Saturday, December 8, 2018

Friday Family Fun: O Christmas Tree

For the past two Christmases, getting our Christmas tree was gratifyingly easy. You know, seeing as how we actually lived on an real Christmas tree farm. Most other aspects of life on the Canadian border were most assuredly not easy--like regular deadly blizzards and endless winter--but the Christmas tree? No problem. We just walked a hundred yards up the road, cut one down, and brought it home.

Here, however, in our new House of Enchantment, there are definitely no Christmas trees within a hundred yards of our house. I had joked with the boys that maybe we should just decorate a tumbleweed--yes, there are real, actual tumbleweeds all over the place here, just tumbling around like an Old West movie scene--and they thought that was a swell idea, but I had to explain that tumbleweeds don't have strong enough branches to hold ornaments and lights.

Yes, I did give it that much thought.

But in the end, I decided we had to go on an expedition into the canyon to get a more traditional Christmas tree.

Cue Friday Family Fun!

Now, when I say "traditional," I am using that in a loose sense. The traditional Christmas tree you'll find in a tree lot is most likely a variety of fir or spruce. But if you think we were going to drive to a tree lot--I haven't checked, but I bet the closest one is at least 75 miles away--and spend $60 or more for a tree, then you haven't been reading here long enough.

The three evergreen varieties native to this area that might be candidates for a Christmas tree are cedars*, Ponderosa pines, and pinyon pines. Cedars are more like shrubs than trees. Ponderosa pines here tend to be too big and also kind of rare. The pinyon pine is the best bet for a Christmas-tree-like size and shape. They do not, however, grow near our house. To find these trees, we had to go down into a canyon.

Fortuitously, A. had that permit to cut wood in a canyon--well, sort of on the rim of this canyon--somewhat near our house, so we loaded up the kids, attached the trailer to the van, and set off in pursuit of one live tree and many dead ones.

It took us about half an hour to get to the national forest road where we could cut wood, and that road was . . . let's say "unimproved."

These were not the worst of the ruts. The worst of the ruts were about twice as deep and had tire-popping sharp rocks embedded in them.

A. drove very carefully and managed not to bottom out or pop a tire. It was a little bumpy, though. Bumpy in the sense that if any of the kids had had loose teeth, that road would have taken care of their extraction. 

There were also two gates that had to be opened and closed, because there are cattle in this area.

The gates were my job.

Eventually we reached an area that had trees big enough to cut. Had we gone farther, there were even bigger ones, but we didn't know that yet. So we unloaded the whole happy crew and set to work.

A. cut. The boys loaded.

Some could carry more than others.

But every little bit counts.

Baby Lamb and I sat on the ground nearby and supervised.

Mostly I supervised her, to make sure she didn't crawl into any cow patties.

While the boys were waiting for A. to cut enough pieces for them to carry, they played in a little washed-out gully nearby, jumping in and over it and brandishing sticks.

Lambie there never quite made it over to the game, but she tried.

After A. had gotten as much wood as he could from this area, we loaded up again to explore the road further. A. thought it made a loop, but the road deteriorated so much that he decided to turn around and go back the way we came in rather than risk getting the whole family stuck.

Wise man.

Now, we still did not have a Christmas tree. We saw several pinyons that would have been perfect, but A.'s permit was only for dead wood, and far be it from us to break the law by cutting down a live tree.

So we went to Wally's ranch. 

Wally is a man who owns a ranch right next to this canyon. A. has been doing some masonry work for him on a very old house on his property. A. wanted to show us the house, so we stopped at Wally's house. He doesn't live in the one that's being restored; he has a new house on the ranch. 

Wally already had his Christmas tree up and when I admired it, he said right away, "Do you folks need a Christmas tree? Go cut one of those pinyons out there."

He also gave each of the boys a soda from his dedicated soda refrigerator. I suspect the boys will want to visit Wally again.

Anyway, after staying for a few minutes to chat with Wally, we all got back in the van to go to the stone house.

The top wood section is brand-new. The bottom stone part is extremely old.

All those stone walls need re-pointing, and A. is just the man for the job.

As cool as the house is--and it is--the boys were most excited about what was down the hill from it.

Wilderness. And a frozen stream.

