on how quickly the wood burns, you will need to continue adding logs periodically to keep the fire going. If you have a set of fireplace tools, you can arrange the logs to give them more or less space to maximize the fire’s efficiency.  It is common for logs to break apart as they burn. 
  • When you are ready to extinguish your blaze, stop adding fuel and allow the fire to burn out.  You can separate and scatter the ashes inside the fireplace or stove to speed up the cooldown process. Allow the ashes to cool completely (which usually takes several hours) before removing them. Never leave a burning fire unattended.
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Let it Be

South shore of Lake Erie. December 28, 2013.

 December 31.  A new year is on the horizon as the holiday season begins to draw to a close.  And the world is busy.  There were gifts to exchange, family members to visit, flights to catch, miles to drive. There were cards to mail, cookies to bake, gifts to return, and pictures to take.

Instead of pausing to catch our breath, we plunge ahead. We make resolutions, and we resolve to do more.  We think of the things we should be doing, could be doing, would be doing, if we just had more time/money/energy/smarts.

Rarely, rarely, are we ever told to stop. Rarely, rarely, do we ever hear the word, “Enough.”

I am not against making resolutions or setting goals.  Goals help us accomplish tasks or take action.  I personally start each day with a to-do list (even on the weekends or on days when I’m not at work.)

Here is what mine looked like this morning:

1. mail mom’s calendar
2. mail check to dad
3. mail thank-you notes
4. change dr.’s appt
5. kickboxing – 12pm
6. send receipt to Chrissy
7. blog
8. make grocery list 

I skipped kickboxing and went to the pool instead, but everything else on that list, except #7,  has been accomplished.  I even walked the dog and fed the chickens, who at last have been bequeathing us intermittent eggs.

Yet goals alone do not provide purpose. They are only increments that show progress, not the destination itself.

So today, give yourself a break. Pause. Stop looking for something to do or feeling guilty because you aren’t doing something that you could. Dare to rest. Dare to breath. Dare to say that for today, you yourself are enough.

Happy New Year.

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Playing Chicken

6 months, 11 days

4 hens

3 bags of layer feed

1 state-of-the art, handcrafted chicken coop

0 eggs

They say good things come to those who wait.  I’ve been waiting for eggs since March, raising our day-old chicks through the cute peep phase and then the hideousness of chicken puberty, letting them roost in the sunroom and spread their dust and feathers everywhere until the coop was finished and it was warm enough for them to move outside, and then dutifully saving kitchen scraps for them all summer. We culled out the roosters and now we are left with two Americuana hens and two Delaware hens. And never have I seen animals do less to earn their keep.  The ROI on this chicken enterprise has, to date, been pitiful.

They have food, water, and fresh air. During daylight hours, they can leave the coop and wander into the chicken run at will. They are not too cold or too hot. They are not overcrowded. And yes, they are all hens.

At the end of the day, all I am left with is patience. In the urban world, things happen on a schedule, and time is money. With growing things, whether they are plants or animals, that schedule is turned on its head.

So yes, patience.

I’ll close with a dedication the flock, with the words of Guns n’ Roses:
“Take your time, ’cause the lights are shining bright…never break it, ’cause I can’t take it…”

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Jamming, or Life as a Disgruntled Bourgeoisie

The results of an entire day’s work.

When I last posted, I was happily on about the joys of baking with freshly gleaned berries, and eating wild-caught Alaskan fish.

With an appetite for berries, I decided to go to a local farm where I could pick my own. We spent hours gathering blackberries, red raspberries, and just because they were there, a peck or two of peaches. Yes, peaches and other orchard fruits come in pecks!

It was far more fruit than we could eat fresh, so I decided to turn the blackberries into homemade jam. I’d made jams as a teenager at home in my Little House on the Prairie phase, but it had been over a decade since I attempted any sort of jam making. I geared up by buying a fresh set of jars, lids, sugar, and pectin, and set out all my equipment on the counter. Then I realized the pectin I’d purchased not an hour ago expired in 2011. Curses.

I turned off the pot of water I’d set out to boil, grabbed my purse, got in the car, and went posthaste to the nearest grocery store. Eventually, I located their pectin – luckily, still in working order. Once home, I again laid out my tools and got the pot of water back to a boil. It felt like I was either preparing to deliver a baby, or concocting a science experiment in the kitchen.