While they chunked rocks into the frozen water to break the ice, I wandered around looking for a Christmas tree. Also avoiding cactus** and hoping there were no mountain lions in the vicinity.

That last one is not paranoia, by the way. There are actually a lot of mountain lions in that kind of terrain. 

It's a long way from a Target Christmas tree lot.

Anyway. I eventually found a pretty good pinyon. It was trying to hide, but I saw it.

You can't hide from me, little Christmas tree.

A. cut it down in short order, and then we all hiked the half mile up--and it was a steep up, and I was carrying the 23-pound baby--to the van to go home.

Now I just have to decorate the tree. And figure out a way to barricade it in so the crawling, standing baby doesn't yank it down. That might be almost as challenging as procuring the tree in the first place.

 * These are known locally as junipers for confusing reasons of nomenclature and if we all just used Latin names, there would be no confusion at all. Assuming you know the Latin names, which I do not. Sorry, MiL.

** I knew we weren't in the northwoods anymore when I announced, "Okay kids, we're going to get our Christmas tree. Don't fall into a cactus."

Friday, December 7, 2018

Friday Food: Eggs and White Meat on Repeat

Last time A. went to the grocery store for me, he came home with chicken and pork, but no beef. We're anticipating a whole cow in our freezer by the end of the month, but in the meantime, it's all white meat, all the time. And eggs, thanks to the preschool teacher's chickens.


Short version: Pork chops, rice, green salad

Long version: Second dinner in the new house, and I still hadn't mastered the stove. When the burners light, they explode into a bright yellow flame that will scorch the bottom of the pot. If I don't turn it down veeeerrry carefully, the burner goes out. And then I can't restart it for awhile without using a match. Tricky. Very tricky.

On the upside, this stove--a brand I've never even heard of called a Holiday--has nothing on it that can break. It has five knobs for the four burners and the oven, and that is it. Not even a light in the oven. No digital touchpads for the Holiday. No sir.

As A. likes to drolly proclaim, every day is a Holiday in my kitchen. Ahem.

And here we have Cubby stoically enduring our holiday (geddit?) oddysey to Arizona. 


Short version: Chicken tacos, pinto beans

Long version: I have now perfected the order of making this meal. First thing in the morning I start the chicken simmering in water with onion, carrot, celery, and a bay leaf. I also wash and let the beans come to a boil and then let them soak for two hours while the chicken cooks. By the time the beans are done soaking, the chicken is done cooking. I pull the chicken out and strain the stock, which I then add to the drained beans along with half a sauteed onion and garlic, juice from a can of whole tomatoes, and cumin and chili powder. The other half of the onion is used for the chicken mixture, made from the shredded chicken, onion, garlic, and some of the whole tomatoes chopped up, plus more cumin and chili powder.

It's really good, if somewhat labor intensive.


Short version: Egg scramble with bacon, feta, bell pepper, and onion for me and A., grilled cheese for the boys, leftover pinto beans, and a green salad

Long version: Man, I love feta in eggs. So salty and good. The boys do not agree. That's why they had grilled cheese. Their loss.


Short version: Pork chops, mashed potatoes, green peas, curried squash soup

Long version: I cooked another one of the three large "ornamental" pumpkins that A. had bought at Walmart just before Halloween. The first one of these that I cooked was delicious. This one was . . . not. It was quite watery and bland.

Nevertheless, it is cooked squash. It just needs a lot of help, flavor-wise. Curry to the rescue!

To make the soup, I just sauteed onion in coconut oil, added the curry powder to fry for a bit, dumped in a bunch of the chicken stock left from making the chicken tacos, and stirred in the bland squash. Then I added a lot of salt and a tiny bit of sugar. It was pretty good. Cubby, who loves curried anything, had three bowls. The only one who didn't eat it was Charlie. He does not love curried anything.


Short version: Sausage and potato skillet, Miss Amelia's frijoles, green salad

Long version: The chicken I had planned on for dinner was unfortunately frozen in a large solid block that stood no chance of thawing before dinner. We had to go to the bank in the village, though, so we also went to the tiny grocery and I surveyed my meat options. They were very limited.