Jams can be made several ways. The fruit can be lightly cooked and the jam mixture kept in the freezer (aka “the freezer method”), or the fruit can be cooked for a longer period of time and sealed into sterile glass jars. I was using the second method, which was more complicated but also more traditional. I told myself freezing is for amateurs.

I sterilized my jars and lids in the boiling water, mashed my blackberries, added tons of sugar, and set the mixture to simmer gently, adding some of my new pectin. Meanwhile, I removed the jars and lids from the boiling water — not an easy task, as someone really needs to invent non-slip tongs — and laid them on a clean towel. Then I scooped the hot jam into the hot jars, put the lids and bands on them, and gently lowered the jars back into a pot of water to boil once again. The second boiling, if done correctly, creates the vacuum seals that keeps the jam fresh. Once the second boiling is completed (in about 10 minutes) the jars need to cool, and if you’re lucky, the lid has created a nice, tight seal. If the jars haven’t sealed, the jam in still edible, you just need to keep it refrigerated and eat it immediately rather than storing.

Total time: 5 hours. *Including berry picking, the pectin dash, and actual jam production.

Yield: 3 small jars of jam.

And this, my friends, is why we have an agri-industrial complex. Yes, you can make your own food. But under our current system, is faster, cheaper, and easier to buy it. If I were selling this jam, fair market price for the amount of labor, cost of supplies, and actual product would be $25/jar. No one is going to pay that, not even for the most exquisite jam in the universe. So we have Smuckers, for $3 a jar, that looks and tastes like the manufactured goo that it is.

PS Jam Day was also the day I cooked the last of our backyard roosters. This was a last-ditch effort to make the birds actually tasty. We pulled out a coq au vin recipe from Alton Brown that included wine, herbs, and even a little bacon. I’ll tell ya what, if you soak something in wine overnight, douse it in herbs, onions, and bacon fat, and slowly braise it in the oven, and it still doesn’t taste good, then you have done all you can. Make some pancakes for dinner and call it a night.

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Next to travel, food is my other great love, so its no surprise that my writing often turns to cooking, eating, and recipe-collecting.

Last week I was lucky enough to combine both in a quick jaunt over the border to Toronto. Ok, it wasn’t so quick. We spend 11 hours in the car, conveniently divided by a stopover in Pennsylvania.

But Toronto is a great city for people who like to eat. Our first night there, we went to Little Italy and gorged on homemade pancetta, pasta, osso bucco, and red wine. After that, we had to stop into one of the neighborhood’s numerous gelato shops for dessert. The next morning, we were off to the St. Lawrence Market for a famous peameal bacon sandwich and hot coffee. Delicious! Thus fortified, we set off for the Toronto Islands and spent a lovely afternoon nattering around on bicycles, soaking up sunlight along the shores of Lake Ontario, and finding quaint little cafes for lunch. Come dinnertime, we were back at the market buying up sweet corn, fresh asparagus, basmati rice, a few bottles of a local vintage, and $5 bacon-wrapped filet mignon (Seriously? Canada, I love you.) We then cooked up our feast surreptitiously on my friend Lori’s grill. Lori, if you noticed anything amiss, that was us.

Idyllic, n’est pas?

Back home on the ranch, we’ve been taking a far more pragmatic approach to food. We’re eating what has been raised, caught, or foraging either by ourselves, or someone we know. Case in point: one of the backyard chickens that had been “harvested” was transformed into a pot of adobo con pollo. It has been the most successful preparation of a backyard chicken so far. It actually tasted like chicken, and overall was pleasant enough that we could stomach leftovers the next day. But these birds, even at the tender age of 5 months, are chewier than a bran muffin composed of wood fibers.

Next up was some halibut, caught in Alaska by relatives and shipped to us in dry ice. I’ve never cooked halibut before, but thanks to this recipe, we grilled those filets up and had a blast messing around with the accompanying herbal pistou. I didn’t even bother with the walnut butter. Anything that requires fennel pollen is just a little too precious for this gal.

Finally, the foraging. Just like Willoughby and his wildflowers in Sense and Sensibility, I acquired some blackberries from an obliging field.* These were duly baked into a cake, which will be consumed momentarily.

There is something very satisfying about food that is acquired through effort, and not just dollars spent at a grocery store. If I’m honest with myself, my efforts at this point don’t amount to much more than dilettantism.  But my curiosity has been piqued. A subscription to Organic Farming may not be far off in the future.