In the end, I got two packages of Hillshire Farms smoked sausage. I sliced it, browned it, took it out and cooked some diced onions, then added a bunch of sliced potatoes and chicken stock and cooked it all together until the potatoes were soft. I told Charlie we were having sausage for dinner. He took one bite and said accusingly, "This isn't sausage. It's hot dogs."

He had a point. It did taste exactly like hot dogs. Which he does not like. Sorry, Charlie. Have some more potatoes.

Miss Amelia is an elderly lady who lives about half a mile away from us. A. stopped by her house yesterday with Jack to see if she needed more firewood, and she sent him home with a bag of (storebought) cookies and a jar of frijoles. Miss Amelia is a traditional New Mexican cook of the purest order, and I'm pretty sure these beans were not much more than pinto beans and salt.

A. peeked in the pot and noted there was a potato in with the beans. Miss Amelia said she always cooks a whole potato with the beans. She says it helps with the, ahem, digestive issues related to beans. I think maybe it just makes for a starchier, creamier pot of beans, but whatever. They were still hot when A. brought them home, and I kept sneaking spoonfuls as I was cooking the rest of dinner.

Cubby, who loves beans almost as much as I do, ate three helpings. He would have eaten more if I hadn't feared for his digestion (and the air quality of his classroom the next day) and stopped him.

Miss Amelia also makes her own flour tortillas. I suspect that if I ever get the chance to eat both her tortillas and her frijoles at the same time, I will find New Mexican culinary nirvana.


Short version: Collaborative paella con pollo, green salad

Long version: So. A. grew some saffron. Why not, right? I mean, doesn't everyone decide to try to grow one of the rarest spices in the world in their backyard?

Of course not. But A. did. He wanted to see if saffron crocuses would grow here, so he ordered some bulbs and planted them at our rental house. They duly came up and bloomed, and then A. carefully harvested the threads with tweezers, dried them, and aged them for about a month. At this point he announced that the tablespoon or so of saffron he had collected before the cold weather ended the harvest was ready to be used.

I've never cooked with saffron before, but of course the most well-known use for saffron is in Spanish paella. And I just happen to have a Spanish cookbook I purchased many years ago during our trip to Spain.

The recipe for paella in it is complicated and included many ingredients--such as squid--that I did not have. So I sort of used the method, but also used the ingredients I had.

One that I had was freshly ground paprika, courtesy of the MiL. She had grown paprika peppers in her garden this past summer specifically for Charlie the paprika lover. She ended up with about half a dozen peppers, which she dried and sent to me. I ground them up in the food processor and used them in this paella. Paella is supposed to have smoked Spanish paprika in it, but I figured fresh sweet paprika would be good too.

As I was beginning my preparations--toasting two whole cloves of garlic and a bay leaf in olive oil--A. came in the kitchen and asked if I was making paella. Upon receiving an affirmative answer, he jumped up and exclaimed, "But you didn't soak the saffron yet!"

Well, no. Janet Mandel didn't instruct me to. But A. did. Apparently, everything he read online about saffron said that soaking it in warm water first intensified the flavor and allowed one to use less saffron. My recipe said to use half a teaspoon of saffron. A. put 16 threads--we counted--in warm water to soak while I did everything else.

"Everything else" included browning chicken pieces. I also covered the pan and mostly cooked them all the way during this step, as I knew the big bone-in pieces I had would never cook in the same amount of time as the rice.

After the chicken was browned, I cooked the diced onion and chopped bell pepper, plus a couple of chopped tomatoes. Then the rice--basmati, which is not the right kind at all but is all I have--went in to fry in the oil for a bit. I also added a bit of dry vermouth.

Next I added a clove of raw garlic, salt, the paprika, and the soaked saffron threads to the two toasted garlic cloves and the bay leaf and pureed it all in the food processor. This was added to the rice, along with chicken stock. When the rice was simmering, I put the chicken pieces on top, covered it, and cooked it until the rice was done.

Verdict: Everyone liked it. The saffron was noticeable, but could have been a more pronounced flavor. Next time I'll use more. Also next time, I'll only make it when I have really good meat. The recipe is kind of a pain in the ass and would be more worth it to me with good meat. It was fine with super-cheap chicken, but it would be excellent with really good chicken or rabbit next time Cubby shoots one.