* The neighbor’s yard. But they weren’t using them.

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Downton Dinner, Part Deux

In March, I got ambitious in the kitchen and decided to make a Downton Abbey-inspired dinner. It was great fun! Last month, by request, I gathered some of my girlfriends together for another night of haute cuisine. Or, as haute as you’re going to get with an amateur cook in the suburbs.

As before, I visited the wonderful Downton Abbey Cooks blog for inspiration. For a summer menu, I wanted cool, complimentary flavors that were light, seasonal, and filling.

Le Menu
Chilled Strawberry Soup
Paired with a German Moselle Valley Riesling (Carson would sack me for not remembering which one!)
Asparagus Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
Paired with 2011 Francis Coppola Diamond Collection Chardonnay
Also served with chardonnay, or a lovely wine from South Africa that one of the guests brought!
Roast Chicken with Root Vegetables
Paired with 2011 Carmel Road Pinot Noir
Lemon Tart with Seasonal Berries
Paired with 2010 Enotria Moscato 

All went swimmingly! The guests arrived, I got to use my fancy wedding china for the place settings, and we moved through the first three courses with alacrity.

Then disaster struck. With a loud click, my oven suddenly shut off. The chicken and vegetables were only halfway cooked. I checked the fuse box. I called my husband. We tried all methods we could think of to resurrect the stove. Nothing. Meanwhile, my hungry guests polished off the rest of the salmon. We all had another glass of wine. (Remember the Downton Abbey Season 3 opening episode when the oven goes?)

I had no reserve supplies in the larder, or an army of servants to put together an impromptu picnic. But I did have a grill. And charcoal.

I lit the coals, pulled the still-warm chicken from the oven, butterflied the meat, popped the root vegetables into a separate pan, and began to grill, baby, grill.

It was unconventional, but it worked. Dinner was saved. True, it was a trifle later than I would have liked, but it was far better than ordering Chinese take-out.  I was grateful that the ladies went along with my plan! I’m not sure if I would have had the courage to try this with anything other than old friends.

Tonight, I’m feeling just crazy enough to make homemade ice cream and a chile-honey glazed salmon.  Because once you’ve grilled a chicken in a cocktail dress, you’re ready for just about any kitchen challenge.

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A Room of One’s Own, aka Cache

Virginia Woolf  wrote that for a woman to write, she needed an independent income and a room of her own. While exceptional women authors have emerged without those two advantages, I do see Woolf’s point. Quiet is nice. Solitude is nice. And I imagine that I could write a whole lot more if I didn’t need this thing called a day job to pay my bills.

This is my first morning writing in the room I have made my office. Birds are chirping outside the window. I’m sitting in an old wooden chair that I used when typing essays in graduate school. My laptop rests on a desk that my dad found in some antique store and painstakingly refinished. The desk has a drawer with a lock – and a key. It feels old and secretive. I love this desk.

So my immediate writing zone is good. However, boxes lie on the floor, and I have a suitcase, an ice cream maker, and piles of assorted gift wrap keeping me company. It feels more like an attic than an office at the moment. But we’ll get there.

Earlier this spring, many of the materials now in my room were in boxes for temporary storage in our sunroom. A flock of 8 adolescent chickens were also resident in the area. What I learned from this unfortunate juxtaposition is that chickens are terribly dusty. Notebooks, papers, letters, souvenir brochures, newspaper clippings of articles that I’d written  — things collected over a lifetime — were all sprinkled with a fine layer of white, smelly chicken dust. Some of these things could be salvaged. Others could not. I spent hours sorting, saving, going through my past with a fine tooth comb. Throwing some of it away.

What’s left is mostly collected in this room, my writing room. I am slowly making order out of the chaos. I’m starting clean. I’m making happy discoveries.

For instance  – my National Insurance card from my time in England, last seen in 2007. It disappeared during a move, and I felt sure it was lost forever. It unexpectedly turned up in a box of papers, along with my student ID cards from various institutions. My access card for the British Library (now expired), and assorted library cards. The tally looks something like this. Major credit cards: 1. Library cards: 7. Student ID cards: 3.

This room is where the past catches up with the present. Amy the student, Amy the traveler, Amy the writer are all here, working on the same story.

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