Even cheap chicken is exciting for this girl. Especially when she can double-fist it.


Short version: Smorgasbord, Miss Amelia's green chili soup

Long version: Leftover chicken, sausage, pork chop, mashed potatoes, sliced potatoes, pureed squash, and paella rice=choose your own adventure. Plus some steamed broccoli.

Miss Amelia called in the afternoon to let us know she had an envelope for us to drop in the offering basket for her at church on Sunday. I thanked her for the beans. She said she wished she had had some red chili to send as well. I told her we still have trouble eating the chilis here, though she said she doesn't like things really hot and makes her chili mild.

I'm still skeptical that anyone native to New Mexico has the same definition of mild that I do, but when she told me she had "a bowl of green chili" for us, I expressed great delight and anticipation at the prospect, of course.

When Cubby got home from school, I sent him right over to Miss Amelia's house on his bike. He came home with the envelope, a bag of (storebought) gingerbread men cookies (I'm seeing a theme), and a jar of green chili soup. It had ground beef, potatoes, and carrots in it, too, and it was the perfect addition to our meal of leftovers because it was NOT HOT, ALLELUIA. There was just a slight heat as an aftertaste, but even I could eat it.

Okay, your turn! What'd you eat this week?

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Post-Move, Pre-Unpacked

Hello from our new house, my lovelies! The internet guy showed up completely unannounced today and hooked us all up with phone and internet service. You can all thank Ray for the fact that I am now able to unleash my regularly scheduled (or rather, sporadic and random) drivel upon the online world once again.

So what have we been up to? Well, we moved. And we ate dinner.

First dinner in the new house, as you can tell from the background chaos of boxes, random wires, and crap on the floor.

That, by the way, was supposed to be the night that I was too exhausted to cook and I was planning on just setting out whatever random assortment of proteins, grains, and vegetables I had on hand to let everyone get their own meal. 

Yeah, so much for that. I was exhausted, but I still cooked pasta with salami and cream cheese and an egg scramble with peppers and onions and cheese. I think I might have Compulsive Cooking Disorder. I just can't make myself sit down to a "meal" of random foods if there's any possibility of having a cooked meal instead.


Now that we no longer live 200 yards from the school, the boys take the bus. This school only has two (very small) buses. The bus that comes to our house only picks up one other child. It's a pretty good situation, as far as riding the bus goes.

Plus, the view while waiting for the bus is pretty great.

I'm still trying to adjust to my new kitchen--the stove burners seem to go directly from scorching flame to extinguished without much middle ground, and there's really no convenient place to hang my dish towel yet--but A. put up a temporary clothesline for me today, so I know I really live here now.

I just have to be really careful not to drop anything in the dirt while I'm hanging it up.

A. also very kindly set up the bunk bed for Charlie and Jack--this took him four entire hours, as he was doing some adjustments to the original structure--and has screwed in approximately five million screws for hooks, racks, bookcase braces, and various other things that need to be attached to a wall. 

All the furniture is in place and I'm slowly working my way through all the boxes and bags of very-hastily packed things, some of which I never found from the first move. I'm going to have to brave the dreaded Walmart again to get a few things that I don't want to have shipped (laundry baskets, trash cans, and so forth). But soon. Soon everything will be put away in some semblance of order, and then all I have to do is keep it that way.

Well, I can hope, anyway.

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Mad Minute

Or rather, Mad Five Minutes, as that is the amount of time I have allotted myself to pound this post out. Here we go!

I am standing at the counter in our completely empty rental house. I just finished the final cleaning of it in preparation for handing in the keys tomorrow. This house still has our phone and internet hooked up, until the company switches our services to the new address. There is currently no phone or internet at our new house. Thus the radio silence the last couple of days.

We're moved in, though! Every last bit of our stuff was in our new house by yesterday afternoon.

It sucked. I hate moving. Not that I am alone in this, but I sincerely hope I don't have to move again for a very, very long time.

I have to go home now because A. is there with three rampaging boys and one very cranky baby, who was apparently awakened from her too-brief nap by said rampaging boys. Thanks a lot, boys.

We are not amused.

And that's my five minutes. See you back here when my internet is up and running. Peace out.